Hit songs in seventeenth-century England

by | Apr 9, 2024 | General, Guest Posts | 0 comments


What makes for a hit song? In this post Christopher Marsh introduces the 100 Ballads project, a study of the most successful broadside ballads of seventeenth-century England.

‘100 Ballads’ was released online earlier this year. It brings together historians and players of early modern music to research and perform the most popular songs of the time. As well as a history of popular music, performance and publishing, 100 Ballads offers insight into the concerns of everyday life.

The songs are stories of romance, comedy and tragedy, of value to historians of early modern politics society and culture. Though varied in their subject matter, successful broadside ballads were an amalgam of lyrics, melody and images that made for a hit.



For over a decade, I have been obsessed with the challenge of establishing and publishing the first ever pop chart for seventeenth-century England. At long last, the chart is now freely available – along with images, recordings and other materials – at https://www.100ballads.org/



Broadside ballads were songs printed on one side of a sheet of paper and sold widely in the marketplaces of early-modern England by itinerant singer-sellers. The ballad business was highly commercial, and its products deserve to be recognised as the earliest form of English pop music (ballads also play their part in the pre-histories of folk songs and comic strips).

Most ballads named a tune for singing and also presented to potential customers a small number of enticing woodcut pictures. The sellers would sing out a portion of each song and then try to persuade passers-by to purchase their own copies for a penny. These songs were then re-performed in homes and alehouses, and pinned up for display on beams and posts, indoors and outdoors.

Ballads were often described as the music of the ‘common’ people, though they were also well known in more refined social circles. Indeed, the sheets have only survived because some wealthy individuals … collected examples, hereby preserving them for posterity.

Pictures and musical performances also rendered ballads accessible to the illiterate, and their rhyming verses were easy to commit to memory. They were often described as the music of the ‘common’ people, though they were also well known in more refined social circles. Indeed, the sheets have only survived because some wealthy individuals – Samuel Pepys, for example – collected examples, hereby preserving them for posterity. Whether held in the hand or the head, it is clear that ballads really got around!

This 100 Ballads project, generously funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, involved me in a long and stimulating collaboration with Angela McShane (Warwick University) and a variety of musicians, led by Andy Watts of The Carnival Band. Angela and I conducted most of the underlying historical research, while Andy organised the music. He helped to locate the original tunes and he arranged them for performance when accompanying instruments – fiddles, citterns, drums and so on – were to be used.

Andy also recruited a fantastic team of singers and instrumentalists, including the entire Carnival Band and a glittering array of performers from the worlds of folk and early music. We also staged a number of concerts, and through studying the performances and recordings Angela and I have been encouraged to think about balladry in new and interesting ways. In particular, we have learned to understand each ballad as a ‘total package’ of text, tune, pictures and implied performance, taking us well beyond the established scholarly habit of focusing on the lyrics alone.

Seventeenth-century super-songs covered a wide range of themes.

The project’s concentration on highly successful ballads has also led us to think about the salient characteristics of hit songs in this period, beginning with their subject matter. Seventeenth-century super-songs covered a wide range of themes. There are narratives drawn from ancient and medieval history, including the number one song, a re-telling of the classical story of Dido and Aeneas (see above).

Other songs are metrical versions of Biblical tales about Susanna, Tobias and especially Christ himself. There are numerous political songs, one of the liveliest of which celebrates the arrival of William of Orange in 1688 by advertising the health-giving properties of oranges in the voice of a fruit-seller on London’s streets (no. 11 on the website).

Above all, there are ballads about human relationships, dominated by romance – no. 20 is entitled A sweet Sonnet, wherein the Lover exclaimeth against Fortune for the loss of his Ladies favour – but also covering marriage and the duty of care owed by young adults to their aged parents. Humour is represented too, and one song is pregnant with musical euphemism as a seductive soldier leads a lovely maiden out into the fields (no. 98):

And having thus done,

he took her about the middle,

And forth of his Knap-Sack,

he pull’d a rare Fiddle,

And plaid her a fit,

made the Vallies to ring,

Oh now (quoth she) I hear

the Nightingal sing.



Despite the lively tone of this example, a key finding of the project is that early-modern tastes in popular music were surprisingly dismal. Admittedly, many bawdy and irreverent ballads were published in the period, but those that have made it onto our chart were more often characterised by tragedy and extreme sobriety.

The death toll is incredibly high in A Memorable Song on the unhappy hunting in Chevy-Chase (no. 2), and the only one of Shakespeare’s plays to generate a song in our top 100 was Titus Andronicus, his bloodiest creation (no. 15). Even love-songs tend to arrive at their happy endings via routes stained with blood. One father, keen to test the bond between his daughter and her sweetheart, presents her with the decapitated body of a criminal, telling her that it is the corpse of her beloved (no. 64). Miraculously, the song concludes positively only two verses later!

If these were the songs that people most liked to buy, sing and display, then it suggests the working of a dark collective imagination.

Another song is entitled, An Hundred Godly Lessons, That a Mother on her Death-Bed gave to her Children (no. 39, see above). Heroically, the dying woman dispenses almost exactly 100 pieces of moral advice, including one in which she warns her offspring, ‘The Ravens shall pick out their eyes, that do their Parents curse’. If these were the songs that people most liked to buy, sing and display, then it suggests the working of a dark collective imagination.

Another striking characteristic of the hit songs is the manner in which they are simultaneously relatable and sensational. In other words, they seem to focus on commonplace preoccupations – romantic insecurity, the safety of children, neglect of the elderly, and so on – while presenting these themes in magnified or exoticised guises.

Where many young people must have been troubled by the possibility that possessive parents would oppose their wishes to marry particular individuals, ballad-sweethearts must free one another from imprisonment by violence or suffer years of foreign exile before finally returning home.

Some are murdered and others commit suicide. And, in the chart ballads as a whole, God is frequently on hand to administer spectacular punishments to those who have done wrong and escaped earthly justice. It seems that successful songs often combined highly dramatic narratives with mundane preoccupations, thereby furnishing people of all sorts with material through which to contemplate the world as they witnessed it.



Hit songs were also characterised by high potential for performance and display. They are all eminently singable, as our performers demonstrate, and the most successful tunes – typically short, simple and memorable – were used for lots of different songs, perhaps carrying associations with them as they travelled from text to text.

A hit song in the seventeenth century was thus a composite of variable constituent parts – lyrics, melody and images.

Woodcut pictures also moved from song to song, and on the most successful ballads these recycled images are often skilfully arranged so that they track the narrative in a manner that is rudimentary but stimulating. Cupids Courtesie: OR The young Gallant foild is, for example, illustrated by two recycled woodcuts, positioned so that an airborne Cupid appears to be aiming his arrow directly at a well-dressed man (no. 90, see above). Only when a ballad had already proved itself successful did publishers sometimes invest money in the creation of specially-drawn images that depicted the details of the narrative more precisely.

Either way, these were cheap but engaging artworks that clearly deserved to be pinned up for personal and communal consideration. All in all, a hit song in the seventeenth century was thus a composite of variable constituent parts – lyrics, melody and images – that struck a chord, sometimes literally, in the minds of the listening and reading public.




About the author


Christopher Marsh is Professor of Cultural History at Queen’s University, Belfast. He has published extensively on various aspects of society and culture in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England.

His most relevant book in relation to the 100 Ballads project is Music and Society in Early Modern England (Cambridge, 2010). This is an overview of music-making in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and it includes chapters on musicians, dancing, bell-ringing, psalm-singing and, of course, ballads.



All images are reproduced with permission of University of Glasgow Archives and Special Collections.

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