English Broadside Ballads Enjoy Renaissance at UCSB


Cindy Chan


Can you imagine a form of media that denies a boundary between text, art, and song?

“Ballads are very accessible to all kinds of people because they are art, text, and tune (people love to listen to the recordings). Also, because we transcribe them and their language isn't complicated, even the ordinary person on the street can enjoy them--which is as it should be, since that was their original targeted audience way back in the 17th century.” –Professor Patricia Fumerton, founder of the English Broadside Ballad Archive (EBBA), which is also a project of the Early Modern Center at UC Santa Barbara. The archive is a collaborative project, involving faculty and graduate and undergraduate students.

Fumerton, a Professor of English, started the project in 2003 at a time when materials related to broadside ballads were inaccessible, incomplete, or unreadable. These culturally and historically rich pieces relay songs in textual and visual representation of stories, their dominant form presented as illustrative woodcuts, tune names, and black-letter type on large folio paper sheets. Of the estimated 11,000 surviving ballads, EBBA has transcribed 7,124 of them. And the collection is still growing. EBBA provides facsimile transcriptions and voice recordings for the broadside ballads. The voice recordings feature performances by UCSB students, many from the Department of Music.

All part of a catalogue with detailed search functions, the project features easy and complete access to ballad sheet facsimiles, facsimile transcriptions, and recordings. Professor Fumerton stresses the reason for EBBA’s long-running success is the precision of their collaborative effort. Teams review transcriptions with great care for accuracy and run weekly democratic meetings to answer any questions or solve any issues regarding current work. Professor Fumerton emphasizes, “It's important for us that the undergrads get involved in this kind of high-level research project, and the undergrads are excited to be sitting side by side with grads, postdocs, and professors.”

In apprenticeship-like work teams, the collaboration between scholars and students is the most rewarding aspect of the archive’s progress thus far for Professor Fumerton. She highlights the enjoyable group aspect of the work as well as the constant learning process within the EBBA project and she is thrilled that the general public can now have easy access to these important historical materials. The project has received generous funding from sources including the National Endowment for the Humanities.

A perfect transcription to inspire a light-hearted summer mood is one ballad titled, “A Warning For all such as desire to Sleep upon the Grass.” The plot involves a maiden who is asleep on the grass, and a snake enters her body. The maiden becomes sick, vomiting up 14 baby snakes and 1 adult one. This particular ballad warns the audience about seemingly perfect lives. Enjoy the image of the broadside below, as well as a recording of the ballad (sung by Leeza Bautista).