What is the Broadside Tradition?

With the invention of the printing press (c. c.e. 1439), mass production of written words became both more economical and more common. While larger books might sell for more money, each page would have to be set up, printed in mass, and later collated, then bound into a volume before a printer could realize a profit. Short printing jobs of single sheets could be sold more quickly from start to finish, and only needed to have one page set up for an entire run. These most common forms of printed material from the 16th to the 19th century were called
broadsides because they were printed on a single side of a piece of paper. 
oday we might call them posters, fliers or even tracts. Many were posted to announce upcoming events and activities, speeches, sermons or royal proclamations, while others might contain instructional or historical information. There are also many broadsides published as dying speeches where the condemned would tell their story before execution. Basically broadside publishing existed in the place of our broadcast media, and power point presentations of today.

Ballads were also among the commonly printed types of broadsides. These lyric sheets often detailed stories in comical, fanciful, tragic, or historical themes. Some of them had original tunes, but most of them were meant to be sung to melodies that would have been familiar to most of the common people of the time. Therefore, while some broadsides reference the name of a tune for singing purposes, some of those tunes referenced might even be the names of previously published broadsides.

It was the familiarity of the tunes along with the rhyme schemes of these ballads that made them memorable. Collections of broadside ballads were even printed together into small cheap books, or chapbooks, for people who wanted, and could afford them. There are even some instances where handwritten books of broadside ballad collections have been discovered in private collections, showing the pervasive cultural influence these printed tracts held, even among the upper classes.

owever we see them now, historically scholars have considered traditional folk ballads to be more pure, and broadside ballads more for the common (or vulgar) person. We might consider this to be like the difference between a best selling thriller novel, and dime store romance. Printed on the cheapest of papers, and selling for a mere penny each, broadside ballads were marketed for direct sale to the most people possible, the common people on the street.

oday we may turn on our radios (or more likely our mp3 players) and hum, sing, or just bob along with music that we hear. But, long before there were electronic recording and play back devices, there were balladeers and the lyrics of the broadside ballad. You had to imagine the music, and sing it yourself. Or, you could have someone play and sing it for (or with) you. This was a time when the familiar melodies and memorable stories of broadside ballads were the popular music of their day.