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Nouvelles Pod #11 - Christopher Marsh

Nouvelles Nouvelles Podcast #11: Dr. Christopher Marsh

Interviewers: Elise Robbins (ER) & Dr. Jasper Waugh-Quasebarth; Interviewee: Christopher Marsh (CM) 

Time: March 31, 2023; Location: Hagerty Hall 142 (ASCTech Academic Technologies Studio)

Interview Transcript

ER: Hello, this is Elise Robbins with the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Ohio State University. And with me today I have a co-host, a guest co-host, Jasper Waugh-Quasebarth, Would you like to introduce yourself, Jasper?

JWQ: Yes. Hi, my name is Jasper Waugh-Quasebarth. I'm a visiting assistant professor of Comparative Studies in the Folklore Studies program here at OSU, and I also coordinate the Folklore Archives Center for Folklore Studies.

ER: Well, it's really great to have you with us today, Jasper. And we're going to be talking today with our guest lecturer, Dr. Christopher Marsh, who is giving our 14th Francis Lee Utley lecture, “How to Produce a Hit Song (in Seventeenth-Century England).” Dr. Marsh is a professor of history at Queens University Belfast. He's a social and cultural historian of early modern England and has published work on religion, social relations, gender, and music. His most recent book was published by Cambridge University Press and is titled Music and Society in Early Modern England. He has also been featured as a guest expert by The Guardian and BBC. His current project aims to identify one hundred bestselling songs from seventeenth-century England and set up a website featuring facsimiles transcripts and new recordings by the Carnival Band and other invited guests. Thank you so much for being here with us today, Professor Marsh.

CM: It's lovely to be here. Thank you.

ER: Before we delve into more specific questions, I'd love for you to just tell our listeners a little more about yourself. When did you first become interested in history and early modern studies and music specifically?

CM: (1:20) I suppose I grew up playing a lot of violin, mainly kind of classical violin. But then I took a kind of sideways move into history, decided not to go to music college, and became a history student instead. And I guess what kind of gradually happened then across ten years was that I began spotting the relative absence of attention to music amongst social and cultural historians. And that was the eighties and nineties, there was an explosion of cultural history and social history at this time. And I was reading all this stuff and just thinking, "this is cultural history, but where's the music?" And at that early point, I didn't have the confidence to just go for something completely different, and my supervisor wasn't not musically knowledgeable. So I worked on religion and social relations for years.

And then when I'd done that for long time, there's so many people working in the religious field, I just thought, now's the time. This hasn't been done. So I started looking at ballad singing, at bell ringing, at Psalm singing, at dance music, musical instruments that were played, and just found there was so much to be said that that became the project that has lasted and what I'm doing now. I play the violin, but I play kind of for my own amusement. I fiddle around with tunes a lot now, but I don't perform much. But no, I mean, I'm convinced that music is tremendously important historically and largely neglected by historians. It's one of these human activities that in terms of the discipline, gets a bit lost in the gaps between musicology and history because the historians think that in musicology that's their business and the musicologists aren't quite as interested in the sort of broader, deeper kind of context as historians, perhaps.

ER (3:21): Wow. It's really exciting that you are filling that really important niche then and at the forefront of it.

CM: Thank you very much.

ER: So, especially since I imagine many of our listeners don't necessarily know what the experience of music was in early modern England, could you maybe tell a little bit about what was it like? What forms would people encounter music and sound?

CM: Yes, certainly. I mean, I think one of the big differences from now is now we are saturated in music. I was traveling 10 hours to get here yesterday, so I was in the airports, and all the time, wherever you go, there's music. So, there's huge amounts of music being heard constantly. Whereas of course in the seventeenth century, hearing live music would've been a kind of rarer event. And because it was a rarer event, I suspect that it had an intensity. You knew then if you heard a fiddle playing in an ale house, that was the only time anyone was ever going to hear that sound. It's into the air, and then it's gone. And I think that gives a real kind of power to the encounter. Whereas nowadays everything can be recorded and I can play any recorded music on my computer at the flick of a button. So I think it was powerful stuff.

(4:45) And then the kinds of music that people would've encountered. I take quite a broad view of popular music, if we can use that term. So, I include bell ringing, which sometimes kind of surprises people, but I think it is a species of music; ballad singing, which was singing of popular songs; lots of dance tunes, dance music, so dancing on the village, green, dancing in ale houses; psalm singing in church, congregational singing. This was immediately after the Reformation. The first time that congregations were singing, they were singing metrical psalms. That was a powerful force in the Reformation, I think. So all sorts. And then each major town had a civic band called the 'waites' who would play music on the streets. So, you would hear a great range of musics, but I think you didn't hear it all the time in the way that we do, which I think gives it force.

ER (5:48): Yeah. So, it sounds like the ephemerality of it gives [it something]. You can't help but stop and hear or stop and listen or stop and experience in a way that we just have it as background noise.

CM: I think often that's the case. My brother-in-law is a top oboist (he plays in the Berlin Philharmonic), and whenever you go out from meal with him and the music comes on, he scowls and he just kind of hates it. And I think his feeling is that music is to be listened to, and to have a culture where the attention isn't more on the music. I mean, he's quite an intense character. But he hates that restaurant music, I could tell you.

So, I think that the sort of saturation and the access to music that we now have is obviously wonderful in many, many ways because if I want to hear a recording of a ballad, you just stick on Spotify and it's there. And even 20 years ago you couldn't do that. And 50 years, 100 years ago, and 300 years ago, that sort of availability isn't there at all. And I think that is a huge difference between our musical culture and this sort of early modern musical culture.

ER (7:06):Yeah, absolutely. One of the things that I see in your project is you're focused on the songs that were popular, the hits of the seventeenth century. So what made a song popular?

CM: Well, that's what the lecture is about.

ER: I guess without giving too much away, then!

CM:  No, no, that's fine. I'm not worried about that. It's really, really difficult to identify what makes one song a hit and not another because you can have songs that are on similar themes, telling similar stories, accompanied by seemingly similar tunes. And one is published again and again for 300 years, and the other is published once and fades. It's difficult. But I think with broadside ballads—which are single sheet songs that normally have pictures, that name a tune, and then they have a text—it's some combination of the skill with which the relationships between the tune and the pictures and the texts are set up and kind of manipulated by the authors in a way to provoke reactions and in a way to reach as broad a market as possible.

But an awful lot of them are quite dark. There's an awful lot of death. I think there are 3000 deaths in the top 100. I did a body count at one point. And seriously, I mean, people die all the time in these songs. And I think one of the things that's interesting to me is that when sort of modern or early musicians, as they’re often called, when they pick up ballads, they very frequently pick up the ones that are sort of sexy, a bit lascivious, a bit sort of bawdy. So it came as something of a surprise to go back with a particular question about what really succeeded and find that an awful lot of it is dark and it's tragic or it's serious morality. There's one called “A Hundred Godly Lessons,” and it's about an old woman dying on her deathbed. She gathers her children around her, and she delivers 100 pieces of pithy kind of moral advice. And you listen to it now and you just think, “How could that have been a successful song?” But it was printed again and again and again. So, there's lots of surprises. And I think it's been really interesting to not just dip into ballads, as scholars often do and just find one that fits what you're writing about, but to actually start with the ballads and say, which of these surviving maybe 10,000 copies of ballads in total, but which of these songs were really, really successful? And I think that's been an interesting exercise. They’re not particularly upbeat or uplifting, I have to say.

ER (10:02):I think that is interesting, thinking about how maybe we select the ballads that we think would be interesting or exciting based on how we want to read back onto the seventeenth century, the Renaissance. I think we do that sometimes with drama too (I study literature). So I think it's interesting that that is not necessarily what was the concern of the people for whom this was their popular culture.

CM: Yeah, I think plays are exactly the same. I mean, I think you're paying attention not to what has become sort of canonical or what seems to strike a chord with modern audiences, but to think what worked at the time and why did it work at the time. And that's exactly the same with ballads. It's interesting because I feel like I come to these songs without any sort of aesthetic expectations. I'm not trying to pick out what I think are the best or the most wonderful songs. I'm trying to find the songs that were successful at the time. And it is a surprise. And then it's a sort of shock because when you then speak to media people and you say, “I've done this project,” and they say, “oh great, a hundred ballads, that sounds brilliant,” and you play [one for them]. So it’s been an eye-opener, or an ear-opener perhaps. But it's been an interesting project.

ER: Absolutely. Jasper, I think this could be, you have some questions to take us in a related but different direction.

JWQ (11:21): I think it's so fascinating thinking about one, what are people today pulling out of those and how are they finding the resonances? But also like you were talking about, I was really struck by the woodcuts, the way that they're printed, the actual lyrics, then often the tune is included in there, right. And how those things circulate, it sounds a lot like the recording industry. So, Francis Utley established a collection here of commercial folk recordings. We have about 4,000 different records, and a lot of them actually are sort of hearkening back to the broadside ballads. Smithsonian Folkways had a line of records that were called “broadside ballads.” But they included people like Bob Dylan and the sort of folk pop musicians of the day. So, I'm very curious to hear your perspective on that sort of interplay between the folk music traditions and the popular music traditions and how that has progressed over the centuries, like the social life of these things, coming today where so many people see them as a root of folk music practices when that might actually have been something very different in their original context.

CM (12:21): Yeah, no, that’s an interesting question, Jasper. I mean, I think the distinguishing pop music from folk music in the seventeenth century is impossible because you simply do not have the record of what people memorized and sang. So, you can't kind of tell what people were singing for themselves. All you have is really the broadside ballads. Whereas you go into the nineteenth century and then by that stage you have ballads still being printed, and then you have folk song collectors coming along. And then you can see very clearly there's this intimate relationship between the printed songs and the collected songs. I think that's very interesting because, of course with the tradition of collecting folk songs, broadside ballads were kind of scum. You didn't collect those, that was corrupt, that was print, and what you wanted was the authentic kind of oral tradition.

Whereas I think what we've realized increasingly in the last 20 years is the meshing of print and orality. And I think you can see that really, really clearly with lots of collected ballads that are clearly related quite closely to nineteenth-century slip songs that were printed and that looked like they were probably learnt from print and then were memorized and adjusted a little bit. I’m going to presume the same thing was happening in the seventeenth century, that people were buying ballads and then were learning them for themselves, shrinking them down, but you don't have the evidence of the collection. So it's kind of hard to disentangle those relationships. But yes, and you were asking about more recent folk stuff. I mean, nowadays, I suppose, I don't know, I suppose historical folk songs, there are some big commercial recordings nowadays. So, I think the idea that the two things were ever separate and different, what's commercial and popular and what's authentic and oral or memorized, I don't think that really holds at all. I don't think it holds now, and I don't think it ever held. Although it’s been a really strong narrative in scholarly work that those are separate. There's the ‘traditional’ ballad and there's the ‘broadside’ ballad, and they're not the same thing. In fact, they're totally in intertwined. I think that's my impression anyway.

JWQ: Yeah, we get the sense looking at the Utley collection that he was specifically interested, he had a sense that, “oh, maybe these commercial recordings are actually more ephemeral than some of the field recordings because nobody is collecting these because they're assuming, oh, this is something that's been corrupted.” Or once it gets attached to industrial music production, it's no longer folk. And so I think that there was already that nascent understanding, like you're saying of how enmeshed these things are, and the popular and the folk are always so interconnected and sometimes are the same thing. You're just looking at it from a different perspective.

CM: How many of these records did you say that Utley collected?

JWQ: In the collection? Now we have just over 4,000. And so, they run the range from the early 1900s to the late 1970s, right through the different recording formats of that time and including some instantaneous discs too that are sort of one of a kind, one printing at the time too.

CM: Right, wow, and what kinds of songs are in that collection?

JWQ: It’s a range, it really covers the entire world, basically. We have records that were cut from Southeast Asia, South Asia, different parts of the African continent and Europe, North America, the big recording labels, the Library of Congress, smaller recording labels, but specifically some of those things that are related to ballads. You see those come up over and again, especially related to Appalachia and the US where those ballad hunters that you were talking about were going to seek something and sort of missing a lot of other things that were happening in this side while doing that.

CM (16:56): Right. Yeah, no, I think that's absolutely clear that the collectors everywhere, especially in the late nineteenth, early twentieth century, were kind of looking for what they wanted to find and shutting out stuff that wasn't—like, anything that was linked to the music hall in England or anything kind of felt sort of commercial was not what they were after. So, the focus on collections that we have are a very sort of distorted view of what people were actually singing, which may be true of broadside ballad collections in the seventeenth century as well because Samuel Pepys collected the biggest collection of broadside ballads. And then you have the question, did the collectors’ tastes influence what they collected? And Samuel Pepys was a naval administrator who collected loads of songs about sailors, and he was a famously jealous husband who has a disproportionately large number of songs about cuckholds as well. So yeah, collectors have their agendas, I think, in all ages.

JWQ: Well, I think that that question of attending to the history is so useful for us in doing contemporary field work today in an ethnographic sense because it shows us the depth of history of these interactions. And my second question was returning to this question of instrumentation, too. And when you're reproducing these things, replaying them today, how do you attend to the fact that instruments have also changed over that time? Are people who are playing, looking back, trying to recreate instruments? Are they just making do with what they have today or what’s the relationship?

CM: That was a really kind of big issue at the start of the project because we could have gone down the road of finding real early music specialists who are playing on reconstructed instruments, and fiddlers using only gut strings, and so on. But we decided not to do that because, I mean, my impression, my feeling is that if you get completely obsessed with the sort of technicalities of “is the instrument right?”, “is the playing right?”, then you can end up with a sort of music that is interesting but can feel a little bit sterile or a little bit dull or a little bit contrived. And so, we in the end, decided to contact a fantastic group called the Carnival Band in England, who play all sorts of historical and world musics as well, but they don't actually play on reconstructed instruments. So, they go with the flow a bit more and they bring a bit more of themselves into it.

(19:54) So, our instructions to them were to only use instruments that were around at the time—so, they use fiddles and citterns and bagpipes and various kinds of drums and so on—but not to worry too much about the exact ways in which you are playing all the instruments that you're playing. And so hopefully you'll end up with a kind of music that the musicians feel is kind of natural to them and is alive. And it affects the debate over whether to use original pronunciation, which is a big thing in drama as well. And again, we decided we wanted to use folk singers, as well as classically trained singers, as well as one guy who's a sort of dance caller for country dancing with a huge, booming voice. So, we wanted to use a whole range of voices, and we just decided that we were going to let  them use modern pronunciation. You can judge the results when they're available!

But we just kind of felt that leaving the musicians with a kind of freedom, a measure of freedom to express themselves was probably the best way to go. Although, the other thing we did do: they tended to keep the instrumentation very simple. Most ballad performance in the seventeenth century was probably unaccompanied, but there are definitely references to a ballad phrase was sung to a fiddle. We don't exactly know what that means, whether the fiddle is just playing the tune or the fiddle is kind of improvising harmonies around the tune, but quite basic. So, we have a few arrangements where there are maybe four or five instruments joining just to give the feeling, if you had professional musicians, what might this feel like? But most of the recordings are either unaccompanied or accompanied by one instrument with a fiddle or a cittern. So, we kept it very simple, really.

ER: I think I really am interested in this project, this amazing repository you're putting together. It's like Billboard Top 100 from the seventeenth century. So, I'm interested in, what is your hope for this project? Who is it for? How do you hope it is used?

CM (22:25): Yeah, it's going to be free on the web, so there's no kind of charge, and access will be open to everybody. And I suppose a lot of the use of it will probably be students and scholars researching early modern history, but hopefully also people who are interested in folk music and kind of folk song collection,  and then [people] in all aspects of early modern social, cultural, political history. Because hopefully, I suppose the real motivation behind it was this feeling that scholars will be working away on witchcraft or social relations or whatever and they would go to EBBA, the English Broadside Ballad Archive, which is a huge and fantastic resource. And you could just find a ballad that was on your topic, and then you could use it. And nobody was actually asking which of these songs were really successful, which of them really struck a chord.  And so I thought it hopefully would be helpful to a lot of scholars to actually put together a collection of 120 songs that you can demonstrably say these were very, very successful songs. And then we're also providing quite a lot of editorial materials as well. I mean, I hope it'll have a wide audience. I'm guessing that scholars and students will be perhaps the core of that. But, I suppose you never know. Maybe nobody will be interested in it at all, but hopefully that is not the case.

ER: I'll at least be interested in it.

CM: Thank you, Elise. That’s great, one user!

ER: I appreciate that historicization, though, to actually know—because I have also used the English Broadside Ballad Archive and it's great—but I love that what you're doing is giving us a sense of the actual, maybe the cultural impact and cultural relevance. Having just the repository of the broadside ballad archive is great, but knowing kind of that this was what was most, what popular people were listening to, is I think really helpful for us to understand and appropriately historicize the time period. So, I think that that's really amazing, and I look forward to it. I think I'll use it in my hopeful future early modern literature classes.

CM: Great.

ER: We're just about out of time, and I know you talked about it just a little bit, but I was hoping you could give a quick teaser of your lecture later today, especially for listeners who won't be able to attend the lecture in person.

CM (24:55): Yeah, well, I've called it “How to Produce a Hit Song (In Seventeenth Century England),” and I suppose part of the kind of trigger for that came from all those books that are published nowadays about how to write a hit song, six steps of songwriting success, and so on and just thinking about what that would that look like if you took that kind of notion and applied it to the seventeenth century song. So, I'll be kind of working through a range of what seem to me the sort of characteristics of the uses that's made of pictures and tunes and so on. So I'll be looking at themes and the text and at the use of images and the use of tunes and then the ways in which the texts are sort of set up to facilitate performance. I suspect I'm not really answering, eventually answering the question, you know, “This was the secret,” because that's the problem. I mean, you can’t do it. But, I think the most successful songs are ones which manage to weave all these different components together in a way that struck chords and encouraged interest from a broad range of the population. So, they're not just accessible to wealthier people or poorer people or men or women; there's something there for everybody. And I think a lot of them cover all those bases. So, hopefully I'll come out with some thoughts on that, on how you went about writing a hit song in the seventeenth century.

ER: Excellent. Do you have another question?

JWQ: I just have one other question you made me think of. Now, when you're looking back at the historical record, you use the terminology ‘hit.’ We have other words today, a ‘banger,’ for instance, to talk about a song that’s a hit. Was there some kind of slang that was used at the time to describe one of these hit songs?

CM (26:53): I've tried to find something. I would use it if I could. I don't think there was. I tried desperately to find a use of ‘hit’ in the seventeenth century that fitted. There was kind of one use which applied. I can't remember what it applied. It wasn't actually a tune, but it was kind of like a quick shot of something, but I thought it wasn't enough. So, I don't think they used ‘hit’; they definitely didn't use ‘banger.’ So no, I don't think there is a term. I wish that there were. If you find one or if any of the listeners find one, then I'd love to know. But no, I think ‘hit’ is a modern term, but we sort of decided to use that term because the focus is on what was really successful. So, we've just used the modern term anyway.

ER: I would love to find that slang, figure out what they [used]. Because it's kind of interesting, we have ‘hit’ and ‘bang’ as these violent kind of words.

JWQ: Or they say a song ‘slaps’ too now.

ER: Yeah, like a very audible and percussive [sound].

JWQ: ‘Strike’ with a ‘Y.’ Is it that? No…

CM: Haven't seen it. I'll keep looking.

ER: Great. Well thank you so much for being here with us today, Dr. Marsh, and thank you, Jasper for co-hosting. Really looking forward to your lecture.

JWQ: Yeah, thank you so much.

CM: Thank you. It was lovely to speak to you both.