The Broadside Ballad

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Broadside Ballad, detail of the Title1

The Broadside Ballad: This page is a brief introduction to broadside ballads.

What is a broadside ballad?

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Figure 1: British Library, Roxburghe 1.150, EBBA 300953

In the first half of the 17th century, a broadside ballad was a single, large sheet of paper printed on one side with multiple eye-catching illustrations, an interesting title, and an alluring lyrical poem, in black or white letter font, to be sung to a popular tune. The themes of broadside ballads ranged among those of politics, romance, conduct, and even news and crime. Broadside ballads were seen as low-literature in the period but were still extremely popular and important not only as works of literature but also for their social functions. Broadside ballads decorated walls, “the woodcuts of lords and ladies, shepherds, milkmaids, murderers, lovers, and even murderous lovers vying for . . . attention,”2 and those walking along the streets would hear the ballad-mongers singing the ballads and see the sheets the sellers held the air to catch their customers’ eyes. Popular drinking, or “Good-fellow,” ballads (Figure 1) were sung in alehouses, they were sung by workers and farmers, even in the workplace. Popular and familiar tunes were recycled to make the ballads more salable, as were the woodcuts that served as advertisements for the ballads as well as artistic accompaniment. Broadside ballads are a combination of art, music, and poetry, and were widely disseminated in England from the 16th to the 18th century.

Want to explore some ballads? Check out EBBA’s extensive digital archive.

Black and White Letter Font:

Broadside ballads were mostly printed with two fonts: black letter and white letter. Black letter was used for a majority of the broadside ballads while white letter was mostly reserved for titles, refrains, and sometimes the license. However, the use of black letter or white letter was really up to the printer – there are many broadside ballads printed entirely in white letter. At the end of the 17th century, black letter ballads more than quadrupled in number compared to white letter ballads.4 When reading broadside ballads it is important to remember that printing mistakes were common. The complicated process involved placing the letter types face down and backwards, compounding the potential for error. Below are some examples of the black letter (Figure 2) and white letter (Figure 3) font. To view the caption, scroll over the image:

As you can see, the black letter font is much more ornate compared to the white letter font. If you are interested in reading more detailed information about the history and popularity of black letter and the broadside ballad, “Black Letter and the Broadside Ballad” is a great place to start.

Tunes & Music Notations:

The tune was the main selling point of the broadside ballad. Regardless of whether the ballad itself was familiar to the viewer, many tunes were popular and those were recycled for ballads. For the English Broadside Ballad Archive (EBBA) the tune imprint refers to the actual tune printed on the ballad, and the “standard tune” is the more well-known tune associated with the tune imprint. In his book, The British Broadside Ballad and its Music, Claude Simpson arranged ballad tunes alphabetically, using standardized titles, with an index that cross-references tunes with multiple titles. It is from Simpson that EBBA get’s the standardized titles.

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Figure 4: Music notation movable type printing7

Many broadside ballads featured a musical or music notation. These were sometimes printed with the first stanza set to the tune; however, not all music notations were accurate tunes and a majority of the notations printed on ballads (a good number were not made by music printers) were only for decoration. There were also some music notations printed on ballads that were coherent tunes yet did not work with the lyrics of the particular ballad with which they were printed. Music notation involved an entirely different printing process, and most of the music notations printed were by people who did not really know anything about musical notation. While some notations were simple enough to be printed with movable type (Figure 4), others were far more complex. In cases when an entire page of notation was being printed, a printing block or engraved copper would be used. This is the case for William Corkine’s composition you will read about in The Tune.



Most broadside ballads featured one or two woodcuts at the top of the page, near the title. The woodcut, like the title, would work as a selling point—an attention getter—for bards to use as they tried to sell broadsides on the street. Woodcuts were recycled, and very few were made specifically for a ballad. Unlike engravings, which had subtle details and featured shades of gray, and etchings which used freer techniques and more regular, even, and wiry lines, Woodcuts generally had bolder lines which were more suitable for larger images and were often, beginning in the sixteenth century, glued together to produce prints of extraordinary size.12

The woodcuts were a representation of the major theme of a particular broadside ballad. And for those who were not well-read or even literate, the woodcut would serve as a powerful tool of communication between the medium and the customer. Take the woodcuts above for example (scroll over to see their captions). Similar to the attention given to book covers today, the woodcuts were very much a major part of the broadside ballad whole.

1 National Library of Scotland, Crawford 452, EBBA 32876.
Nebeker, Eric. “The Heyday of the Broadside Ballad.”English Broadside Ballad Archive, 2007.
3  Figure 1: British Library, Roxburghe 1.150, EBBA 30095.
4 Fumerton, Patricia. “Black Letter vs. White Letter.” English Broadside Ballad Archive.
Figure 2: Houghton Library, 25242.67, EBBA 35252
Figure 3: Houghton Library, EB65, EBBA 34389
7 Figure 4: Reyna, Rosendo. Printing Forme – Assembled music type with a printing. Digital image, Music Printing History, N.p., 2007.
Figure 5: Magdalene College, Pepys 1.228-229, EBBA 20103
Figure 6: Magdalene College, Pepys 2.36, EBBA 20660
10 Figure 7: British Library, Roxburghe 1.488-489,  EBBA 30326
11 Figure 8: British Library, Roxburghe 1.540-541,  EBBA 30358
12 Stewart, Alison. “The Birth of Mass Media: Printmaking in Early Modern Europe.” A Companion to Renaissance and Baroque Art, 2013, p. 254.