Broadside Ballads – The Sound of the Streets
As one walks through the centre of Leeds, one of the most evocative sounds is the cry of the vendors selling copies of the Yorkshire Evening Post – or the “E’eny Po’” as it seems to become when its title is vociferated forth into the afternoon sky. For many people, buying a copy of the paper is a ritual – something that they do every day – a way of staying in contact with the rest of the city, of being connected and keeping abreast of what’s going on. Local news is important, but of course, the Evening Post hasn’t always been around.
For about 400 years, the broadside was one of the commonest forms of printed material available in this country. Single sheets of paper, printed on one side and sold on street corners across the land, they contained a mixture of topical local stories, woodcuts, gossip and comment on national events. Often this material was presented in rhyme in the form of a broadside ballad. The ballads told stories of forbidden love, drunken revelry, murder and trespass – the sort of material still popular in tabloid newspapers. As with the tabloids, some stories were based on actual occurrences, while others were pure fabrication. The ballads could be set to well-known tunes and passed on orally to those who could not read. Hundreds of these ballads were written and printed from the 1500s onwards and up until the 19th Century, they were still a popular source of news and entertainment.
Working with two groups of young people – members of East Leeds FM’s Next Generation and students at a college just outside Leeds – we researched the experiences of people who lived here in the past; people who led amazing lives but who have been forgotten over time. We focussed on two such people and tried to map their stories, rewriting them as broadside ballads.
The stories we have chosen to retell are those of Mary Bateman, “The Yorkshire Witch” and Prince Dejazmatch Alemayehu Tewodros, the exiled heir apparent to the throne of Ethiopia. Both of these characters were well known in their day and, in very different ways, achieved a form of celebrity. Moreover, both were resident in Leeds for significant parts of their lives.
We’ve also created two original stories – The Ballad of Fish and Chips and Jack Homer’s Odyssey, each of which recounts the misadventures of a pair of lovers in contemporary Leeds. They were inspired by a 19th Century Ballad, Down by The Dark Arches, which tells a humorous cautionary tale of a night-out gone wrong. Each one takes us on a journey around the city, taking in various modern-day streets and landmarks.
138) 18th May
I dreamt that Matthew Murray fixed our fridge one night. It was broken again by morning but I knew he’d come as he’d eaten some of my jam.