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Dubbed ‘the noisiest picture in English art’ by Martin Meisel, William Hogarth’s The Enraged Musician (1741) has enjoyed a long and prominent afterlife. Long before it became a canonical image in sound studies, it was adapted for the London stage as a musical afterpiece, Ut Pictura Poesis, at the Haymarket Theatre (1789). Though the performance took its plot, very loosely, from Ben Jonson’s Epicœne, its central conceit was not just the embodied reenactment of an image, but its conversion into a linear sequence of music. In this chapter, Oskar Cox Jensen interrogates this adaptation through a combination of close reading (of playtext, score, and imagined performance) and contextualisation, considering the key roles played by both the theatrical space itself and the members of the company – particularly the scene painter Michael Angelo Rooker (1746–1801). The resulting blend of sound, sight, and movement, Cox Jensen contends, reveals much about wider issues of the era, from the construction of national identities to the interplay between stage, street, and social class.
A naval chaplain in the 1790s, a radical arrested after Peterloo, and a smash hit of blackface minstrelsy: these three disparate historical actors all provide exemplary cases of music in action, playing upon the political passions of the British people. Thinking across the three examples, this article reflects upon the aims of the forum Music and Politics in Britain, c.1780–1850, as well as advancing its own autonomous argument. Alexander Duncan was drummed out of the navy for publishing a pamphlet advocating the use of martial music in action; inspired by the French, Duncan was effectively arguing for a democratization of Britain's servicemen by playing upon their passions. The potential for subversion inherent in this approach was borne out by the career of Samuel Bamford, a Lancashire weaver; music was central to Bamford's activism, and I chart the functional ends to which he deployed music around 1819. In a third instance, with the 1840s hit “Buffalo Gals,” music led to public disorder. The song, due in large part to its musical qualities, enabled forms of licentious behavior among white males that mobilized latent forms of gendered as well as racial prejudice, so that its performance came to excuse forms of sexual harassment.
The fourth interlude, ‘Old Dog Tray’, discusses one of the ballad-singer’s last great mainstream hits, the sentimental American song ‘Old Dog Tray’. I regard this song as something of a paradox: both an ideal solo ballad, and an indication of the ballad-singer’s failings, considering the song’s harmonic possibilities as realised by performances on keyboard, barrel-organ, or by vocal ensembles – possibilities not available for songs written and sung in the early part of the century.
Chapter 2 is ‘Progress: Ancient Custom in the Modern City’. Here I pursue sociopolitical questions prompted by ballad singing, in an analysis shaped by an understanding of historical time and process whereby the chief tension lay between an early modern conception of order, public space, and neighbourhood, as embodied by the singer, and a self-consciously modern urban programme of improvement and capital, advanced by journalists and the judiciary. I situate debates over ballad singing at the centre of this historical process, the better to understand both issues. I analyse the threats singers were said to represent, in moral and legal writing; the political power accorded to the song by authorities (centring on the endlessly repeated maxim of the early Enlightenment thinker Alexander Fletcher); contemporary medical views on the inflammatory power of music; the vexed question of public space; and the steps taken both to repress and to coerce ballad-singers. I focus on the few documented occasions when a ballad-singer had a demonstrable impact on the actions of a community, from Kennington, to Camden, to Whitechapel market, and I come to see the singer, not as analogous to rough music as such, but as a paradoxical, anachronistic voice of authority within those communities.
My first chapter, ‘Representations: Seeing the Singer’, addresses perhaps the greatest problem to the historian of song culture, that of its sources, and in so doing serves also as a comprehensive introduction to the ballad-singer and her place in metropolitan life. It is constructed chiefly as an analysis of images of singers, supported by comparison with other media of representation, from plays to novels. I have tried to tackle head on the fact that in the historical record we see the singer almost entirely from above – and almost never hear them. Several key themes emerge: the extent to which ballad-singers were both silenced (or ventriloquised) and stripped of their crowds, thereby diminishing their potential to disturb viewers; the process of Othering whereby singers became synecdochal for an underclass within London, helping to create a domestic narrative of internal colonialism; and above all, the complex articulation of immorality in imagery. This lay less in a focus upon the female body than in the associations of the open mouth – a vulgar, sexualised trope that located vice, not in the singer’s person, but in their song.
This chapter explores singers’ repertoires, from whence they were derived, and their networks of dissemination, and centres on my formulation of a cultural ‘mainstream’ of songs. I begin by placing the notoriously mixed repertoires available to us within a theoretical framework of the miscellaneous as a form of cultural consumption, before moving beyond specific lists of songs to a consideration of historical process. I examine the remarkable ways in which singers appropriated tunes from other cultural spaces, and the varying methods by which a lyric might be sourced. I look at the question of circulation both within and without London, and the movement of songs between different physical and social sites, demonstrating in particular the overwhelming musical importance of the theatre to mainstream song culture. I construct an image of this ‘mainstream’ as a working model for understanding how songs were produced, performed, and consumed in an age before sound recording: a model that necessarily takes issue with Peter Burke’s influential theory of the separation of elite and popular cultures by 1800. As the century progressed and harmonic forms of songwriting, informed by keyboards, came to prominence, this cultural model was no longer tenable, and newly-literate workers with a slightly improved disposable income began to consume songs in both physical and performative forms that bypassed the ballad-singer.
Interlude II, ‘Lord Viscount Maidstone’s Address’, pursues Chapter 2’s themes of localised community formation and articulation through close analysis of a single election ballad of 1852, set to a popular political tune of the late eighteenth century, ‘Bow, Wow, Wow’. I situate the song within the political and spatial context of the Westminster election, and demonstrate its suitability as a satirical form based on both the tune’s associations and its innate melopoetic properties. In contrasting the Liberal party’s continued use of such songs with the Tory preference for more modern campaign media, I apply the chronological contentions of the previous chapter to this mid-century case study, demonstrating the continued effectiveness, within a spatially contained neighbourhood, of this early modern form of political expression.
Developing the thesis elaborated in the latter part of Chapter 4, I contend that the demise of the ballad-singer was primarily due to a shift in mainstream taste and musical potential, as the masses developed both the appetite for, and access to, a wide range of more sophisticated music. By 1864, when this book ends, the ballad-singer was almost entirely absent from the debate around the Street Music Act championed by Michael Thomas Bass MP, indicating the irrelevance of the ballad-singer to the contemporary street scene. This argument, predicated upon technological change, literacy, economics, and class consciousness, is essentially optimistic, running counter to the rhetoric of decline and nostalgia found in nineteenth-century elite writing on the subject. I contend that the primarily musical transformation by which melodic song became subordinated within a new and totalising conception of music, was itself symptomatic of the great historical forces of reform, education, improvement, and enfranchisement that were at work in Victorian London.
I begin the book with a comprehensive introduction that situates what follows within an interdisciplinary discourse on what is variously conceived of as ephemeral literature, popular culture, or folk song. Accordingly, the Introduction opens with a much-cited letter to John Reeves from 1792 concerning the power of ballads over mass opinion, locating my work within several existing strands of scholarship. After defining my terms and arguing for the importance of the singer to these fields of enquiry, as well as for the particular significance of London, I unpack the problematic idea of ‘music’ as something requiring special expertise, highlighting its accessibility to other disciplines, particularly History and Literature. This methodological exposition should be of especial value beyond the subject matter of the volume. Going on to outline the chronology of my period, to survey the existing field, and to address further the challenges and benefits of interdisciplinarity (with particular reference to the work of the musicologists Georgina Born, Carolyn Abbate, and Gary Tomlinson, which may be unfamiliar but extremely helpful to historians), I conclude with a synopsis of the book’s structure, its chapters, and interludes.
In the third interlude, ‘The Storm’, I examine the performance of a single song by one singer, the crippled black sailor Joseph Johnson. Taking an approach somewhat indebted to Timothy Brook’s Vermeer’s Hat, I pursue the elements bound up in Johnson’s performance right across the globe, from the Antipodes to Jamaica, from Versailles to the West End stage, placing this East End performance within an imperial narrative of cultural appropriation, assimilation, and identity formation. Johnson emerges as in many ways the epitome of the ballad-singer: a marginal figure disadvantaged by both race and injury, whose self-fashioning (based on Jamaican Jonkonnu practice) was designed to reposition himself at the heart of both metropolitan and national notions of patriotism.