South Coast Based Project To Catalog Historic 16th, 17th Century Documents Gets Major Grant

Jun 1, 2016

Imagine if you got your news not through newscasts but instead had it delivered through song.

That’s the way it worked in England in the 16th and 17th centuries.

News, stories, and gossip were turned into ballads to be sung alongside popular music. 

A UC Santa Barbara-based project is gathering the broadside ballads from around the world, and putting them online.

A team led by a UC Santa Barbara professor is helping to not only catalog the estimated 11,000 - 12,000 English Broadside Ballads still in existence, but to get them digitized and on the internet for all to see and use.

Dr. Patricia Fumerton is director of the English Broadside Ballad Archive, based at UCSB. Fumerton started the archive more than a decade ago.

She realized while teaching an English class that while although writers like Shakespeare and Milton are what we think of when we think of classic English literature, their works weren’t what the public at the time read.

It led her to the mostly overlooked broadside ballads, which did not necessarily have a sense of "journalistic accuracy" that one might expect from a widely-circulated release.

Fumerton says that despite that, just like our hand held mobile devices today, the broadsides were a way of sharing stories.

The online ballad archive currently has more than 7,000 ballads, and 5,000 recordings.

The National Endowment for the Humanities recently awarded the project $260,000 to add more ballads to the archive.

Fumerton, who is especially focused on pre-1700 ballads, says while some universities have carefully cataloged collections, others don’t, and she’s hoping to fix it.

Fumerton says because it’s online, it’s a free resource for researchers, educators, and the public.

Even the musical versions of the broadside ballads you’ll find online involve the community as well, with researchers, students, and even members of the public making the recording which help bring these slices of history back to life.

You can visit the UCSB English Broadside Ballad Archive here.