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Introduction

In 1654, Methuselah Flower of Tewksbury was arrested in Bristol for the “singing of ballads, thereby contracting people together in a tumultuous manner.”1 His reported performance was engaging enough to draw a crowd of enthralled onlookers that reached, for officials concerned with Royalist plotting during the Civil Wars, worrisome size. His public display was not uncommon for seventeenth-century England. Ballads such as the ones performed by Flower were “sung at the Court,” “stuck about the wall” at alehouses, warbled “in the Streets by the Vulgar,” and enjoyed by “silly gentlewomen” and their “swaggering companions.”2 Singing, hearing, and seeing ballads was a shared daily experience for most English citizens, an experience that allowed for the constant interaction and metamorphosis of ballad tunes, texts, subject material, and implied social commentary. Broadside ballads-single-sheet publications that related current events, politics, myth, history, morality, and gossip bought and sold for a penny-combined decorative woodcuts, poetic verse, and orally circulating popular tunes, or melodies culled from a variety of sources from court airs and country dances, to contemporaneous theatrical numbers to folk tunes. Performers like Methuselah Flower disseminated ballad texts and tunes through public performance across the country, while actors like William Kemp and Richard Tarleton portrayed ballad culture in London’s playhouses. Broadside ballads were a uniquely powerful social tool that could educate a wide range of social classes, not only on current events and titillating gossip but also more nuanced cultural commentary like Christian morality, gender relations, and political satire through music and performance. They spread gossip, perpetuated scandals, and regaled audiences with tales of “treasons, murthers, witchcrafts, fires, [and] flouds.”3 Ballads straddled oral and literate culture, the material and the ephemeral, and print and performance. Because of this mutability,

1 Bristol RO Sessions Minute Book 1653-1671, fol. 6a. See A. L. Beier, Masterless Men: The vagrancy problem in England, 1560-1640 (London: Methuen, 1985), p. 98.