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Damnable Practises: Witches, Dangerous Women, and Music in Seventeenth-Century English Broadside Ballads.

Dangerous Women, and Music in Seventeenth-Century English Broadside Ballads Sarah F. Williams. Farnham and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2015. xiii + 225 pp. Illus. Bibliog. Index. ISBN 978-1-47242082-4. 60.00 [pounds sterling].

The basic purpose of this book is to explore how witchcraft, and disorderly women more generally, were represented musically and textually in early modern England, in particular in broadside ballads. There is indeed a good deal of literature from the period that focuses on women's voices as a locus of transgression and control. So this is an interesting enough project, and broadsides and their tunes do have something to contribute, though the evidence from elsewhere, from sources such as plays and pamphlets, is every bit as compelling.

The book makes some grand claims: 'Broadside ballads were a uniquely powerful social tool that could educate a wide range of social classes' (p. 1); 'All early moderns understood that music was an efficacious and dangerous art' (pp. 5-6); 'concepts [about music, femininity, and allurement] were certainly understood on some level by all manner of English citizenry' (p. 7). This is not untypical of a certain strain in studies of early modern popular culture which seek to justify their particular area of interest in such a manner. In this case, I suspect it goes back specifically to the new historicism of Bruce Smith, whose contention it is that the broadside ballad was 'more than a genre or print medium but rather a complete system of communication' (p. 50), and to the subtext being promoted by the EBBA website. The whole approach is then open to the criticisms that have been made of new historicism at large, notably a failure to recognize that literary and musical forms were, and are, first and foremost forms of art. To be sure, they feed into the habitus of the historical moment, but they do not embody, define, or communicate it wholesale.

Williams outlines things like 'the controversy over woman', scolds and the scold's bridle, aspects of witchcraft trials, folklore and superstition, anti-Catholic sentiment, and the trope of the grotesque. The witchcraft material is, of course, done much better by the historians (Keith Thomas, Alan Macfarlane, James Sharpe, Marianne Hester for gender, Christina Lamer for Scotland, and so on), and the folklore section is a ragbag which comes perilously close to positing a witch cult a la Margaret Murray (paganism rears its head again on p. 125, in connection with morris dancing). It is a while before we move on to the ballads, and particularly the tunes, 'The Lady's Fall', 'Bragandary', 'Fortune my Foe'. The last, according to Christopher Marsh, is a Dorian meldoy that expresses a mood that is intrinsically both grave and modest (pp. 66-7). Given that it is named on numerous ballad sheets, it is not particularly difficult to assert a kind of intertextuality operating among them, underwritten by a sense that music must be inherently associative. Certainly, it could have been, and in some instances (like that of the playwright Margaret Cavendish, cited pp. 49, 78-9) the association is pretty explicit, but it is still a leap of faith to say that it operated in this way throughout the broadside repertoire. 'Fortune my Foe' is named for so many ballads that one wonders if it was really anything more than a workhorse tune (think 'Villikins and Dinah', echoed in 'The Cruel Ship's Carpenter' as well as in 'The Thrashing Machine', without the need to posit any sort of intertextual relationship between them).

Some of the errors that jump out include Stationers Company (p. 10) and Stationer's Company (p. 11) before finally alighting on the correct form, Stationers' Company (p. 115); Leslie Shepherd for Leslie Shepard (pp. 12, 50, 212); and the '1658 production of The Witch of Edmonton' (an unlikely date!), that being the year the play was printed, rather than 1621 when it was staged (p. 104). Elsewhere we have 'dispelling the myth that broadsides were not enjoyed by the lower classes alone' (p. 10; presumably 'not' is redundant), or 'set to a comparatively small number of tunes [...] despite the hundreds of broadside publishers had at their disposal' (p. 50; presumably the second 'of' should be deleted). Broadsides printed in London, we are told, were distributed far and wide (something about which, by the way, we still know annoyingly little), but that 'the processes through which melodies became collective [etc.] were entirely cosmopolitan' (p. 11; I think she must really mean 'metropolitan'). We all make mistakes and it is not particularly admirable to be picky like this, but what is going on here seems to be a symptom of something more insidious, a cavalier attitude to detail in pursuit of the new historicist project. Another example: 'The broadside ballad's heyday (1550s to the 1690s) roughly corresponds with the height of the English witch craze' (p. 50)--which might come as a surprise to Victorian consumers of broadside ballads, some of which sold in the millions, according to Henry Mayhew. It would have been better just to say that the witch craze was largely over by the time the licensing act lapsed in 1695, which certainly paved the way for developments in the print trade, but hardly the demise of the broadside ballad.

Nevertheless, Chapter 3 is on much firmer ground, offering a quite careful account of early modern descriptions of voice, language, and femininity, drawing on work on art music as well as literary and physiological commentary, drama and ballad verse. Similarly, Chapter 4 ranges over woodcuts and typography, theatrical performances and ballad performances, and finally brings us to some pertinent questions: 'can we really know how ballad street performances were received? To what extent did the various venues in which one could experience balladry cross-influence each other?' (p. 146). This is scholarship of a more sensitive kind. Behind the earlier grand claims, there is some well-documented and illuminating analysis here.

David Atkinson

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Author:Atkinson, David
Publication:Folk Music Journal
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2016
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