Before the advent of newspapers (which first appeared in English around 1620) a popular way of disseminating information was via a broadsheet (also known as a broadside) - a single piece of paper, printed on one side, often containing news, woodcut illustrations, ballads and rhymes.
They first appeared in the sixteenth century and were sold for as little as a penny. The ballads on these sheets were sung in the streets, taverns and theatres, in an attempt to attract customers. They could be viewed in the same way that tabloid newspapers are today, containing stories of scandal, gossip, murder trials and other major news of the day, along with more light-hearted (and bawdy) content. They were set to popular tunes of the period, many of which have survived to the present day.
So it was with great interest that I went along to Doctor Johnson's House in London on Thursday 14 March to see Have I got News for Thee! - a performance by Lucie Skeaping and Douglas Wootton, which recreated some of these ballads, using the music and lyrics taken from original broadsheets of the time.
I'd never been to Doctor Johnson's House before; an interesting venue, it was the home of the writer Samuel Johnson, from 1748 to 1759. It is situated in a small, pedestrianised, L-shaped court, off some small alleyways not far from Fleet Street.
The performance took place in a room at the very top of the five story house. Lucie (who presents The Early Music Show on BBC Radio 3, as well as performing early music in a number of groups, notably The City Waites, and has also written on the subject) talked the audience through the history of Broadside Ballads (as they were known), using a set of around fifty slides to illustrate many points of note.
Interspersed throughout, we were treated to performances of many of the ballads, sung by Lucie and accompanied by Douglas Wootton on Lute and Cittern (who also took vocal charge on a number of the songs). Audience participation was encouraged and we soon found ourselves singing along with Lucie and Douglas, which was all very enjoyable.
Not always was the choice of song to accompany the lyrical content particularly appropriate, given the context of the news story being related. One such (unintentionally amusing) example that Lucie gave of this was the ballad entitled 'The barbarous and bloody son who shot his father as he was going into the church', a news story of an actual event, which was sung to the tune of 'I love you dearly'! Below is a facsimile of that original broadside (apologies for the poor quality - this was hard to find!) and, if you want to know how it sounded, a recording of the ballad can be heard here (not performed by Lucie by the way!).
It was also rather interesting to learn that the reason we have as much knowledge as we do about these ballads in England is because a small number of significant individuals in society chose to collect them, most notably the diarist Samuel Pepys, who had amassed a collection of some 1800 or more during his lifetime!
After the performance ended there was a drinks (and sandwiches) reception with Lucie, Douglas and all attendees in one of the rooms on the floor immediately below and a chance to buy Lucie's book on the subject or one of her CDs. Or indeed to simply have a chat. But sadly I couldn't participate, as I was going away for the weekend the next day and still had some things to do back home, so headed straight off to my station. Otherwise I'd have loved to.
The house has a modest programme of events but it is open to the public every day bar Sundays and Bank Holidays. I'd like to go back at some point and explore this fine old house in more detail.