In the sixteenth century, typesetters began
to print and sell folk songs on individual sheets of paper, a practice that quickly became common throughout Western Europe and, a little over a century later, in the Americas. A broadside is anything printed on only one side of a sheet, from handouts to advertisements, and so these printed folk songs quickly became known as broadside ballads or, simply, broadsides.
The earliest examples of broadside ballads did not include the music, only a note
mentioning the title of the familiar tune to which the words could be sung. One of the earliest English examples, a Robin Hood ballad called “A Lytel Geste of Robyne Hood,” dates to the ﬁrst decade of the sixteenth century. By 1520, broadside ballads had become so popular that a bookseller in Oxford sold nearly 200 of them.
By 1556, English law stated that all printers had to be licensed through the Stationers’ Company in London. In 1557, the Stationers’ Company began a copyright service that required legal registration of printed ballads at 4 pence each. For the length of time that this registration was in force, through 1709, the company’s records reveal more than 3,000 entries.
Broadside ballads could be purchased not only from booksellers but from traveling peddlers and at market stalls. As a result, they were also known as stall ballads. Many of the broadsides were illustrated with woodcuts and pinned up on walls. Once a song was learned, it could be pasted over with a new broadside.
Broadside ballads also were used for advertisements, as souvenirs, and as decorations in homes and pubs. In his book The Compleat Angler (1653), Izaak Walton described “an honest ale-house, where we shall ﬁnd a cleanly room, lavender in the windows, and twenty ballads stuck about the wall.”
After their popularity waned in the eighteenth century, broadsides made a brief return to fame during the nineteenth century. They faded into obscurity at the turn of the twentieth century, when they were replaced by professionally printed sheet music and newspapers.