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The British Tradition 45
Well over two hundred broadside ballads of British origin are in circulation in the United States. About half of them deal in various ways with love, many are war ballads, some are about sailors and the sea, and a good many of them tell of crimes. There are also a number of humorous broadsides, but most are either tragedies or accounts of a hero's success despite obstacles. The attitude of the balladeer is rather conservative and even puritan, and the division of characters into good and bad is simple and standardized.
Most broadsides date from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries and give a good picture of popular taste of a period. Their interest is primarily textual, for the melodies were usually not printed in the original versions. Instead, a melody already popular was often named as the one to which the new words were to be sung. Thus we cannot speak of any real unity between words and music. A few tunes were used for a great many texts, and on the other hand, new tunes were frequently introduced by individual singers if they did not know the melodies originally intended for use.
Perhaps the British broadsides make up the largest single segment in Anglo-American folk song. At any rate, they have exercised a great deal of influence on the native American broadsides, many of which, indeed, are simply derived from the British ones. The stories of the broadside ballads are not as interesting, and not as well worked out poetically, as the popular ballads or the Child ballads. The recourse to cliches is greater, the events are more predictable and are usually of little psychological significance. For example, in "The Irish Mail Robber," a youth persists, despite his father's warnings, in drinking, gambling, and maintaining bad women. Convicted of mail robbery, he is imprisoned for nine years. In "The Bold Soldier" a father threatens to kill his daughter because she wants to marry a soldier. The soldier fights her seven brothers and threatens to kill the father, but the father agrees to the marriage and, after more pressure, gives the soldier all of his wealth. Many broadsides give accounts of actual happenings, such as crimes and accidents, and thus served to spread news and to keep a record of events.