Bawdy ballads: Meet The Carnival Band

This summer The Carnival Band bring the Big Ballads Project to East London telling the stories of a cast of unusual characters through the songs of the day, 17th-century ballads. Full of scandal, gossip and intrigue, balladeers were the tabloid journalists of their time, so come and get behind the headlines 1600s style. We’ve been speaking to Andy Watts from The Carnival Band to find out more about what to expect.

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For people who are new to The Carnival Band and your work, could you introduce yourself?

The Carnival Band started life 30 years ago as an offshoot of touring theatre company The Medieval Players. We wanted to to inject early music with a hefty dose of the energy and spontaneity that the actors had. One of the ways we set about it was to throw ‘authenticity’ out of the window and use guitars, bass and drums alongside shawms, fiddles and cittern. The other angle was to draw on the rich supply of world music and traditional music that was becoming widely available back then. Over the years we’ve worked with musicians with backgrounds in contemporary music, jazz, folk-rock as well as early music and folk. We like to explore boundaries and areas where different musics meet. Funnily enough, a lot of people seem to think that when it comes to early music we hit the nail on the head, but we don’t think of ourselves as an early music band. We’re a band that happens to play early music.

Your performance this June is all about ballads – but perhaps not in a way that people are used to. Can you tell us more?

Today a ballad is a certain type of pop song – usually a bit slow, tuneful, perhaps particularly associated with country music. Back in the 17th century it could be any type of song that was printed on what’s known as a black-letter broadside and would be sold on the street for a penny. There was a huge ballad industry and it’s really the beginnings of urban commercial popular music. The topics included love, politics, religion, folk-tales, crime, warfare. They also seemed to function a bit like tabloid newspapers today in their range of subjects. Mostly the music was not printed, but there would be a direction ‘to the tune of Packington’s Pound’ for example, and these were the popular tunes of the today (folk tunes if you like, though some were art songs by composers like Purcell) and everyone knew them. Eventually some of the ballads went into oral tradition and many survived by word of mouth into the 20th century.

The tunes are fantastic…You can feel the energy and vitality of 17th century London. We just love them!

This performance is part of your Big Ballads Project? What is it about them that interest you and the group?

The Big Ballads Project is a research project being carried out by Professor Chris Marsh of Queen’s University Belfast and Dr Angela McShane of the V&A. They are trying to establish which of the thousands of ballads that were printed in the 17th century were the most popular – and they have produced a top 100 – a 17th-century hit parade! (They have their methods which I won’t go into here, but Chris will be presenting our gig so you can ask him afterwards.) So thanks to them, we have the privilege of being able to explore the best popular music of the 17th century – and boy is it good! Even the satirical political ballads whose texts take a bit of explanation, are full of with and vigour – a sort of musical Private Eye. The tunes are fantastic. The words are coming from the street. You can feel the energy and vitality of 17th-century London (and it was a London-based industry). We just love them!

Do you have a favourite ballad or character?

Favourite ballads – very hard. On the love-song front The Nightingale’s Song is a delicious ballad of seduction whose climax (in more than one sense) is when the nightingale finally sings. Titus Andronicus is the same story as Shakespeare’s most bloody tragedy and send shivers up my spine every time we do it. Not for the faint-hearted. Palmus and Sheldra is a comic song about a ferryman and a shepherdess who fancy each other but they can never get it together. In the end he’s drowned at sea – but ends up living happily with the mermaids and the tune (Shackley Hey) is pure music-hall.

What do you hope that people who come and hear the concert will take away from it?

I hope that people will be amazed by the variety of the ballads, their tunefulness, their imaginative language (which is easily understood by a modern audience – this is not Shakespeare and Milton!) and their immediacy. I want them to hear the voices of everyday 17th-century Londoners. These ballads have brought that era alive for me in a way that no other songs from the period have, and I just want to share that experience.

The Carnival Band
Thursday 11 June, 6.30pm
Shoreditch Church (St Leonard’s)
See and hear the 1600s come alive >>


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