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A Penny for a Song

Broadsides Give a Glimpse of Nineteenth-Century Popular Culture

By Phoebe Prioleau | HUMANITIES, September/October 2004 | Volume 25, Number 5

Folklorist Kenneth S. Goldstein scoured antique stores, private sales, and trade shows--any place with old paper, his wife says--with one goal in mind: to locate broadsides. Thin, inexpensive sheets with lyrics printed on one side, broadsides sold for a penny on the street and made popular songs available to the musically illiterate masses. By the early 1990s, Goldstein possessed a cultural treasure: nearly 3,300 song broadsides, the bulk of which date from 1840 to 1880.

Goldstein sold the collection to the Center for Popular Music at Middle Tennessee State University in 1995, one year before his death. With NEH support, the Center recently embarked on a two-year project to digitize and catalog the broadsides and display them online.

A scholar, professor, and renowned folklorist, Goldstein started his own publishing company, authored or edited seven books, and wrote thirty articles on themes such as folk art, riddles, and bawdy monologs.

Goldstein studied the way folk songs are passed on, and discovered that they are transmitted not only through oral tradition, but also in the form of broadsides. While conducting his folk song research, he ultimately amassed the largest private collection of broadsides in the country.

The broadsides offer a glimpse of the popular culture of the era. Whereas sheet music sold for twenty-five to sixty cents a copy and was meant for the instrument-owning upper class, broadsides were affordable to everyone. At medicine shows, broadsides with advertisement lyrics were distributed free of cost.

According to Paul Charosh, a scholar of American folk music, broadsides were for those too poor to buy printed sheet music and those who "liked and sang popular songs but couldn't play a musical instrument."

Ranging from bawdy to patriotic to racist, broadsides help scholars understand the popular sensibilities of the nineteenth century. "Hoops," a song from the 1860s set to the melody of "King of the Cannibal Islands," addresses a humorous fashion crisis. The first verse begins,

"Now Crinoline is all the rage with ladies of whatever age, / A petticoat made like a cage--oh what a ridiculous fashion! / 'Tis framed with hoops and bars of steel, or tubes of air which lighter feel, / and worn by girls to be genteel, or if they've figures to conceal."

Other broadsides poke fun at ethnic groups. A parody of Stephen Foster's "My Old Kentucky Home," called "My Good Old Irish Home" was sung to Foster's tune. African Americans were frequently the subject of mockery. "The Heart Bowed Down" and "De Lip Hang Down" were caricatures that propagated offensive racial stereotypes; the second song was performed by minstrels in blackface.

Most broadsides are in poor condition today, in part because they were manufactured on low-quality paper. Owners rarely took good care of their song lyrics: they tacked them on trees, folded them, and placed in their pockets. For this reason, it is difficult to examine the works today without damaging them further. The Center for Popular Music's project to digitize the 3,300 sheets ensures that broadsides will be widely accessible once again.

About the Author

Phoebe Prioleau was an intern at NEH.

Funding Information

The Center for Popular Music at Middle Tennessee State University in Mufreesboro received $46,636 in NEH support for the digitization and cataloging online of Goldstein's collection of nineteenth-century song broadsides. The center's website can be found at popmusic.mtsu.edu.