For a number of reasons, the English ballad and popular song have always stood in an uncomfortable relationship with traditional literary history. This is partly because ballads and songs have mostly lacked the features of single authorship, educated readership, and mainstream printing and publishing validation that have typically characterised ‘literature’ as commonly defined. This talk focuses on some of these issues through a description and discussion of a previously unknown manuscript collection of English songs and ballads in my possession that dates from 1806-08. Most extant ballads available to us are collections of old printed ballad sheets gathered by elite collectors like Samuel Pepys, or recitations transcribed by ballad collectors in the 19th and 20th centuries. The manuscript notebook that I will be discussing is, by contrast, a ‘working collection’ of songs and ballads made by a rural worker in the early 19th century for practical personal use. I will be paying close attention to the physical makeup and arrangement of the notebook (marginal notes, handwriting, ownership comments) in order to discover more about the original compiler and the context in which he was living. I will also explore the compiler's song and ballad choices and preferences (e.g. typical themes and contents) and his transcription styles and arrangements with the aim of throwing more light on how ballads were circulated, used, enjoyed, valued, shared and transmitted by relatively uneducated men and women in rural pre-industrial England.
Dr Simon Alderson was Assistant Professor in the School of English at HKU for 10 years from 1997 to 2006, and an Honorary Professor from 2006 to 2017. In the past 10 years he has run his own English business in Hong Kong, offering English writing and training services to government departments and large corporations. He has continued to pursue his intellectual interests in that time, with a particular focus on the history of the book and the material culture of texts generally, an interest which has seen him become a dedicated collector of early print and manuscript materials such as the one discussed in this talk.