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Ballads, the printing press, and the enduring satisfaction of putting new words to old tunes
I have a story to tell you about meatballs. But first, I want to mention I’m offering a free zoom talk on February 9th about how to inspire reluctant writers. I love talking on this subject, and hope you can join me. Everyone welcome! All the details here.
Back to the meatballs:
A few weeks ago, prompted by a student poem about meatballs, I sang my Wednesday class “On Top of Spaghetti.” I didn’t teach it to them — no call and response, no singing it over and over — I just sang it once and sent them off to meet their parents. But in the parking lot, a group of kids took advantage of a sitting duck mom, stuck in her driver’s seat with the window down, and sang her the entire song, as if it were the most amazing and original and fresh invention of the human race. She listened with grace, though she too could have probably sung all the verses.
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There’s something about a song that tells a story. There’s something about setting new words to an old tune. There’s something about ballads. I’ve written about ballads before. The West’s pop song form of the last millennium, they’re really satisfying to write. All you need is a tune that repeats, a story, and maybe a line that repeats every repeat of the tune. My students take to them almost universally, writing ballads about loose teeth, cats, popcorn kernels, Stranger Things, dragons, spaceships, and every other conceivably epic thing. And yes, some of those ballads were to the tune of “On Top of Spaghetti,” aka “On Top of Old Smokey” aka who knows what other songs lost to the mists of time.
Meanwhile, the printing press
This year, we’ve been following the history of the English language. We’d just gotten to the introduction of the printing press, and I decided to tie that in with ballads, because do you know what people in Europe1 post-printing-press really liked to print, besides hugely influential texts that revolutionized society? Ballads. Long, bad, maudlin ballads about love and public executions and the hairstyles of the youth.
We talked about the mechanics of the printing press, then carved block prints, which seemed like the closest process we could do in class. Block prints also work in reverse, and the transfer of the ink from roller to block to paper is similar. Also, lots of broadsides have woodblock print illustrations.
Broadside ballads, Frog Hollow style
Then we tied it all together by printing our block prints on big pieces of newsprint and writing our ballads below them. (Handwritten, ironically.) The broadsides turned out pretty amazing, and it felt satisfying to integrate so many things into one big lesson.
The super cool broadside ballad lesson components:
Sing some ballads, preferably some old, dark ones about love and death, like Lord Randal, Barbara Allen etc.
Talk about ballad form: repeating tunes, choruses, stories.
Think about which pop songs you know might be ballads.
Write your own ballads.
Talk about the history of printing, starting in China, and how it took hundreds of years to seep over to Europe.
Talk about printing presses, and how the printing press changed how information could spread. For older students, you can tie this in with talking about how that revolutionized European culture, including leading to the Reformation.
Talk about how once you could make a lot of copies of things quickly and easily, broadsides became a thing — especially broadside ballads.
Make a block print to illustrate your ballad.
Print a print of your block print on big cheap paper, and write your ballad next to it. Make a few copies if you want to!
Sing your ballad everywhere loudly.