Song broadsides (sometimes also called song sheets, song slips, or slip ballads) were a common and inexpensive means through which popular songs and ballads were commercially disseminated throughout Northern and Western Europe, and the lands colonized by people from these areas, from the sixteenth to the early twentieth centuries. Broadsides normally contained only lyrics, as simple text was much easier and cheaper to typeset and print than was musical notation. Thus, whereas sheet music consumers were musically literate and possessed some degree of education and presumably some means, the audience for broadsides consisted of music-lovers who occupied a lower position on the social and economic ladder. Where a single piece of sheet music might sell for 25-60¢ a copy, broadsides sold for a penny. Sheet music was sold in music stores; broadsides in news stalls and bookstores, or at circuses, minstrel shows, medicine shows, political rallies, temperance meetings, and vaudeville performances. Sheet music was intended to be profitable; broadsides were so cheap that they sometimes functioned as promotional items for merchandisers of various sorts.
Sheet music was meant for the piano in the parlor; broadsides for the pocket. It was common practice for purchasers of sheet music to collate their collections and have them bound in handsome volumes (often with the owner’s name in gilt lettering on the cover) that lay in elegant repose on the music rack of the parlor piano. Broadsides rarely were accorded such pride of ownership. As a result relatively few survived, and they are quite rare today. Out of a total of approximately 65,000 items in the Center for Popular Music’s sheet music collection (in which the broadsides are included), there are only approximately 3,300 broadsides. The Kenneth S. Goldstein Collection of American Song Broadsides was assembled over a period of ten years through active, aggressive collecting on the part of the late Kenneth Goldstein, one of the country's leading folklorists. At the time it was acquired by the Center for Popular Music in 1994 it was believed to be the largest private collection of such items in the country. It includes the products of more than 160 publishers.
The typical format of a song broadside is simple in design, consisting of a single sheet of paper with the lyrics of one or two songs (occasionally more) printed within a decorative border. They are of fairly consistent size (about 6" x 9") and are printed on inexpensive, thin paper. Most are black on white but some of the most interesting include color, either hand-tinted or printed. Most broadsides carry no publication date, but the items in the Goldstein Collection range from the late eighteenth to the early twentieth centuries, with the bulk falling roughly between 1840 and 1880. The size and relative uniformity of the materials makes the collection an ideal candidate for an efficient scanning and digitization project.
Song broadsides provide a window through which modern researchers can glimpse the musical tastes of everyday Americans of the nineteenth century. Many broadsides were text-only editions of the popular songs that were also available in sheet music form from music publishers, while others contain items that were published in no other medium. Numerous older traditional ballads were printed in broadside form, as were contemporary narrative songs that documented natural disasters, battles, political events, tragic accidents, and other aspects of daily life. Some broadsides include an indication of the melody to which the lyrics were supposed to be sung, but most did not. Purchasers were assumed to know the correct melody, or, as in the case of traditional folk singers, to supply one that they already knew and that was metrically appropriate. Often the songs on broadsides were parodies of well-known songs: e.g. “My Good Old Irish Home,” intended to be sung to the tune of “My Old Kentucky Home” by Stephen Foster.
However, the importance of broadsides is not limited to popular music historians. Folklorists have long recognized that broadsides occupy a crucial nexus between oral tradition and print. Though their heyday ended in the nineteenth century, broadsides continued to be an important form of dissemination in the South well into the twentieth century. Musicians such as Kentuckians J.W. Day and Dick Burnett sold printed "ballets" (i.e. ballads printed in broadside form), sometimes of older songs, and sometimes of their own compositions about important events such as murders or hangings. Much of the repertoire of the first generations of country music performers, and later ones with strong ties to tradition, can ultimately be traced to broadsides.
Because much of the song material contained in broadsides was topical in nature, these documents are also of importance to social and cultural historians. Tragedies, disasters, political campaigns, wars, battles, popular trends, and social movements were all chronicled and disseminated via broadsides. The song, “Hoops No. 2. What a Ridiculous Fashion,” issued by Andrews, in New York, illustrates the sort of social commentary that one can find in the songs published on broadsides. It was to be sung to the tune of the nineteenth-century popular song, “King of the Cannibal Islands.” The lyrics of this item describe in light humor the fashion of ladies wearing large hoop petticoats, and read in part:
Now Crinoline is all the rage with ladies of whatever age,
A petticoat made like a cage—oh what a ridiculous fashion!
‘Tis framed by 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,
It makes their dresses stick far out, a dozen yards at least about,
And pleases both the thin and stout, oh, what a ridiculous fashion. This song gives insight into changes in fashion and the attitudes of those who were not pleased by the trend.
In some cases, the broadsides were published in a format that also served as stationery. Seventeen of the items in the Goldstein collection, all from the period of the Civil War, contain hand-written letters to friends and loved ones, and thus offer yet another level of documentation.
Although scholars and collectors have produced a fairly sizable body of work on the major music publishers of the nineteenth century, relatively little research has been done on the publishers of broadsides. The two industries were parallel; that is, music publishers did not publish songs in broadside form, and broadside publishers were not in the business of publishing and selling printed music. Some broadside publishers were also stationers, or printers of various other sorts of ephemeral items. Sheet music publishers and broadside publishers did apparently cooperate on some level, as some broadsides carried ads for the corresponding printed music: e.g., “The music of this song can be obtained at the store of Firth & Co., Franklin Square, N.Y.”