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How the Ballad Singer Lost Her “Woice”

How the Ballad Singer Lost Her “Woice”

(p.15) Chapter 1 How the Ballad Singer Lost Her “Woice”
London Voices, 1820-1840
Oskar Cox Jensen
University of Chicago Press

Compared to their better remunerated peers on the stage, with whom they shared much of their repertoire, the ballad singers of the London streets were obscure figures, their names and biographies rarely recorded. Yet the number of “notices” their performances received (from journalists, magistrates, antiquarians) is remarkably high. These require a different form of reading to stage reviews, as their negativity is as consistent as their rhetorical tropes. This chapter takes as its basis the scores of accounts of nineteenth-century ballad singers’ voices found in journalism, life-writing, anecdotes, antiquarianism, fiction, trial reports, and beyond. While there is something to be gained from following Pierre Bourdieu in construing these accounts as strategies of “distinction,” my chapter attempts to move beyond that paradigm: both to uncover some sense of the “real” voice of individual singers and the performative decisions made in response to the particular conditions of the street; and to locate further reasons for the aggressive tone of these descriptions, finding them above all in the provocation of singers’ performances in an age of political agitation and campaigns to extend the franchise, freighting the idea of the voice of the streets with newly democratic meaning.

Keywords:   ballad singer, street, distinction, itinerant, voice, character, class, noise, taste, style

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