Frisky songsters uncovered

Bawdy Illustration

Engraved bawdy plates

The discovery of rare song books from 19th century England is set to completely redefine our understanding of popular culture and slang.

Dr Patrick Spedding from the School of English, Communications and Performance Studies and Dr Paul Watt from the School of Music – Conservatorium have lead an international team of scholars to produce the first ever edition of little-known songbooks that have been lying dormant in the British Library for more than 150 years.

“Collectors have been searching for bawdy songbooks like these for almost two hundred years. And scholars have spent decades trying to get into the British Library’s Private Case [their collection of erotica], hoping to find them there. But in the end, we found these songbooks tucked away in the main collection – hidden in plain sight,” said Dr Spedding.

Unbeknownst to bibliographers, collectors and scholars, fifty of these songbooks have been hiding in the British Library since 1888, invisible, ironically, because they were not in the Private Case.

The songs in these books were sung all over London, but were forced off the streets at the start of the Victorian period and have been effectively lost ever since. Songbooks continued to be printed in tiny numbers on the sly for those who were already familiar with the tunes. These booklets were printed in a small format so they could be hidden in a pocket, memorised and passed around or thrown away.

One important aspect of this collection of books is the slang. In the 19th century there were whole groups of affluent young men who prided themselves on their obscure “flash language”, but the slang had since been lost. These songbooks provide an amazing record of this language and are bound to extend our knowledge of popular music and theatre in many unexpected ways.

At the same time, a study of the songs’ composers, singers, parodies, place of performance and subject matter provide new insights into the musical life of early- to mid-nineteenth century London.

“These songs have never been studied in any detail before, and bringing them into a modern scholarly edition with a comprehensive apparatus makes this one of the most important reference works in 19th century music to be published in a generation,” Dr Watt said.

Dr Spedding and Dr Watt proved to have the perfect partnership in leading this team of editors. Both have editorial backgrounds and expertise in literary history and musicology: Dr Spedding in 18th century literature and erotica, and Dr Watt in 19th-century music. Drs Spedding and Watt are also members of Monash University’s British Music Research Group.

“Being able to hear these songs again – being able to study the texts – will transform our understanding of popular entertainment, popular music, music halls, and the theatre,” said Dr Spedding.

To purchase a copy of these books visit the Pickering and Chatto Publishers site.