Paul Watt, Derek B. Scott and Patrick Spedding, eds. Cheap Print and Popular Song in the Nineteenth Century: A Cultural History of the Songster. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016. xiv + 250 pp. £75 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-107-15991-4.
The origins of this essay collection lie in the publication of Bawdy Songbooks of the Romantic Period, a four-volume work that made more widely available a large repository of popular songbooks, often known as 'songsters', that had originally been published in the 1830s and 1840s, many of which had associations with the song-and-supper clubs of late regency and early Victorian London. As the editors point out in their introduction, this edition was 'data rich' but 'context poor' (p. 1), consisting of the words to thousands of popular songs; with necessarily brief editorial apparatus and little scholarship to build on, these volumes offered only a hint of the songbooks' possible meanings and significance. The present volume, among other things, is an attempt to contextualize those songsters and offer ways to interpret them, as well as the many hundreds of similar, neglected cheap songbooks that were published in the nineteenth century.
What is immediately obvious is how very rich and under-utilized a resource songsters are for understanding a certain strand of historical pleasure in music–rich, not least because of their abundance throughout the Anglophone world. Essays in this collection consider songsters from America, England, Ireland, and Scotland, with a particularly fertile series of essays on Australian songsters. Also readily apparent is the difficulty of deciding on what exactly the object of study is here.
... across the chapters of the collection different authors seem to have quite different ideas about what songsters might be. ...
The most striking example of this definitional latitude is the inclusion of Sarah McCleave's detailed analysis of the publication history of Thomas Moore's Irish Melodies, which she claims is 'arguably the most successful songster of the nineteenth century' (p. 47). ... it is unclear what Moore's relatively expensive and elegantly engraved Melodies, aimed at an elite audience, have to do with either the songster as it is more traditionally understood or the 'cheap print' of the volume's title. ...
A similar case to McCleave's chapter can be found in Andrew Greenwood's excellent chapter on Scottish national song, which sets various national song projects, such as Robert Burns and James Johnson's Scots Musical Museum, and George Thomson's A Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs, in the context of Enlightenment theories of improvement. ... if these settings by canonical European composers can be considered as songsters, might all printed art song fall under this banner? In which case how useful a term is 'songster' if it encompasses all song in print?
Befitting a form that is complexly multimedial, reflecting both a history of print and occupying a marked but ambiguous relationship to performance, the contributors to the volume come from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds including musicologists, media studies specialists, historians, and literary scholars. Explicitly, the collection concerns song in print rather than the performance of song, but the print/performance distinction is hard to maintain, especially when many songsters seem to invoke an associated performance. ...
Associated with this spectrum of attitudes towards print and orality, several contributors invoke the term 'folk song', never naively, but to quite different ends. ... Greenwood assumes that 'national song' originated in an oral tradition that then is collected and finds its way into print.
A very different sense of folksong is offered by Graeme Smith in his discussion of Australian folksong, written in the more sceptical tradition of Dave Harker's Fakesong: The Manufacture of British 'Folksong' 1700 to the Present (Milton Keynes, 1985). ... In this account printed songsters become a key resource in the development of a national 'folk' tradition, rather than merely recording it.
We could easily account for the differences in these understandings of the role of songsters in folksong traditions by attributing them to different national contexts. The Australian and Scottish contexts are significantly different, so it should come as no surprise that songsters might have different functions in different places. Working against this argument, however, is the fact of the international circulation of song and the appearance of the same song in songsters printed throughout the Anglophone world. We get glimpses of this global transmission in some of the chapters ... What the volume lacks, but desperately needs, then, is a synthesizing introduction that can point out some of the connections and differences between the national contexts offered in each of the chapters and provide some account of them. Instead, the editors have provided a scant six-page introduction, three pages of which are dedicated to chapter summaries.
The result is an oddly doughnut-shaped collection. The individual chapters are, for the most part, excellent—helpful, informative, and interesting—but each has a relatively limited purview of their chosen subject. In order to fill the hole in the middle of the volume, these specialist perspectives need to be brought into closer conversation with each other, not to create a master narrative divorced of local context, but to clarify in a more nuanced way what songsters are, how they originated and developed, and what their functions might be, with multiple contexts in view. The editors are absolutely right that we badly need a cultural history of the songster, but without a more robust overview, this is not quite it.