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date: 07 May 2021


  • Norm Cohen


A single sheet, cheaply printed on one side, sold or handed out on the street or in public places, or posted on walls, containing anything from political messages to advertisements to announcements of the coming end of the world to song texts. In the context of American music it is the latter type that is relevant, and the term “broadside” is often used as shorthand for a song text printed on such a sheet. (See also Sheet music.)

They were also called song sheet, penny ballad, ballet, stall ballad, vulgar ballad, or “come-all-ye,” the latter because of the common incipit. These song sheets consisted of one or several song texts arranged in one or two columns on the page, often with decorative woodcut illustrations and/or borders, publisher’s name and address, and perhaps a price. Only occasionally was an author or copyright acknowledged. Rarely was music included, because of expense; more usual was a brief notation, “To the tune of … .” The editing and assembly (and certainly the printing) of broadsides often took place at well-established print shops, but many sheets were printed at the request of a song’s author or performer, and sold by him (very few, if any, were by identifiable women) on the street, in taverns, at markets, and similar locations; or, especially after the Civil War, by mail. Most broadside printers were not well-known sheet music publishers, but many identified themselves as booksellers....

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