The Immersive Turn: Or, what did a seventeenth-century drinking song sound like?

Mark Hailwood

I know what you are thinking: isn’t it about time for yet another historical ‘turn’? Well, you’re in luck! I think there is a really interesting one already underway in early modern studies, quietly coming together from a number of different approaches and without, as yet, a clear sense of itself. I want to give it an identity, and I’m going to start by giving it a name: the ‘immersive turn’. But I’m open to suggestions.

What I mean by this is a growing desire on the part of early modern historians to try to recover a more multi-dimensional, multi-sensory feel for the period than we conventionally derive from an analytical reading of written sources: a search for the texture of the past, not just its texts. What prompted me to pull together this line of thought into a blog post was the recent attempt by students at De Montford to create a virtual version of seventeenth-century London before the Great Fire of 1666. It is worth a look, if you haven’t seen it already.

Pudding Lane Productions (http://puddinglanedmuga.blogspot.co.uk/century) have created a virtual 17th century London.

It seems to me that the interest generated by this project is a symptom of the fact that early modern historians are increasingly attracted to the idea of ‘immersing’ ourselves more fully in the physical and sensory aspects of the world that we study: the emergence of the study of material culture, increased attention to visual sources, to ‘space’, and to the history of the senses, might all be seen as part of this same process.

Pre-Reformation worship recreated (http://reformation.modhist.ox.ac.uk/index.html)

Pre-Reformation recreated

There have been recent attempts to recreate pre-and post-Reformation church interiors, and experiences of worship, for instance, and popular history books and TV shows taking the form of ‘Time Travellers’ Guides’ invite their readers and viewers to imagine the sights and smells one would encounter on entering a medieval or early modern city. All of these approaches invite us to imaginatively transport ourselves into the shoes of our early modern ancestors, and to concentrate on the immediate experience of sights, sounds and material surroundings.

These ‘immersive’ approaches have influenced my own work, especially in relation to the seventeenth-century drinking songs that I use to examine alehouse culture in the period. I don’t just mean that I get drunk and try singing them in the pub—although, we’ll come back to that—but rather that to understand the meanings of such songs it is important to think about the ways in which they were performed. It might be easy for a historian, sat alone at their desk quietly reading such a song, to misjudge the tone of its meaning, a tone that was informed by its tune, and also the manner and context in which it was actually sung, aloud, communally.

Singers in an alehouse window - hardly the same environment as sitting at my desk.

Singers in an alehouse window – hardly the same environment as sitting at my desk.

I developed a few thoughts on this in a short article for The Appendix, a new journal that embraces these new types of immersive and experimental history. You can read it for free here, and it would make sense to do so before reading on…. but, if you don’t have the time or inclination, here is the nub of it: I argue that it is important to think about how performance might influence the meaning of a seventeenth-century drinking ballad, and I applaud some recent attempts to recreate ballad performances. But I think they can misrepresent the tone in which such songs would have been sung.

For instance, take a moment to listen to EBBA’s recording of the drinking ballad, A Messe of Good Fellows, by clicking here.

A Messe of Good Fellows (© British Library)

A Messe of Good Fellows (© British Library)

It’s helpful to hear it put to a tune, but surely the tone would be a little more raucous if performed by a company of intoxicated good fellows bellowing it out from the alebench?

A bit more raucous - a bit more like it...

A bit more raucous. A bit more like it?

Indeed, I suggest in the article that a modern-day football song – with a well-known tune, repetitive chorus, and an inebriated collective of (mostly) men – might actually come closer to capturing how such drinking songs would have been experienced in the alehouse. In case you haven’t had the pleasure of experiencing terrace tunefulness first hand, click here. I’ve tried to pick a relatively inoffensive one, but apologies to residents of Cardiff.

In response to the article I also received a suggestion from Phil Edwards, a Lecturer in Criminology at Manchester Met and an enthusiastic folk musician, that present day folk singing – often pub-based and communal – might be a closer descendent of the seventeenth-century alehouse song. I expect many historians would probably agree, but it is still a bit too sanitised and orderly for what I imagine performance would have actually sounded like. See what you think by listening to this ballad singaround recorded by Phil.

Are folk singarounds the key?

Are folk singarounds the key?

I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on which style of performance you think is most effective at ‘transporting’ us into the experiential world of our early modern forebears, but more importantly, I suppose, I’d like to know whether you think this little experiment in ‘immersion’ is a worthwhile exercise at all. Is attempting to recreate the sounds, or the smells, or the sights/sites, of the early modern past allowing just a little too much imagination into the historical process? It is undoubtedly an imprecise science, and we will never be able to capture with any certainty the tone of ballad performances – which no doubt varied immensely anyway. Is it therefore likely to be as often misleading as illuminating? A bit of fun perhaps – a harmless thought experiment to fill a coffee break – but not to be taken as a serious part of the historian’s craft? Or is the ‘immersive turn’ the next big thing, a way of bringing history to life that can enhance the understanding of both academic historians and non-academics alike?

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18 thoughts on “The Immersive Turn: Or, what did a seventeenth-century drinking song sound like?

  1. I have to agree that a football chant or, at best, a boozy folk sing-along seem more likely to be a truly ‘immersive’ recreation of most 17th-century ballads. Still, having the songs available on EBBA is an important step in the right direction.

    If you are looking for a more ‘authentic’ recreation of an early modern aural experience, I’d recommend the Virtual Paul’s Cross Project, which ‘uses visual and acoustic modeling technology to recreate the experience of John Donne’s Paul’s Cross sermon for November 5th, 1622’. It includes the noises of the city and the crowd, as well as an attempt at 17th-century pronunciation. It’s all available here: http://vpcp.chass.ncsu.edu

    On the other hand, the ‘immersive turn’ should surely be about more than just sounds? Serena Dyer has a fascinating post on the power of re-enactment as an academic research tool (http://wp.me/p2GOmZ-4O). Indeed, one of my favourite regular bloggers is Ian Dicker, a reenactor who posts at The 1640s Picturebook, trying to get at the heart of what it what the ‘lived experience’ of the English Civil War: http://the1642goodwyfe.wordpress.com

    So maybe we need to spend more time dressing up in doublets and drunkenly wailing broadside ballads?

    • Indeed! That is partly why I am unconvinced by many of the recreations attempted so far. In all seriousness, I think it is important to experience them whilst intoxicated to get closer to the way they would have been experienced.

  2. I would call it – or at least say it is very much related to – multimodality and social semiotics. It’s an approach which is widely used in studies of the (so-called) ‘new media’, and is gradually reaching backwards. We have some early modernists at my institution as well as me (a medievalist *waves*). Although the multimodal approach very much reflects what is already being done in the field – as you describe – where it differs is that it offers a much wider range than individual chunks of history (or disciplines, or media, or anything else): it is applicable to the bigger picture. Therefore the same techniques that can be used to analyse interactions on gay men’s dating websites can be used for children’s books on the first day of school, beat poets, medieval manuscripts and much, much more. (No, I didn’t make up those examples.) It also places the reader (receiver, interpreter) in the driving seat. If you want any specific reading pointers feel free to contact me – let’s keep in touch!

    • Thanks for this Kate. It sounds like an interesting methodology – from what I can tell from a quick scan of your blog – and I think a growing sensitivity to the performative nature of many, if not most, early modern printed forms is part of what I am talking about. It sounds like your techniques are primarily focused on more interesting ways of approaching _texts_ though: do you also think there is a growing interest in your field in studying non-textual ‘performances’ or experiences with these techniques?

      • Oh yes! Plenty on gesture, art, and of course music. Email me – I’ll point you in some interesting directions 🙂
        (The use of _text_ is in its widest sense – remember its etymology…)

  3. Do we know that ballads were sung collectively, or if and if so, how drunk the singers were ? I agree that there is probably little to learn from modern English folk singing, but perhaps we should look across the Atlantic at Virginia and the American tradition. One of the key differences between the English folk song tradition and the American tradition is that the Americans are open and value the printed sources for their songs, while the Thompson unpublished PhD thesis suggests that English singers pretended they didn’t use them (but did). We assume that most songs were, or were derived from printed ballads (and those that were not are unrecoverable). Sources refer to ballad singers advertising the latest songs they were selling. Did they also perform in alehouses, in the same way that news sheets were stuck up there and read? Most communities and pubs have a recognised singer rather than singing collectively.

    • Thanks for this Neil, some interesting thoughts and questions. There is some evidence that ballad sellers peddled their wares by performing them in alehouses (where they would often have been staying overnight if they were traveling along trade routes), and there is evidence that ballads were indeed pasted up on the walls. It is hard to know if the ballads sold and displayed there were definitely drinking songs, but it certainly seems likely – and the words of many of the ballads themselves clearly indicate that they should be performed in alehouses (with lines calling for the tapster to bring more beer, or making reference to settling the ‘score’ with the alehousekeeper). It is also common for them to take on a collective voice, e.g. ‘we here are good fellows all’, ‘go fetch us another pot’, which indicate they were intended to be sung collectively. There is more on all of these issues in my book, but unfortunately it is not out yet!

      On your final point, it brought to my mind the description of pub singing in Lark Rise to Candleford. Here, each individual has their own repertoire of songs, which they lead, with the others joining in for the chorus. This might suggest a greater role for the individual singer than my football chant example, but perhaps still a collective dimension rather than a clear separation between a recognised singer and a passive audience.

  4. I think ‘immersive turn’ is a pretty good name, and although it’s hardly new (‘living history’ and ‘experimental archaeology’ have been going on for ages, for example) I think you are right that it is gaining wider acceptance by scholars. I would like to hear what people think about immersive techniques for teaching history; is it just for TV programmes, or can it be brought into the classroom, and if so, how? Mark, have you ever taken a seminar down to the pub with a ballad and tuning fork in hand?

    • I haven’t yet, but I am making plans to organise a pub-based ballad sing-along (though with colleagues rather than students). My inclination would be to say that these techniques are great for teaching. I certainly think playing some of the recordings from this post, or getting students to look at the virtual London site, are a way of generating enthusiasm – though I tend to use them to get students to think about the problems of interpreting ‘lived experience’ rather than a way of teaching them ‘what life was like’.

  5. The obvious awkward question is – does the immersive turn have to assume that our senses, experiencing these recreations, are fundamentally similar to those of the 17th century person? That we listen, hear and smell similarly? I think one of the implications of Christopher Marsh’s Music – and much other work – is that we don’t. Which is absolutely not to undermine the value of recreation and immersion!

    • Thanks for this Laura, it is a really interesting and difficult question. I think it becomes even more pertinent when we add intoxication into the mix – even if we were to assume that our sensory experiences are similar to those of people in the seventeenth century (which I am not at all sure about), could we be sure that alcohol effected them in a similar way to us? [In fact, one of my first blog posts asked – albeit flippantly – whether the experience of a hangover was historically constant: https://manyheadedmonster.wordpress.com/2012/07/18/an-ahistorical-headache/ ]

      Part of this is down to the relative strengths of ale and beer then and now (and then it was often highly variable, so two pints on one occasion would have had a different effect to two pints on another), but it is also more complicated than this – differing diets then and now may have been important; the regular intake of small beer on a daily basis may have increased tolerance to alcohol; and anthropologists suggest drunkenness is to a certain extent a learned form of social behaviour and not simply a chemical reaction anyway.

      So, whilst I think that in theory attempting to recreate drinking ballads after a few pints would be more authentic than performing them sober, the very notion of trying to recreate the seventeenth-century experience of intoxication is fraught with problems. That said, I think the value of trying – and this could apply to all forms of immersion and recreation – lies as much in raising our awareness and understanding of those problems as it does capturing anything ‘authentic’ about past experiences.

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