This product was added to our catalog on Saturday 09 January, 2010.
allad sheets were a significant line for most cheap-print publishers; their location in the list of items offered by J. Wrigley in his self-advertisement at the bottom of this one shows their importance to his business: "Publisher of Songs, Ballad's, and Toy Books, Conversation, Age, and Small Playing Cards, Alphabet Wood Blocks, Valentines, Motto Verses, and Cut Motto Paper, &c." Like his New-York competitor, de Marsan, Wrigley's ballad-sheet house style was based on crude but attractively bold pictorial border elements which could be swapped in or out to complement—or sometimes completely ignore—the text of the song they frame. The borders chosen for LISTEN TO THE MOCKING BIRD, an 1855 song by "Alice Hawthorne" (one of the pen names of Septimus Winner, a popular composer and music publisher) are basically theatrical, with a pair of cherubs or fairies at top and bottom and a pair of side elements representing a balcony-scene serenade. Readers of Little Women can see here what Jo had in mind for her amateur theatrical!
The principal use of ballad sheets was, of course, to learn and/or sing songs from; then as now, not everyone had a good memory. Ballad sheets allowed purchasers to either learn a song in the privacy of their own chambers (or tent) and then spring it on the rest of the crowd at an after-dinner social gathering, the oyster rooms, or around the camp-fire; or to just sing the song with sheet in hand to help a defective memory (in the Irish tradition, when a singer gets stuck in the middle of a song, we say "there's a hole in the ballad"!).
But these sheets also had an important secondary use: they were cheap decor. While especially true of illustrated ballads (like this one), even sheets with nothing but words were pasted or pinned up in public and private rooms as mirthful or improving decoration. Mr. M'Dermott has seen ballad sheets pasted inside trunk lids, books, instrument cases, portfolios and such; doubtless they were stuck up in winter quarters, and they might well have been pasted inside the odd knapsack. Other locations for this item, folded up, are in the corner of a knapsack, stuck into the sweatband of your cap or hat, or in the wallet. They have served as impromptu letter paper when nothing better was to hand, and can again. While these ballad sheets are quintessential ephemera—cheap when bought, and not likely to survive very long—Mr. M'Dermott has been lucky enough over the years to see two examples of what mid-19C purchasers did to keep their prized clutch of ballads handy: one sheaf was pinned with a straight pin along the long side; another had been sewn together with thread, like a side-sewn pamphlet: a home-made "song book."
A word should be said about this particular song: although it is not printed in dialect it is clearly a minstrel song; this can be divined from the "cotton fields" of the third verse....but more interestingly from the combination of a very sad text with a very jolly tune. This seems odd and slightly shocking to us—whatever the "meaning" may have been to mid-19C minds it was a feature of many minstrel songs, and rarely found outside the genre. You are now able to purchase and download this song peformed in correct style, by Mr. M'Dermott himself:
Link to downloadable performance.