Folk music is viewed primarily as a rural tradition where songs are passed down by word of mouth. In fact, printed folk music was extremely popular for more than four hundred years, beginning in the sixteenth century. Words to popular songs were printed on sheets of varying lengths. They came to be known as broadsides. Broadsides originally had no music but a note that the words were sung to a well known tune. Broadsides were popular in Britain, Holland, France, Italy, Spain and Germany and later in America. Interestingly, many early scholars distinguished between traditional ballads and broadsides, considering broadsides "bad representations of the original." (1)
Technically the term broadside does not refer solely to folk music. A broadside is normally considered any subject material printed only on one side of a sheet. Therefore, broadsides could also be a handbills, proclamations, advertisements, etc. Some sheets printed on both sides are still considered broadsides.
Broadsides with ballads or folk music are referred to as broadsheets, ballad sheets, stall ballads or slip songs. Early broadsides were printed in Black Letter print, and are therefore often called black-letter ballads. Around 1700 black letter typeset was replaced by roman type. Broadsides in roman type are called white letter ballads.
Before the printing press broadsides were written by hand. Before folk songs were written by hand there was a centuries-old tradition of minstrels and folk singers. As these declined and the printing press became more common, folk music transmission was channeled into broadsides. Broadsides contributed to the further decline of minstrelsy. Broadsides were, in turn, replaced by newspapers and printed sheet music.
Broadsides originally did not include music, only a note that the words were sung to a well-known tune. The sheets were often adorned with woodcuts. The sheets were sold in stalls or by traveling peddlers. People pasted the sheets on walls, logbooks and any other convenient area to learn them. When the song was familiari it was discarded or pasted over by another song.
The earliest broadsides of popular tunes appear in the 1500s. A Lytel Geste of Robyne Hood was printed on a pamphlet circa 1506. In 1520 a bookseller in Oxford sold more than 190 ballads. In an era before literacy was common their popularity was extraordinary. Beginning in 1556 England required printers to be licensed by the Stationers' Company, London. The following year the Stationers' Company required legal registration of printed ballads at four pence each. This continued through 1709 and the Company's records consist of over three thousand entries.
Broadsheets were commonly folded twice or more to make small pamphlets. These were called chapbooks; (cheap books), the dime novels of their day. The popularity of chapbooks reached its height in the eighteenth century. Chapmen were the peddlers who traveled between towns selling ballads and chapbooks. They were later sold at stalls in town markets and cities. Hence the name stall sheets.
Early collections of songs and ballads in chapbooks were known as garlands. These appear as early as 1584 in England when Richard Jones printed A Handefull of pleaseant delites, which contained the ballad Greensleeves. The term was later applied to individual poems and songs.
The nineteenth century saw a tremendous surge in the popularity of broadsides, but this was not sustained. By the early twentieth century newspapers began to replace broadsides. The popularity of singing itself declined as singing was discouraged in public houses and laws were passed restricting noise on the street.