Songsters, “pocket-sized anthologies of popular songs,” present a vibrant cultural form common in English-speaking countries in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (1). Suggestive of music (but frequently published without musical notation), the songster is an interdisciplinary endeavor. It was created to promote singing but reads more like a collection of poems. The editors of Cheap Print and Popular Song in the Nineteenth Century: A Cultural History of the Songster, Paul Watt, Derek B. Scott, and Patrick Spedding, acknowledge the multifaceted function of these small books of songs. They are also correct in saying that the songster is an important and distinct form, one that didn’t require musical literacy of its consumers. To study this cultural artifact, one with a transnational reach, this volume gathers work from scholars in Australia, Great Britain, and the U.S. who specialize in history, media studies, and musicology.
Earlier scholars of the songster tended to explore the topic through a narrow lens. In the 1950s and 1960s, for instance, Ray B. Browne, a specialist in popular culture, focused on songsters’ lyrical poetry, especially the words of Shakespeare in nineteenth-century song, and English professor Cecil L. Paterson studied black representation in songsters. In the twenty-first century, North American scholars have asked questions that are in line with those featured in Cheap Print. Kirsten M. Schultz worked on the production and consumption of songsters in the Confederate States of America, whereas, in 2005, Norm Cohen, whose writing also appears in this book, sought to learn the origins of the songs and questioned songster distribution routes, the number of nineteenth-century songsters sold, and the buyers of this cultural product.1
Yet the editors of Cheap Print justify their volume’s publication as a response to the intellectual wasteland that is songster studies. They back this claim with a search of important journals of popular music that yielded no “articles on the cultural history of songsters” (2). The field, admittedly small, is not as barren as they suggest. Indeed, the value of this edited collection is not its appearance on the scene, but rather a transnational approach to English-language songsters and the attempt to understand the extensive influence of this once-central music product.
Beyond the introduction to Cheap Print, there are eleven chapters separated into three parts. Part 1, “Production, Function and Commerce,” brings together three articles centered on Great Britain (here including Ireland) and the U.S. The focus is on the rise and fall of the songster as a viable means of cultural production and the aesthetics and legal notions embedded in the prefaces of songsters. Books of songs were more vulnerable to technological obsolescence with the advent of recorded sound than sheet music, which provides a thorough blueprint for the technical aspects of performance. Sarah McCleave’s piece on Thomas Moore’s Irish Melodies, among the most popular songsters of the nineteenth century, is a fascinating study on publishing, creativity, fraternal relationships, and authority. The poet Moore, for instance, increasingly assumed a composer’s stance as he fired off angry letters to the editor about the error-filled proof copy he received in 1813. The absence of a B-flat to support his words “reason” and “season” in one song, he said, was as harmonious as a “Cat &Dog” (53).
The chapters in Part 2, “Politics,” span democracy and socialism in the U.S., Britain, and Australia. Songster material here covers nineteenth-century American presidential elections, the centrality of friendship to the production of socialist songsters among German refugees and British socialists, the politics of “God Save the Queen” from 1745 to 1978, and the Australian publications that captured the essence—including labor protest—of the Australian gold rush that began in 1851 in New South Wales. These explorations begin to probe the important connections between culture, society, and politics—and where songsters certainly reflect a particular milieu, so too did they help push the boundaries of social reform and debate.
Part 3, “Nation, Place and Purpose,” features three chapters. The first rethinks Scottish nationalism in the late eighteenth century. Here Andrew Greenwood argues that songsters of the Scottish lowlands reveal deep ties to cosmopolitan notions that blended with a national sense. The next chapter, “The Blackface Songster in Britain,” demonstrates a correlation of blackface minstrelsy and blackface songsters—and highlights the racial signifiers shared with the blackface tradition in the U.S. “The Girl I Left Behind Me,” a tune used by the British military, and nineteenth-century Australian songsters are the focus of the last two chapters. In the case of the latter, Graeme Smith demonstrates the influence of these songsters on the 1950s and 1960s folk song catalogue.
Cheap Print is not an exhaustive look into the global dimensions of these songbooks, a fact the editors readily acknowledge. It does however point scholars to the important and fruitful connections to be made across time and space in the study of English-language songsters. No doubt a range of interdisciplinary scholars—such as those grounded in English, popular culture, music, American studies, media studies, and more—will be interested in this volume’s focus on the nineteenth-century, culture, production, and politics.