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Sterne and Sterneana : The political songster or, a touch on the times, on various subjects, and adapted to common tunes, the sixth edition, with...

Freeth, John 1731-1808

Sterne and Sterneana

<p style='text-align: justify;'><p>The eighteenth century witnessed considerable political upheaval, both in Britain and globally. The fast-changing nature of politics and of the figures that spear-headed its various factions was readily channelled through creative outlets themselves characterised by immediacy, rapidity, and to some degree ephemerality: from graphic satire, to pamphlets, to songs, literary and popular cultures provided contexts in which, as the subtitle to <i>The Political Songster</i> suggests, provided 'a touch on the times'.</p><p>Song collections themselves were popular productions, with numerous publications throughout the century paying testament to the lively sonic culture of the age. Those printed in book form bore an inheritance from the cheaper (a half-penny or penny), more widely dispersed broadsheet ballads on which lyrics, sometimes musical scores, and sometimes rough woodblock illustrations and decorations circulated among those of typically lower socioeconomic status. A printed book of songs, like <i>The Political Songster</i>, may have come with a somewhat heavier price-tag attached (it is 'a <i>three Shillings and Six-penny</i> Volume' [v]), but it was nonetheless closely allied with popular expressions of song found in broadsides and on the stage - the 'common tunes' to which many of its lyrics were set generally familiar, such that musical scores were not included - and the contexts of their creation and performance.</p><p> This edition of <i>The Political Songster</i> - its sixth (the first was published in 1766) - suggests the popularity of previous versions, and offers new 'additions' to attract buyers. Printed in Birmingham, the volume also indicates the widespread nature of the printing press by 1790, with provincial (i.e., non-London-based) presses thriving across the British Isles. The collection's compiler was John Freeth (1731-1808), an engraving of whose portrait serves as a frontispiece facing the title-page. Born in Birmingham, Freeth was a significant figure in the 'Midlands Enlightenment', and ran the successful Bell Tavern (later the Leicester Arms, and better known as Freeth's Coffee House) in the city for many years. Clubs and societies had formed a prominent part of social and cultural life among the tradespeople of cities such as Birmingham, as at other major British cities, and they provided a rich context for gathering material and for supplying an audience for a 'balladmonger' such as Freeth. His preface to <i>The Political Songster</i> describes the significance of such social contexts in forging and promoting his own '<i>ballad-making</i>' talents: as 'a Publican', his '<i>knack</i> of singing my own songs' has brought sociability and new customers, being 'profitable' in human and financial senses alike (iii).</p><p> Freeth suggests that his songs 'are principally adapted to the particular times in which they were written' (iii), chiefly to the political topic of the moment: both local issues and international matters - during the period of 'the American war' (iv), for instance - had supplied Freeth with subject-matter for his songs, which typically sided with one party in the debate or another. However, voicing a perhaps perennially resonant sentiment, that politicians are mostly motivated by self-interest (iv), Freeth admits that his motivation has been as much satisfying the regular demands of those who travel far and wide to hear and to buy copies of his songs as political interest. Song-writing on topical events, Freeth declares, is his 'hobby-horse', ridden for pleasure as much as for profit (iii) (on the Shandean topic of the hobby horse, compare, for instance, S721.d.79.26).</p><p>The ensuing collection, therefore, provides a wide and eclectic range of topics and styles. Some, like 'American Contest' (18-19), tackle overtly political matters, naming key figures such as 'Will Pitt' and the burden of heavy taxation faced by a nation at war. Politics and politicians feature in 'Corruption Defeated' (54-55), while 'The New Administration, in 1783' (55-56) similarly yearns for a time when 'BRITANNIA' can be steered by able and trustworthy captains at her helm, a naval metaphor which resounds with Britain's reputed military prowess at sea, and demonstrating Freeth's characteristic patriotism. Issues closer to home are addressed in 'THE PAVIERS. A BIRM—GM CANTATA' (142-43), sung to the tune of 'The Maid of the Mill for me', with the repaving of Birmingham's streets - hitherto 'all of a pudding, a pudding'. The local crowds of onlookers upon the workmen draw the songster's satirical eye, not least as they turn from curiosity to condemnation: while those for whom clean pavements will prove a benefit praise the paviers, shopkeepers and publicans, fearing damage to their cellars, 'frown'd' at the digging work. This song, with its racially loaded epithets describing the Irish workmen, acts as a reminder of the differences between social strata, and of the inherent racism in contemporary reactions to those belonging to other nationalities or religions.</p><p>This collection's investment in literary matters is less pronounced than the political interests indicated in its title. Nonetheless, one of its items, 'The Cock-Lane Ghost' (13-15), holds a loose association with Sterne - or, rather, Sterneana - being sung to the tune of 'Have you not read a book call'd Tristram Shandy, Ma'am', a particularly bawdy song that had circulated as a single sheet ballad some years previously (although the date is unknown). Freeth's song has a comical narrative thread as it tells the tale of the real-life hoax known as the Cock Lane haunting of 1762, centring on the tangled legal and romantic lives of the inhabitants of this London street and the supposed haunting of the property, which drew large crowds. Perhaps the distant connection with <i>Tristram Shandy</i>, by this choice of tune, was suggested by (or suggested) the song's concluding line, which jests at the expense of those 'Who swallow'd this COCK and BULL tale'. Cock Lane and its ghost story also find their way into another item of Sterneana, <i>The Life, Travels, and Adventures, of Christopher Wagstaff Gentleman, Grandfather to Tristram Shandy</i> (1762), which discusses the hoax with a cynical humour comparable with Freeth's (123-29) (see Oates.441). Even if Freeth's song holds only a loose link with Sterne's text, especially compared with this Sternean prose parody, its interconnection between popular culture, political topicality, and contemporary events nevertheless provides a compelling reminder of the richly divergent contexts in which even just the names of Sterne's fictional creations circulated.</p><p>Mary Newbould</p><p><b>References:</b></p><p>John Horden, 'John Freeth', revised Nicholas Benbow, <i>The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography</i> (9 March 2023)</p><p>John Horden, <i>John Freeth (1731-1808) : Political Ballad-writer and Innkeeper</i> (Oxford: Leopard's Head, 1993)</p><p>John Money, <i>Experience and Identity: Birmingham and the West Midlands, 1760-1800</i> (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1977)</p><p>Peter de Voogd, 'Ackroyd, Scola, Naughty Ballads and Welsh Bards', <i>The Shandean</i>, 4 (1992), 248-51</p></p>

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