Echoing Through Time: New Tunes for Old Words

Written by Mia RidgeOctober 28, 2022Comments: 0

When I began research for ‘Living with Machines: human stories from the industrial age’, a free exhibition at Leeds City Museum, I hadn’t imagined that the process would end with a captivating live performance of ballads from the British Library’s collections at the exhibition’s opening.

Photo of ballads in a bound volume
Slip ballads in a bound volume

The ballads were first suggested by Lucy Evans, Curator of Printed Heritage Collections, when I met up with her to look for items in the British Library’s collections. As evocative accounts of the impact of mechanisation written for working class listeners, ballads are included throughout the exhibition. They commemorate largely forgotten strikes and industrial accidents, and warn of the dangers of mechanisation – much as songs today might warn about zero hours contracts and jobs deskilled by automation and algorithms.

Rachael Dilley, Exhibitions Curator at Leeds City Museum, had the brilliant idea of asking local folk musicians to record them, and then went to work to make it happen. The recordings by Leeds-based musicians are played in a sound cone in a special section on ‘The power of stories’, which includes two paintings by Lowry, and original items from Elizabeth Gaskell and Charles Dickens. Hearing the lyrics from songs about protest and resistance brought to life with new music is a powerful experience.

You can now hear the ballads for yourself, even if you can’t get to Leeds before January 8, 2023.

We couldn’t include all the ballads we wanted to in the exhibition, and of course there are many many more waiting for their moment in the collections of the British Library. If you’re a musician looking for inspiration, the Bodleian’s Ballads Online is a great place to start!

Two men playing traditional instruments sit in front of a music stand in a museum. Instrument cases are open on the floor in front of them.
Folk singers performing the ballads at the exhibition opening

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