In the 17th century, a book was a relatively expensive luxury, but single-sheet printed items were much more widely affordable. One particularly popular form was the broadside ballad, each containing a song that might be funny, scandalous, politically charged, or perhaps all of those at once. These printed ballads continue a long oral tradition of popular song, and while they rarely include musical notation, they usually indicate that they are to be sung to the tune of a well-known folksong.
Houghton holds more than a thousand 17th century broadside ballads, and images of them, together with those from other major collections in the US and UK, can be found at the English Broadside Ballad Archive (EBBA). EBBA presents more than just images, however—the ballads have been transcribed for easier reading and searching, and some include recordings so that you can hear how they would have been sung on the streets of London centuries ago.
Houghton From Home is a series of posts highlighting our digitized collections. For more items from across the Harvard Library, visit Harvard Digital Collections.