The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XVIII. The Book-Trade, 1557–1625

§ 9. Ballad Writers

A humble form of literature, which provided occupation for inferior writers and work for smaller printers, was the ballad, which came forth from the press in thousands. Not the old narrative ballads of oral tradition, but their debased descendants, topical street ballads—sentimental ditties in amorous, moral, or satirical vein; story of horrid crime or monstrous birth; relation of disaster by fire or flood; or any other popular excitement of the hour: in short, any peg upon which could be hung a jingling rime or doleful ditty served for a ballad, and “scarce a cat can look out of a gutter,” it was said, “but presently a proper new ballad of a strange sight is indited.” Yet, in spite of the vast number which were printed, these ephemeral sheets have perished almost as completely as the names of their writers. Those who bought them cared as little to know who wrote them, as do the patrons of the popular songs of to-day. William Elderton was responsible for a large number in his time, Thomas Deloney had written some 50 by 1596, and Anthony Munday also contributed his quota; but, as is only natural, ballads, with few exceptions, are known only by their titles. Printers of them were as numerous as writers; one of the earliest, John Awdeley, wrote as well as printed them, as did also Thomas Nelson later in the sixteenth century. Among the most active producers of these sheets were Thomas Colwell of Fleet Street, Alexander Lacy of Little Britain, William Pickering of London Bridge, Richard Jones the publisher of several of Elderton’s writing, who, in 1586, entered in the Stationers’ register no fewer than 123 at one time, and Edward Allde and Henry Carr, who entered batches of 36 and 20 respectively in this same year.