Q&A | Meet Jennifer Reid, Manchester’s reigning broadside balladress

Jennifer Reid is the preeminent, self-styled broadside balladress of Lancashire. Having discovered a trove of 19th century worker songs a few years ago, Jenn took it upon herself to learn to perform them so that this important slice of industrial era history wouldn’t be lost. Turns out she has a real knack for the gig, and she’s since performed, and participated in art initiatives everywhere from Manchester to Venice to Croatia and back again. The list of projects she’s injected her sly charisma into is impressive, but too bloody long to recount in full here. So, have a read of her chat with Sarah, then go check out her website for more.

Jennifer Reid. Tell me about yourself. What is it that you do? Why are we interested in you?
I sing 19th century broadside ballads and Lancashire dialect. The ballads that I sing are specifically from Manchester collections, and I’ve styled myself as the preeminent broadside balladress of the Manchester region.

Thank you very much.

How’s that been going for you?
Really well. I was worried for the first few years, and now maybe I can save up enough to just be cool by the time I’m 40. Maybe this is all going to work out quite well.

Why did you start performing these ballads in the first place?
Number one, because it’s better than working in the Pound Shop – of course it is. Number two, I really care about this stuff, and you meet a lot of people that are really disingenuous. A lot of the London people are like, yeah I’m just doing this on daddy’s money – but I don’t have daddy’s money, and I actually care about it. I’m just going to build this up for myself, and I’m still living off the Pound Shop money that I saved up when I worked there. Not that money is a thing, but money is kind of a thing right now with this government, so that’s another factor.

“I don’t understand people that take all these songs and then just keep them to themselves.”

Also, just because it’s important to share the message. I don’t understand people that take all these songs and then keep them to themselves. You must spread it out there. Who are you to keep these songs? They’ve already lost their context because they’re written down, how dare you keep them and not share them? They must be re-disseminated. So, basically: poverty, passion and outrage are the three main things that keep me going.

Some pretty strong motivators. And you have had people who have just wanted to hold on to the songs and not share them. What are your memories of those moments?
When we were doing a project about Derbyshire and Leicestershire – I get that I’m not from the area you know, I fully get that. I’m just doing this as a kind of punt, to share what I’m doing in Lancashire with them. I get that it’s Lottery-funded, and not the most authentic thing, but my spirit is authentic. I might just be not from there.

I emailed loads of people and got into an email tree of folk people, and they were mostly like, we don’t know, we don’t know. There was this one guy I emailed and he said, I have 60 years-worth of songs, but I won’t give them to you, because you’re just trying to write a book and run off with the profit, essentially. I was like, you don’t know me. I’ve just emailed you in a really nice way. I’d love to write a book, but I’m not – I’m trying to keep your song traditions alive. Not even in my area. I’ve been called in to do this! It’s no skin off my nose if you do it or not. But all of a sudden I’ve become involved, and I’m really interested in what’s happening. And you seem to be the missing link, and you’re going to continue being the missing link because you’re being a stubborn old bastard.

Really tried to kill him with kindness – I’m just trying to do this thing, Ballad Collective, we’re just trying to write new songs. Never got back to me. But since then I’ve reserved a seat at the front of every single show I’ve done in Leicestshire or Derbyshire for him, so that he’s always got a seat there. Because the sooner you realise the error of your ways, the better. You can’t hold onto these things – they’re not yours! It’s a folk tradition, it’s not yours – it’s not mine.

Has he ever come?
No. I’m going to email him soon though, with the Ballad Collective dates, and be like: this is just right around the corner from you, you can come on down. If you can handle it.

It’s amazing that he wouldn’t want to see these songs that he loves so much actually be performed.
It’s so weird. What’s the issue here? But then you understand it, because the folk clubs are so weird. They never give me a spot, they give me a spot at the end. Then people will be like, I haven’t heard that song for 60 years. And I’ll be like, well you would’ve heard it sooner if you put me on at the start. They think I’m going to do a contemporary version or something. Obviously, I’m very aggressive, I’m confrontational and I’m very comfortable with that. People aren’t used to it. But I’m like, if this doesn’t carry on this material will stop and die. I don’t have an apprentice or anything. I have to keep on keeping on.

How did you first find out that the ballads existed?
I was in Barcelona and I came home and thought, I need to sort my life out. I emailed Chetham’s Library – while I was in the squat in Barcelona actually, on the balcony. I said, have you got anything I can do? I’m quite interested in local history – never really showed an interest in it before, never did history at school. Just thought it was all about war and stuff. I said, I’m quite interested in the local area, where I’m from. Have you got anything for me?

They said yeah, we’ve got these ballads in storage that you can pull out and have a look at. Once I got there, three weeks later, I started looking at these ballads and I thought, these are all place names that I know – Bury, Bolton, Rochdale, Middleton – and I thought, why don’t I take these songs to the places that they’re from and try and sing them? But before I even got the chance to do that I got a name as ‘ballad girl’, and Jeremy Deller got in touch with me and said he wanted a few of the ballads for his All That Is Solid Melts Into Air exhibition.

Me and Kathy spent the day picking out 90 ballads, and he came and he chose 6. I was like, right. Let me do a talk about them. He said, ok – I was going to get Kate Rusby to sing one of them on Newsnight. And I said, no, no I’ll sing it. I don’t really know if I can sing or not, but I did singing lessons at school to get out of PE so maybe I can just wing it. I practiced for a week, then the camera was on me for Newsnight and I sang it and sang it fine. I put myself in such a tight spot and then it was alright.

I just wanted the fame, I don’t even know why I wanted the fame. Why would I want to be on Newsnight? I’ve never watched it before in my life. Total punk. And it worked out fine.

What happened after that?
I just did talks and things at Manchester Art Gallery, and Elizabeth Gaskell’s House. One about general ballads, and one about William Gaskell, which allowed me to sing in the dialect. A year later, Jeremy got in touch with me again and said, hi I’d like you to sing at the Venice Biennale. I was like, what’s the Venice Biennale? And googled it and said, oh sure I’ll do that, that’s fine. The parties were the main part. My tactic was – obviously no one’s going to know me, because why would they? I’m new here. So I dyed my hair blue – real short bob – and bought loads of really outlandish print suits. 80s Betty Barclay suits, out there. The last one was made of silk, and I wore that the last day.

“I practiced for a week, then the camera was on me for Newsnight and I sang it and sang it fine.”

I was supposed to sing five days in Giardini, so I just made myself really obvious. I sang and clog danced in these suits. Then at night I’m going to all the parties, in the same suit, and they’d recognise me. I got loads of work out of the parties – I even got to sing at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Zagreb.

And this all happened before you even knew what you were doing?
Exactly. Now it’s come to the point where I’m the person who knows all about this stuff, and people come to me. It’s really weird, it’s fun though. It’s all about getting people in touch with their traditional, musical and tangible cultural practice – that they take for granted, that they don’t realise they should record. Even kids rhymes that their nan sang. Record them, they’re important! Or things your nan says – don’t just keep them inside. Give, give, give.

What are the songs actually about?
Mills, mines, canals, railways mostly. In the 1820s-1840s the industrial ballad became a thing in Manchester. People started to use work dialect in songs. Things like ‘The Bury New Loom’ would have been hilarious. It’s a song about a guy meeting a weaver at night, all about him fixing her loom: ’His shuttle ran well in her lathe / his tread worked well up and down’. Super rude. To hear that on the streets after work would have been great.

So that’s the typical scenario where the songs would have been performed?
Always on the street, the street hawkers would sell them. You couldn’t sing in the mill because it was too loud, so everyone used to do a kind of mee-maw mouthing of words. You couldn’t bitch about your mate all the way down the row, because someone would look at you and be like, she’s talking about you. You’d sing after work.

The rhythms of work would take control of the clog dancing and the rhythms for the songs, and then you sing in the pub – or at home for someone who could read, if they bought a ballad on the street. At the pub they were pasted up on the wall – ballads galore all on the wall. Someone would choose to sing one, you’d find out where it was and then you’d join in.

The workers’ church. Are there links between hymns and other religious songs, and the ballads?
The famous tunes of the time were done to death. ‘Vilikans And His Dinah’, ‘The Castle In The Air’ – these were all famous tunes. If a hawker did well for a week singing a song to that tune, he would just keep doing that until it fell off. They really played on the cultural sensibilities of the time. And yeah, a lot of hymns. Which is where shape note comes in, from that original adoption in Brierfield, where a lot of Christians have adopted that style of singing – because it teaches you how to read music, so of course it teaches them how to read hymns quicker. They use a lot of hymns in that way.

You recently returned from Bangladesh, where you were researching parallels between Manc/Lanc and Bangla workers’ songs. Can you explain a bit about the  project?
My whole idea is that the Industrial Revolution never stopped, it just moved to Bangladesh. I was hoping to trace the intangible culture that grows alongside the cotton industry by referencing two main places: historical Manchester/Lancashire and modern day Dhaka. I thought, I best go to Bangladesh, and tie the songs that I know to the songs that are there, and see how viable that is as a project. I had two main outcomes; the first is the transition from village to town. That’s real simple – from Lancashire to Manchester, from any place in Bangladesh to Dhaka. That’s still going on right now, even with women sending their children back to the villages that they came from, in Dhaka, so they can work in the factories. All the songs that they bring with them, and all the cultural transformation, it’s the same. Tick in the box.

“I was hoping to trace the intangible culture that grows alongside the cotton industry by referencing historical Lancashire and modern day Dhaka.”

The second is about union songs. After Peterloo, the Six Acts came in, which put strict rules on working people and meant that they couldn’t combine easily against their bosses. Since Bangladesh has newly formed trade unions, these songs are somewhat relevant to their situation. I wanted to contrast these and see if there were any crossovers.

How did the project actually work?
Just meeting as many people that I could. For example, I met with Jamdani weavers. They weave by hand, so it’s all about the hand loom for me with that, and they pass on a lot of the patterns through oral tradition – so that’s another pleasing thing that they do. I went to visit the factories, which are really weird; I had to see it through a white person’s eyes originally. I went and they were playing music, and I was like, hey! It can’t be that bad. Then I meet the garment workers – not at the factory, but at the daycare centres for their kids, and in their homes after they finished work. I was like, they were playing music at the factory. And they said, oh no they only play that when white buyers come around.

I had to see both sides to get a grip on that, but that’s really gross. A lot of the set-up, just the general aesthetics and the set-up of the factories were very similar to what’s described in Lancashire dialect songs. 1790s, 1800s – so this is a really nice thing to contrast to. There were a lot of things going on there that were very contrastable. But, because I’m not an academic, I don’t know that I could really do it the best that I could. I feel like, if I turned one academic onto it that does a PhD in it then that would be cool.

Where are things at with the project now?
I’ve written it all up, it’s 55 pages. My friend who’s a publisher is going to publish the pamphlet. I’m going to get people to translate it in Bangladesh, and then get it made into a pamphlet, and then just hand it out for free. Put it everywhere, in Bangla. Just to start the conversation, and the transatlantic links that need to be established. Because I’m not here to publish a boring book – I want everyone to move and sort out their own histories through this kind of stuff.

What other styles of music do you do?
I really love garage punk. I used to be in a garage punk band called the Booglys. We used to write all our own songs, including ‘Green Sugar’, about having an alien boyfriend. I really always wanted to do a soul inspired band, where there’s two of every instrument – your drummers are facing each other, the bassists, the guitarists – and then I’m the lead singer, but I’m called Baby Eyes Devotion. In a full nightie, but always pregnant. With full blonde bouffant hair.

I also did a project with a reggae band. We played Glastonbury, and all the folk festivals last year, where we took the ballads and put them to reggae tunes. I sang the original versions and they sang the reggae versions. It freaked out the crowd, in a good way. The folk crowd are the people that need to be freaked out the most, because they’re the most comfortable and complacent. That was really funny. Some people liked it, some people hated it. I’m all for both those crowds: tell me if you liked it, tell me if you hated it. Please let me push your buttons.

Jennifer Reid is Manchester’s preeminent broadside balladress. Get her A Selection of Nineteenth-Century Broadside Ballads from Collections in Manchester (eBook & pamphlet). Find her on Bandcamp.

Sarah Illingworth is a freelance journalist and Editor at Impolitikal. She has an MSc in Poverty & Development from the University of Manchester. Read more by Sarah.