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Center for American Music digital collections: Broadsides

Digital items held by the Center for American Music

About Broadsides

Broadsides (sometimes called song sheets or penny sheets) were a common and inexpensive means through which popular songs and ballads were disseminated from the sixteenth to the early twentieth centuries. Broadsides normally contained only lyrics, as simple text was much easier and cheaper to typeset and print than musical notation. While sheet music consumers were musically literate and possessed some degree of education and presumably some means, the audience for broadsides consisted of music-lovers who occupied a lower position on the social and economic ladder. Where a single piece of sheet music might sell for 25 to 60 cents per copy, broadsides sold for a penny. Sheet music was sold in music stores; broadsides in news stalls and bookstores, or at circuses, minstrel shows, medicine shows, political rallies, temperance meetings, and vaudeville performances. Sheet music was intended to be profitable; broadsides were so cheap that they sometimes functioned as promotional items for merchandisers of various sorts.

The typical format of a song broadside is simple in design, consisting of a single sheet of paper with the lyrics of one or two songs (occasionally more) printed within a decorative border. They are of fairly consistent size (about 6" x 9") and are printed on inexpensive, thin paper. Most are black on white but some of the most interesting include color, either hand-tinted or printed. Most broadsides carry no publication date, but the items in the Center for American Music date from the mid-nineteenth century. 

Broadsides were often used as an inexpensive way to circulate new lyrics to familiar melodies. Sometimes new lyrics were parodies of well-known songs. For example, "My Good Ould Irish Home" is a parody of Foster's "My Old Kentucky Home." At other times new lyrics were written to promote a political candidate or comment on a current event.