Ballad sheets containing folktales or melodramas set to popular music were an important part of popular culture from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Early ballads were cheaply priced and were sold in the streets by ‘ballad mongers’: poor, itinerant men and women who advertised their sheets by singing the tunes they contained. Many were published simply for popular amusements and contained far-fetched stories of intrigue or murder, while others contained stories that related more directly to current affairs. By setting the text to popular tunes, the stories they contained were easily memorized and were therefore transmitted quickly to new audiences.
This late example of a ballad sheet, dating from the mid-19th century, appealed to the Victorian sense of melodrama and titillation. ‘Bluebeard’ was a well-known 17th-century folktale describing a woman’s escape from her evil husband after she finds the bloody remains of his former wives locked in a hidden chamber. The fairytale in this ballad is set to over ten popular tunes of the day, allowing its passages to be easily memorized. ‘Paddy on the Railway’ was a folk tune popular in both Great Britain and the United States. Paddy is a comical Irishman whose exploits on the new railway system formed the basis of several popular songs in the mid-1800s.