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Street Cries as Musicological Phenomena By Liz Sheppard

Liz holds an MA in Traditional Music of the British Isles from the University of Sheffield. Her dissertation focused on...

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Street Cries as Musicological Phenomena By Liz Sheppard

Liz holds an MA in Traditional Music of the British Isles from the University of Sheffield. Her dissertation focused on the musicological features of London street cries from the 20th century.

She also gave a paper on lavender seller street cries at the Traditional Tunes and Popular Airs Conference at Cecil Sharp House in 2017. She is always pleased to hear from people on Twitter (@lizmostlyfolk) for chat about music, books, disability rights or intersectional feminism.

‘Street cries’- the cries or calls of street vendors, often with short melodic motifs- have been part of the London soundscape (and elsewhere!) since the Middle Ages. They can range from repetitive intonated speech to a complete verse with identifiable musical pitch. Some scholars have reflected on them in terms of ‘verbal artistry’, rather than as musicological phenomena.

However, in the Edwardian collections of the first folk revival (link below to some of the collections at the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library- please have a browse!), we can find street cries transcribed in standard western notation, demonstrating that, at least in those collections (for example, those of Lucy Broadwood and Anne Gilchrist), musical pitch and musicality are key features. Broadwood took pains to justify the inclusion of street cries when she published some she had collected in the Journal of the Folk-Song Society in 1919.

John Blacking’s definition of music is helpful for thinking about street cries as musical phenomena. His definition focuses on music as humanly organised sound, involving ‘structured listening’ and the ‘perception of order in sound’. This implies a common understanding between the producer of the sound and the listener regarding the organisation of those sounds within a particular social or cultural context. For Vagn Holmboe,* who collected cries in Copenhagen from the 1930s onwards , street cries have a characteristic framework within which the cries are constructed (alongside some improvisation), reflecting those ideas of organised sound and of perceptions of order in sound.

Street sellers use their cries to help sell their wares. Studies have shown that street sellers use their voices in artistic and creative ways to attract customers (eg Dargan & Zeitlin 1983). Musical features of cries contribute to the verbal artistry of the crier, and can help the cry to carry over distance, as well as attract customers (for example, use of repetition, volume, rhythm and pitch). Scholars investigating street cries have noted that patterns of repetition (repeating the cry on a loop, and having regular routes to ply their trade) have allowed social conventions to build up over time, and as criers adapt to and become part of their environment, communities build up both between and around them.

It is worth noting that words of cries can often be unintelligible to the listener- this can both help the cry to carry across distance, and help the crier preserve their voice. Charles Hindley, chronicler of street criers in Victorian London, noted that criers (and their respective wares) were often identified from their tune rather than from the words. Some of the street cry material published in the Journal of the Folk-Song Society reflects the importance of the tune for identifying the item being sold.

Lavender seller cries published by the first revival collectors all recognisably have almost the same tune (albeit with minor variations). We can also hear this tune on the London Sound Survey website (hat tip to site wrangler Ian Rawes), where there is audio of a lavender seller cry recorded in 1938 (link below in suggested reading- please look at the whole website though, it’s brilliant!).

The increase of traffic, other changes to the soundscape, and social and cultural changes around shopping led to the perhaps obvious and inevitable decline of the street cry as a phenomenon in the soundscape. I will be interested to see if anyone shares any contemporary street cries/criers this week!

* If you’re fortunate enough to be able to visit the British Library any time soon, Holmboe’s work on Danish street cries is super interesting and his notation work is mind-boggling in its detail.

Suggested reading

Blacking, J. (1974). How Musical is Man? Seattle & London: University of Washington Press.

Broadwood, L. E. (1919). ‘Some Notes on London Street Cries’. Journal of the Folk song Society, 6(22), 43–47.

Broadwood, L., & Gilchrist, A. (1919). ‘Miscellaneous Street Cries’. Journal of the FolkSongSociety, 6 (22), 71-72.

Broadwood, L., & Kidson, F. (1910). ‘Country Town Cries’. Journal of the FolkSong Society, 4 (15), 103-105.

Bronner, S. J. (1976). ‘Street Cries and Peddler Traditions in Contemporary Perspective ’. New York Folklore, 2(1), 2-15.

Dargan, A., & Zeitlin, S. (1983). ‘American Talkers: Expressive Styles and Occupational Choice’. The Journal of American Folklore, 96 (379), 3-33.

Gilchrist, A. (1919). A Note on the "Lavender" and Some Other Cries. Journal of the FolkSongSociety, 6 (22), 73-77.

Hindley, C. (1881). A History of the Cries of London, Ancient & Modern. London: Reeves & Turner.

Holmboe, V. (1988). Danish Street Cries: A Study of Their Musical Structure and a Complete Edition of Tunes with Words Collected Before 1960 (Vol. 5). Copenhagen: Forlaget Kragen ApS.

Lavender Seller (1938). London Sound Survey [online] [accessed 08/10/21] Lavender Seller (1938). London Sound Survey

Vaughan Williams Memorial Library Archives Catalogue [online] [accessed 08/10/21] Vaughan Williams Memorial Library Archives Catalogue