Remarkably I have been asked this question more times than one might and I cannot recall a number… I explain on the spot but not everyone seems to be satisfied. So…
All folk music, be it song or tune, is handed down in oral tradition from the days preceding such things like radio, records, and digital files. However once the technology of block printing changed the way the public could read and obtain books and papers, this was taken advantage of to amazing effect. Starting sometime in the 16th century (that’s the 1500s for you blockheads who keep trying to argue with me on this), poems and lyrics of songs were printed on a single sheet or slip of paper, usually one side of the sheet but sometimes both, became a fairly common thing to see throughout England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Germany and the low countries, Switzerland, &c, and then later on in the Americas… Anywhere someone had set up a printing shop for to produce books, newspapers, and the like. It is STILL a tradition in Basle, Switzerland where individual performers stand typically in a bar to read a satirical poem or even sing a song during the three-day celebration of Fasnacht. A “Broadside”, as indicated above, was really anything printed cheaply on one side of a sheet of paper, such as advertisements, handbills, official proclamations for public edification, posters, propaganda (in song or prose) and the like. Sometimes a printer might become adventurous and print on both sides of the papers and by habit of association these would also be referred to as Broadsides, but generally the one side was the norm.
Very quickly after this became available, someone thought to publish words or lyrics to popular songs and new songs as well as poetry and general musings – newspapers would also periodically (hah!) include the words to a song or poem submitted by someone in the reading public. Very often the lyrics to a song would include a sub-text suggesting a well-known melody the words might be sung to – but in the folk tradition, the person reading and perhaps later performing the song was by NO means obligated to use the melody suggested and might make up his/her own or utilize a completely different but already known melody to taste.
–> Sometimes, although by no means as often as we might wish, the song would be printed along with the melody intended for it. There are examples of the very same song shown in one instance to be performed with a rather interesting, more complicated melody one might hear in an upper class parlor or upon a stage while the very same song would appear in another source elsewhere with a far more “folky” melody suggested or composed. An example is “From Thee, Eliza, I Must Go” by the poet Robert Burns – a two-stanza poem of a sailor bemoaning his imminent departure from his true love; there are several sources of a rather classical-style melody the song is to be presented with while in numerous newspapers the very same song is printed and suggested to be sung to the then well known melody “Gilderoy”.
In these times before electrical technology, people sought entertainment via more direct, interactive, social means. Sitting at home through long winters, down time ship board, social gatherings in pub or church or barn would incur story-telling, game playing, song singing – songs and poems that would relate old myths and stories, political satire, catchy propaganda work songs, and so on. These were shared person to person and some people would occasionally write down a favourite or two. Another form of public entertainment in the day was a contributing pre-cursor to today’s stage musicals – the ballad opera – with lyrical dialogue delivered in song utilizing popularly known melodies or new compositions. There was a demand for these new songs and poems, and this was not lost of the operators of the early printing presses who turned out these “broadsheets”, “Broadsides”, “slip songs”, and various similar names. This was a damned sight easier than writing them out by hand and songs could be shared further afield, encouraging some people to compose new songs as much as printing up already known-in demand songs. I have found, alas, that SO many of these do not necessarily include the suggestion of what melody to use and it becomes more of a chore to sift through mounds and mounds of tune books in my personal library or other sources to find a tune from approximately the same era and merge it with the lyrical poetry. As the printing press became more efficient in the 18th century – and more printers were setting up shop – the broadsides began to give way to collections of songs in books or pamphlets. These largely amount to lyrical poetry for the lack of melodies and to same old problem therefore arises. The pamphlets or simply made folded over sheets into a “booklet” form were referred to as “cheap books” or “chapbooks” and were extremely popular; there were peddlers who would move from town to village to city selling these broadside ballads in chapbook form and they were known as “Chapmen”. At a conversation at Yale I had a year or two ago, I was informed that sometimes these chapmen would set up stalls in city markets, and the song sheets they sold thus came to be referred to as “stall sheets” – simply another term for the same thing.
During the later 19th century various laws restricting noise in public curbed much public singing and the public houses began to see spontaneous common erupting in song as disruptive and “un-genteel”, so usage began to fade. We see this even now in other examples such as general discouragement of the use of clothesline, burning of private leaves and brush, and other things no longer considered good manners or being a marker of someone “undesireable in my neighbourhood”. But even in the early 19th century there were persons who made it a point of collecting and cataloguing these generations of broadsides – very often a particular song you will hear today will be referred to as a ________ ballad – giving essentially the source of the collection and not meant to indicate anything else. IE: Francis James Child made a quite famous collection and songs from this are referred to as a “Child Ballad”; not meant to give the impression of songs for children, please keep in mind.