“Let me tell you my life in a song” On Autobiography and Begging in Broadside Ballads of the Blind


  • Karin Strand Svenskt visarkiv/Musikverket, Stockholm



Broadside ballads, street literature, vernacular literacy, beggar verses


What can street ballads tell us about the lives and realities of “common people”, of experiences “from below”? This article discusses the functional aesthetics and social context of one particular genre that has circulated in ephemeral song prints (skillingtryck) in Sweden: beggar verses of the blind. For centuries, such songs were sold in the streets and at market places as a means for the blind to earn a living, and a major part of them tell the life story, the sad fate, of their protagonists. Many prints declare the genre of autobiography on their very front page, quite literally selling the story of the protagonist’s life and addressing the audience’s compassion. How, then, do these narratives relate to real life? How is individuality and authenticity expressed within a genre that to a large extent relies upon conventions and formulas? As is argued, songs of this kind are a suggestive source material of vernacular literacy, as well as of social and personal history from below. Simultaneously, the discourse is marked by and shaped in a dialogue with the sighted world’s view of the blind.