A Student’s Review of the Hildebrands’ “Ballads from Boston”


I attended the performance by David and Ginger Hildebrand with a somewhat unique perspective. For me, their performance was the conclusion of a semester long project that had included the identification, transcription, and analysis of fifteen ballads about piracy and privateering from the Isaiah Thomas Broadsides Ballads Project. My independent study entailed focusing on the themes of peace and conflict while examining the ways pirates were viewed in the Early Republic. While my main goal for the project was to gain an in-depth understanding of piracy in the early nineteenth century, one of my main motivations for choosing this method of investigation was that I hoped to gain a greater understanding of what life was like in New England at the time.

May 6 - Capt Kidd
The Dying Words of Capt. Robert Kidd: A Noted Pirate, Who Was Hanged at Execution Dock, in England” (Boston: Nathaniel Coverly, ca. 1810-1814). Isaiah Thomas Broadside Ballads Project, American Antiquarian Society.

While the scholarly literature yielded some information on this topic, it was not until I began the main transcription and analysis of the ballads did I find myself truly understanding what life in the Early Republic may have been like. I think Americans tend to have a romanticized view about the time, and we tend to think of the citizens of the country at that time united as a whole, rather than as individuals (as we are today). We focus on the prominent names like Adams, Madison, Hamilton, and Jackson. We often don’t have time to dive into the lives of the “common folk” like Nathaniel Coverly, the printer of the ballads in the collection.

Through this project, however, I felt I was able to connect to Coverly on a more personal level. As I pored over the documents that he had created, I began picking up on little nuances that may have slipped the eye of many a reader of his ballads, but would have been conscious decisions made by Coverly in the printing of the documents. For example, it appears as though Coverly had a shortage of capital letters “A” and “T,” because frequently in his documents they are replaced by capital italicized “A”s and “T”s. As I began to find small “errors” like these, I felt like I was beginning to look past Nathaniel Coverly the historical printer, and was starting to see Nathaniel Coverly the man. I found myself imagining a hardworking man and perhaps his apprentices in the Early Republic setting type, trying to make sure the pieces fit and that they weren’t going to make any errors. I found myself beginning to stand in his shoes.

That is why I think events like these are so important. The Hildebrands were able to transport their listeners back in time through their style, their knowledge, and their performances. As I sat under the dome in Antiquarian Hall, and I listened to them performing the pieces printed by the man I feel I’ve come to know a little bit, I found myself imagining what it must have been like to have been in his shoes in the early 1800s. I pictured myself standing in his shop printing the very same ballads that were being sung outside his window by the common folk of Boston. Through the narrations and adept performances of the Hildebrands, I felt as though I was truly experiencing nineteenth-century entertainment as it was meant to be. It was one of the few times I’ve felt like I’ve truly understood what life may have been for an everyday person during a time in history.

Much of my undergraduate education in history has focused on looking past the main story. It has dealt with understanding the daily events and life of those who have been traditionally overlooked by the common narratives. By combining the understanding I have been able to gain through the in-depth examination of Coverly’s works with the performance by David and Ginger Hildebrand, I feel as though I’ve never understood part of the daily life of typical Bostonians any better. In addition to the entertainment value inherent in performances such as these, the knowledge that comes from them is what truly makes them valuable.


Andrew Lampi is a senior at Assumption College, majoring in Psychology and minoring in Peace and Conflict Studies. Much of the work for his minor has focused on historical events, and he particularly enjoys learning about and working on projects focusing on Colonial, Revolutionary, and Early Republic America. Outside the classroom, Andrew is an avid outdoorsman who also enjoys a great book. He has transcribed more than fifteen documents for the Isaiah Thomas Broadsides Ballads Project, most of them as a independent capstone research project for his minor, and hopes to contribute to the project in the future.  Tomorrow, Andrew will represent his class as valedictorian at Assumption College’s commencement exercises for the Class of 2016.

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