Saturday, 5 October 2013

Folk Song in England Day At the British Library - 21/09/2013

Recently I participated in a day of volunteering for EFDSS at a ‘Folk Song in England’ day in the British Library in London. The event was part of the EFDSS’ ‘Full English’ project, in which EFDSS have put the collections of 12 song collectors on to an online archive that anyone can access. This momentous project has led to these ‘Folk Song in England’ events happening all over the country. Although I assisted at the event, I had the privilege of listening to the speakers and I would like to share some of the amazing things that I learnt.
              The day began with Steve Roud, a historian with a passion for and vast knowledge of folklore and folk song. Steve Roud has been involved in publications such as the ‘New Penguin Book of English Folk Song’ and ‘A dictionary of English Folklore’. He started by playing a version of ‘the Hungry sung by Ron and Bob Copper. Steve firmly pointed out that the day was about English Folk Song and did not apply to Welsh, Scottish or Irish folk song. To me, this was slightly disappointing as I tend to think of all British Folk Music as incredibly interlinked and as a unit rather than to be separated by country borders. This is probably due to the fact I live in a distinctively English part of Wales.
               Steve discussed the definition of folk music and how a song becomes traditional. He spoke in terms that a folk song must have been learnt from someone and passed on. Also it is to do with selectivity – learning the songs you want to as opposed to every single one. The third element which he mentioned that makes a folk song is how it is mutable with people’s different interpretations of the same song. He pointed out that it is impossible for the same singer to sing a song exactly the same every time, and therefore it is impossible for songs to be passed on the same every time. Later on he proved this by playing a mother singing a song and then her son singing the same song. The two versions were sung incredibly differently; the mother sang in a delicate, gentle way, whereas her son sung  in a loud strong voice, illustrating his point as the son had learnt the song from the singing of his mother. Steve called the attributes of a folk song ‘continuity, selection and variation’.
               The other context that was given is that folk songs are non-commercial and sung face to face. He pointed out that, before the 1940s, if you wanted to listen to music then you had to hear it from someone; there was no way of putting on an album and listening that way. This discussion led to theme of where these folk songs were sung. Steve briefly discussed how folk sessions would work. It was mentioned how the younger people in the session would sing the ‘modern’ songs from the time. These would mostly be from musicals. However, the older generations would sing the old folk songs. Everyone had their own songs to sing and no one ever sung each other’s – almost as though singing a song gave you the ownership of it.
               We were shown some clips from ‘Here’s a Health to the Barley Mow’ which is a series of various dvds containing archival footage of folk customs. The clips we were shown were of a folk  session happening from the mid 20th century. Steve explained that it is the nearest we’ll ever get to seeing a ‘proper’ folk singing session, although obviously people would have been wary of being filmed. The footage was fascinating, and, at times, amusing. The people singing were clearly having an amazing time and everyone in the pub, from the pub owner to the people sitting in the corner, seemed involved in some way. Also, it presented a lot of songs I previously had not heard.
               One of the main topics of conversation during the event was how songs weregathered by collectors. Steve spoke about how Percy Grainger’s collecting methods differed from those of Cecil Sharp. He spoke about how Grainger would record songs on a wax cylinder and then Grainger would take these recordings home, slow them down, to work out every single detail about them. This is fairly incredible considering the accuracy and the muffled quality of the recordings. This differs to Sharp, who would write down the tunes and word on site. No one quite knows how he did this or whether he was pitch perfect, but it is true to say that his manuscripts are probably far less accurate than Grainger’s. Vaughan Williams used a similar method to Sharp but he was more interested in the tunes than the words. He therefore normally the people singing the song to write the words down and he would collect the tune; alternatively he often got his wife to write down the lyrics.
               Then we went to see some of the manuscripts that Vaughan Williams and Grainger had recorded. It was wonderful to see these! Many of them are still in brilliant condition and it was fascinating to see fragments of manuscript from different stages of their lives. Furthermore, there were lyrics written down by people that Vaughan Williams had collected from, which were all beautifully presented showing how much these collections  meant to the people they  were collected from. Additionally we were able to see some pictures of Vaughan Williams and his wives and some wax cylinders that held some field recordings. We were also told about the vast collection of recordings that the British Library holds. You can listen to some recordings here : .
               After lunch Julia Bishop, who is an expert on folk music and another contributor to the ‘New Penguin Book of English folk Songs’, spoke about the musical side of folk music. She mentioned how must songs have a really similar tune. She also spoke about modes – which are an alternative sort of scale, and how they were frequently used in folk songs. She demonstrated this by playing ‘The First Noel’ on the recorder in different modal scales. This helped us all notice how much the modes changed the piece of music. Instead of the music sounding flat and ordinary, it had a new exotic sound that is a key aspect of folk songs. However, it was pointed out that when folk singers were becoming more popular, people complained that folk singers couldn’t sing in tune. That Is the main reason why the modes were thought up. This was all rather fascinating to me as I had previously not understood the theory behind modes. However, I think that if I hadn’t been able to read music then I would have struggled to understand some of it.
               Towards the end of the event, Steve spoke about how and why people began collecting folk songs. He told us that, during the late 18th , century poets in Scotland had been interested in the lyrical side of the ballads, and therefore had begun collecting the words for their poetical element. He spoke about how, in the mid 19th century, people really began writing down the tunes. These collectors normally just collected in the local area. Towards the end of the 19th century people were trying to search for a distinctively British music. They did not have many great composers like other countries so they began to turn towards folk music as encapsulating something patriotic. However, the war put an end to this collecting. Even if the songs were still being sung, some of the collectors had been severely hit by the war.  Steve mentioned how Sharp organised a morris dancing side and, out of all of the young men in the side, only one survived. Therefore, you can see the impact this must have had on Sharp. Thus, there were only a few song collectors between then and the folk revival of the 1950s.
               It was a very enjoyable day and I would really recommend getting as involved as possible in these Full English projects. I am very sorry that this is so late after the actual event; I have had a very busy few weeks.



  1. Thanks for such a detailed review. I am looking forward to going to a similar workshop next February!

    1. It was a really great experience and I am sure you will enjoy the workshop greatly!