logo Enthusiasms No 32
A collection of shorter pieces on subjects of
interest, outrage or enthusiasm ...


Sheet Music

as a research tool for traditional song

One only has to look at the sleeve notes in the series of Topic Records featuring traditional singers usually produced by Mike Yates to admire the depth into which the sources of each songs were meticulously plumbed.  This has set a benchmark for any of us hoping to perform similar tasks.

Upon researching the background into the sources of the Millen Family's songs, I looked at hymnals, sheet music in my own collection, the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, and the British Library's OnLine indexes (including the National Sound Archive's Cadensa index) as some of the tools for identification.  In turn, Howard Millen asked me if I could find out the source (and more words!) for a glee which started with the line 'See the Lads and their Lasses Trip the Meadows Along', and this was my only failure in this project.  Its tune is remarkably similar to the verses of George Townsend's version of 'Echoing Horn', but the words bear no correlation whatsoever. 

I perform similar exercises with songs in repertoires of all traditional Kentish singers including the Music Hall and parlour songs of George Spicer, Fred Cottenham and Charlie Bridger among others.  I was also tasked to find sources for two specific songs in the repertoire of the St Nicholas at Wade hoodeners from the time just after the Great War.  I found the one called All Along the Rails en spec in a bound collection of Music Hall songs at the Westminster Music Library next to the Victoria Coach Station.  The second: Teach Me How to Fly was found at the British Library after finding hint of it on their online indexes.  It was worth the 45 minutes wait to procure my reader's ticket!  Both songs are now in the repertoire of the team that was revived 36 years ago in the village.

Since the days of Cecil Sharp, Vaughan Williams and many others, the words 'traditional music' have evolved to encompass songs from the Music Hall and Variety eras, Victorian Parlour Ballads, Christy Minstrelsy, as well as what was once perceived as 'folk song'.  John Howson, for instance, has produced recording after recording of songs popular in the village community that were popular during the Music Hall and Variety era.  In short, time and perspective have moved on.  The fact that researchers can now append the name of the composer and lyricist to many such songs does not detract from the fact that they were learnt verbatim from another singer in the family or community, thus enabling its transmission.  This brings me to my own enthusiasm procuring sheet music folios as a tool to further my own research into Traditional Song.  To my knowledge, there is no substantial collection of such folios in existence in any public library in South East England.  Many well-known and comparatively obscure Music Hall and Variety songs can be found in Francis and Day's collections: a selection of these comprise twelve short 32-page folios under the title 'Album of Famous Old Songs', and appears to have been continued into a further four folios with Feldman as the publisher.  Other titles produced by Francis and Day include their 'Album of Old Time Favourites', 'Community Song Albums', 'Plantation and Minstrel Songs', 'Hillbilly Album', not to mention their 'Annual' collection published late in the year and produced during the years between the wars running into over 70 editions.  Another publisher I look out for is Lawrence Wright.  This Leicester-born entrepreneur also composed songs under the name Horatio Nicholls.  There are six 'Monster Albums' each on separate themes, e.g.  foxtrot songs, valse songs, comedy songs, his own compositions, etc.  Other folios and song sheets were published by Campbell Connelly.  Felix McGlennon is another publisher who was active before the Great War.  But public libraries hold very few of these Kent Arts and Libraries has all eight Francis and Day 'Old Time' folios bound into one volume, but that's about your lot.  There is a great deal of overlap the same songs may appear in more than one source, and selection seems to have been 'open house' procedure despite the perceived rigours of the Copyright Act which, I'm sure, was not the case.  Also, it is difficult to identify when songs were written.  Sometimes, but never always, the year in which it was copyrighted may appear in roman numerals at the bottom of a page, but mostly one is left guessing.  At this juncture, it must be noted that the same publishers were responsible for publishing collections of dance music as well mostly with the composer's name stated.  More tools for researchers!

Many songs of interest were published in books, the titles of which may be familiar to second-hand book browsers: 'The Scottish Students Song Book', 'the News Chronicle Song Book', 'the News Chronicle Sixty Old-Time variety Songs' (later published by Francis and Day), 'The People's (sic) Song Folio' to name a few.

Most of my own collection collated over a long period came from Second hand bookshops such as Travis and Emery in Cecil Court behind Leicester Square tube station near where I work.  Charity shops and book fairs are also likely places - but you have to know your prices before you pay over the proverbial odds.  The Covent Garden antiques market held on Mondays beneath the Jubilee Hall and in the Piazza is another source.  One stall there currently has five boxes of sheet music at 50 p.  to 1 each, but unless you are desperate for one particular song, hold a magpie-like tendency for such ephemera, or have too much spare cash than is decent, then prefer to go for song collections.  The going rate at such places is 3 for (say) Lawrence Wright's 130 page of e.g.  'Monster Collection of Valse Songs' that comprise gems such as Just a Girl that Men Forget, and Happy Days are Here Again from the collection of 'Famous Hits'.  A similar collection found at a charity shop in Bridport on my way to Sidmouth last year, cost me 50 pence! I am still yet to acquire Wright's Fourth 'Monster Album' devoted to 'comedy and chorus hits', but the indices included in three of the others indicate it has the words and music to the song A N'egg and Some N'ham and an N'onion which I know was one of George Spicer's lesser-known songs recorded by Mike Yates.

I have noticed more recently that fewer and fewer second-hand bookshops hold printed music.  Baggins' Book Bazaar in Rochester, which claims itself to be the largest in the country, condensed itself from two sites to one last Winter and you can guess which section had to suffer as a result!  John Thorp's at the top of Guildford High Street discontinued theirs years ago, preferring to concentrate on first hand stock and remaindered lines.  Another problem I've found is, with a growing collection, how do I avoid wasting money on a folio I already possess.  Short of keeping a shorthand list, memory has so far sufficed with only one duplication to date.  Of course, it will be argued that it is all very well to indulge oneself in such a library, but its value is reduced unless you take time out to index the lot!  Hey!  There are only so many hours in the day, and when all is said in done these tools are only means to an end, not an end in themselves.

George Frampton - 16.7.02

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