logo Enthusiasms No 43
A collection of shorter pieces on subjects of
interest, outrage or enthusiasm ...

My Ideal Song Book
proposing the world's first singer-friendly song book

You may have seen that I've just finished reviewing Classic English Folk Songs; the EFDSS's new edition of The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs - and a good one it is, too.  But this new publication has got me thinking - as all good things should - about some peripheral, but equally important matters.  To start at the bottom, so to speak, a question presents itself: what exactly is the purpose of a book of songs like this?  Or, indeed, that of any collection of songs in any medium?  My own interpretation - doubtless jaundiced - of the motives of the publishers of such books, records, etc, resolves into three main categories: to make a profit; to glorify the memory of the academic(s) who collected, compiled or published the volume; or to enable or assist people in singing them.  The first two motives may be dismissed as forlorn, and ignoble, respectively; the third warrants some discussion.

Why, I wonder, should a singer in 2004 want to sing the same version of a song, to the same tune, as was sung by someone with whom s/he has no connection, with an entirely different socio-cultural background, from a different part of the country (or, indeed, a different country), maybe a hundred years ago?  Because it's a beautiful and perfect thing, perhaps?  Possibly, but I bet there are very few songs which have been in a singer's repertoire for more than a week or two, which haven't had the odd word or phrase changed, intentionally or no, better to fit the singer's take on it.

Furthermore, it's often been admitted that many a song has been learned in the first place because of little more than a line or a phrase which has a particular appeal or resonance for the learner.  I could name a number of songs which I'd known vaguely for most of my adult life, but which I was only drawn to learn when I heard a particular version for the first time, and got that thrilling realisation, "This is a song I have to sing!"

But I don't necessarily sing this version.  I probably know of others with interesting lines or whole verses missing from this one, which will clarify the story, add emotional weight, or make it accord more with my own point of view.  Not only that, but I'll undoubtedly make up a few bits and pieces myself, too.  And I know very well that there are others who do this, too - and I don't just mean Gordon Hall!

I recently heard some of the people I'm privileged to sing with on a regular basis, described as being 'dedicated'.  I'm not entirely sure what this was meant to imply - beyond praise - but I think it was along the lines of having taken some trouble over what and how we sing.  And it seems to me that unless you do take some trouble over what and how you sing, you're not going to get anything like the enjoyment and emotional fulfilment out of it that we do.  And part of the trouble taken has involved putting together versions of songs that we're happy with and which really mean something to us.

So, coming back to where I started, I'd like a song book where each song was presented as a notionally 'full' text, together with at least one, substantially different, alternative version, several alternative verses / lines / interesting phrases.  And for those who can read music, several alternative tunes, too.  Then a singer could have the opportunity of putting together his/her own version - one which fitted better in terms of point of view, clarity of plot, resonance, melodic variation, etc - and without having to purchase dozens of other expensive song books to achieve this end.  One might then end up singing one's own song, rather than just copying someone else's.

And it's just occurred to me that it would be very easy to do this in the pages of MT.  What do you think?  Who'd like to co-operate in the compilation of the world's first singer-friendly song book?  Please let me know.

Rod Stradling - 20.1.04

Well - there has been some positive response, and the Singers' Songbook now exists in these pages, with some 10 songs currently available.  Further contributors will be most welcome.

Rod Stradling - 9.12.04

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