The 1908-11 collections
Digital book with embedded MIDI files, by Alan Helsdon
Musical Traditions Records CD-ROM MTCD255
This CD-ROM with MIDI files is the second (and final) digital book produced by Alan Helsdon and Musical Traditions on Ralph Vaughan Williams's folk song collecting trips in Norfolk. Volume 1 covered King's Lynn and the surrounding area. This second volume covers three collecting trips made further south in the county between 1908 and 1911. Malcolm Douglas noted that Vaughan Williams often collected alone, hut on these three trips he was accompanied, by Ivor Gatty and S Mercer in 1908, and by George Butterworth in 1910 and 1911. Looking at the songs collected there can be little doubt that they are of the highest quality, with some of them featuring in the Journal of the Folk-Song Society and later in the seminal Penguin Book of English Folk Songs.
The disc has an easily accessible contents page, which includes all manner of information such as the singers and their songs, song sources, possible itineraries, a song titles index, photo illustrations, and more. There are twenty-two singers (plus some 'unknowns'), who sang ninety-six songs. Some songs are relatively common in England, others less so. The disc allows the reader to view the words and music of each, examine its source, and listen to the tune played on electric piano. It is evident that a huge amount of work has gone into compiling this disc. Vaughan Williams gave relatively scant attention to singers, or to the words of songs, and tended to concentrate on the tunes. This makes it difficult to work out exactly who was who. Several singers have the same surname, such as 'Debbage'. In one case, the census gives two people with the same name - the two 'George Gorbles' in Filby- Vaughan Williams's assistants did add names to some extent. As to the itineraries, they are in part a matter of speculation, but Alan Helsdon has done a magnificent job in reconstructing probable or possible routes.
Three singers stand out from the others in terms of the number of songs they sang, the quality of those songs, and the fact that Vaughan Williams and his assistants were willing to visit them on several occasions. They are Tom Hilton of South Walsham, Christopher Jay of Acle Bridge, and George Lock of Rollesby. Tom Hilton was a singer of renown and a founder of the reborn Agricultural Workers' Union, with George Edwards, in 1906. His tune for The Outlandish Knight (Child 4, Roud 21) is superb, hence its inclusion in The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs. His nephew, Sam Howard of Mautby, told me Tom Hilton 'worked hard, drank hard, and prayed hard; that's the sort of man he was'. Christopher Jay's version of Lovely Joan (Roud 592) is also in the Penguin Book (although in the book most of the words to both these songs come from elsewhere). His lovely tune, moreover, forms the counterpoint tune in Ralph Greaves's arrangement of Vaughan Williams's Fantasia on Greensleeves, and it is good to see Mr Jay now credited on Wikipedia!
George Lock came from a large family noted for singing, and his The Man of Burningham Town (Roud 665) also features in the Penguin Book. Further research by Alan Helsdon has revealed that his surname was actually Lock (without the 'e'). Several writers claim that the title of this song 'should' be 'Birmingham Town'. Alan, however, claims that Harry Cox sang 'Burnham' - but one has only to listen to Harry Cox's singing to hear that he consistently sings 'Burniham' (three syllables) in all versions recorded from him. It is entirely possible that he learned the song from Mr Lock, given Harry's habit of searching near and far for his songs. Alan suggests that Vaughan Williams and Butterworth's interest in the song may Alan suggests that Vaughan Williams and Butterworth's interest in the song may have been because it is in the Dorian mode, rare in English song. I have heard the words decried as 'sexist', as the man beats his wife, but he does so sadly and reluctantly, having been cuckolded while he was working away at sea - in fact, the song reflects a sailor's fears. Mr Lock also sang another song in Dorian mode, New Garden Fields (Roud 1054), arousing much interest from the collectors. It is such a pity that Vaughan Williams rarely troubled to note the words from his singers as it does a disservice to us the listeners, and to the singers themselves. Textual variations can be as interesting as musical differences.
I find very little to criticize in this production. Alan Helsdon has done a sterling job in piecing together a musical jigsaw from which many pieces were missing, and lilte Volume 1, this CD-ROM should appeal to anyone interested in English traditional song.
Christopher Heppa - 7.12.18
First published in Folk Music Journal, 11, 4 (2019) with permission of the editor.
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