Enthusiasms No 29
A collection of shorter pieces on subjects of
interest, outrage or enthusiasm ...
Steve Roud, formerly Honorary Librarian of the Folklore Society, has been compiling data on Broadside Ballads and Folk Songs for a number of years, and has, more recently, been making the results of his work available to both Institutions and the public as a pair of computer databases. Currently they contain between them almost 235,000 records. The data is supplied in comma-delimited text form, ready to be imported into your own database program, once you have set it up ready to receive and display the data - not a particularly difficult task. This year, Steve is also supplying the Indexes already set up for Microsoft Access '97 and Filemaker Pro (v4), and you may find that you can Import these popular formats directly into your own Database program.
Each record contains information about the ocurrence of a song - in a book, broadside, manuscript, on a sound recording, etc. - and there are 20 fields to each record. A complete list of these fields is given below, but the more important ones are Title, First line, Performer, Collector, Place, Date, Type, Roud number, Other number. Rather obviously, few, if any, records will contain data in all 20 fields.
The Broadside Index started out as a simple database of songs which had been printed on pre-1900 broadsides, chapbooks, and popular songsters. The Index functions as a major finding-aid in its own right, but was also designed to be of particular assistance to the folk song researcher. In its latter role, it soon became clear that a wider range of genres needed to be listed and, although broadsides and chapbooks still constitute the bulk of the Index, the following types of song are increasingly included: music hall, parlour ballads, blackface minstrel, community songbooks, ballad operas, radio singers' folio albums, hillbilly and race records, and so on. There is no official cut-off date for inclusion, but in practice there is very little material from after the Second World War.
The Folk Song Index comprises English-language traditional songs wherever in the world they are found. Unpublished material such as field-recordings and manuscripts is included as well as published books, articles, sound-recordings and so on. No hard-and-fast definition of 'traditional' is at present possible, and the term is used loosely here to denote all songs 'collected' as folk songs from non-professional singers, with the exception of performers who constitute part of the 'folk song revival'. For example, singers such as the following, normally called 'folk singers', are excluded: Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Martin Carthy, Ewan MacColl, A L Lloyd, the Dubliners, the Spinners, and so on.
Once a song has been included on its own merits as a song with at least one 'traditional' version, earlier appearances of the song are included to aid historical and comparative research. These items are copied from the Broadside Index, and do not in themselves denote traditional performances.
My database program (Dataease) is ageing and unsophisticated, but it does allow me to switch instantly from 'Record View' to 'Table View', so I now switch to Table and have a look at how many examples of the song I've found, and to look at their Roud numbers. I do this because, as here, there is sometimes more than one song using the same title. A quick look at the FIRST LINE and SUBJECTS fields convinces me that Roud No 118 is the song I'm after, so I then do a second search, removing 'Barley Straw' from the TITLE1 field and substituting '118' in the ROUD NO field.
This gives me 134 instances of the song, and I can now start looking for the information I want - which I generally do by sorting the records on a particular field. A sort on TITLE1 shows me that The Jolly Beggar is the most common title; that Harry Cox's Barley Straw is quite unusual; and throws up Davie Faa with its interesting Gypsy connections. A sort on the PLACE field confirms my supposition that it's a Scottish song (some 65 instances), but also shows me that it was very well-known in England (with 45). This field can be rather misleading, in that you can easily assume that a song was particularly popular in a certain area of the country, when the truth is merely that it (like Somerset) was heavily trawled by a number of assiduous collectors. Similarly, a concentration of instances from Norfolk often turn out to be all from Walter Pardon!
Sorting on TYPE reveals that although the majority of sourses are textual (books, manuscripts, journals, etc), there are in fact some 44 sound recordings ranging from the BBC Harry Cox of 1947 through to Doc Rowe's recording of Lizzie Higgins in 1988. So I know that the song has remained popular among singers until quite recently, and can guess that some older Travellers may still be singing it today. I also notice that very few broadside entries are present, so I switch to the Broadside Index to check. Here it's very easy to see that a number of the 'book' entries in the other Index are in fact broadsides - but published in books.
Searching on the DATE field is rather disappointing, principally because most of the earliest sightings of a song are undated. All you generally learn is what you already knew - that most songs were collected in the first half of the 20th century and that most sound recordings were made in the 1960s and '70s. In this example, though, a PREVIOUS SOURCE field reveals that The Gaberlunzie Man appeared in Ramsay's Tea-Table Miscellany of 1750.
The SOURCE field is probably the most useful, and I find that - should I want to compare some versions from sources in my possesion - I can find examples in Purslow's Foggy Dew, MacColl & Seeger's Travellers' Songs, Sam Henry's Songs of the People, and no fewer than eight CDs and LPs, including our own Smith Family's Band of Gold (MTCD307).
I hope this brief overview has given some indication of just how useful the Indexes can be. Information of the sort I've outlined would have taken hours to assemble from books and record sleeves, and even then, would have only been gleaned from the comparitively few sources in one's own collection. Here, more or less everything is accessible.
However, Steve can only include the information he knows about, and any user of the Indexes is sure to come upon a gap in the record sooner or later. When this happens - instead of grumbling about it - contact him and give him the information ... then it will be available to all users in the next update!
A subscription to both Indexes costs £50 - money well-spent, in my opinion. Contact Steve at the address at the head of this piece. For those who don't want, or can't afford, to buy them, copies are available at several institutions including The Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, London; Taisce Ceoil Dúchais Èireann, Dublin; and the School of Scottish Studies, Edinburgh. What follows is a selection of extracts from the Indexes' User Manual which I hope will answer most of the questions you may have at this point.
Rod Stradling - 5.1.02
The identification of 'different versions of the same song' is intellectually problematic, but necessary in practical indexing terms and will be adequate for the majority of the Index's users. With important exceptions, the Anglo-American folksong corpus is remarkably stable and thus largely amenable to this treatment, but the identification of similarity between 'versions' is not an exact science and is necessarily subjective. It is certainly the case that further refinement in numbering will be necessary, but it is equally certain that this will only be possible once the rough groundwork has been done. Any future sub-division of Roud Numbers will be by means of decimal numbers rather than letters.
It must be noted that the system is not nearly so effective with material from other traditions, most notably Afro-American genres such as spirituals and blues. These are, in general, far more textually 'fluid', and although numbers are assigned to entered songs from these traditions, the user should be aware of the limitations of this approach.
For songs to be given the same number, a reasonable degree of textual similarity has to be present, in addition to any similarity of plot. In isolated instances, the form of the song is allowed weight, for example the 'Alphabet' songs of Lumberman, Sailor, Soldier, etc. in which the format is "A is for the…., B is for the…".
In cases where a particular rendition appears to be made of identifiable pieces of more than one numbered songs, two or more Roud Numbers can be assigned.
000 numbers: Where songs are entered on the basis of the title only (such as in a repertoire list or collection inventory), these entries are assigned the temporary number 000. If further information comes to light, this number can be changed. Editors who plan to provide Roud Numbers in their publications should never quote 000, but should always contact Steve for a new number to be assigned.
Changed numbers: Where mistakes have been made by the compiler, or further information becomes available, numbers assigned to particular versions may need to be changed. Periodic updates to the Index will reflect these changes. Where numbers are completely replaced by others, the superseded number will not be used again for another song.
The Folk Song Index focuses firmly on the songs themselves. Singers' names (where known) are included, but no other details such as their age or occupation. Place and date of recording are included, but no information on where or how the recordings were made, and so on.
For singers who were documented by many fieldworkers over a number of years, it is often difficult to be sure whether separate representations refer to different performances, and this problem will only be solved (and then not with complete confidence) once all the representations have been identified, located, and indexed. A major planned development of the Indexes will provide a master catalogue, which will provide space for an overview of each song, but this is still under development.
Until that time, the principle on which the Index is structured is of multiple entries for multiple representations. In other words, if a song is published in three books – even if we know that each is a representation of the same performance - it is entered three times.
The answer would seem to be to standardise and be damned, but unfortunately this is not as simple as it seems. Indeed, those who argue in favour (favor) of standardisation (standardization) always assume that it is their own standard which will be used.
There is also a long-standing principle in cataloguing that catalogue entries should faithfully record the details of the material, even if these are known to be wrong. Thus, a variant spelling on the title-page of an early book should be reflected in the catalogue entry, and even a patent spelling-mistake should be retained. The reason is not difficult to ascertain. Not only are particular editions or even copies of early works often only distinguishable by such differences, but the expert user must always be able to find an item using its actual details and not need to guess what the cataloguer has made of them. The apparent 'mistake' may indeed have been deliberate anyway. Many 19th century books are deliberately entitled Scotish Songs, for example.
The adopted procedure has thus been, somewhat reluctantly, to leave the spelling as it is in the source in most cases, and users are hereby warned to use their intelligence and the truncation facility built into most databases to find what they want.
|Minimal access to resources
|Maximum access to resources
|Specific item needed
|Comparative material needed
Most users will be found at points between these two extremes, and will, in fact, move about on the scale, depending on their current research needs and interests.
The Indexes seek to cater for all these different types of users and needs, but this very universality can become a barrier to simple use. A basic search for some songs can bring up hundreds of 'hits', and, as users of the Internet will know, too many hits is almost as bad as too few.
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