English Folk Song

... an introductory bibliography based on the holdings of the Vaughan Williams
Memorial Library of the EFDSS.  2nd edition.  David Atkinson, editor

ISBN 0 85418 178 4

Memory fails me as to whether it was Bo Diddley or Chuck Berry who told the world that you can’t judge a book by the cover.  Whichever it was, one would not expect the question to apply here, for this is one book which appears to be very firmly defined by external appearances; Front coverJohn England, hoe in hand, on the front; Cecil Sharp, notebook in hand, on the back.  As if to emphasise the rubric, a number of the latter’s manuscripts are reproduced in the background.  However, as David Atkinson’s introduction points out, the term folk song nowadays raises difficulties Sharp’s contemporaries could scarcely have dreamt of.  To some extent that is because the songs of the folk have changed.  To a greater degree it is because we, who are the observers of the folk, have come to see the world in a different light.  If there are more uncertainties and shades of grey in these benighted times, there is also a lot more pragmatism and a greater willingness to judge the songs via the aesthetics of the folk, rather than via the aesthetics of the collector.  It was interesting therefore to find the introduction offering a definition of folk song which bears several points of resemblance to ‘classic’ views on the idiom; ‘it is a song of a kind which is known to have been passed from person to person for their own cultural use, often though not always orally, and which has been shaped stylistically by this process, as well as songs of similar style which may be known only from printed sources’.

I am confused because I do not understand what is meant by the term ‘own cultural use’.  Is the word cultural being used in an artistic context or a sociological one? Whichever applies, the term culture intimates some form of social exchange; there has to be a giver and receiver.  I am therefore left struggling with the concept of personalisation implied by the use of the word ‘own’.  Also, there is the notion, again implicit in the wording, that the tradition has been shaped by the vagaries of oral transmission, rather than by the conscious creativity of individuals working within it.  Finally, the definition surprises me because one might nowadays expect it to focus on folk song as an indigenous element of the popular social milieu, rather than on its formal characteristics and modes of transmission and stylistic development.

We can be excused for not making too much of this.  As the introduction stresses, this is a bibliography, not an intellectual treatise.  Nevertheless, the form and content of the book might reasonably be dictated by editorial definition of the subject matter.  Let us consider the form.

It is in truth, a most worthy little volume.  It replaces the earlier edition of 1996 and supplements several dance bibliographies from the same source.  Just over five hundred entries are contained between those covers and they are broken down into an impressive array of thematic sections and sub-sections.  Each begins with an introduction which describes the area encompassed and provides cross references for those entries that do not slot neatly into prescribed sections.  Topics embraced include Revivals, Song and Ballad Research, and Singers and their Songs.  There is a large general section given over to non-regional Song and Ballad Collections, and this is supplemeted by several regional sub-sections.  A further segment details Early Manuscripts, Early Print and Broadsides and there are various listings for occupations, travellers, carols, customs and children.  Besides entries for books and articles, limited space is given to sound recordings and to manuscript collections and to web sites; it was a welcome sight to see Musical Traditions getting a sizeable plug.  For those whose appetites have been whetted there is even a section detailing Bibliographies, databases, and other aids to research.  This may be a reflection on the state of folk song research, but only one entry in this section relates to electronic format.  That one covers Steve Roud’s estimable Folksong and Broadside Indexes.  The accompanying note conveys the enormous size and power of these two databases, and their importance as a research tool.  However, the fact that they can be purchased from Steve at very reasonable cost could, I think, have been made a little plainer. 

This may be a reflection on how little attitudes have actually changed since Sharp’s day - some eighty-four entries appear in the section covering Song and Ballad Research, while there are only thirty-one in the section concerned with the people who carried the songs, plus a further fourteen cross references.  Nonetheless, I was glad to see Flora Thompson’s Lark Rise to Candleford listed.  It is a beautiful book and, where songs are concerned, its illustrative power does not stop with the famous chapter describing the Wagon and Horses.  If folksongs are people’s lives set in meter and melody, then books like this tell us an awful lot about folksongs.  There are quite a few more which would have found a fitting place in this section.

Listings are in accordance with bibliographic convention, and enough information is shown for users to track material down, either through library or book shop.  However, in these days when International Standard Book Numbers make such a handy search instrument, I was surprised that the only ISBN I could find is located on the back cover of this book.  Also, it would have been helpful had the index been split into authors and subjects - tracing the works of particular author via the index is rather tedious and is not helped by the maze of categories.  Indeed, the layout gives rise to feelings that this a book for novices, rather than for seasoned researchers.  These feelings are somewhat borne out by the fact that each entry comes with a brief but helpful commentary.  This in fact is one of the strongest points of the book, for Mr Atkinson clearly knows an onion or two.  For instance, David Buchan’s adaptation of the theory of oral-formulaic improvisation to Scots balladry in The Ballad and the Folk has always struck me as less than convincing.  Either I didn’t know or, more likely, memory had failed me, but the book tells us that Albert B Friedman once penned a ‘forceful objection’ to Buchan’s work in this field.  I was interested therefore to find Atkinson’s comment advising us that Friedman’s essay, ‘includes all the references for the development of the theory and the controversy surrounding it up until its date of publication’.

So, assuming you’re a book on folksong, what words of sweet seduction might secure you a place between the covers of this one?  Well, that definition of Atkinson’s could set you thinking that you’d better not set the collectors of late Victorian England spinning in their graves.  Back coverIn fact the list of entries is a useful charting, not just of the progress of folk song studies over the last century, but also of changes in the attitudes of scholars during that time.  Sharp, Karpeles, Gilchrist and Lloyd all receive an airing, with the author pointing out how their work measures up to modern academic standards.  More recent commentators, such as Palmer and Shields, whose writing falls within classical definitions, are also to be found, and there are voices such as Boyes, Harker, Russell and Gammon, who dissent with varying degrees of fury from what has gone before.  I found myself questioning a few of the entries, but not many.  For instance, given the limits of space, I doubt the wisdom of including two articles by Jim Carroll on the songs of Irish travellers, merely because they happened to be domiciled in England at the time their songs were collected.  Also, while the two books listed by Bohlman and Nettl are wide ranging and thought provoking ethnomusicologies, neither, unfortunately, has very much to say about England.

However, if we cannot fall-out over what has been included, I am more concerned with what has been omitted and why.  As we have seen, the reader who wants to track down Buchan’s exposition of the oral-formulaic theory can do so without difficulty.  Despite being entirely concerned with Scots balladry, The Ballad and the Folk is listed as item number 85.  However, those who wish to compare Buchan’s reasoning with that of other scholars will need to search beyond this volume.  If Albert B Friedman’s article is listed, William B McCarthy’s application of the theory, to the ballad repertoire of Agnes Lyle of Kilbarchan, is not.  Neither is that worthy testimony to the oral-formulaic nature of Pan-European balladry, which Peter Burke advanced as part of his Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe.  Both of these fall outside the book’s catchment area, as does the tome which set the whole thing rolling - Albert B Lord’s Singer of Tales.  One accepts editorial decisions not to include them; one wonders what was so special about Buchan.  In similar vein, most scholars would probably agree that the ballad studies of Wells, Pound and Gummere are too outdated to merit inclusion - there are more modern, and better, elucidations.  However, if a book has emerged to replace Wimberley’s venerable Folklore in the English and Scottish Ballads, I failed to notice it among the listings.

Anglo-Scots cross fertilisation is a fact of life for folk music scholars of these isles, and is by no means confined to ballad studies.  I would therefore have thought Ian Olson’s article, concerning Folk Song Society influence on the Greig-Duncan collection, sufficiently significant to merit inclusion.  It may be though that the Folk Song Society collectors themselves are not all that well represented.  For instance, someone recently gave me a partial listing of the writings of Lucy Broadwood - I counted 11 items which I could not trace in this bibliography.

Doubtless, creating an entry for everything that has ever been written about English folksong would entail a much bigger book.  Indeed, the fact that this one runs to just 503 entries leads me to suspect that a decision was taken to make a cut off at around that figure.  Cutting the coat to fit the cloth is understandable, but I wonder about the criteria by which the final selection was arrived at.  Quite obviously, some sort of quality standard has been applied.  Again, that is fair enough.  An enormous amount of dross and drivel has been written under the aegis of the term ‘folk’ and it is good that this tome is virtually free from such material.  For instance, I empathise with presumed editorial desires to exclude Fred Woods’ Folk Revival, which one critic described as execrable.  However, it is unfortunate that the altogether better Laing-Denselow-Dallas-Shelton collaboration, The Electric Muse, could not have found a place.  It is a pop-oriented book on an aspect of music somewhat removed from the grass roots of English traditional culture.  Nevertheless, it is one of the few sources of hard information on the early folk revival in this country.

However, gut feeling tells me that space and scholarly standards are not the only factors to have governed the content.  It is time we went back to judging this book by the cover.  On the front, just above John England’s head, is the legend, ‘based on the holdings of the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library’.  Above it is the subtitle, ‘an introductory bibliography’.  These two pieces of information align with my earlier observations about non-initiates, and pretty well frame what this book is about.  It is a partial listing of VWML possessions designed for those enquirers who are less than familiar with the byways of English folk music scholarship.

Please do not knock it.  It would be a rare anglophile who could plunder these pages without encountering something he or she wasn’t already aware of, or fail to find it a useful aide memoire.  As far as I am concerned, whenever the words England and folksong cross-tabulate in my brain, this will be the place I shall start looking.  Nevertheless, the term bibliography carries with it a notion of completeness which the present volume fails to satisfy.  Memory does not disown me this time.  It was Chuck Berry who had all that trouble getting through to Long Distance Information.  Like the rest of us, he would have found life a lot simpler with a bigger directory.

Fred McCormick - 24.5.99

English Folk Song: an introductory bibliography based on the holdings of the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library of the English Folk Dance and Song Society.  2nd edition.  David Atkinson, editor.  Vaughan Williams Memorial Library Leaflet No 23.  EFDSS 1999.  ISBN 0 85418 178 4.  67 pages plus addenda.  Price £4-50, plus 50p postage.

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