Sing London/Singing History, and the Take Six website
Two interesting events in London this week have set me thinking again about traditionality in music.
Tonight, June 8th, at the British Library, Sing London launch their regional Singing History booklet. This is one of a series of eight such local pamphlets, which will be supported by educational material, covering Oxfordshire, Plymouth, Sunderland, Manchester, Norfolk, Kent, and Birmingham. The booklets will also be available for download here, where four are already online at the time of writing. The London booklet is not currently available there, but is on the British Library site.
The booklets vary in quality, and I'm unimpressed that some unfinished booklets have been uploaded. The Sunderland booklet lacks an introduction or acknowledgements (evidently having used the Plymouth template for the latter), while the Oxfordshire booklet lacks some pictures and has the wrong cover. Notwithstanding its rough edges, the Sunderland booklet is the clearest-designed as an educational tool. I'm looking forward to the Kent booklet, which has been put together by the educational group Music for Change, and seems to cover a fairly broad range of local occupations.
As an organisation, Sing London are more interested in the vernacular practice of singing than in traditional song per se. For someone used to the folk scene, this makes a refreshing change. There are domestic song traditions that are not usually included in folk song collections, although they are clearly thriving. At a now-defunct karaoke night in E7 I would sometimes hear unaccompanied rebel songs and country ballads in with the usual pub r'n'b and pop power ballads, suggesting (at the very least) that singers had other repertoires of songs apart from their karaoke favourites. It hinted at different registers of singing.
The Singing Histories lean more towards the folk scene. According to one press release, the project 'aims to preserve regional songs by making them accessible to new audiences, thereby giving folk music back to the folk'. Sing London have worked on this with the English Folk Dance & Song Society. Accordingly they cover some good songs collected by earlier folksong collectors, and the London launch will also publicise the recorded collections in the National Sound Archive. In the case of the London booklet, this means a number of songs mentioning London recorded from traditional singers from outside the city, which may not exactly reflect the city's music.
Some of the booklets also contain songs written more recently in 'the folk idiom', ie written and sung in a folk club culture. I am not dismissing such songs (I have written some myself). Many songs by Cyril Tawney (right), for example, have a very wide circulation. (One is in the Plymouth booklet). My anxiety is that they may not reflect a more representative and/or thriving singing culture. Perhaps I am unnecessarily over-sensitive on this count - the London booklet does contain 'Maybe It's Because I'm a Londoner', after all, which I don't believe I've ever heard in a folk club - but I have always been uneasy about presenting folk-club composed songs as being synonymous with the tradition they aim to reproduce. They can, and do, acquire a traditional life in certain social groups, but at the moment of composition they are not traditional. They are awaiting the selection of the folk process. This may be the problem in publishing broadside songs which never attained any broader traditional circulation: they have an historical value, but may not reflect actual traditions of singing.
The notion of the 'folk idiom' itself is somewhat problematic. It is based on a selective recording of folk songs by earlier collectors, who cherry-picked from singers' repertoires. In many cases they were more interested in (some) songs than in where and when they were sung. The folk clubs developed, to some extent, to perpetuate this model of folk song and folk singing. I'm not saying that it's wrong (it has developed in its own way), just that it may not adequately reflect wider aspects of traditional singing. There has also been a tendency to draw a line of equivalence between the traditions of the folk club and the traditions of the singers from whom club singers learnt their songs. Both are certainly traditional, but they are not quite the same.
Viewing 'tradition' as a series of artefacts can underplay the dynamic role of the people who actually perform that tradition. After all, if a tradition has to be 'given back' to the folk, might this not suggest that 'the folk' had already stopped using it as a tradition? This slightly curatorial tendency rubs up against Sing London's overall purpose of getting people to sing.
Any apparent contradiction here may only be resolvable in the practice of singing. I don't hold with the contrarian view that, because the collectors were only reflecting part of the repertoires of singers, we should therefore reject everything they actually did collect. I'm delighted, therefore, that on Tuesday evening at 6.30pm the EFDSS's 'Take Six' website goes live. This lottery-funded project has seen the digitisation of six manuscript folksong collections covering the first half of the 20th century - Janet Blunt, George Butterworth, Francis Collinson (below), George Gardiner, Anne Geddes Gilchrist, and brothers H.E.D. and R.F.F. Hammond.
I've been previewing the site for a while now, as I have a special interest in Collinson's work. It's a complete digitisation of every page of manuscript, fully indexed and searchable. In the case of the Gilchrist collection, this means that the complicated cataloguing has finally been standardised. Full access to the images of the manuscripts will be followed by an educational outreach programme. It's a great resource, and gives some idea of the riches that lurk in the corners of the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library. Hopefully it will facilitate further local research to place the collected songs in the broader context of vernacular singing.
I've been mulling over ideas like these for some time now. A couple of other recent events have also been preying on my mind, but I'll come back to them. First I have to go off and sing.
Welcome to the folklore blog of Paul Cowdell. I'll post here details of ongoing research, bits and pieces from previous fieldwork, items of news, and anything else that seems to fit.
I got interested in folklore research while working as an actor/facilitator in community theatre. I was initially interested in folk song, which remains my abiding love, but I'm easily persuaded that all aspects of folklife are fascinating and worthy of study.
I took an MA in Folklore and Cultural Tradition at the National Centre for English Cultural Tradition (NATCECT) at the University of Sheffield, graduating with a Distinction for my Dissertation on 'Traditional Song in Social Context: A Study of Romney Marsh'. I won the Folklore Society's President's Prize in 2006 for an essay on dating an unpublished agricultural protest song in the Francis Collinson folk song collection. Having done fieldwork for the Smithsonian Institution's Folklife Festival 2007, I went over to Washington DC to work there as a presenter. I have continued to do presentation work, and have made regular appearances on radio discussing aspects of folklore.
I completed a PhD at the University of Hertfordshire, where I was looking at contemporary belief in ghosts. The thesis is available online here. I am a serving committee member of the Folklore Society.
You can drop me a line at paul.cowdell AT talk21.com (@ replaces AT)