Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Recalled to Life

This weekend sees the latest in the Folklore Society's Legend and Tradition weekends. These are highly successful themed weekends, taking place outside of academic venues and (mostly) outside London. Having participated at last year's event on The Sea I can confirm that they are great fun.

This year's, unusually, is in London, but this was decided by the possibility of a magnificent venue. For where better than Brompton Cemetery to hold a weekend on Death in Legend and Tradition? The papers are the usual engagingly eclectic mix of entertainment and information. Some will be academic, and some won't be, which is one of the triumphs of the legend weekend format.

I'm looking forward to catching up with some old and new friends. The speakers include Scott Wood of the always-interesting South East London Folklore Society, Alan Murdie of the Ghost Club, Andrew Bennett of the Folklore Society etc etc. I'm looking forward to catching up with Helen Frisby, who is talking about English Folk Funerals: she and I have been corresponding through the FLS News on the subject of corpse-touching.

It'll be nice, too, to meet up once more with that very fine storyteller Pete Castle. I've expressed ambivalence about storytelling before, but I really enjoyed the week I spent listening to Pete at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in 2007. (The photo opposite is of Pete singing 'Hopping Down in Kent' at the opening ceremony of the Festival). It was also a great pleasure to hear the appreciation of punters and technicians alike for his storytelling. One sound engineer said his perfect afternoon would be sitting with a cool beer listening to Pete tell stories.

Of course my trip to the cemetery is also about my ongoing doctoral research, but I'm delighted to find that I still just enjoy the subject for its own sake. In part, too, I'm using this weekend to ease me back into a social world of folkloric research after the traumatic disruption of the last few months. In the cheesiest of Victorian anthropological manners, Death may ease my passage back into life.

Friday, 13 August 2010

Ate Doornbosch

I am sorry to learn, belatedly, that Ate Doornbosch (right, photographed in 2005) died last month at the age of 84.

As ever, I won't repeat the work of the obituarists. There is a nice Dutch tribute by Louis Peter Grijp, who had written well about Doornbosch in the book Blues en Balladen: Alan Lomax en Ate Doornbosch, twee muzikale veldwerkers. Ken Hunt wrote a fine obituary (in English) in The Independent. Dutch commentators have noted that the Independent piece was some way ahead of the Dutch press, which barely marked his passing.

I am pleased that his death has been noted. A lot of Dutch-language ethnography and folklore remains largely unknown because it is published in a minority language, (I was surprised to find that J. G. Frazer had made this complaint in 1934), but there is nothing negligible about Doornbosch's work.

In the field, building on the work of his colleague Will Scheepers, Doornbosch recorded around 5,000 folk song items. (Scheepers herself had recorded around 2,000). For any collector this would represent a substantial achievement. For a collector working in the second half of the twentieth century, in a country that appears to disregard its folksong heritage even more than the English, this is worthy of great admiration. Doornbosch began broadcasting a weekly radio programme, Onder de groene linde (Under the Green Lindens), in 1957. It ran for 1,316 episodes, before it was finally wound up in 1993.

Doornbosch played his field recordings on the show. This helped fuel the Dutch folk revival of the early 1970s, but it also generated wider attention from other tradition-bearers. As with the BBC's broadcasts of the 1950s, Doornbosch received correspondence from listeners who had heard a song and knew something similar, and would he be interested ... He was, and thus other singers were documented.

Aside from the ongoing spread of his research in this way, it meant that his collection focused on domestic singers, many of them women who were at home in the afternoons when his show was on. This led to a focus on rather different singing traditions than the largely male pub-singing events that dominated English fieldwork in the years immediately after the war.

Doornbosch's chief interest was narrative songs. It sometimes seems odd that he overlooked occupational song in his fieldwork, given his sympathetic interest in the working lives of singers. However, his focus on narrative songs and ballads gives his collection real depth in this area.

He was rather poorly served by CD releases of his field recordings for a long time, although there were some magnificent songbooks. The lack of available recordings was rectified in 2008 with the release of the boxset Onder de groene linde (left). The 9 CDs contained 163 of his and Scheepers' recordings. The songs were fully transcribed and translated in the handsome book that went with the set, while a DVD in the package contained two television documentaries on Doornbosch, and the last broadcast of the radio show.

His well-documented collection is also an integral part of the Dutch Folksong Database hosted by the Meertens Instituut in Amsterdam. Here you will find song texts, tune transcriptions, and also sound recordings. Not everyone enjoys listening to field recordings, but there are some magical gems in his collection. Just to give an idea, try this performance of 'Jan Alberts stond op en die zong er een lied' by Douwe Johannes Booi. I picked it more or less at random: it's a version of 'Heer Halewijn' (Child 4), which was one of Doornbosch's favourite songs. (Georgina Boyes has suggested that much of A. L. Lloyd's writing on 'The Outlandish Knight' was taken wholesale, and without attribution, from Doornbosch). There's more like that throughout his collection.

I want to stress the qualities of the performances he documented because there's been a tendency to treat them as somehow secondary to the significance of his ethnographic research. Some Dutch scholars I spoke to were sceptical, ahead of the CD release, that domestic recordings of elderly singers would find an appreciative audience. Ate Doornbosch's exhaustive researches in some areas of Dutch song have informed our thinking about transmission and geographical spread of material, certainly, but they have also documented something truly wonderful in folk life.