Steve Roud (pictured here) is a professional librarian, but has dedicated his spare time to folk traditions and music. He is now 68 (a lifetime of learning) the compiler of the uniquely valuable FolkSong Index that bears his name, and the author of, among others, The Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Britain and Ireland, and (with Julia Bishop) the newest incarnation of The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs. This latest book, (with Julia Bishop 's ethnomusicology contribution) is indeed a major survey: in hard covers and 671 pages before you reach the notes and index, it is not recommended for reading in bed.
It seems to me that Steve Roud is trying to change how we, by which I suppose I mean folkies, like to think about traditional music, though the change is already pre-figured in Lloyd's work. The early collectors at the turn of the twentieth century had a feeling that English folk song would vanish for want of their efforts: that they had got to it just in time. And it is true that we owe many fine jewels of the music to their efforts at recovery from the oral tradition. But a study of both Roud and Lloyd soon reveals that a great part of the corpus could be traced to, or located in, written works that pre-date the golden years of Cecil Sharp and his contemporaries. There is a vast collection of antiquarian works, broadside pages, chap-books and songsters in which the material had already been preserved; it gathers dust in such places as the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library and the Bodleian (and now accrues virtual dust on the internet). So actually the greater loss would have been the disappearance of English folk song as a living current in modern culture and music: the breaking of the thread that, as I have observed elsewhere in this blog, connects us directly and deeply with our past.
Cecil Sharp thought that folk song was the spontaneous and intuitive exercise of untrained faculties. In some way the early collectors saw this music as arising, like a spring, from some deep collective unconscious. To open Lloyd, and now Roud, is to be soon disabused of this notion: the ideology of primitive romanticism meets an abrupt end when chapter and literally verse can be cited for the origin of most of the work we know and sing today, whether in the sixteenth or nineteenth century or sometime in between.
It has to be said that Steve Roud takes a particular delight in exploding romantic illusions. This must account for the fact that the first third of his book is dedicated to the history of the collectors. All fascinating stuff, but the reader must wait a very long time before consuming the real meat the folkie wants, the story of the songs and music themselves: the stuff which really tickles the palate when you listen to Barbara Allen or The Banks of Sweet Primroses. So compared to Bert Lloyd (who was after all a journalist) Roud's book has a dryish, academic quality, for all its fascination. Lloyd of course had an agenda: he was a product of the thirties, communist, internationalist. But it gives vitality and savour to his writing, and his depth of knowledge seems at least as wide as Roud's. Lloyd has a fondness for placing the music in context both across centuries and continents. Some of this may be fanciful, but it gives his writing richness and depth. It certainly inspired me as a youthful student. Roud permits me to be more cynical about it; but Lloyd's enthusiasm remains a pleasure to read.
Yet context is something important for Steve Roud too: the context in which the music is sung. It is not so much the origin of the song that makes it a folk song but the process it has undergone from the time of its composition (and yes, someone, even if only Anon, did compose it) to the moment when the singer before you reaches the last note. This idea makes the chapter dedicated to historic styles of singing of particular importance, and for all that Lloyd had his own much-parodied singing style, it is not something his book spends much time with. But for Roud the manner and context of performance is the crucial test of whether an item deserves the name of folk song. In this view, our search to find the progenitor of a song, some crowder in a Northumbrian tower, or some street singer in a London stew, matters not at all: the point is how we hear it today: as if in the course of preservation down the years, some unconscious process has acted upon it and it has become of the folk. If you like (and I do) it has become ours. Rather than originating in some collective unconscious, it is absorbed into that unconscious.
A few years ago at the Sidmouth Folk Festival a young woman (who has since become very well known) was introducing on the main stage an outline of Cyril Tawney's little masterpiece, The Grey Funnel Line. It was soon apparent that she was completely unaware of the provenance and history of the song. To her it was just a beautiful song, picked up in a session somewhere. If Tawney had been present, I like to think he would have been flattered by the assumption of his work into the steam of the folk unconscious.
Both Roud (with a large contribution from Julia Bishop) and Lloyd spend chapters on the significance of the ancient modal qualities which the Victorian collectors discovered in many of their songs: up to forty per cent of those collected from oral sources in that period could be categorised in that way. I expect some ethno-musicologist has already analysed the written sources for these works, where they exist, to determine the extent to which the modal quality was present from the outset. But if I can cling a moment to the ship-wreck of romantic illusion, can I think that we are hearing something of what our ancestors expected to hear when they re-made the songs in their own image? That it is an aspect of the English folk process at work? Please?
As for that young lady at Sidmouth: I trust the Performing Right Society caught up with her in the end.