The amazing heritage of English folk songs was celebrated last night in London at the launch of a vast new online archive, The Full English. I was privileged to join this auspicious event at Cecil Sharp House (C#House to the cool kids) and had fun with my friend spotting folk musicians we’ve seen perform in various locations mingling in the crowd alongside key funding and press representatives and family members of some of the original collectors. The evening included the official launch of the website by English Folk Dance and Song Society President Shirley Collins and a showcase of some new songs developed from and inspired by the archive collection by a veritable supergroup of folk talent – led by Fay Hield and featuring Seth Lakeman, Martin Simpson, Nancy Kerr, Ben Nicholls, Sam Sweeney and Rob Harbron.
They opened the music with a version of the Young Servant Man which was collected by Lucy Broadwood in lyric form. Nancy Kerr has added an original tune and she performed it with Fay Hield yesterday morning on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour. The link lets you listen on the Radio 4 site – discussion of The Full English starts at 35:28 or so and song is at 39:30 ish. Nancy plays violin and sings, joined by Fay Hield singing. I found lyrics and alternative collector details on another website as well.
Lucy Broadwood is one of the twelve collectors whose combined archives form The Full English collection, now available online for worldwide use. As well as records and song lyrics, the archive also includes many letters received by the collectors regarding musical matters. One such letter to Lucy Broadwood by the famed folk singer Henry Burstow was the subject of a surprisingly candid anecdote from EFDSS President Shirley Collins as she introduced the collection. She told how she visited the paper based library collections in Cecil Sharp House many years ago, back when the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library was a rather less welcoming or organised place to visit. She read out to us the letter from Henry Burstow dated January 22, 1902, which describes his delight in receiving a written song book from Lucy Broadwood and his earnest wish that he had shared with her more of the 400 songs he knew:
“I sung all of them to an Old Gentleman one Christmas. It took me a month.”
Recognising how precious this treasure of a letter was, Shirley Collins confessed to us how she had rather unofficially acquired the document, and only returned it to the library last year! But the letter is also now online for anyone to discover, and the modesty and dignity of the singer Henry Burstow come across clearly in his own elegant handwriting.
Shirley welcomed Malcolm Taylor, the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library Director to the stage, and he thanked the many individuals and organisations whose hard work and generosity had allowed the project to become virtual reality. Following this they joined together to announce the archive launch.
We then enjoyed some more fantastic music from The Full English band who are today recording the album and will tour the country in the autumn. One highlight for me was a song led by Seth Lakeman on bouzouki. Searching the archive today I can find various mentions of ‘Stand to your guns‘ from the Frank Kidson manuscript collection. I’m not completely sure if this is the same song, or whether the tune was written or new. Seth mentions a song he found ‘Stand by your guns’ here. (It is a version of this song – you can now listen to The Full English version on Youtube – 07/10/13).
The evening came to a formal close with the song from the Alfred Williams collection, ‘Man in the moon’ which gave a great opportunity for the very musical audience to join in. (Also now on Youtube – 07/10/13). It has a great chorus and any regular readers of my blog will know how I love any opportunity to join in with some singing. The evening closed with the opportunity to try out the archive in the interactive iPad zones, and I was grateful for Rowan’s assistance in finding the letter from Henry Burstow I mentioned above. Phase 2 of The Full English project gets even more interactive with a programme of workshops for the public and in primary and secondary schools.
Hopefully this will take the archive material to a whole new generation, and a much more diverse population of British society. Perhaps unsurprisingly the audience last night were almost invariably white, although I was happy to say the average age was younger than I had expected. This is one thing that sometimes makes me feel a bit uncomfortable in folk music events. Where I live, in Birmingham, the only time I am in a large group of all white people is at a folk event (although the Hippodrome audience for Phantom was similar).
I’m all for celebrating traditional English culture and traditions but I don’t want to do this in a way that excludes my neighbours who have a very different heritage. I have wondered whether my Nigerian friend would be welcome to sing one of her traditional songs if she came with me to a local folk club or singing circle. I am sure that most people would be very pleased for her to join in this way, but it only takes one bigot to spoil the party.
Collected from the turn of the twentieth century or so, I’m sure the Full English collection contains some songs with rather outdated attitudes to women or ‘foreigners’. I don’t suppose they will get the publicity, and I hope they aren’t resurrected uncritically. Looking more carefully, both The Full English performed versions of ‘Stand by your guns’ and ‘Man in the moon’ are somewhat cleaned up from the rather more suggestive archive material. Having said that, there are other older important values or surprisingly current ideas that are hidden in folk songs and a true history includes the good, the bad and the ugly. Ideas and stories got into folk songs because they mattered to somebody.
It’s been interesting to think of myself as a collector of songs, with the materials I gathered during the international singing group I ran now gathering dust in my house. Contributed by singers from many nations and including over 50 languages, I have a fascinating collection of songs and harmonies recorded on flip chart paper, in notebooks and as mp3 files rather than using wax cylinders. It seemed important to invite friends, refugees and asylum seekers to share songs from their own traditions and to unite together to let those languages and styles be heard. I did contribute some folk songs from my own background too, and that I had learnt from various church contexts including the Iona Community.
Singing more in folk clubs and folk circles I do share songs I remember from my childhood and from my Dad, as well as songs I’ve learnt/collected via the less traditional methods of festivals, CDs and YouTube. But if I think about doing justice to the legacy of songs that have been entrusted to me, it goes beyond these and crosses boundaries of genre, language and culture. Perhaps the dedication and passion of those at The Full English project can inspire me more.
PS – This is my 100th blog post! Hurrah. It has taken me ages on a mix of technology away from home and finding all the right links and pictures for you. So please do click on a link or two, browse the Full English archive, listen to a clip and enjoy 🙂 Even better, why not leave me a comment?