Folk Song in England by Steve Roud
Faber & Faber – 17 August 2017
Anyone who has an interest in Folk song or folklore and superstition in Britain will have more than likely stumbled upon the books of Steve Roud (if not his Roud Folk Song Index). In 2012, he, along with Julia Bishop, gave us The New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs, a long overdue update of the 1959 classic with the addition of lesser-known discoveries, complete with music and annotations on their original sources and meaning.
His latest offering is Folk Song in England which also includes music chapters by Julia. It sets out to investigate the wider social history of traditional song in England and draws on a wide range of sources to answer these questions and much more. To say this is a much-needed publication would be an understatement. This is less about the song and more about – Where did the songs come from? Who sang them, where, when and why? What part did singing play in the lives of the communities in which the songs thrived? More importantly, have the pioneer collectors’ restricted definitions, and narrow focus hindered or helped our understanding?
It covers folk song in England from the sixteenth century to about 1950.
With this in mind, those that have followed the arguments surrounding the first and second folk revival will know this book is going to enter murky waters, how can it not? Roud refers to the shortfalls of many publications which failed to advance our understanding:
What we desperately wanted from our new scholars was a measured and insightful assessment of the history of our field, its main characters and its social context. What we got, from this quarter, was facile bourgeois-bashing, the insistence that the only possible relationship between the classes is exploitative, and that the working classes always have right on their side, while the others never do. And that the bourgeoisie had invented the whole notion of ‘folk song’ for their own purposes.
Having read many of Roud’s other books he does have a way of rising above all the murky meanderings and approaching his subject with great insight, objectivity and authority. He’s more than aware of where evidence is lacking and points this out very early on in Folk Song in England.
The song collectors didn’t document all the songs that were sung by those they collected from or note their opinions or daily lives. Roud approaches it in a way that the collectors should have done from the start. Instead of asking: ‘What folk songs did people sing?’, he is more concerned with the question ‘What songs did the folk sing?’
From the very introduction, you are offered two opposing quotes, one from folk-song collector and one from a singer.
Song-collector Alfred Williams:
Only fools and fiddlers learn old songs.
The second quote is from Mont Abbott of Oxfordshire who learnt songs in the family circle (born 1903)
‘Singing costs nowt,’ Dad used to say. ‘When a man’s a-singing he needs no help; when a man’s a-cussin’, that’s when the bugger’s got trouble.’
The book is divided into four parts. Part One sketches the development of the interest in ‘song cultures of ordinary people’ over the past 250 years including the Edwardian and Victorian song collecting boom. As I’ve stated before, Roud is not afraid of tackling slippery questions that still vex many today including the definition of ‘folk song’ and ‘tradition’… Roud doesn’t shy away from this and deals with how the Edwardian an Victorian song collectors own ‘interests and agendas’ have influenced the ideas and assumptions we have today.
Part Two presents a chronological account of what we can discover about everyday song practices in each century since 1500, twinned with an investigation into those ‘other musics’ available at the time.
Part Three investigates the song traditions of specific groups of people (sailors and soldiers), particular contexts (at work, in church), or types of song (bawdy or dialect).
Part Four covers how traditional song and music functioned in everyday life and attempts to “get under the skin of local traditions by addressing topics such as what the singers themselves thought, how they sang, where they learnt their songs, and where they sang them.”
The book draws and a huge range of sources, the bibliography alone is very extensive. Most importantly, Roud succeeds at furthering our understanding by being objective rather than hindering it as others have maybe done before.
In his Afterword, he notes “As more and more historical sources are digitised and made readily available, we may even be approaching a golden age of folk-song research, if only we have the people to embrace it.”
There in lies a challenge. Go and buy the book…”because this culture was so every day, so common that no one thought to take much notice, makes it worth our attention.”
It’s an essential and inspiring read.
Folk Song in England is available via Kindle
The Hardback is released 17th August via Faber and Faber. Order via Amazon here.