The term folk, as in folksong, folk tale, folk dance, etc, is a product of the 18th century Romantic Movement. Writers such as the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen realised that some people, often illiterate, knew stories that had been passed from generation to generation by word of mouth.
In 1847 the Reverend John Broadwood, continuing in this tradition, published a collection of songs that he had collected from 'rustics' in Surrey and Sussex. This was Old English Songs - a book that is now considered to have been the first collection of songs, both words and tunes, to have been published in England. We are told that Broadwood was unable to transcribe the tunes and so, having noted down the words from his parishioners, he enlisted the help of a church organist, WA Dusart, who, at first, said that Broadwood's tunes were 'wrong' because some of the songs were being sung in so-called modal scales.
In 1890 members of the Reverend Broadwood's family issued a revised edition of Old English Songs, this time titled Sussex Songs. The new edition contained an additional sixteen songs, most of which had been collected by John Broadwood's niece, Lucy Broadwood, and the success of the publication encouraged Lucy, in association with the music critic JA Fuller Maitland, to produce another book, English County Songs, which appeared in the summer of 1893. According to the composer and folk song collector Ralph Vaughan Williams, "This may be said to be the starting point of the modern folk song movement."
English County Songs was only one of a number of similar books to appear in the 1880s and 1890s, and interest in folksong was such that a society, the Folk-Song Society, was founded in 1898. Both Lucy Broadwood and Fuller Maitland were elected to the committee.
It was thought, at the time, that folksongs were almost a thing of the past, and so the Society published an annual journal of songs that were being collected ("saved for posterity") by Society members. However, within a few years, the Society was moribund and on the brink of collapse. Indeed, the Folk-Song Society would probably have disapeared had Lucy Broadwood not been elected the Society's Secretary in 1904. Together with Ralph Vaughan Williams and the folksong collector Cecil Sharp, Lucy Broadwood completely revitalised the Society. She also became the editor of the Society's Journal and was responsible for some of the most important song collections to appear in the Journals. In 1929 Lucy Broadwood was elected President of the Folk Song Society but died suddenly, a few months later.
Lucy Broadwood came from a privileged family (she was a member of the Broadwood piano-making family). And we may say that the other members of the Folk Song Society were also from similar backgrounds. In order to collect folk songs in the early part of the 20th century it was essential that you had time and money. And you also had to be able to read and write music. Many Society members were either musicians or composers, and their entry into the world of folksong had been via their music.
Interestingly, one of the most valuable collections of English folksongs was made by a man who was not a member of the Folk Song Society. His name was Alfred Owen Williams. He was a member of the working class, he was always short of money, and he was unable to read or write music.
Alfred Williams was born in 1877 in the village of South Marston in Wiltshire, just a few miles to the east of Swindon. Alfred, the fifth of eight children, was raised by his mother - his father, a Welsh carpenter, having left the family when Williams was three years old. In order to raise some money for the family Alfred worked as a human scarecrow in the neighbouring fields, and only attended school on a part-time basis. When he was eleven he left school and began work as a ploughboy, before gaining work as a blacksmith in the Railway Works in Swindon.
Starting out as a rivet-hotter, Williams progressed to the role of hammerman and operated a steam hammer in the Great Western Railway's Carriage Works' Stamping Shop. According to one observer, "(The shop) must have been the filthiest, oiliest, steamiest place on the whole of the railway system, and it was no wonder that his health cracked during this period, never to recover."
In 1903, Williams began a correspondence course in English literature from Ruskin Hall in Oxford. Impressed by some of the Latin quotations that were included in the course, he set about learning Latin, Greek and French. The course lasted for four years and was taken at a time when Williams was a full-time worker in the Carriage Works.
In October, 1903, Williams married. He continued to work and study, and began to write. Soon afterwards, he discovered the works of Richard Jefferies, a writer who had been born in 1848 at Coate, only a few miles away from South Marston. Williams produced a book of poems, Songs in Wiltshire, in 1909. Two other volumes of poetry appeared in 1909 and 1911 and, in 1912, Williams produced his first prose work, A Wiltshire Village, a study of South Marston and its inhabitants. For some reason or other, the Vicar of South Marston was upset by the book and publicly burnt a copy. Williams continued to produce prose and, in 1913, his book Villages of the White Horse appeared. This was really a continuation of A Wiltshire Village and was devoted to some of the villages that surrounded South Marston. To my mind this is one of the great books of English country life.
In September, 1914, ill-health forced Williams to give up factory work. It was then that he published Life in a Railway Factory, a book that he had written in 1910. Many people today consider this book to be his greatest achievement. However, as we shall see, 1914 was also the year when Williams began his quest for folk songs in the Thames Valley. In November, 1916, despite his poor health, Williams decided to enlist in the army. He was sent to Ireland, where he spent some time in hospital, suffering from a dyspeptic illness. He was then sent to India and did not return home until November, 1919. Three years later Williams produced his third volume about country life, Round About the Upper Thames, and this was followed, a year later, by Folk Songs of the Upper Thames.
In 1920 Williams and his wife built a house in South Martson, which was named 'Ranikhet' after the place in the Himalayan foothills of India where Williams had been stationed. This was the time when Williams also taught himself the ancient Indian language Sanskrit, enabling him to produce a translation of Tales from the Panchatantra, a classic of Indian literature. Following his return from India, Williams had tried to support himself and his wife by the money earned from his writings and from running a small market garden. But this was not enough, and Williams' health, frail at the best of times, finally let him down. He died in 1930, the same year that Tales from the Panchatantra appeared in print.
Folk Song Collector
Let it at once be understood that my intention never was merely to gather folk-songs for the purpose of adding to the more or less undigested mass of materials in the collections already existing. That is not my business. What I wanted to do was, as nearly as I could, to complete the work I have undertaken in my prose volumes and to leave a permanent record of the language and activities of the district in which I find myself.
So opens the introduction to Folk Songs of the Upper Thames. Alfred Williams actively began to collect folksongs in 1914, "to complete the work I have undertaken in my prose volumes", but it is clear that he was aware of folksong and folk customs prior to this date. Here are three extracts from Villages of the White Horse, published in 1913.
The ballad singers came regularly to the village; every Christmas, when Granny was a girl. There was a band of minstrels, and one preceded the others, carrying a great wooden bowl for the ale upon his head. As they walked they sang an ancient piece beginning:
Wassail, wassail, all over the town.
Our toast is white, and our ale is brown;
Our bowl it is made of a sycamore-tree,
And a wassail bowl I will drink unto thee.
The bowl was replenished at every farmhouse; all the company quaffed from it, and wished good health to the farmer and his wife.
The step-dancing was a very pleasing pastime, exceedingly popular with all. In these young and old, male and female, took part, and the young girls and women wore pretty caps of lace and silk, and those who were possessed of the daintiest received prizes, awarded by judges on the spot. In the step-dancing the ground was marked out with parallel lines, and the dancers were allocated to certain spaces; as the fiddles played they proceeded along the lines, working out figures with great skill and pretty motions to the tune of:
Charlie over the water,
Charlie over the lea,
Charlie loves to kiss the girls,
As sweet as sugar candy.
Here, now, in the winter evenings, instead of the village gossip of ploughing, threshing, reaping, revelling, and the rest, the talk is chieftly of the town: of football, the cinematograph shows, the theatre, 'Sacco' the fasting freak, and a good deal of other sickly mess and rubbish, not half as manly and interesting as the hearty speech and ready wit of the independent crowd of cheerful rustics that assembled in the big room at the Blue Lion, shouting to the landlord for better beer, and singing snatches of song, some of them well worth remembering, such as this of the old carter's, rarely tender, and suggestive of a beautiful story:
We never speak as we pass by,
Although a tear bedims her eye;
I know she thinks of our past life,
When we were loving man and wife...
Or the old poaching song of 'Thorneymoor Fields':
Now Thorneymoor Fields are in Nottinghamshire,
Right whack ti fa lary, right whack ti fa laddie de;
Now Thorneymoor Fields are in Nottinghamshire,
Right whack ti fa laddie ee day.
The very first night we had bad luck,
For one of our very best dogs got shot,
For one of our very best dogs got shot,
Right whack ti fa laddie ee day.
A good many of these old songs and chanties survived about the villages till late years, but they are fast dying out now, and are replaced by the idiotic airs of the music-hall, or the sound of music is heard no more.
This final statement is interesting and clearly adds a second reason for why the folksongs should be collected. To begin with, we were told that the collection was made, "to complete the work I have undertaken in my prose volumes"; but now, seeing that the songs "are fast dying out", we have an additional reason for preserving them. In fact, this is very similar to the reason often given by members of the Folk Song Society for why they wished to collect these songs. Williams's comment that the songs "are replaced by the idiotic airs of the music-hall" would also have struck a receptive chord with Society members, many of whom had a great dislike for the Music Hall and its songs.
But, in a passage printed in the Wilts and Gloucestershire Standard, we can clearly see that Alfred Williams's beliefs were actually very different from those of the people who made up the Folk Song Society.
Certain errors are to be avoided. A common one is that of imagining that the inhabitants of a locality are incapable of appreciating their ballads and songs. Consequently, the average collector, when he has obtained any pieces, never thinks of restoring them to the peasantry, to whom they belong, but carries them off to a new atmosphere, exhibits them to a few intellectuals and is satisfied with that. In reality, the pieces are lost about as completely as they were before, and perhaps, relatively speaking, more so, since he who communicated them to the collector feels weakened by having parted with them and, thinking them safe, is himself now inclined to neglect them.
I always think it radically wrong to take from many thousands in order to give to several hundreds and probably less then that. And folk songs never belonged to the intellectuals. They were the property of the people. And if they stand any chance of being remembered and held as cherished possessions it will be by the simple peasant folks, those who have not been educated out of their nature. We are all ready and eager to give a man that which belongs to another. But who will ever be so simple and ingenuous as to think of rendering him his own? That is what we want to do in the matter of the folk songs. Give them back to the people. Schools and universities do not want them. They are lost amid our great towns and cities. They cannot live in the atmosphere. And the dwellers there have other compensations, poor ones though they be. It is in the villages and small country towns where they would be welcomed. If it were in my power I would see that there were not a cottage in the land but possessed a book of the ancient national folk songs and ballads, together with examples and summaries of other choice and useful literature.
Unlike many Society members, Williams clearly grasped the fact that songs were seen by the singers, and by the community as a whole, as being personal possessions. This was, of course, completely at odds with many other collectors, such as Cecil Sharp, who believed that the only way to preserve folk songs was to make them available in published form to schoolchildren.
In order to do this, Sharp and his colleagues would edit the song texts to remove anything of an "objectionable (ie, sexual) nature" and, in doing so, they often turned splendid songs into incomprehensible jingles. It is little wonder that the songs failed to excite the imagination of the schoolchildren who, ultimately, rejected them. In all fairness to Sharp, though, it should be added that he was meticulous in accurately writing down the song texts in his field notebooks and later generations, from about 1960 onwards, have come to value his work by singing the complete songs again, this time by way of the folksong revival of that period.
We are told that AlfredWilliams was aware of the collecting and publishing work of Cecil Sharp and that he admired Sharp. Did this awareness come, I wonder, before he began collection folksongs in 1914, or was he, perhaps, told of Cecil Sharp by the Bampton singers Shadrach 'Shepherd' Haydon or Charles Tanner, who gave songs to both Williams and Sharp?
Sharp noted songs in Bampton in 1909, several years before Williams visited these singers, and there are some discrepancies between versions of the same songs as noted by Sharp and Williams. Sharp visited Haydon on at least five occasions, while Williams may only have visited the singer on one occasion. (There is a slight confusion over Shadrach Haydon, whose surname could have been Haydon, Haden or Hayden. At one point, Williams referred to him as 'Old Sheddy', but in the introduction to Folk Songs of the Upper Thames he is referred to as ''the old shepherd of Hatford". This is rather odd because although born in Hatford, a few miles to the south of Bampton, Haydon had lived in Bampton for many years. It would seem that Alfred Williams never met, nor corresponded with, Cecil Sharp, although they would clearly have had much to talk about had they done so. Interestingly, on occasion both collectors were suspected of being German spies as they went about their collecting business!
By the end of 1914, Alfred Williams had collected some 200 songs from singers in Wiltshire, Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire and, by 1916, this number had grown to about 800 songs, of which 755 have survived to the present day.
The work of collecting the songs is laborious and tedious, though it is also very interesting and pleasurable. I have everywhere met with much kindness and hospitality, especially among the cottagers, who possess a real enthusiasm for songs and works of the intellect, and who often discover more taste and humane feelings than those in a superior position and with better facilities of education.
Williams travelled everywhere by bicycle in search of songs, often at night along icy winter roads.
The greater part of the work of collecting the songs must be done at night, and winter is the best time, as the men are then free from their labours after tea. This necessitates some amount of hardship, for one must be prepared to face all kinds of weather, and to go long distances. Some idea of the amount of travel necessary to the work may be gathered from the fact that in nineteen months I cycled more than 13,000 miles.
It should be stressed that Williams only collected the texts of the songs, presumably because he was unable to read or write music. He explained that he had no time to collect the tunes, but, being a poet, it may well have been that he was more interested in the words of the songs, rather than the tunes. Collectors such as Cecil Sharp and Ralph Vaughan Williams had the necessary musical training to enable them to note both words and tunes to the songs. But, like Williams, there were other collectors who could not write music, and many of them would take musicians with them on their song-collecting trips. Here one thinks especially of George Gardiner who collected around 1,400 songs, chiefly in Hampshire during the period 1904-09 and who was accompanied by various musicians at different times of his collecting career.
According to folklorist Frank Purslow:
In the case of Williams it is very likely that he was so unmusical and so out of touch with what the man-in-the-street was singing and had sung in the recent past, that he had not the expertise necessary to know what to accept and what to reject, and gathered everything that came his way; so that, side by side, with the standard songs of the country tradition, one finds songs by Arne, Hook and Dibdin; Wade's Love Was Once a Little Boy and Piercy's The Beggar Girl; widely-known popular pieces such as The Days We Went A-Gipsying, Chorley's Brave Old Oak and Bailey's Isle of Beauty; compositions by Stephen Foster, and songs such as Early in the Morning, Baltimore and Old Bob Ridley; and even Work's Father, Dear Father, Come Home With me Now!
This was not, however, to be seen as a criticism of Alfred Williams, as Purslow went on to explain:
One should not, however, jump to the conclusion that the collection is of no importance. Certainly, to the academic folksong researcher it has many faults; but to anyone with an open mind and the experience necessary to be able to read between the lines occasionally, it is of considerable interest. Compared with the material gathered by the majority of other collectors - whose criteria were essentially based on musical considerations - the result of Williams' work is a much more human document, recording, as it does, the whole range of songs (with the exception of the more bawdy pieces) which a certain section of the population were singing at a particular point in history.
Williams, in keeping with other contemporary folk song collectors, did indeed try to avoid bawdy songs, as this comment shows:
I have more than once, on being told an indelicate song, had great difficulty in persuading the rustic, my informant, that I could not show the piece, and therefore I should not write it.
But, unlike some members of the Folk Song Society, who were extremely puritanical when it came to songs of a sexual nature, Williams clearly sympathized with the singers who were confused by his reluctance to note down such songs.
Besides the legitimate pieces there were many "rough" songs in circulation. I make no apology for them. I do not know, indeed, that any is needed. They were rude, but not altogether bad. Many of them were satirical. In fact, the most of that kind of which I have heard were so. They dealt chiefly with immorality; not to encourage or suggest it, but to satirise (sic) it. No doubt they served the purpose for which they were intended, in some cases, at any rate, though we of our time should call them indelicate. And such, to us, they certainly are. Yet the simple, unspoiled rustic folks did not consider them out of place. They saw no harm in them. But they knew not shame, as we do. They were really very innocent compared with ourselves.
Just occasionally, though, it seems that the 'simple, unspoiled rustic folks' get the better of Williams, when they slipped in the odd erotic metaphor that Williams seems to have missed. Take his note to the song T Stands for Thomas, for example:
A quaint old song, composed by one who, whatever other qualifications he might have possessed, was never a naturalist, or he would not have wished to climb to the highest tree-top to rob the cuckoo's nest.
One criticism made of Williams's collection by members of the Folk Song Society was that Williams, not being trained as a musician, had, as Frank Purslow mentioned above, noted down all manner of songs, many of which were not 'folk songs' in the eyes of the Folk Song Society members. But - and this is actually the beauty of his collection - in doing so, Williams has shown us more or less just what singers were actually singing in parts of the Thames Valley during the period 1914-6. For example, Williams appears to be unique in telling us that singers were singing glees - part-songs, sung unaccompanied, which were originally based on 17th century madrigals. They were extremly popular during the period 1750-1850, but were thought to have more or less disappeared after that date. In Folk Songs of the Upper Thames we find this note attached to the songs Here's a Health to all Good Lasses and Come, ye Friends of a Social Life.
Glees were usually sung by those having slightly superior tastes in music; that is, by those above the average intelligence among the villagers, or by such as had been trained at some time or other to play on an instrument, it may have been a fiddle or cornet in the local band, or in the choir on Sundays at the church.
It should, though, perhaps be mentioned here that while folk songs were once well-known, they were not necessesarily easy to find.
A countryman never sings to a stranger. First win his heart and confidence before you can expect a song from him. And this requires time and effort on your part. That is why, as I have said, the folk-songs escape attention.
Cecil Sharp, who had once lived and worked in Australia, felt the same when he said that English folk songs were like the duck-billed platypus, an animal that was seldom seen, even when one was standing on a river bank directly above an underground nest. I think Sharp would also have agreed with Williams when the latter spoke about the difficulties of persuading people to sing, athough I doubt if Sharp would have approved of Williams having to "buy" a song or two.
I have sometimes been forced to spend several hours of manoeuvring with people before I succeeded in tapping their store of folk-songs. And sometimes I have had to entreat, and almost to implore; but I have never once absolutely failed to obtain a song from an individual after I had learnt that he was possessed of some. Once or twice I have had to buy a song outright, as though it had been a saucepan or a kettle... The great majority, however, when once you have crept into favour with them, give you the songs freely, with apologies for their rudeness. They are surprised that you should discover yourself to be interested in such a thing as a country ballad, and I have more than once been reminded that "only fools and fiddlers learn old songs".
Nor should it be forgotten that Williams, like Cecil Sharp and the other collectors, was often having to tease the songs from elderly singers, many of whom were in their nineties when Williams called to note their songs. One 94-year-old singer told how, as a young man, he had worked in the fields alongside a former soldier who had fought at Waterloo. There is also the touching story of one man, aged 99, singing to Williams only a few hours before his death.
Who, then, were these simple rustics? Luckily, Alfred Williams has told us quite a bit about the men and women who sang for him. There was, for example, Elijah 'Gramp' Iles of Inglesham who, mistaking Williams for the new village curate, quoted a short passage from the scriptures on their first meeting.
In my perambulations of the Thames Valley I have met with fine old characters, but none of them were quite as distinct, original, and rich in memories as 'Gramp'. The songs he sang were all very old. Several of them he learnt from his grandfather, while only a lad: they must have been in the family for generations.
Then there was Henry 'Wassail' Harvey of Cricklade who, at first, refused to sing to Williams. Once, when Williams called on the octogenarian, he found Harvey suffering from a cold, and some medicinal rum soon had the old man singing!
Daniel Morgan, a traveller and dealer, gave Williams a very rare text for the old ballad Bold Sir Rylas. Morgan lived in Bradon Woods:
(His) great-grandfather was a squire, and he disinherited his son and also attempted to shoot him, lying in wait for him for three days and nights with a loaded gun, because he courted a pretty gipsy girl. In spite of the squire's opposition, however, his son married the gipsy lass and left home to travel with his wife's kindred and earn his living by dealing, and attending the markets and fairs. Daniel Morgan... is a witty and vivacious man. He lives among the woods of Bradon, the relic of the once large forest of that name, in which the famous Fulke Fitzwarren is said to have defied the King at the time of the Baron's War. I have spent pleasant hours in the cottage, during the dark winter evenings, listening to the old man's songs, which he sang sitting on a low stool cutting out clothes-pegs from green withy, while his wife sat opposite making potato nets.
And there was Gabriel Zillard of Hannington.
Of Zillard it is said that he would unbutton his shirt-collar at six in the morning and sing for twelve or even eighteen hours, if necessary, with the perspiration streaming down his cheeks.
According to Williams, Zillard was not the only person with a large repertoire of songs.
It was common, years ago, during wet weather, when labour out of doors was at a standstill, for the rustics to assemble at the inns and have singing matches, in order to see - not which could sing best, but which could sing most.
There were usually two singers at such events, which could last for up to two days, each singer taking a full day to sing through his repertoire. And their repertoires would always be of old songs.
And I have never once known a rustic, or any one else accustomed to singing the old folk-songs, who would deign to learn any of the modern popular pieces. They speak of them with contempt, and feel insulted if you should ask them to sing one. "What! That stuff! That thing! Call that a zong! Ther's nothin' in't, maester. Ther's no sense ner meanin' to't, ner no harmony,"they will answer you.
When I was collecting folk songs many years later, I too often heard similar comments from the people who were giving me their songs. Many singers that I met clearly preferred the old songs to the sort of songs that they were hearing on their radios. I would also say that Williams was right when he spoke of the types of songs that his singers preferred to sing.
Different people sing different songs. I mean different types of songs. And that is natural. It is a matter of temperament...The songs of old Elijah Iles, of Inglesham, were gently humorous and witty, such as "The Carrion Crow and the Tailor", "Sweet Peggy", and "The Old Woman Drinking her Tea". The majority of the pieces sung by David Sawyer, the sheep-shearer of Ogbourne, were rather sentimental. William Warren, the South Marston thatcher, sang the romantic-historical kind, such as "Lord Bateman". Shadrach Haydon, the old shepherd of Hatford, preferred the strong and formal order. Thomas Smart, of Stratton St Margaret, would sing none but what were moral and helpful. Those of 'Wassail' Harvey, of Cricklade, were roughly hilarious, such as "How I Could Ride if I Had But a Horse", "Dick Turpin", "Jarvis the Coachman", and so on; and those of Mrs. Hancock of Blunsdon, were of the awful sort, i.e. dealing with tragedies, lovers, and blood, such as "Johnny, the Ship's Carpenter", "The Gamekeeper", and others.
Interestingly, according to Williams:
The women's songs were chiefly the sweetest of all... They were rarely sung by the males. The women might sing some of the men's pieces, but the men seldom sang those of the women. They appreciated their sweetness but they felt that the songs did not belong to them... Most of the men sang in the inns, and their pieces were consequently more or less publicly known, while the women's songs were sung over the cradle and might not often have been heard out of doors. I have never omitted an opportunity of searching for the women's songs, where I suspected any to exist, and I was never dissappointed with anything I obtained as a result of such inquiries. Examples of the kind and quality of songs sung by women are discovered in such pieces as "Lord Thomas and Fair Eleanor", "Grandma's Advice", "The Seeds of Love", "Lord Lovel stood at his castle Gate", "If you will walk with me", "Cold blows the Winter's Wind", and so on.
So, where did these songs come from in the first place? And why were they disappearing? With the exception of a handful of locally composed songs, almost all the songs that Alfred Williams collected were known, in one version or another, throughout England, lowland Scotland and parts of Ireland. When we think of the word folk we tend to think of an oral tradition. But, in the case of folksongs, this is not quite right. For several hundred years the texts of songs, including what we now call folk songs, have been printed on single-sided sheets of paper called broadsides. Hundreds of printers throughout the country have issued these sheets and this was how the songs texts passed into the tradition. Alfred Williams was clearly aware of this tradition.
The songs were mainly obtained at fairs. These were attended by the ballad-singers, who stood in the marketplace and sang the new tunes and pieces, and at the same time sold the broadsides at a penny each. The most famous ballad-singers of the Thames Valley, in recent times, were a man and woman, who travelled together, and each of whom had but one eye. They sang at all the local fairs, and the man sold the sheets, frequently wetting his thumb with his lips to detach a sheet from the bundle and hand it to a customer in the midst of the singing.
But, Williams also wrote:
It must not be forgotten that very few of the agricultural labourers of a hundred years ago could read or write.
If the singers were illiterate, how then did the songs pass into the tradition? Well, as I said, thousands of these sheets were sold every week, so some labourers must have been able to read. Williams reports that many of his singers said that they could learn a song after only hearing it sung once or twice. Other Edwardian song collectors have also noted similar comments from their singers. So perhaps the songs were learnt from the broadsides by a few people and that others, hearing the songs sung, were able to quickly learn them.
But why were the old songs no longer being sung? Williams offers us a number of reasons.
The dearth, or, at any rate, the restricting of the fairs, and, consequently, of the opportunities of disseminating the ballad-sheets is one cause of its decline. The closing of many of the old village inns, the discontinuance of the harvest-home and other farm feasts. The suspension and decay of May games, morris dancing, church festivals, wassailing, and mumming are other obvious reasons.
Change to village life came in other ways, too.
Another factor was the advent of the church organ and the breaking up of the old village bands of musicians. That dealt a smashing blow at music in the villages. Previous to the arrival of the church organ, every little village and hamlet had its band, composed of the fiddle, bass viol, piccolo, clarionet (sic), cornet, the "horse's leg", and the trumpet or "serpent". They were played every Sunday in church. But they did not solely belong to the church. All the week they were free to be used for the entertainment of the people.
In fact, according to Williams, the entire structure of country life was being broken up.
Another reason for the disappearance of the folk-song is that the life and condition of things in the villages, and throughout the whole countryside, has vastly changed of late. Education has played its part. The instruction given to the children at village schools proved antagonistic to the old minstrelsy. Dialect and homely language were discountenanced. Teachers were imported from the towns, and they had little sympathy with village life and customs. The words and spirit of the songs were misunderstood, and the tunes were counted too simple. The construction of railways, the linking up of villages with other districts, and contact with large towns and cities had an immediate and permanent effect upon the minstrelsy of the countryside. Many of the village labourers migrated to the towns, or to the colonies, and most of them no longer cared for the old ballads, or were too busy occupied to remember them.
But, again according to Alfred Williams, one factor above all others was responsible for the disappearance of public singing. Singers were forbidden to sing in the village inns.
This was the most unkind and fatal repulse of all. It was chiefly brought about, I am told, not by any desire of the landlord, but by the harsh and strict supervision of the police. They practically forbade singing. The houses at which it was held i.e. those at which the poor labourers commonly gathered, were marked as disorderly places; the police looked upon song singing as a species of rowdyism.
And, finally, the songs could not compete with the rapid changes in entertainment that were spreading throughout the land.
The gramophone and the cinema have about completed the work of destruction, and finally sealed the doom of the folk-song and ballad as they were commonly known.
No wonder Alfred Williams felt the urgent need to collect those songs that were still remembered by his elderly singers.
In 1915 Round About the Upper Thames was published in serialised form in the Wilts and Gloucestershire Standard. This was the third of Williams's country prose books. The paper then asked Williams to submit some of the folk song texts that he had collected, so they too could be published in a similar fashion. He was offered three pence (1p) per printed song - not much when we realise that Williams would sometimes cycle up to 70 miles before collecting one song! In all, about 250 songs were printed in the paper and Williams pasted the cuttings onto cards, these becoming the draft for his book Folk Songs of the Upper Thames.
But it was not until 1922 and 1923 that Round About the Upper Thames and Folk Songs of the Upper Thames were to appear in book form. Williams had stopped collecting songs in 1916, when he joined the army, and it may be that ill health, together with the work involved in building Ranikhet, had prevented him from working on these two books.
Surprisingly, Folk Songs of the Upper Thames was not reviewed in the Journal of the Folk Song Society, although, in the 1945 Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society (the continuation of the Folk Song Society's Journal) Frank Howes, the music critic of The Times and then a leading member of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, did provide a short review of Leonard Clark's biography of Williams, Alfred Williams, His Life and Work, which concluded with the following:
Williams did not add music to his varied accomplishments and the tunes find no place in his collection of folk-songs, but he was a true collector in that he tapped the oral tradition of rustic singers and as a student right outside the folk-song 'movement' his book (i.e. Folk Songs of the Upper Thames) has a special value for us.
There is an unconfirmed suggestion that, following the publication of Folk Songs of the Upper Thames, the Folk Song Society offered to print the rest of the collection, but Williams refused help, apparently believing that the Society simply wished to put two or three choice songs into their collection. To my knowledge, the only extant letter to Williams from a member of the Folk Song Society is one from the Yorkshire folksong authority Frank Kidson, who argued with Williams that some of his collected songs were not really folk songs. It goes without saying that comments like that would not have been well received by a man like Alfred Williams!
A Different Drummer
Alfred Williams was a remarkable man, one who left us a unique legacy. It has been said on occasion that Williams felt himself to have been a failure, and, during his lifetime, he certainly did not receive anything like the praise that is now given to him. His beautifully written prose books tell of a way of life that is now long past. His song collection is of great value, and yet he was criticised by some members of the Folk Song Society, who failed to review his book Folk Songs of the Upper Thames in their Journal.
And it has only been after his death that his importance has been fully realised. Interestingly, his treatment by the Folk Song Society was similar, in some ways, to that given to Alice E Gillington, another 'outsider' song collector, who lived with gypsies in the New Forest and who collected and published many of their songs. Correspondence between Gillington and Lucy Broadwood shows that the latter did not think too highly of Miss Gillington's songs. Like Alfred Williams, Alice E Gillington was not a member of the Folk Song Society.
Much can be said about Alfred Williams's legacy and there is much to be thankful for. As Albert Mansbridge, the founder of the Worker's Education Association, once said, "England is greater to-day, because Alfred Williams lived a brief day in her life."
My thanks to Malcolm Taylor, Librarian of the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, London, for his help in the preparation of this essay.
Most of the quotations mentioned above can be found in the following works:
Baldwin, John R. Song in the Upper Thames Valley: 1966-1969 in Folk Music Journal Vol. 1. No. 5 (1969), pp. 315-349. The English Folk Dance and Song Society, London.
Clark, Leonard. Alfred Williams, His Life and Work Basil Blackwell, 1945. Reprinted, David and Charles, 1969.
Clissold, Ivor. 'Alfred Williams, Song Collector' in Folk Music Journal Vol. 1. No. 5 (1969), pp. 293-300. The English Folk Dance and Song Society, London.
Purslow, Frank. 'The Williams Manuscripts' in Folk Music Journal Vol. 1. No. 5 (1969), pp. 293-300. The English Folk Dance and Song Society, London.
Williams, Alfred. Villages of the White Horse 1913. Reprinted by Nonesuch Publishing, Stroud. 2007.
Williams, Alfred. Folk Songs of the Upper Thames Duckworth & Co., London. 1923. Various reprints.
Anyone wishing to know more about Alfred Williams' folksong collection may also wish to consult:
Bathe, Andrew Lee. Pedalling in the dark: the folk song collecting of Alfred Williams in
the Upper Thames Valley, 1914-1916. A thesis submitted for PhD, National Centre for English Cultural Tradition (NATCECT), University of Sheffield. May 2006. (Copy held in the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, London).
Mike Yates is a former editor of the Folk Music Journal, and, like Alfred Williams, has collected folk songs in the Thames Valley and elsewhere.
The songs collected by Alfred are now online - the large majority of a collection of more than a thousand songs which have been uploaded by Wiltshire County Council. Click here to go to the beginning of the list.