Folk Songs collected by Ralph Vaughan Williams, a selection edited by Roy Palmer
Llanerch Publishers, ISBN 1-86143-072-8
This collection was first published by Dent in 1983. The new title, although it has been used before for a selection from RVW's collection, is thoroughly appropriate. It is the title of the first song that he noted, from Charles Potipher of Brentwood in Essex in December 1903. There are 120 songs here, 70 of which were previously unpublished. And what a fine selection it is. The songs are grouped geographically by county and this clearly shows how wide the collector spread his net. There are items from Cumberland, Durham and Yorkshire in the North, Herefordshire in the West, Norfolk in the East as well as a greater concentration from the South East, especially from Essex, Sussex and Surrey, nearer to where he lived. The notable geographical exception is the South-West, where Baring Gould and Sharp had been busy.
There are good versions of fairly well-known songs like Lovely Joan, Bold Grenadier and Just as the Tide Was Flowing and there are also plenty of unusual ones too, like The Ranter Parson, a comic tale about an amorous preacher who gets repulsed with the aid of a swarm of bees, Edward Jorgen about a Scandinavian robber in Manchester and a fine ballad called Hurricane Wind in which an unfaithful woman is taken away by her dead lover's ghost. The editor tells us that this is a condensation of a 36 verse Scots chapbook called The Perjured Maid. I like the way that each song is preceded by an introduction which sometimes gives the singer's name, highlighting particular features of the text, or telling us about the origin of the song. This makes the book more readable than many song collections. It is an excellent reference source, but I also enjoyed it as a cover-to cover read.
There are also detailed notes at the end of the book and an interesting introduction which gives details of RVW's collecting techniques, his collaborations with Ella Leather in Herefordshire and with George Butterworth, and his ventures into travellers camps, pubs and workhouses. There is also quite a lot of detail about the singers and their backgrounds. I would have liked to see a description of the manuscripts themselves, which would I feel add value to the numerical source references, and I was surprised to see how many items are listed as 'MS wanting'. This is not explained. These are songs published in the Journal of the Folk Song Society which are presumably not in the MS in the British Library. This is an intriguing omission about which I would have liked to read more. Also, why are the original manuscripts in the British Library, but his personal scrapbook in the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library at Cecil Sharp House?
New to this edition is the short addenda which lists a few references to recordings of the songs by contemporary performers, and a metaphorical nod towards the Century of Song CD issued last year by the EFDSS to mark the centenary of the Folk Song Society. This CD includes the first ever public release of some of RVW's phonograph recordings. The reference to it is, however, incomplete. At least one item, The Banks of Green Willow, so beautifully sung by David Clements of Basingstoke, which is published in the book, has not been noted.
Roy Palmer says in his introduction that many questions about Vaughan Williams collecting remain unanswered. Perhaps some of the questions have been researched since the original publication, but what stands out for me are the Editor's enthusiasm and intellectual curiousity. The book makes me want to go away and find out more about the singers: the phenomenal Henry Burstow of Horsham, Sussex, who had a repertoire of 420 songs, Willy Knaggs the sexton from Westerdale who played the bass fiddle and Jake Willis, veteran of the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny - to name but three. I would like to know more about the melodic characteristics of the tunes RVW chose to note, and to make comparison with the many songs he did not select. He would quite often record only a fraction of a singer's repertoire. I would like to know more about his phonograph recordings. Did he omit to catalogue the cylinders he made? There are more questions than answers, as usual.
This is an excellent book and its reprinting is very welcome. I hope Llanerch's venture into this subject area will be a success. Bushes and Briars is a book for singers and enthusiasts. Roy Palmer has edited a fine collection of texts and tunes for singing, but he has also given full details of his emendations and the additional sources he has used. I feel after reading it that both the collector and the editor demonstrate in their work a true appreciation and love of the culture which produced these songs. At the front of the book, the Editor has chosen a most apt quote, which Ralph Vaughan Williams himself used in his National Music (1934): "There is in them, as it were, the spiritual life-blood of a people."
If you have not already got a copy of this book, here is a second chance which you should not miss.
Ruairidh Greig - 3.6.99
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