Classic English Folk Songs

a new edition of the Penguin Book of English Folk Songs
revised by Malcolm Douglas

EFDSS - ISBN 0-85418-188-1  pp.154  14.99

So here we are with the long-awaited new edition of the Penguin Book of English Folk Songs.  It's published by the EFDSS in association with the South Riding Folk Network, and has been revised by one of SRFN's founding members, Malcolm Douglas.  It's presented in the now-standard EFDSS glossy full-colour-covered, paperback format ... but, wait a minute; they're all different sizes!  Cover pictureI seem to recall that, when the English Mummer's Play book appeared in 2002, the publicity blurb said that it was the first of the new publications since Ledgard Jepson had redesigned the Society's corporate image ... and very tasty it looked, too.  Then Still Growing arrived; and gone was the Ledgard Jepson look (apart from the new logo), and the book was 1" taller and 1" wider.  Now we get this one; and it's halfway between the two, both in design terms and in size.  Might I suggest - if there's anyone out there listening - that, when you've just spent a tidy sum on a professional make-over, an important word to remember is consistency.

The cover features photos of three singers; few readers will have any difficulties in recognising Eliza Carthy who, along with her Mum, is one of the finest singers of traditional songs in this country today.  Facing her is Ewan MacColl, pictured at about the same age by the look of it - but about whom the same could never have been said.  An odd choice, I would have thought.  The old gent in the middle is Henry Burstow; he of the enormous repertoire.  I had to ask who he was, since the only photo of him I'd seen didn't look a bit like this one.  He was accounted a very good singer, though I've never heard a recording of him.  Vaughan Williams made some phonograph recordings, but I have a feeling they were either lost or broken; Roud lists no sound recordings of the man.  I'm giving you all this information because it is not, as far as I can see, included anywhere in the book.

Anyway, let's see what's new about this new edition.  We begin with brief Prefaces by Ursula Vaughan Williams and Caroline Clayton (Bert Lloyd's daughter), and a Foreword from Martin Carthy.  These items are new, obviously, but don't really tell us anything new - and nor should we expect them to.  The original Introduction comes next, followed by Malcolm Douglas's Introduction to the New Edition.  Regarding the former: it's a pity that nothing has been added advising the singer to listen to traditional sources of songs, since so much is now available on CD.  Regarding the latter: as this is the first new inclusion of any substance, it's worth looking at in some detail, even though it's only two pages in length.

He begins by telling us how important the Penguin Book was, and its editors were, and noting that this new edition is published in the centenary of the year both Vaughan Williams and Cecil Sharp began collecting.  Because of this, he goes on, 'The intention has been not to change (though the inevitable small errors have been silently amended) but to augment, taking into account developments since first publication.'  Now call me iconoclast, revisionist or revolutionary if you will, but I would have preferred to read a book which was as good as 21st century scholarship could make it, rather than something 50 years out of date, and then have to hunt through it all to find out what has needed changing.  This is essentially the same criticism which has been made since 1997, by people far more eminent than me, about the Rounder Records re-publications of the Alan Lomax Collection.  What is it about the big guns of the earlier Revival which appears to make their work sacrosanct?

We get better news next: since the original bibliography refers to many out-of-print and hard-to-find books, and does not include any published subsequently, a new one has been prepared by David Atkinson.  As one would expect, this is pretty good, and is divided into sections as follows: Standard Reference Works; Folk Song and Ballad Studies; The English Folk Revival; Folk Song Collections; Specialist Record Labels; and Online Resources.  It would not be true to say that it doesn't still contain plenty of out-of-print and hard-to-find books, but I guess that's almost inevitable.  Mind you, it looks hopefully toward the future by listing the Child CD-ROM from Heritage Muse - which is still not yet published in the UK.

Many readers will remember Bert Lloyd's propensity for, and skill at, 'improving' songs.  They may also remember that he was far less good at owning up to it.  So we now find Mr Douglas writing an extraordinary section where he says both 'there is no intention of questioning the editors' aesthetic judgement' and 'some texts have been extensively re-written without comment', and concludes 'there have been times when I have roundly cursed Lloyd for his creativity'.  This is the section in which he explains that the original Notes on the Songs have been given 'Supplements' containing Roud, Child and Laws numbers, additional references, omitted verses, etc.  One might have hoped that the 'extensively re-written' texts would be identified and corrected, but I can see little evidence of it.

The original Penguin Book was produced for a popular market; changing times and interests must mean that this new edition engages with a more specialist one.  Accordingly, the "Never mind your pretty little head about that" attitude which placed the Notes on the Songs at the back of the book seems entirely out-of-place today.  I would have much preferred to find the original (but corrected) song, together with its omitted or additional verses, and the Notes, all together in one place.  Would that have insulted the hallowed memory of the original editors?  I think not.

Reasonably substantial biographies of the editors follow, as do some Acknowledgements pertinent to the new edition.  No problems with any of that.  Next are the original Note on the Presentation of the Tunes, and the three Specimen Accompaniments.  Well, if you must!

Then we get to the 73 songs.  They are presented almost exactly as in the original, but the larger page size allows for larger and much clearer text and staff notation.  I don't know whether there were any errors in the original notations, and can find no indication of whether there were, or whether they've been corrected.  The only real difference is that additional information on the singer is included: ie. for No 1, All Things are Quite Silent, we now get: Sung by Mr Ted Baines, Plummer's Plain, Lower Beeding, Sussex (R.V.W. 1904).  My italics indicate the new additions.

That accounts for the first half of the book which, really, doesn't give us a great deal of new information.  The second half, though, is very different.  Here we find the original Notes to the Songs together with their supplementary notes.  These include, among other things, references to items in the Bodlean on-line database - a very valuable time-saver!  Not wishing to bore you with all the details I'll confine myself to saying that there's a great deal of interest here - not least in the verses missing from the original.  But I can't quite leave it without passing on one delightful snippet I found: did you know that the 'green bed' in the song of the same name was 'a temporary one, typically made up with a mattress stuffed with greenery'?  But the new section which follows has to be the best possible reason for buying this new edition.

'The Singers' section gives something of what is known about (all?) the singers whose songs appeared in the first half of the book.  It's reasonably substantial, running to 21 pages, and Mr Douglas's short introduction is clear and helpful.  About some singers little or nothing is known beyond possible sightings in Parish Registers and Census returns; about others (like Henry Burstow or William Bolton), so much that there's not room for it all here.  That said, what is included is fascinating and useful; most particularly in the case of the references to the manuscripts, collections and books in which these and other songs of theirs can be found.  This really is first class stuff, and greatly to be applauded.  The aforementioned Bibliography and an Index of First Lines conclude the book.

My 1961 copy of The Penguin Book cost 17p (three shilling and sixpence); this one costs 15 quid.  If that price inflation terrifies you, it's worth remembering both that a gallon of petrol cost around six bob (30p) in those days, and that a second hand copy of the Penguin will set you back between 12 and 14 today!  Some you win, and some you loose!  So, is this new edition worth buying?  My judgement would be "Definitely, yes!"  It's better presented, its pages (thanks to acid-free paper) won't go brown like the old one, and its supplemented Notes and Singers section are absolutely invaluable.  Some damned fine songs in there, too.  An essential purchase.

Beyond all that, this new publication has got me thinking - as all good things should - about some peripheral, but equally important matters.  To start at the bottom, so to speak, a question presents itself: what exactly is the purpose of a book of songs like this?  My thoughts on the subject can be found in the Enthusiasms pages.

Rod Stradling - 20.1.04

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