The New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs

Edited by Steve Roud and Julia Bishop

Penguin Classics ISBN 978-0-14-119461-8

Cover picture My 1961 copy of The [original] Penguin Book of English Folk Songs cost three shilling and sixpence (17½p in today's money), which is about what a gallon of petrol used to cost in those far off days.  As you'll doubtless know, this is about what a gallon (5.5 litres) of fuel costs today - and is also the average price of a paperback book.  So inflation is roughly in step for these two commodities.  The New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs will cost you £25 + p&p from Penguin or the EFDSS (though only £16.30 with free delivery, from Amazon) which sounds like a huge amount to pay for a book of songs, when compared to 17½p for its predecessor.  But as listeners to BBC's interesting More or Less programme will tell you, statistics can be made to prove almost any point you wish to make ... and a look at the details may lead us to a far different conclusion.

The original Penguin book was a cheap affair (Penguin more-or-less invented the cheap paperback in the UK) and would fit into most pockets, being just octavo size with 128 pages.  It contained 70 songs.  The New version is hardback, has over 600 pages, measures 240x160mm and contains 151 songs.  It's beautifully printed and bound, and its pages are almost twice the area of the original's.  This had approximately 65% songs and 35% explanatory text and notes, while the New version has 374 pages of songs (62%) and 225 pages (38%) of introductions, explanatory text and notes.  At today's prices (£7 for the Original and £16.30 for the New), this means that a page of the Original would cost you about 5.5p, whereas with the New you pay only 2.7p per page.  For songs - they were 10p each in the Original paperback, and 10.7p in the New hardback.  Given the startling difference in quality between the old paperback and the new hardback products, I would say that The New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs is far better value as an object ... whether the same may be said for its contents will now be discussed.

We start with a General Introduction by Steve Roud.  This is long (52 pages), very thorough, and covers pretty-much all you could ask for in a 'general interest' publication of this sort.  Particularly, it explains the rationale for the selection of the 151 songs in the book.  This was that they should have been popular (collected widely, with a lower limit of 15 instances) and that they should reflect the wide range of songs and tunes available.  The editors also tried to produce a relatively even selection of geographical area, gender balance, and period.  They have also tried to stick to both text and tune being from the same singer, and more or less complete versions which didn't need much 'patching' from other sources.  All of the above criteria seem very reasonable, although their reasoning is not explained - yet they do lead to some odd exclusions: important collections containing only the words or only the tunes of songs (like Alfred Williams' Folk Songs of the Upper Thames) are omitted.  Other referred-to but unexplained exclusions include whole categories like work songs, calendar custom songs, children's songs, and most religious songs.  The inclusion of a 'selection rationale' is greatly to be welcomed - but there surely ought to have been room in 52 pages for an explanation of the reasoning behind it.

Perhaps one of the best things about the General Introduction is that Steve writes like he talks and you can imagine, as you read, that he's in the room with you, having a conversation.  This makes absorbing the huge amount of information an almost pleasurable business.  I think this may be the best commentary on English songs I've read - well up to Reg Hall's standards.

Next comes an Introduction to the Music by Julia Bishop.  Just 17 pages this time, but immediately there's a difference - one of tone.  I don't think I've ever met Julia Bishop, or heard her talk, but the impression is of a rather dry university lecturer, on a podium, addressing a large body of students on a subject that neither of them are particularly excited by.  This is undoubtedly utterly unfair on her, but coming as it does, immediately after Steve's enthusiasm, the change of tone is very marked.

Nor did I warm to much of what she has to say, whether it be on: singing style; form, rhythm and metre; tonality and range; the modes; stability and change; or tune history.  And, once again, we are offered opinions and facts without explanations.  I thought the section on modes would be interesting, and that Julia's idea of presenting staff notation for The First Noel (which used all the notes in the major scale) in Mixolydian, Dorian and Aeolian modes would be instructive.  But, as a non-reader of music, I was perplexed by her decision to set all the examples in the key of D (two sharps), when C would have made the staves far less messy and much easier to understand.

Then there's her Note on Editing and Transcription, which actually made me slightly angry.  Put (extremely) simply, her comments seem to imply that the tune is more important than the words - when I, and every traditional singer I've ever encountered, know that the reverse is the case.  Her section on music transcription was particularly aggravating; here's one paragraph:

So why not break with convention, then?  Surely, this is the height of stupidity!

In brief, her decisions about how to present the music to these lovely songs results in stripping the tunes of all the subtleties of pitch and metre which made them so wonderful in the first place.  Singers using this as a source book, who haven't bothered to listen to real traditional performers on record, will continue - as so many do at present - to think that the words and the base tune are all they need to learn ... and continue to bore the pants off their listeners for the next decade or two!

Then, after a total of 62 pages, we get to The Songs, which are set out in ten sections as follows:

Each of these sections is prefaced by a page or two of introduction and an appropriate woodcut illustration, followed by the songs themselves - staff notation and text ... nothing else.  Am I the only person in the world who, having just spent a considerable sum of money on a piece of modern scholarship, would like a little more than this, without having to turn 320 pages further on to find whose version of song No.1, The Bold Princess Royal this is, where s/he came from, or something about the song?  Clearly Steve Roud and Julia Bishop must think this information is important because they've told us so in their Introductions.  Even a note beneath the song's title saying 'Provenance and Notes on p.375' would have been extremely helpful.  Surely the obvious place for all this important information is either immediately after (or before) the song concerned?  This practice of keeping the songs and the information about them in separate places seems quite widespread in both books and CD booklets - I've never been able to fathom it ... does anyone have a sensible explanation?

Staying with The Bold Princess Royal for a moment, the full and intereting notes on p.375 make no mention of the absurdity of a ship sailing for Newfoundland (verse 1) being 'bound for Cairo' (verse 4)!  They do mention that verses 4 and 5 are imported from the collector Bob Copper's version of the song printed in his book Songs and Southern Breezes.  But the destination is given as Callao in The Copper Family Songbook and on the Family's website, and in most other sources I been able to find.  Now Callao is a small seaport town in Virginia, on the estuary of the Potomac river as it empties into Chesapeake Bay ... or it is an important port in Peru.  Neither seem a likely destination for a ship 'bound for Newfoundland'.  Doerflinger, on the other hand, gives 'bound to Rio Grande' instead of Newfoundland, which could have been a stopover on the way round the Horn to Peru.  Neither of these destinations seem quite as unlikely as the one given here - Cairo!

Don't worry - I'm not about to comment on each of the 151 songs! - but on flipping through the pages, looking at songs I sing myself, I noticed a long and interesting note about If I Were a Blackbird.  Much is made of the effect Delia Murphy's 1939 recording of the song had on subsequent singers within the tradition, and comments abound on earlier and later versions found there.  I found it surprising that no mention was made of the very different version sung by 'Diddy' Cook in Eastbridge Eel's Foot in 1938, to be heard on Voice of the People volume 15.  With its strong tune and syncopated chorus, this is a most memorable example of this well-known song.

Those interested in comparing the song content of the Original and the New versions of The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs may find the following lists helpful:

The Penguin Book of English Folk SongsThe New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs
All Things Are Quite Silent
As Sylvie Was Walking
Banks of Green Willow
Banks of Newfoundland
Banks of Sweet Primroses
Basket of Eggs
Benjamin Bowmaneer
Bold Benjamin
Bramble Briar
Broomfield Hill
Cruel Mother
Daughter of Peggy, O
Death and the Lady
Death of Queen Jane
Deserter from Kent
Devil and the Ploughman
Droylsden Wakes
False Bride
Fare Thee Well, My Dearest Dear
Gaol Song
Gentleman Soldier
George Collins
Golden Vanity
Green Bed
Greenland Whale Fishery
Grey Cock / The Lover's Ghost
I Wish, I Wish
Jack the Jolly Tar
John Barleycorn
Long Lankin
Lord Thomas and Fair Eleanor
Lovely Joan
Lucy Wan
Man of Burningham Town
Manchester 'Angel'
Mother, Mother, Make My Bed
New York Trader
O Shepherd, O Shepherd
Old Man from Lee
On Monday Morning
One Night As I Lay on My Bed
Outlandish Knight
Oxford City
Ratcliffe Highway
Red Herring
Robin Hood and the Pedlar
Rounding the Horn
Royal Oak
Sailor in the North Country
Sailor from Dover
Sailor's Life
Salisbury Plain
Ship in Distress
Six Dukes Went A-Fishing
Streams of Lovely Nancy
T'Owd Yowe Wi' One Horn
Trees They Grow So High
When I Was a Little Boy
When I Was Young
Ye Mar'ners All
Young and Single Sailor
Young Edwin in the Lowlands
Low / Young Emma
Young Girl Cut Down in Her Prime
All Jolly Fellows Who Follow the Plough
An Old Man Once Courted Me
Baffled Knight
Ball of Yarn
Banks of Sweet Primroses
Banks of the Sweet Dundee
Barbara Allen
Barley Mow
Basket of Eggs
Blackberry Fold
Blind Beggar's Daughter of Bethnal Green
Bold Princess Royal
Bold Fisherman
Bold Grenadier
Bonny Bunch of Roses O
Bonny Light Horseman
Bonny Blue Handkerchief
Bonny Labouring Boy
Brennan on the Moor
Brisk Young Sailor
Broomfield Hill
Bryan O'Lynn
Butter and Cheese and All
Buttercup Joe
Captain Ward and the Rainbow
Caroline and Her Young Sailor Bold
Cherry-Tree Carol
Claudy Banks
Constant Farmer's Son
Creeping Jane
Cruel Mother
Cruel Ship's Carpenter
Cunning Cobbler
Cupid the Pretty Ploughboy
Cupid's Garden
Dabbling in the Dew
Dark-Eyed Sailor
Daughter in the Dungeon
Derby Ram
Devil and the Farmer's Wife
Dick Turpin
Early, Early All in the Spring
Edwin in the Lowlands Low
Erin's Lovely Home
Fair Maid Walking in Her Garden
Faithful Sailor Boy
Farmer's Boy
Fathom the Bowl
Female Cabin Boy
Female Drummer
Female Highwayman
Flash Company
Foggy Dew
Foolish Boy
Frog and the Mouse
Gallant Poachers
Game of Cards
Garden Gate
General Wolfe
Gipsy Laddie
Golden Vanity
Golden Glove
Green Bed
Green Mossy Banks of the Lea
Green Bushes
Green Grow the Laurels
Green Brooms
Greenland Whale Fishery
Hares on the Mountains
Herring's Head
Highwayman Outwitted
Hugh of Lincoln
Hungry Fox
If I Were a Blackbird
Indian Lass
Isle of France
John Barleycorn
Jolly Waggoner
Joys of Mary
Just as the Tide was a-Flowing
Knight and the Shepherd's Daughter
Lakes of Cold Finn
Lark in the Morning
Life of a Man
Lincolnshire Poacher
Little Gipsy Girl
Lord Bateman
Lord Thomas and Fair Eleanor
Lord Lovel
Lost Lady Found
Madam, Will You Walk?
Maria Marten
Mary Across the Wild Moor
Mary in the Silvery Tide
Miller's Three Sons
Mistletoe Bough
Moon Shines Bright
Mowing the Barley
Nancy of Yarmouth
Nutting Girl
Old King Cole
Our Goodman
Outlandish Knight
Oxford City
Oxford Girl
Painful Plough
Polly Oliver's Rambles
Poor Smuggler's Boy
Pretty Ploughboy
Queen of the May
Rambling Sailor
Rosemary Lane
Saucy Sailor Boy
Searching for Lambs
Seeds of Love
Seventeen Come Sunday
Sheffield Apprentice
Silk Merchant's Daughter
Spanish Ladies
Spencer the Rover
Spotted Cow
Sprig of Thyme
Susan, the Pride of Kildare
Thorneymoor Woods
Three Maidens to Milking Did Go
Three Sons of Rogues
Three Butchers
Tree in the Wood
Trees They Do Grow High
Undaunted Female
Unquiet Grave
Van Diemen's Land
Virgin Unspotted
Week Before Easter
White Cockade
Wild Rover
Wild and Wicked Youth
William and Mary
William Taylor
Young Ramble Away
Young Sailor Cut Down

So it would appear that only 11 songs (shown in red text above) are common to the two volumes - though it's possible that there may be a few others, having differing titles in each publication.

The Notes to the Songs, all 138 pages of them, are fascinating, and I could write as much as I already have, about them alone.  But time, if not space, presses, and a few brief comments must suffice.  First, it seems that very many of the songs we would expect to be Irish in origin are in fact English.   The Bonny Bunch of Roses, for example, was written by an English broadside hack, George Brown, not long after 1823 and the death of Young Napoleon.  He directed that it should be sung to the Irish tune, The Bonny Bunch of Rushes, and appropriated several of that song's lines into his new one.  Mr Brown also wrote The Grand Conversation on Napoleon.

Equally surprising is how old (and how young) many songs are: phrases like 'over 500 years old' appear fairly often, whist many more are shown to have been not much more than a couple of generations in the tradition.  The Dark-eyed Sailor, for example, is unlikely to have been more than about 60 years old when collected from Mrs Vaisey by Lucy Broadwood in 1892.

Another interesting aspect of the Notes is the 'number of entries' figure; this signifies the number of unique English entries in Roud's Folk Song Index, and should act as a warning to writers (mea culpa!) who quote the total number of Roud entries as indications of a song's popularity.  The problem lies in the fact that the collection of a particular song from a particular singer may have been published in numerous books and several LPs and CDs, generating a significant number of Roud entries - for only one unique instance of that song by that singer.  A startling example might be that concerning Barbara Allen, which has around 1,130 entries in the Index, yet only 111 unique English ones.

The Bibliography, Discography, and Acknowledgements sections are pretty much as you would expect them to be, and both Musical Traditions and MT Records are mentioned appropriately.  I was surprised to find that although our founder, Keith Summers, is cited as collector/recordist five times, his short book Sing Say or Pay! doesn't appear in the Bibliography.  No criteria for bibliographic inclusion or exclusion are given, so one doesn't know if Internet publications as a category are excluded - maybe this is why Bert Lloyd's The Singing Englishman doesn't appear.  However, both of these did appear in paper publications in the 20th century.  The Index has both song titles and first lines (these latter shown italicised), and often alternative titles too - excellent.

Maybe something should be said about the rather beautiful cover design: it is a 1935 picture by C F Tunnicliffe (1901-1979), entitled Stallion & Groom, which is said to be either a woodcut or an etching, depending on where you look for information!  The version used here has been reversed, and its centre obscured by the book's spine - so I thought you might like to see the whole of the original picture - right.

All in all, this is a really major landmark in English song books, and doesn't repeat much material published elsewhere.  Even singers of my generation will find some new songs here, or certainly versions they've not encountered before.  And it may be a relief for some readers to find a truly resonant line in a song without the uneasy feeling that Bert Lloyd must have written it!

Thoroughly recommended!

Rod Stradling - 13.8.12

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