An exciting project to create an online subject index for folk songs along with a thesaurus of keywords went live in May 2019. Thanks to generous funding from the National Folk Music Fund and the Marc Fitch Fund, this important resource is now freely available via the VWML’s website alongside existing indexes and catalogues.
In recent years there has been great progress indexing, cataloguing and making available our folk song heritage. The Roud Folk Song indexes and VWML online make it possible to search for songs by title, first line, place, singer, and classification numbers (such as the Roud number) helping us to bring together multiple versions of the same song. Yet there is a big hole in our achievements so far - approximately 30% of the enquiries which are received by the VWML are for songs by subject or by type (e.g. harvest songs). It may be thought that full-text searching is the answer to this problem, but the words of folk songs are not usually couched in standard natural language - they are poetical, allegorical, and imaginative. So, for example, there are many songs which feature a suicide, but none of them mention the word because the character in question 'throws herself into the briny deep' or 'falls on his sword'. Therefore, starting in May 2018, the VWML undertook a one year project to create a subject index for folk songs along with a related thesaurus of approved terms.
The subject index is a publicly accessible online index to aid the finding and retrieval of traditional folk songs based on subject keywords. This index will also function as a master index, devoting a record to each song and including a brief synopsis of the song, notes on the history, and a sample text where possible. This master song index then links to variants of the song as found in the VWML and Roud folk song indexes.
The subject index is supported by the creation and use of a hierarchical thesaurus. The thesaurus identifies authorised keywords used in the subject index, along with their synonyms, and broader and narrower related terms. Deciding authority terms is important because it indicates to users the preferred terms on which to search, e.g. coal miners instead of colliers, etc., and will therefore make for more accurate and efficient searching.
These two resources are made freely available to the public via the VWML’s website (www.vwml.org). No other index like this previously existed, and although this project will by no means create a comprehensive index, it at least lays the foundation for an important addition to the study and research of folk songs across the English-speaking world.