Folk songs are the songs of the common people, relating the stories that resonate with our culture from one generation to the next. The term “folk” has been applied to different types of song, and since the 1950s has often been associated with political song, but in this introduction we’ll be dealing with traditional folk song. There are hundreds of them to uncover and explore, and this introduction will hopefully help to give you a good grounding so you can explore the collections for yourself.
The first major interest in English folk songs developed in the mid- to late-19th century, when antiquarians and literary scholars who had been exploring old manuscripts of ballads and popular songs (e.g. Francis James Child’s English and Scottish Popular Ballads, and William Chappell with his Popular Music of the Olden Time) turned their attention to the old songs still being sung (often by the older peoples of rural communities). The Folk Song Society was founded in 1898 in order to collect and preserve these folk songs by publishing them in their journal, and members like Frank Kidson, Lucy Broadwood, Cecil Sharp, and Ralph Vaughan Williams, travelled out across Britain to notate the songs and their tunes. The most active period for folk song collecting dated from the founding of the Folk Song Society up until the First World War in 1914. Interest was later revived in the 1950s with what is commonly known as “The Second Revival”. To see a list of the most active members of the “Early Folk Revival”, see our pages regarding The Full English Project. For a comprehensive introduction to the history of English folk song, see Steve Roud’s (2017), Folk Song in England.
Cecil Sharp is the most famous of all English folk song collectors. He was not the first person to collect English folk songs, but he did much to promote English folk traditions and his collection is certainly the biggest at nearly 5,000 song tunes and texts. His first collected folk song was The Seeds of Love, which he notated from the singing of a gardener called John England in 1903. John England was working at the Vicarage of Sharp’s friend and local rector, Charles Marson, in Hambridge, Somerset. Sharp did much of his collecting in the same county.
I sowed the seeds of love
And I sowed them in the Spring
I gathered them up in the morning so soon
While the small birds do sweetly sing.
My garden was planted with flowers well
With flowers everywhere
But I had not the liberty to choose for myself
Of the flowers that I love so dear.
The gardener was standing by
And I asked him to choose for me.
He choosed for me the Violet the Lily & the Pink
But those I refused all three.
The Violet I did not like
Because it bloomed so soon
The Lily & the Pink I really overthink
So I vowed that I’d stay till June.
In June there was a red rose bud,
And that's the flower for me
I oftentimes have plucked that red rose bud
Till I gain the willow tree.
The willow tree will twist
And the willow tree will twine
I have oftentimes have wished I was in that young man's arms
That once had the heart of mine.
Come all you false young men,
Do not leave me here to complain
For the grass that have been oftentimes trampled under foot
Give it time it will rise up again.
The most collected folk song of all time is Barbara Allen. This is a particularly old song, with the first recorded mention being in Samuel Pepys diary on 2nd January 1666, which states “but above all, my dear Mrs Knipp with whom I sang; and in perfect pleasure I was to hear her sing, and especially her little Scotch song of Barbary Allen”. This song has been collected across the English speaking world, and here is one collected by Sabine Baring Gould from Williams Nankivell, in Merivale Bridge, Devon, in Sep 1890.
In Scotland I was born & reared
I courted her twelve months & a day,
There came a man the other day,
So slowly she put on her clothes
He turn’d his face unto the maid
“If you upon your deathbed lie
“He turned his face unto the wall
“O put your hand to my bed head
“O put your hand to my bed foot,
So slowly she was walking home,
So slowly she walked down the mead
She turnéd round & walked back
The more she looked, the more she smiled
O mother! mother! make my bed,
And bury me in grave with he,
And they shall grow to the church top
The post-War Folk revival brought in a new wave of song collecting, and hundreds of new versions were gathered - this time with the aid of the tape-recorder. We therefore have the added bonus of hearing what traditional singers sounded like. Here is another version of Barbara Allen, sung by Phoebe Smith, a traveller living in Suffolk. The song was recorded by Frank Purslow in 1969:
Sound Clip: https://www.vwml.org/record/RoudFS/S394113
There are many more songs to explore and many of these can be found in the collections of the Folk Song Society members (many digitised as part of The Full English Project which can be found in our online archive) or in published books and records. See here for tips on searching our collections. There are a number of songs which have been arranged and made available via the EFDSS Resource Bank.
So what exactly are these things we call “folk songs?”. This is one of the most common questions we receive, but is still very much debated. The first serious definition for folk song was put forward by Cecil Sharp in English Folk Songs : Some Conclusions, 1907, and this was adopted and expanded by the International Folk Music Council in 1954.
“Folk music is the product of a musical tradition that has been evolved through the process of oral transmission. The factors that shape the tradition are:
The terms can be applied to music that has been evolved from rudimentary beginnings by a community uninfluenced by popular music and art music and it can likewise be applied to music which has originated with an individual composer and has subsequently been absorbed into the unwritten living tradition of a community.
The term does not cover composed popular music that has been taken over ready-made by a community and remains unchanged, for it is the re-fashioning and recreation of the music by the community that gives it its folk character.”
So the above definition accepts that folk songs sometimes originate from within the community (e.g. as with songs sung at local ceremonies / calendar customs, such as May Day songs) or sometimes originate from other sources and are then adopted into the community and the oral/aural song tradition. The sources for folk songs can include the stage, pleasure gardens, music halls, songs printed on broadside ballads and other street literature, to mention but a few. Sometimes it is unclear as to whether folk songs may have started life in the community and were later appropriated for these other uses, but it’s certainly fair to say that the oral and print traditions have been linked and influenced one another.
Steve Roud gives a fascinating overview of street literature and the relationship with the folk tradition:
If you are interested in finding out more about folk song, then there are a number of resources which can assist you. Here are just a few to get you started, but most importantly, please feel free to contact the VWML with your research enquiries and we will help to point you in the right direction!
Vaughan Williams Memorial Library website (contains the digitised collections of a large number of folk collectors from the early folk revival) – www.vwml.org
Mainly Norfolk (sample song texts as sung by revival folk singers) – www.mainlynorfolk.info
Child, Francis J., 1882-98. The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Bronson, Bertand H., 1959-72. The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads. Princeton: Princeton U.P.
Roud, S., & Bishop, J., 2012. The new Penguin book of English folk songs. London : Penguin. http://catalogue.efdss.org/cgi-bin/koha/opac-detail.pl?biblionumber=15531
Roud, S., Upton, E., & Taylor, M., 2003. Still Growing: English Traditional Songs and Singers from the Cecil Sharp Collection. London: EFDSS.
Vaughan Williams, R., & Lloyd, A.L., 1959. The Penguin book of English folk songs. Middlesex : Penguin. http://catalogue.efdss.org/cgi-bin/koha/opac-detail.pl?biblionumber=14835
Topic Records have a long history of issuing records and CDs of traditional singers and musicians, and their back catalogue is now available for download. See, in particular, their series The Voice of the People, which started as a 20-CD set and has grown considerably since. http://www.topicrecords.co.uk/category/the-voice-of-the-people/
Two other labels which regularly issue English traditional material are:
Veteran - http://www.veteran.co.uk/
Musical Traditions - http://www.mtrecords.co.uk/index.htm
Bodleian Ballads - www.bodley.ox.ac.uk/ballads
The Word on the Street (Scots Broadsides) - www.nls.uk/broadsides/index.html
English Broadside Ballad Archive – www.emc.english.ucsb.edu/ballad_project/
Roud, S., 2017. Folk Song in England. London : Faber.
Atkinson, D., xxxx. Folk Song bibliography. London : VWML.
Sharp, C.J., 1907. English Folk Song: Some conclusions. London: Simpkin.
Gregory, E. David, 2006. Victorian Songhunters: The Recovery and Editing of English Vernacular Ballads and Folk Lyrics 1820-1883. Lanham MD: Scarecrow.
Gregory, E. David, 2010. The Late Victorian Folksong Revival: the Persistence of Enlgish Melody 1878-1903. Lanham MD: Scarecrow.
Folk Music Journal (the annual publication of the EFDSS. Contains scholarly articles on a wide range of traditional music topics)
Musical Traditions http://www.mustrad.org.uk/ (Online magazine containing a wealth of articles, news, views, reviews, photographs, and many more).