From "Countrygoer", Autumn
1946, Issue No. 7
Songs and some Traditional Singers in East Anglia"
In the years immediately preceding
the first world war, there took place in London some remarkable
choral and orchestral concerts at which the programmes consisted
largely of British music. They were held due to the generosity
and enterprise of H. Balfour Gardiner, and at them there were
given many first performances of the works of such composers
and Holst, Vaughan Williams, Arnold Bax and Percy Grainger,
names at that time quite unfamiliar to the general musical
public. Having just left school, I had come to London as a
student at the Royal College of Music; apart from a certain
amount of Stanford and Elgar, I knew nothing of the renaissance
that had been taking place in music in this country. So one
winter's evening, when I had been to St. Paul's Cathedral
intending to hear Bach's Passion music and failed to obtain
a seat there, feeling in the mood for any music rather than
none at all, I went to the Queen's Hall where there was a
Balfour Gardiner concert, prepared to be bored stiff. On the
contrary, I was so filled with enthusiasm, and so much moved
by some of the music I heard that night, that from then on
I made a point of missing no more of these concerts.
Among other works I heard was a
Rhapsody of Vaughan Williams, based on songs recently collected
in Norfolk by this composer. It was my first experience of
a serious orchestral composition actually based on English
folk-song, and it caused a profound effect on my outlook as
a young student of musical composition. This, and many other
works which I encountered at these concerts, though not all
based on actual folk-music, seemed to me to express the very
spirit of the English countryside as I then knew it. My home
at this time was in Norfolk, where my father was a vicar of
a country parish, so I determined to lose no time in rescuing
from oblivion any further folk-songs that remained undiscovered.
Accordingly, when I was home the
following week-end, I tackled the senior member of the church
choir after Sunday evening service. He mentioned a song called
"The Dark Eyed Sailor", but nothing would induce
him to sing it on a Sunday. I found afterwards that I never
could persuade anybody else, even some hard-boiled reprobate,
to perform for me on a Sunday, at least not in Norfolk and
Suffolk. As for this "Dark-eyed Sailor", I was able
to write it down, together with other old songs, on Monday:
this was actually the first song I "collected" as
a boy. True, it was not an entirely new discovery, but it
was encouraging to me, and started my ball rolling.
I soon found that in the part of
the county where I was living at the time, there was not much
spontaneous singing of the old songs still going on. In any
case, the 1914 war intervened to put a stop to my activities
for the time being. As most of what I heard had been sung
to me by elderly men, who assured me old songs were fast dying
out, by the time the war was over I assumed there was no more
to be had, and did not immediately make any serious efforts
at collecting folk songs.
However, when I was visiting East
Norfolk in the autumn of 1921 I received from a folk-song
enthusiast, not himself a musician with the necessary knack
of committing tunes to paper, an S.O.S. for me to come at
once to Stalham. It turned out that accidentally he had overheard
an old road-mender singing softly to himself as he was breaking
stones. Thus I met the late Bob Miller, known for miles around
the country as "Jolt". Bob admitted that he knew
a few "old 'uns", but he insisted that he had not
really been singing, but just "a-tuning over to himself".
However, he was only too willing to sing to me under proper
conditions and suggested my spending the evening with him
in the Catfield "White Hart" or the "Windmill"
Old Jolt dearly loved conviviality,
and was always at his best in company; he knew it, and liked
an audience. In fact, he was incapable of remembering anything
at all a deux. He required the atmosphere of a room full of
kindred souls who would listen with appreciation, and he expected
his full share of applause. At the same time he was a keen
listener when somebody else held the floor in song or story.
Anything in the way of interruption and he would wither the
offender with the glance of an autocrat. He gave me many very
interesting songs, some of which were hitherto unpublished.
There seems little doubt that the
traditional singers unconsciously adapt their tunes to their
own personal fancy and singing idiom. Jolt was one who liked
a tune with a wide tessitura. Also, he was fond of the drop
of a major sixth; it occurred frequently in his songs.
Bob Miller was an old bachelor
of absolute integrity, but it delighted him, especially late
in the evening, to take on the semblance of a disreputable
character, and it was invariably just before closing time
when he would come out with something to suit his rakish humour.
He had several scandalous ditties.
This singer, by his enthusiasm
and personality, opened the way to a series of convivial evenings
at which I soon found out that the art of folk singing, in
this corner of Norfolk at any rate, was still flourishing
in the 1920's.
In November 1947 Moeran took
a BBC field recording unit out to Norfolk to record
traditional folksingers for broadcast on the Third Programme.
Cox (Real Audio)
Harry Cox (MP3)
About the third occasion on which
I was at one of these gatherings, Jolt greeted me with an
introduction: "Here's Harry: he've come over from Hickling
purpose to sing to you tonight." Thus it was that I first
met Harry Cox, still in his prime today, and probably unique
in England as a folk-singer, presenting his songs with true
artistry in a style which has almost disappeared. The Cox's
have been musicians and singers for generations, and Harry
has such a prodigious memory that, apart from his large repertory
of songs handed down through the family, he is capable of
hearing, on no more than three or four separate occasions,
a song of a dozen or more verses, and remembering it permanently.
These public-house sing-songs,
or "frolics" in local parlance, led to opportunities
of meeting and hearing many other songsters. They also led
to a friendly rivalry on the part of some of them as to who
could contribute the most songs to my collection. Even if
a song was one already known, or possibly not a folk-song
at all, I found it expedient to pretend to be noting it, in
order not to cause offence. For one evening Jolt had stopped
dead halfway through a song and, in spite of shouts of encouragement
from the assembled company, "Go you on, old Bob, you're
a' doing", he refused to sing another note. "No,
I ain't a goin' on," he said, "he ain't a' writin'
on it down in his book."
Naturally, I heard many songs that
were not traditional; these were mostly examples of the Victorian
ballad epoch. The people who sang had little idea of what
was the nature of a folk-song. Perhaps the most surprising
appearance of an old song that was not a folk-song was when
a greybeard, wearing ear-rings, who hitherto had always sat
silent, suddenly announced that he was about to entertain
the company with a song. "That's a rare old-un,"
he said turning to me, "I'll lay you hain't heard it
afore." I was somewhat startled when the song turned
out to be "Rule Britannia", and still more so when
the whole gathering not only sat it through, but solemnly
joined in the chorus after each verse.
As for the actual folk-songs, it
is difficult to single out many of them as belonging exclusively
to any one part of England. At the same time, I found a few
that certainly have not been known to occur away from Norfolk.
There are certain tunes, too, which in one variant or another,
are commonly used for many different songs. Such a one is
the second of these "Highwayman" tunes I heard on
the same evening. The first one, of a rather curious tonality,
was probably one peculiar to the particular singer who supplied
it. Later in the evening, Harry Cox capped it with his own
version, but with a tune used for a number of other widely
It seems likely that the spontaneous
singing of old songs when men foregather on Saturday nights
has now died out.
Until the advent of the radio,
it held on in certain isolated districts, in particular where
there was a sprinkling among the population of those who annually
used to follow the herring. It was customary to sing at sea
in the fishing fleet, and until comparatively recently it
was still possible to visit many an inn within easy reach
of Great Yarmouth, and while away an evening with a sing-song
of the real old songs. If you travel further along the Norfolk
coast, no matter how remote the place seemed, you would encounter
a little of the kind. It was the proud boast of the late Bob
Cox, Harry's father, that he would go to sea for the herring
fishing season, sing two songs every night aboard, and never
In this account of some of my experiences
of English folk-singing, I have not been concerned with the
artificial revival of the art. In other words, with those
who set about the teaching of folk-songs in schools, or the
organising of garden fetes, etc., at which folk-songs are
sometimes performed in the highly sophisticated manner of
those who have never heard a real traditional singer. Well-intentioned
as these efforts may be, they evolve something quite apart
from the art of those who have it in their bones, handed down
from father to son. It is unfortunate, too, that up to the
present the verbal text of nearly all published collections
of English folk-songs bears about the same resemblance to
the genuine article as does Thomas Bowlder's version to the
authentic Shakespeare. It is to be hoped that some day this
may be remedied by a complete edition of the country's heritage
in song, in which nothing worth while is glossed over or left
out for reasons of squeamishness or timidity.
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