It has taken Steve Roud 52 years to bring the Roud Index to its current state of completion, comprising over 28,000 traditional ballads and 40,000 broadsides. Who would possibly choose to try and arrange them all in chronological order for the benefit of beginner guitarists and folk newbies?
Karl Sinfield, that’s who. And if the initial print run of his Sing Yonder project is anything to go by, this could be a valuable project indeed – a great way to guide the uninitiated through the vast and often dimly-lit caverns of traditional song.
The basic premise is that Sinfield, a designer, musician, and lover of traditional folk songs, will arrange 10 songs at a time, following the Roud Index upwards, starting at Roud 1 (‘The Raggle Taggle Gypsies’) and ending at… well, either the 68,000th entry or oblivion. Whichever comes first.
Drawing on his own background in design, his initial idea was to create these beautiful little booklets for himself and for friends in the New Mills area of the Peak District, where he plays on the folk scene as the (bashful) frontman with The Gally Canters. He explains, “As I was selecting and modifying arrangements [for himself and his band] and working out how to play them in as simple and direct a way as possible, I also realised it might be a useful resource for anyone else getting started in traditional song, or who maybe just wanted something rooted in the tradition that was easy to sing, play and understand.”
As anyone who has handled the first edition will attest, he’s put together a very handsome collection: the first 10 Roud songs, arranged for acoustic guitar, annotated with notes on the song history. An accompanying website makes bare-bones recordings of the arrangements available to anyone with internet access, and Sinfield has plans to work with Paul Sartin to publish basic scores for anyone who prefers to read the dots. It has attracted the attention of some young folkies, too. Henry Parker and Lizzy Hardingham have both posted their responses to the first issue, and Sinfield is considering the possibility of curating a “field recordings” album of such performances to go alongside the publications.
It’s not Sinfield’s first venture into publishing, either. “I used to publish a little anthology of short fiction and music back in the 90s. I just put some adverts in various literary and music places. It had a cassette of the music stuck to the front. I had a couple of folkies sending me stuff. I had people in their bedrooms with their computers, sending dance, trance, and hip hop. I spent a very memorable day in a studio with these incredible hip hop guys from Bounds Green in North London, meeting them in a haze of smoke.”
By contrast, this project appears a little more structured, not to mention vast. “I’m partly inspired by Jon Boden’s methodical A Folk Song a Day. I’m brutally working on it and trying to get a song done a day.” Alongside the Roud Index itself, he’s paying close attention to Child and Bronson (for the melodies), making surprising discoveries along the way. “I presumed that all of the Child ballads were well-trodden material – that there would be someone, a number of people even, who would have had a go at recording every one of them – which is not the case. There are Child Ballads that are completely lost to the tradition. They’re not played at all. When you look at the subject matter, it’s probably for good reason. Even by Child standards, they’re pretty bleak.”
And what of Steve Roud himself? Does he know about the project? “No, I don’t think he does. I’m on the Trad Song group that he manages, so I keep seeing his name popping up. I wonder what he’d make of it. I haven’t had any negative feedback, generally speaking. I did wonder whether people who value legitimately value, authenticity and stuff like that might not like it so much. I wouldn’t say my arrangements are pop, but they take some of the American techniques of simplification. A lot of the English folk songs went over to America and were stripped down – tunes were simplified, as were big chunks of the song. But no, I can’t imagine Steve would have any problem with it.”
It seems a daunting task, but there’s a positivity and determination about Karl Sinfield to suggest he’ll give it a good crack. I wonder, however, how long he can keep it going. “I don’t know,” comes the answer. “I’m just going to carry on until I, or everybody else, loses interest. I think I’ll still work through it, though. The first edition paid for the printing of the next one. As long as that carries on, I’ll carry on.”
Find out more about Karl Sinfield’s Sing Yonder project at singyonder.co.uk. You can order editions direct to your front door via his Bandcamp page.
On that point about the Child Ballads – that surely there’s someone who has had a crack at recording all of them – I think there is. I believe this guy, Raymonde Crooke, has recorded them all.
In fact he might have recorded more Child Ballads than there are Child Ballads (!!!), as his YouTube playlist of Child Ballads numbers 391 videos, while there are only 305 Child ballads. Amazingly, this includes ‘A Gest of Robin Hood’, the longest Child ballad, which has 456 verses!
Yes, I did come across Raymond while researching Volume 3. There are a couple of Rouds (namely 22 and 24) that have been totally lost to the tradition, and there are basically three decent recorded versions of each that I could find – the heroic Raymond, another youtuber and Child ballad completist from the US (who seems to have stalled at Child 43) called Rachel McDonough, and finally on the radio show/podcast Thank Goodness it’s Folk, James Fagan is commisioning arrangements at the rate of one a week (they are up to 50 and still going strong). I ended up going my own way with the arrangements in the book, but it’s a joy to find these rarities, definitely.