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The Steve Roud interview: What is folk music, exactly?

Steve Roud discusses his new book, 'Folk Song in England', as well as his contributions to folk music via the extraordinary Roud Folk Song Index.

Over the eight months I’ve been running this blog, I have – because it genuinely interests me – repeatedly asked interviewees for their folk music definition. It hasn’t been terribly easy, to be honest with you. Some react well, clearly delighted to be asked the very question they’ve been secretly pondering for years themselves, while others insist it’s a pointless task and seem rather put out to have been bothered by something so apparently trivial. 

Each to their own.

I could’ve saved myself a lot of time, of course, by going straight to Steve Roud. If there’s anybody likely to have a fairly robust definition, then it’s the father of the Roud Folk Song Index – the catalogue, now standing at some 250,000 entries, that documents almost everything there is to know about the evolution and collection of English folk songs.

The main reason I hadn’t approached him, until now, had quite a lot to do with a misconceived perception of what he must be like. I assumed that a fountain of such extensive knowledge would never have the time for a novice like me – someone who came to traditional folk music only fairly recently and still couldn’t explain the difference between a reel and a jig.

It was Lisa Knapp who persuaded me to drop him a line, explaining that he was actually a lovely gent who’d happily spend an hour talking me through his life’s work. And she was right. In a dusty room not much bigger than a cupboard, upstairs in Cecil Sharp House, I found a chap who (like many of us) had simply allowed his obsession to get ever so slightly out of hand.

For a wonderful hour he gave me a description (rather than a definition – you’ll see why) of what he felt constitutes folk music (and explained why it is important to at least try to define it). He recalled the beginnings of the awesome Roud Folk Song Index, started in a shoebox, and he pondered on which of the Victorian folk collectors he might’ve been chums with. We also found ourselves trying to get to the nub of another puzzling (and potentially controversial) question: do folk singers even exist, and have they ever existed? Existential crises abound…

If you end up feeling you need to know more, then I suggest you visit your nearest bookstore and pick up a copy of Mr Roud’s latest tome, Folk Song in EnglandHaving now finished it, I can confirm that it’s an excellent read, not that I could make any such assurances at the time of the interview…

I’m ploughing through the 700+ pages of your new book, Steve, and I have to admit, it’s not a tome I’m likely to finish in a weekend. This must’ve taken forever to write. 

I’ve said this to other people, but basically it took two years to write it but 40 years to research. I’ve been gathering stuff – information, data – for decades because that’s what I do. I’m a librarian, an indexer and a historian. My home is full of books and, as my wife will tell you, filing cabinets full of articles. You can’t write this kind of book without that background, to be honest, because it is cumulative. I don’t have a university background so I don’t have access to a university library, so I have to build up my own library just as independent scholars will always have to.

Really, my books are information recycling rather than insightful flights of intellect. I’m aware of that – that’s what I do. I gather all of the information together and look for evidence and then I try to present that.

So, as I say, the publishers said about three years ago that, yes, they’d publish it, and that’s when I started writing it, but I already had all of this stuff just sitting there waiting. As an example, I’ve got three shelves of books on witchcraft because I know that someday I’m going to write a book on witchcraft. As I go around secondhand bookshops I’ll spot things and buy them, because I know that one day I’ll need them. So that’s the same with this book: the stuff was there.

Do you spend a lot of time milling around secondhand bookshops, then? 

I do. Not as much as I used to because, in some areas, I’ve got everything [laughs]. But, yes – that’s one of the things I do like doing. Of course, nowadays with the internet it becomes habit forming. If you’re a secondhand book buyer, you can’t stop yourself. It’s like Alcoholics Anonymous. You have to stand up and say, “I buy secondhand books and I can’t stop.”

As I say, I’m only part of the way through your book, but one of the things I have enjoyed about the writing style is that it doesn’t really feel like an academic book. I’m currently reading the mini biographies of the folk song collectors, and there’s an element there that almost hints at Bill Bryson. There are these wonderful stories, and the author clearly knows his stuff well enough to casually add colour. I can see how all that information and data could shape that. 

Yes, and as a writer that’s what I try to do. It’s not like writing fiction where you imagination take over. I’m a non-fiction writer; an information recycler, as I said. But that doesn’t mean it has to be dull. I try to avoid the word ‘academic’ because it frightens people. I use the word ‘scholarly’.

I would like to be a Victorian gentleman scholar [laughs]. That’s my aim in life. You know, those guys who had enough money to potter about and build up libraries and collections of things, and to know a lot about things but not have to go and teach them at university. Do you know what I mean?

I don’t have a conscious writing style, if I think about it. And when I do think about it, I recognise that it has to be accessible, otherwise there’s little point. It’s daunting enough already, 780 pages, so if the style was academic as well then very few people would read it. And what’s the point, if nobody’s reading it? Why are you doing it?

As you say, it’s the stories and the background that make it interesting, but if you put too much of that in it becomes a chatty book. You finish reading it and you think, I haven’t actually learnt anything other than how chatty Steve Roud is [laughs]. It’s a balance.

You say you’d like to have been a Victorian gentleman scholar. Are there any of those collectors that you think you’d have been attracted to? 

Well, I don’t know. I think I probably wouldn’t have like Cecil Sharp.


No. He was a grumpy old sod, really. I mean, I admire what he did. I admire all the collectors because I know how much work they put into this: years and years of dedication with nobody paying them or particularly caring for what they were doing. They did it for the love of the subject – they did what they wanted to do and they did it well. But I don’t think I’d have liked Sharp, and I certainly wouldn’t have liked Percy Grainger. He was a nasty piece of work. Lucy Broadwood was a bit… posh. I don’t actually warm to any of them. I don’t think, “Oh, we’d have been buddies”. [Laughs] I could’ve got on with most of them, apart from perhaps Percy Grainger. All of them were good people in their own right.

Perhaps Frank Kidson, the collector from Yorkshire, is the most appealing in a way. He was a collector of books. He went out and collected the songs, but he also collected the books – he did the research, he did the history. That appeals to me. He wasn’t an upper class, well-educated academic. He was just an ordinary person like most of us. So, yeah, Frank Kidson would be the one, although it surprises me to say it [laughs].

One of the questions you must get asked a huge amount, mainly because it’s unavoidable, is to do with a definition of folk music. During interviews for this blog I often ask performers if they have a definition they believe in, but I’m often told it’s an irrelevant question. So my question to you is this: why is it important that we have a definition of what folk music is? 

Well, I have to draw a sharp distinction between myself and a performer. I’m not a performer. If you’re looking at it from a performance point of view then your whole perspective is different, and quite rightly – I’m not saying it’s wrong. But you do what is good for you as a performer, so if you want to make a song singable by changing the words or changing the tune – combining versions, writing your own songs – that’s fine, but as a performer.

As a historian, however, it becomes difficult if the performer implies that this is how people used to sing songs in, say, Hampshire in 1903 when Gardiner came around. That, to me, is wrong. They didn’t sing it like that. They may have sung those words, or they may have sung that tune, but they would’ve sung it in a completely different way.

As a performer, your job is to get the best performance out of it. As a researcher, my job is to get at the accurate evidence, and those two really often don’t tie up. To be honest, it makes me cross sometimes when radio programmes will ask – especially young performers – about the history of the song. They will, for want of a better word, trot out the myths that they have been brought up on because they’re not researchers. I heard a very famous traditional singer who should know better say on the radio that these songs go back thousands of years. They don’t! We know this, and we’ve known this for a long time, that very few of our songs go back even 300 years. So to say they go back thousands of years may go down well with the audience, it might be what the BBC wants to hear, but it ain’t true [laughs].

Anyway, your question was to do with the definition of folk songs. You can’t study an area of life unless you draw some kind of boundary around your study. People often say, “Oh, well it’s all just music – we don’t want any boundaries or categories.” Well, fine, but that means you can’t study the bit that you’re interested in. I’m interested in what ordinary people sang in their everyday lives amongst themselves, without being told what to sing, without pressures of commerce or anything like that. That’s what I’m interested in.

Now, we call that folk music, but the trouble is, nowadays, we call all sorts of other things folk music, too. So I want to cut away all of that. What somebody else was doing, what somebody was doing in another country – it doesn’t matter. What the upper classes were doing, unless it impinges on what the ordinary people were doing, it doesn’t matter. I’m not saying it’s not worth studying, but I’ve got to draw my little area to focus on. And that’s what you come up with – that folk is everyday music, people learning from each other traditionally, passing songs down from person to person. That’s the little part of the world that I’m interested in, and I’m not saying there are hard and fast boundaries – in music there can’t be. Imagine saying, “I am a folk singer. You are a classical singer.” [The classical singer] may know and sing folk songs from their childhood, and I may have sung ‘Nessum Dorma’ in the shower. You can’t pin music down that way. But if you don’t pin it down to a certain extent then you can’t study it. You can’t actually make any assertions about what people did, or what have you.

Anyway, that’s a rather convoluted way of saying that as a historian I do have to draw the boundaries and I have to create some kind of definition, but because it’s music we end up with a description rather than a definition, and there is a difference. If I was a scientist I could tell you the difference between a dog and a cat – they’ve both got four legs and a head and tail, but there are real differences and I can define them. I can’t do that with music. The best I can do is say, “This is the bit I’m interested in. Let’s see what evidence there is.”

The real danger, getting back to the performer, is extrapolation backwards. Singers sing, nowadays, with guitars. They will assume that 100 years ago, people singing these songs that they love so much also played guitars. You start up a song in a folk club and everyone sings in harmony automatically – you can’t think why they wouldn’t. That doesn’t mean that they did 100 years ago, and so on.

They wouldn’t have had the folk club 100 years ago in the first place. 

Precisely. Everything about a folk singer now is different to how it used to be, and that’s fine. There’s no problem with that, except when you try to presume that that’s what happened before.

So, one of the problems here is that when you try to define a folk singer of the past, you can’t because there wouldn’t have been any. You’re talking about people singing for themselves in bars or fields, but not to an audience. 

You’re talking about people who were, during the day, milkmen, milkmaids, blacksmiths – whatever. In the evening or on the weekend, at times, they would sing. That’s very different to “A Singer”

So the people who sang these songs were not folk singers at all. There was no such thing as a folk singer. 

Exactly. They were just ordinary people singing their songs. And again, that takes quite a leap of understanding because we’re so used to music being provided for us nowadays. Even in the modern folk world, where we believe in amateur and home-made music, a lot of what we’re listening to is professional or semi-professional. As all music is nowadays, it’s arranged, harmonised, intellectualised, thought about, planned. It’s not just somebody standing up and singing their songs.

So the idea of a folk singer is essentially a modern construct. 

Yes, exactly. Nowadays, folk is a lifestyle choice. “I’m interested in folk,” or, “I’m interested in jazz.” In the past, if you go back far enough, it was what everybody did.

My last point on extrapolating backwards: if I say to you that I’m researching the Battle of Waterloo, and you reply that in Desert Storm they did so-and-so, I would say, “Yes, but that’s not relevant.”

A quote from Steve Roud concerning folk revivalists.

“Oh, but it’s a battle,” you might say. Yes, it’s a battle, but Desert Storm was very different to how things were back at the Battle of Waterloo.

That’s the problem that I have with folk music all the time. I’m interested in what people did with these songs in 1900, but people tell me about what happens now and they think it’s relevant. It’s isn’t. I’m sorry! [Laughs] Next question.

So, I was going to ask if you have a pithy definition of what folk music is, but clearly that’s not possible. 

It’s not really possible, no. The introduction to my book has my best shot at it, which is a list of characteristics, if you like, in that it is… was [laughs]… face to face, non-commercial, local, non-trained. Those are the things that, to me, characterise traditional singing. Now, they’re not hard and fast rules, and we can’t say that they all have to be present, which is why we can’t really use it as a definition.

By the way, when I say non-trained; if I teach my daughter how to sing, that’s different to her going to classes. If you learn to play the violin, you will never ever again be able to play fiddle like a traditional musician, because they do it in an unlearned way. If you go to university or singing school and learn how to project your voice, as soon as you do that then you’re not a folk singer anymore, because that’s not what people did. Do you see what I mean?

So, by untrained, I mean literally people who just stand up and sing. Anybody in the community can sing their songs. Some are better than others, some of them think about it more than others, but they are all non-trained and non-professional.

So, is it even possible to be a singer in the traditional sense anymore? 

Well, I don’t think it is. I think it’s not that the tradition has changed, it’s that life has changed. In the old days, in a community, there were songs around and you heard them sung around the house or in the pub. You learned them, you sang them, and it was a local thing by definition.

Before 1900, if you wanted to hear a song sung, you had to be in the presence of the singer. That’s nonsense these days. We have the radio, we have CDs, we have the internet. I can learn a song from the other side of the world in seconds. That’s clearly completely different to how it was when I had to be in the pub with Old Joe if I wanted his song and I wanted to learn to sing it.

So, no, I don’t think there can be a tradition nowadays like there used to be, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be modern traditions. Life has changed so much – society has changed – so there can be no real comparison. You ask me if Martin Carthy is a traditional singer, and I say I don’t know. I really don’t.

That said, Martin Carthy has stories of having to travel to places to collect songs from singers. 

Yes, that’s right. And that’s because, when he first started his ‘career’ – and that word already sets him apart from traditional singers because he’s got a music career – the resources weren’t there. OK, we had radio and records, but very few traditional resources, so he used to have to travel around and learn from other singers. But, you know, he would then go home with the song and sit there and arrange it, working out what chords go with it – all the paraphernalia that goes with a modern song. I’m not saying that it’s not traditional, I’m just saying it’s not traditional in the sense that it was in the old days. Life has changed.

Let’s go back to the example of the battles. If I was fighting in Desert Storm, I wouldn’t turn up in Napoleonic gear with a musket [laughs]. I wouldn’t stand there and say, “Well, this is traditional. This is how battles should be.” Things have moved on.

Are you able to appreciate performances of traditional folk songs, or does the historian in you prevent you from fully enjoying them? 

Oh, no! I still like listening to traditional singing. Not everybody, but who does? I tend to like the people that I know.

You mean personally? 

Yes, personally. I don’t do it deliberately, but… I mean, Laura Smyth who works in the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library downstairs – she’s one of my favourite singers, but that’s partly because she’s a friend of mine. Even though she’s a good singer in her own right and she has a style that appeals to my traditionalist nature, the fact that she’s a friend makes it real to me.

We had a launch of this book last week at the British Library, and the people I asked to sing certainly weren’t the most well-known singers in the world – they certainly weren’t the Martin Carthys of this world who would’ve drawn in a crowd. They were people I know. They were Laura and her partner Ted, Martin and Shan Graebe, and Lisa Knapp. I feel comfortable with them because I know them and I like their singing.

And, of course Lisa Knapp has quite an interesting take on the tradition. 

Yes, although at the launch last week she just stood up and sang one with her fiddle, just picking it, and then did an unaccompanied ‘Pleasant and Delightful’, and she really belted it out. It was delightful. Really good.

A marvellous voice. You’re on her Till April is Dead album, aren’t you? 

I am, yes! [Laughs] Much to my surprise. I don’t usually do that kind of thing.

I hadn’t realised that was you. When I interviewed Lisa around the time of the launch of that CD, I asked her if the voice recordings were taken from some old archive!

Yes, that’s me – an old archive [laughs].

Can I ask how modern performers respond to what you have to say about folk music?

People in the folk world are very thin-skinned. If they think you’re saying that they are not traditional, or that they should not be doing this or that, they get very cross. They get very cross with me, as though I’m trying to tell them what to do. I’m not. In effect, I don’t care what they do. It’s just not what I’m interested in. What I’m interested in is what happened in the past.

But at home I tend to listen to American country music more than anything else. It has a similar sort of thing – storytelling to music. American female country singers like Emmylou Harris have the best voices in the world, and they’re completely untrained, which is what I like about them. There’s little fuss and palaver.

Although Emmylou certainly learnt a lot about harmony and arrangement from Gram Parsons… 

Oh, of course. That’s right. I’m not saying she’s pure folk, or anything like that. But I can still see a connection between Anglo-American folk music and on into the string bands and early country, and then into modern country – not country and western. I can still hear the resonances of the folk music in modern country in a way that I can’t in British pop music. There is no real connection between Harry Cox, an old singer from Norfolk, and The Beatles. If The Beatles had roots, they were American. Whether the roots were blues or country, they were American. Perhaps that’s why I appreciate American country music more than British pop.

An argument I have heard on a number of occasions is that folk music is ‘the music of the people’, which is then followed up with the comeback, ‘pop music is therefore folk music’. What you’re saying is that pop music can’t be folk music because it has been written and arranged for trained singers with commercial intent. Even if it’s what people in bars sing, or people working in factories, that setup stops it from being folk music. 

Yes, that’s right. It doesn’t have the traditional base. The difference between folk music and pop music is that pop is commercial, it’s short term – you have to learn new repertoire and to extend yourself. This is what happens to folk musicians. They start off playing simple stuff and then they want to progress as musicians. They want to arrange things and bring in other instruments because that’s part of their path as a musician. That’s not what a traditional musician did. A traditional musician who played his melodion in the pub for step-dancing didn’t go home and think he’d learn other music – get a better melodion and learn how to play in 14 different keys at the same time. He didn’t try to develop. What he was doing was functional.

But didn’t a melodion player in the pub perform for commercial reasons? 

Well, that’s why I say you can’t apply hard and fast rules, but no he wasn’t. If he got five shillings or a pint of beer, to me that’s not commercial because during the day he’s a butcher, or whatever. At best he’s a semi-pro. I wouldn’t say that really counts as commercial.

What’s your background in folk music, Steve? You’re actually quite hard to find out about on the internet. Your Wikipedia page is virtually non-existent. All I know is that you were a librarian in Croydon!

[Laughs] That’s all you need to know!

What led you to become a folk historian? 

Well, I’m a child of the 1960s. I was born in 1949. I was of The Beatles generation. The Beatles and The Stones hit when I was 13 or 14. They were aimed directly at me.

Did they grab you? 

Oh, yes. They certainly did. I was a pop music fan like everybody in their teens. But I went to an organisation called Woodcraft Folk. It’s like the Scouts and Guides but it’s left-wing and it’s boys and girls, which the Scouts and Guides certainly weren’t at that time. We did folk dancing and folk singing, so I had – like a lot of kids – a background in community singing; left-wing, because that’s the way my family were. So when the folk revival really started to take off in the 60s, I was in exactly the right place at exactly the right time. I was, by then, in my teens and looking for other kinds of music. Pop music, by that point, didn’t fulfil my interests. Once you got through the psychedelic era there wasn’t much left [laughs]. So the world of folk music offered me, as it did a lot of people of my generation, a different take on things – certainly different to the teenybopper kind of thing that was churned out for teenagers.

As you know, you grow through that and you look for other things. Folk music was one of those, and blues was another. I’ve always had an interest in looking at where it came from. When my friends were buying British cover versions of soul records, I was always the one who was trying to find the original soul records.

Oh, same here. 

Yes, well there are a few of us that are like that [laughs]. When people were buying English rock’n’roll, I was trying to buy the hardcore stuff. You had to go to specialists shops. There was one in Tooting Market who stocked R&B, as they called it at that time, and rock’n’roll. I’d go there specially, while my friends were buying Herman’s Hermits. And you’d buy The Stones and you’d read the sleeve notes and discover it was a Howlin’ Wolf song, and you’d wonder what this Howlin’ Wolf sounded like, so off you’d go. And then you’re into electric blues, and then you’d find that there’s rural blues behind that. And that’s what I’d do.

In the 90s, when I was a teenager, I remember doing the same with Blur. We’d all be listening to their albums, but I’d be the one picking up on mentions in interviews of people like Ray Davies. So I’d head back to Ray Davies, and then even further back. 

Yes, exactly. And if you have that kind of interest – often an interest in when something was recorded and what was on the B-side – that’s when you start cataloguing your records. I mean, I was cataloguing my pop records long before I started my Roud Index. It’s how I learnt to do my cataloguing. I started cataloguing things that were in Melody Maker and in the charts. I’d catalogue the adverts – I’d cut them out and write down what was on B-sides, what the catalogue number was – all that kind of thing. It’s just what I liked doing.

So, yes, the folk world kicked in, and for a while I was interested in Steeleye Span and Fairport Convention, Martin Carthy and so on. But again, I started wondering where it had all come from. So Martin Carthy might say he’d learnt such and such a song from Sam Larner, and I’d wonder about Sam Larner. And at that time you could find very little on real traditional music. You had to come here [points to the floor of Cecil Sharp House] for it, which is where Martin Carthy and people like him gravitated to. Shirley Collins talks about spending hours and hours in the library looking for songs.

But at the same time I was interested in folklore. I got involved in the Folklore Society, researching Mummers’ Plays and that sort of stuff. And then it grows from there. Once you’ve made a start, it begins to grow on you as you get deeper and deeper into the subject. But I didn’t start writing, or even think that I could write books, until about the year 2000 when I was around 50 years old. I was a grown up, anyway [laughs]. It was my wife who said, “You’re gathering all of this stuff together. Why don’t you start writing books?” Then, 10 years later she says, “You could give up the day job and research full time.” I thought, could I really [laughs]?!

Backtracking, though – as a teenager I did all sorts of jobs. I left school without any qualifications and did labouring jobs and stuff like that. My wife, when I first met her, was working in a library and she suggested I do the same. So that’s what I did, and in my thirties I went to polytechnic to become a qualified librarian. So I’ve worked in libraries for most of my adult life as a local history librarian – my background is in cataloguing and indexing stuff.

Which leads neatly on to that extraordinary little thing, the Roud Folk Song Index. When did you begin that 

I started that in 1970.

Was it just you scribbling in note books to begin with? 

Well, as I said, I cut my teeth on pop records – cataloguing them on cards in shoeboxes under my bed.

Just for your own pleasure? 

Yes, just for my own pleasure. I always say I invented The Guinness Book of Hit Singles decades before the real thing [laughs]. That’s what I was aiming for, although I didn’t know it. If somebody had come along and said they could publish what I was doing, I would’ve realised that it was what I was trying to do.

Once I’d given up on pop music and moved that to one side, I got involved in folk music and started documenting the revival stuff – the Steeleye Spans and the Martin Carthys – but very soon left those behind and started getting really interested in the traditional stuff. I started that 47 years ago, but again, on cards and in shoe boxes. It wasn’t until they invented the personal computer that it really took off, and that’s when I realised that other people could start using this. Also, going to library school made me realise that what I was doing was a valuable finding aid.

So how many folk songs had you indexed by the time you finally got it onto a computer? 

Er, well, it was only up to 15,000 songs.


Well, there’s 250,000 entries in the folk index now, so 15,000 seems paltry. At the time it seemed like a hell of a lot. That’s how many there was when I first got my personal computer at home – an old Amstrad – and around that time I got to know the librarian here at Cecil Sharp House, Malcolm Taylor, and he said, “Well, we could use your index. As well as you having it at home just for fun, why don’t we have it?” So, once I’d got that contact he would lend me the books that you couldn’t buy. I’d borrow them, index the information, then give them the index. And then it grew from there, what with the internet, and everyone could start using it.

So, was this something you were doing in the evening, after the day job? 


How many songs could you get through in an evening? 

It depended on the song. To be technical, if you’ve got 100 songs all sung by the same singer, collected on the same day by the same collector, then you can rattle through them very quickly. All the data is the same, so you just change the titles and the first line. On the other hand, if it’s an anthology – say, something like the 50 Greatest Hits of English Folk Music – and every one of them is different, then you have to type in all the details and it slows you down. But I could do 100 songs in a day, easily. If it’s a fairly easy source, then 200-300 in a day.

Can you remember the first one that you indexed? 

Yeah, the first one was a version of ‘The Gypsy Laddie’ – Child number 200. Thats Roud number 1.

There’s no rhyme or reason to the numbering, is there? 

No, although I have overheard theories – people assuming why the numbers are different [laughs]. It’s literally the next song I come across, that’s the next number. That’s the beauty of the system in that it’s infinitely expandable. If I’d used something much cleverer, like Child or Law did, once they’ve done the bit that they’re interested in you can’t then extend it. You can’t have Child 306 because he only went up to 305. With my system it’s another song, another number. And the numbers only started from a practical point of view. As you know, these songs have varying titles. If you cross-referenced on paper and had to cross-reference all of those titles, then you have to write everything out every time, whereas if you just give it a number, all of those titles connect to that number. If you want that song then you go for that number. The system is crude, but I think that’s why it works. It’s just simple.

If you’re classifying songs, you can’t classify the first song until you know your classification categories. Until you’ve done, say, a thousand then you can’t work out your parameters. Do you see what I’m saying? If you say you’re going to call these war songs, and these poaching songs, and these love songs, you have to have done a thousand before you work out what category you’re dealing with. With my system you can do it straight away – it’s a different song, it gets a different number.

If it’s almost the same song, then does it get a new number? That’s the only decision I have to make.

Are you able to do party tricks? Could I shout 355 at you and you’d be able to tell me the song title? 

[Laughs] No! I could do that for a while but my memory is going now. There are 28,000 Roud numbers now, just in the folk song index. There’s another 40,000 in the broadside index. I can only remember a few of them that I commonly use as examples.

What’s the oldest recorded English folk song? 

When you say recorded, do you mean sound recorded?

No, I mean documented. 

A few of our songs can be shown to go back to the fifteenth century, so that’s the 1400s, and one or two perhaps before that. But that’s not to say they weren’t around – it’s just to say that they’re not documented. Nobody bothered to write them down, so we have no evidence. And that’s one of the real things about this new book: I’m trying to stick to the evidence. Folklorists, in particular, in the past have gone for speculation. You know, “These superstitions must be thousands of years old. They must be pagan.” No they’re not! The evidence for Friday the 13th starts in the 1870s. It’s no older than that. If there’s no evidence before that then you can’t start making any theories about pagan and ancient rituals. The first thing you do is look at the evidence, and that’s what this book is all about.

So, you asked me about the oldest stuff. If you go back to before the fifteenth century, not only are the songs not written down very often, but we’re not told who sang them. Normally, if it’s been written down then it has been sung by someone posh, rich and powerful, or it’s a church thing. Nobody wrote down what the ordinary people were doing. So, really, I have no theory about folk song before the written evidence comes in because it would be speculation.

Not to get too trivial, but is there a way that you can almost pinpoint ‘The Greatest Hit of English Folk Music’, based around the amount of references that point to it? 

Oh yes, we can do that. Again, you get back to indexing. If nobody has indexed and catalogued the collections then you don’t know – you can’t draw any conclusions. But certainly we can say that ‘Barbara Allen’ has been popular in every generation that we know of right back to the first reference, which is probably when it was written, in the 1660s. Samuel Pepys refers to it as a new song. So we take that as evidence that that’s where it starts. All the collectors collected ‘Barbara Allen’, and it doesn’t seem to go out of fashion. It was still being sung in the 1950s. There are a few songs like that, that seem to have been known everywhere by everybody. You could say they are ‘The Greatest Hits’, if you like.

And all of that is accessible on the Full English website

Yes, it is now. It’s only now that we’ve gathered all of this stuff together that we can start to make that kind of statement. My previous book, The New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs, was a collection of the most popular songs. It wasn’t trying to be the ones that were special or ‘best’, or anything like that. It was based on the songs that we know were widely sung. ‘Farmer’s Boy’ was another one that everybody would’ve known, certainly before the war. And still, a lot of people who aren’t familiar with English folk music would know the chorus to that song, or could at least join in with it. These are the songs that everybody knew, and in fact some of the collectors wouldn’t bother to collect them. If you’ve got an hour with some old chap in Whitchurch Work House, you’re not going to say to him, “Well, sing me the common songs that I know already.” You’re going to ask him to sing you something different.

Are there songs still to be collected? 

That depends on your definition of folk, doesn’t it? There are people – the Song Collectors Collective – who are still collecting songs from travellers. And in Ireland there are still pockets of old fashioned tradition. I don’t know that in England that you could find any, apart from those from a few travellers. There will be people who know songs from their parents, so that – in a way – is some kind of tradition, but the kind of tradition that we’re talking about here is long dead in England. The people who were brought up with it – people like Harry Cox and Sam Larner who were singing in the 1950s – they were born in Victorian times. Even my generation, brought up in the 50s and 60s – my parents had no singing tradition at all, so there was no way I could pick that up.

The idea of wandering up to an old chap in an English pub now and asking to hear his songs… 

[Laughs] Exactly, yes. It’s possible that it might happen, but it’s unlikely. We’ve lost that tradition of amateurs just singing a song. Jukeboxes started the expectation that music has to be of a certain standard. Even in my day, if you went to a wedding, Uncle Joe or your granny might sing a special song. You don’t really get that now. I don’t know. I don’t really go to enough weddings [laughs].

Your generation had the likes of you and Doc Rowe, people who have taken the study of this to exceptional levels. Are there people in the next generation that you know of – that you trust with your life’s work to take it forward? 

There are. Not many of them, or not as many. My generation all came from the revival, and there was a lot of it about. Not only in the popular sense, but also in university departments – Leeds and Sheffield – where you could study folklore. You had people doing PHDs on folk song history, and that sort of thing. All of that has gone, so there’s no infrastructure.

Don’t you still have departments at places like Sheffield – people like Fay Hield

Yes, well Fay’s starting it again, and there’s a degree course in Newcastle, but they tend to be based more on the performance side of things. That’s not a criticism, it’s just the way it is. If people get an academic interest, they tend to be in other departments – either history or English – and they’ll do it on the side.

There are still some people doing research – young people like Laura Smyth – who are interested enough not just as a performer. She’s not just looking for old songs to perform. She comes from Lancashire, so she’s interested in Lancashire traditions – step dancing as well as the songs. There are people about, yes, but not as many as we need if the scholarly side is going to continue. Lisa Knapp has an interest in research. Her CD about May Day is the result of her reading up on it and coming here. She used to come to my folklore courses. So there are people left.

Every generation thinks they’re the last. They think, “Oh, these young people aren’t doing it right.” But in the end you’ve got to leave it to the next generation. My generation is gradually dying off. People like Roy Palmer. His books inspired me and he was a friend, but he passed away recently. He was older than me. I’m 68, so my generation has moved up the perch, as it were. You become the old guard, although I still think of myself as a newcomer compared to people like Roy. It won’t be long before my generation fades away, so we do need some more people.

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