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Folk Memory: Songs Through Time

Folk Memory: Songs Through Time

A song I'd never heard before felt instantly, spookily familiar. I dug around, spoke to some friends, and got a term for the phenomena from Shirley Collins: Folk memory.

The first time I heard Shirley Collins’ version of ‘The False Bride’ [Roud 154] from her EP Heroes in Love was in the early 2000s. I was a Brit living in Virginia, finishing a four-year stint at university and, ironically, surrounded by friends who knew more about British folk music than I did myself. One of these friends had gifted me a handful of data CDs full of folk music from across Britain with then-unknown-to-me names scrawled onto the disc in Sharpie: Copper Family, Tim Hart, Shirley Collins.

“I’m interested in your ‘folk memory’ theory – and believe it to be true. I’m sure I’ve experienced that many times – perhaps a ghost of a tune, or the instant recognition of a few lines, and I’m glad I’m receptive to that.”

Shirley Collins

I recognised almost nothing in the hours of new, old music I’d been given. I wasn’t brought up in a family that listened to traditional folk music but had my fair share of folk “near-misses”: car journeys soundtracked by the folk-minded Simon and Garfunkel, my dad’s best-of Clancy Brothers CD that I wore out in my late teens during a love affair with Ireland. That kind of thing. The only song I remember recognising from this trove of newly-acquired British folk music was ‘The Lowlands of Holland’ from Steeleye Span’s excellent Hark! The Village Wait album, which I knew from a version The Levellers had recorded.

Old songs wind their ways into our lives whether we are aware of it or not. I knew ‘Scarborough Fair’ from Simon and Garfunkel before I knew anything about Martin Carthy or the traditions through which it came down to him. We had sung ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ a few times in church down the years before I knew that it was written by the prolific folksong collector (and much else) Sabine Baring-Gould, a man whose work would come to deeply shape the genre of music I grew to love. In fact, the closest I’d come to traditional folk song in my childhood was in school (‘Ring a Ring o’ Roses’) and through hymns with borrowed folk tunes at church. Hours spent listening to Bob Dylan meant brushes with Lord’s Franklin and Randall, again without any sense of their origins.

When I first heard Shirley Collins sing ‘The False Bride’ I was absolutely convinced I’d heard the tune before. The song appears as a bonus track on The Sweet Primroses LP: a few tracks further into the album Collins sings ‘A Blacksmith Courted Me’ to the tune that usually accompanies the hymn ‘To Be a Pilgrim’. I figured maybe ‘The False Bride’ might share a tune from another church song I knew. But I couldn’t place it. I went to my parents who had at least three more decades of churchgoing in them than me. They would know where the tune came from. But they didn’t. I was shocked. There was no explanation as to how else I would know the tune for this song. Now, I know what you’re thinking, so let me acknowledge right off the bat that, yes, there are of course songs that sound like other songs – snatches of melody that recall a tune somewhere else. But this was wholly different. This was a song I knew by heart. I just needed to work out from where.

Fast forward to 2019. I’m no closer to knowing how I know the tune to Collins’ ‘The False Bride’ so instinctively, nor any closer to articulating what my sense of unknowing might mean. During 2019, I drew a number of pictures of birds singing folksongs and posted them on Instagram. I drew a Stonechat singing ‘The False Bride’ and captioned it with a note regarding my frustrations at not being able to find the original source. I got an unexpected response from an old friend from Virginia:

There’s a good chance you do know the tune from church, or by churchgoing – maybe not firsthand, but through your ancestors, who could have been so moved by hearing the tune that they passed it down to you in this way. I believe these feelings are carried through generations.

Wow, what? This was such a beautiful, awe-inspiring way of explaining how I came to know ‘The False Bride’. It seemed like a concept worth crediting so I decided to dig deeper in order to make sure I absolutely did not know the tune from elsewhere. I went straight to the source and got in contact with Shirley Collins. I’d had a brief email correspondence with Shirley years ago after watching her America over the Water talk at The Rondo theatre in Bath and still had her email address. Shirley responded quickly and in great depth. Here’s the pertinent part:

‘The False Bride’ (recorded by me, that is) was on a Topic EP called Heroes in Love in 1963 and re-issued fairly recently. And yes, it is a Copper song that they sometimes call ‘The Week Before Easter’. And I fell in love with Bob singing it after one hearing! I’m interested in your ‘folk memory’ theory – and believe it to be true. I’m sure I’ve experienced that many times – perhaps a ghost of a tune, or the instant recognition of a few lines, and I’m glad I’m receptive to that. I can’t place a hymn that reminds me of ‘The False Bride’, though. Of course, Vaughan Williams set a number of hymns to tunes of songs he’d collected in the 1900s – notably of course ‘Our Captain Cried’ which he set to ‘To Be a Pilgrim’ – a hymn I absolutely love.”

Wonderful stuff, but alas it got me no closer to finding where the tune came from. However, Shirley’s email did give me a phrase to clearly articulate what was going on here: folk memory. There was also plenty of credence from Shirley herself that folk memory was a thing that one could experience. On cue, I found myself stumbling over a passage in Electric Eden by Rob Young that seemed to describe the same phenomenon:

“Mr. Pottipher, he was told, had a stock of folk tunes in his head which Vaughan Williams might be interested to hear. Pottipher thought his songs too coarse for the present company, but Vaughan Williams was bidden to visit him at home the following day, where he ground out a song called ‘Bushes and Briars’. It touched the composer to the core; he later reported that he felt he had known this song all his life.”

Fast forward a few months to the almost-present. Jon Wilks’s Old Songs Podcast had hit the ground running, each episode a brilliant hour-long meander into a history of a folk song. Episode 4 was with Jackie Oates and she had chosen ‘The Sweet Nightingale‘. Despite its evident popularity, it’s not a song I actually know. I fell immediately in love with Jackie’s performance of it and noticed a descending series of notes that sounded oddly familiar. Jon noticed it too, but his conclusion was different to mine: he heard ‘Ding Dong Merrily on High’. I heard ‘The False Bride’.

‘The Sweet Nightingale’ was collected by our old friend, Sabine Baring-Gould, and became part of his campaign to get folksong sung in schools. Lots of British schoolchildren – from Cornwall (where the song originated) and beyond – grew up singing ‘The Sweet Nightingale’. I didn’t know the song, but maybe we’d sung it once or twice in school? Perhaps the familiar descending tune was what I was remembering when I heard ‘The False Bride’. Possible, but the rest of the song was too unfamiliar. As much as I wanted to see a connection, all I really saw was another dead end.

Vaughan Williams was bidden to visit him at home the following day, where he ground out a song called ‘Bushes and Briars’. It touched the composer to the core; he later reported that he felt he had known this song all his life.”

Some final thoughts. We all live within folk traditions whether we are aware of them or not. I don’t have to think too hard to find evidence of oral song transmission in my life: Dad singing ‘Green Grow the Rushes-O’ on family walks, my Yorkshire-born mum singing ‘On Ilkla Moor Baht ‘at’. The perennial love poem ‘Roses are Red…’ even has its own Roud number (19798, if you’re wondering!) Plus the carols, shantys, playground songs, etc, that weave their way throughout our lives and into our childrens’. But I didn’t grow up in a family where folksong was understood, practiced or considered. I did grow up as a churchgoer where there was certainly a lot of shared song, tradition, old melody, and wording going in through my ears from a very young, impressionable age. ‘The False Bride’s melody is, for want of a better word, church-y. Part of me wants to explain the similarity away as a familiar, but non-specific remembrance of cadences I heard in church services. Maybe, maybe. But that doesn’t feel right. When I first heard the song, it didn’t sound familiar. It sounded like a song I knew. By heart. A song that had a definition all its own, that I could have hummed in its’ entirety after hearing only a couple of bars.

Another sidenote that I find interesting regards broadside ballads, or broadsheets. Broadsheets were essentially lyric sheets printed by street printers from the 14th century onward. They were songs that quite often pertained to the news of the day, and might include the odd woodcut illustration. While there was no music printed on most broadside ballads, there was quite often a note at the bottom of the sheet stating “to be sung to the tune of…”. Fill in the blank with a well-known tune. The idea of the independence and interchangeability of a tune pertains to the topic of folk memory, particularly as in my story of ‘The False Bride’ it was only the tune that I remembered.

I’m fascinated by the idea of folk memory; songs being passed between generations. Pure love for a melody resonating down the years. I’m mesmerised by the idea; fully-behind it. It’s the kind of spirit I couldn’t fail to believe in. When I think of moments of transcendence in my life, of being moved to tears or total joy, they almost always involve music. We know that trauma can be transmitted down generations, so why not song? And if this can be true, then what other immaterial things do we pass between generations? Fascinating indeed.

If any of this sounds familiar to you, please do get in touch and share your thoughts and experiences. I’d be thrilled and interested to hear. And if you have any clues as to where the tune for ‘The False Bride’ comes from, definitely drop me a line.

More information

This piece was originally published on David Abbott’s Severnland, and is reprinted here with the author’s permission.