The source singer Cecilia Costello - photo by Bob Etheridge
Cecilia Costello. Photo credit: Bob Etheridge

Women in folk: celebrating the source singers

To celebrate International Women's Day, we look into the lives of five of England's most important source singers.

Much is known of the folk song collectors, those men and women who went out into the countryside in the mid-to-late Victorian and early Edwardian periods and noted down rural English folk songs, convinced they’d disappear without someone riding in (mostly on bicycles) to save them. However, partially due to the interests and self-interests of the collectors, and partially because of the limited information recorded in national censuses, much less is known about the source singers – the people to whom traditional songs were simply songs to be sung, rather than objects of academic study.

To mark International Women’s Day, 2022, we’ve dug into the histories of five very important female source singers. There were many more, and we could certainly add to this list, but these women, combined, gave us upwards of 350 songs, for which lovers of traditional music are forever thankful.

We have included videos of some of the songs each singer contributed to the canon, selecting versions that are perhaps best known. In some cases, it’s possible to hear the source singer themselves performing the song, so we’ve included those where applicable.

The source singers featured in this article are…

Louie Hooper and Lucy White

Louie Hooper and Lucy White, sisters from Hambridge in Somerset, were thought to have a repertoire of 300 songs between them, mostly learnt from their mother, Sarah England. Although they were known locally for their singing, they mostly sang to pass their time as collar or buttonhole makers, a job Louie began doing at the age of 10.

They would sing the old songs and I learnt them all, and would sing them over to myself. And that’s how I got them.

Louie Hooper

Born in 1860, Louie Hooper has often been portrayed as a daydreamer (most recently in Nell Leyshon’s FOLK play) possibly due to her own description of a somewhat lonely childhood. Partially disabled, she had grown up in the company of her mother and other adults rather than other children. This meant that she was constantly in the presence of the songs the grown-ups would sing, and she seems to have sponged them up. “While they worked,” she explained in a letter, “they would sing the old songs and I learnt them all, and would sing them over to myself and listen over and over. And that’s how I got them.”

Years later, she would recall that music preoccupied her, often lying in bed, listening to the rain on the roof, adding words to the rhythms it conjured in the night.

Less appears to be known about Lucy’s formative musical years, but she was able to sing a total of 46 solo songs to Cecil Sharp when he collected in Hambridge in the early 20th century. By contrast, Louie had 37 songs to offer, and they sang 19 together.

Some of the earliest songs Cecil Sharp collected were from the singing of Louie Hooper and Lucy White. He first encountered them in late summer, 1903, and their relationship seems to have been based on mutual respect and friendship. Louie remembered that Sharp was incredibly excited to hear her singing, explaining that, “he would be dizzy until he had written it down”. She went on to say that she, “spent many a happy hour singing to him at the Vicarage Hambridge… I liked him very much… It was a happy time.” Indeed, Sharp was known to treat the sisters fondly. An accordion gifted to Louie now lives at the Museum of Somerset.

Songs collected from Louie Hooper and Lucy White

Among many other songs, Louie Hooper gave us versions of…

Lucy White gave us versions of…

Emma Overd

Emma Overd, one of the finest source singers in English traditional music, stands outside her front door in Langport. Photo by Cecil Sharp.
Emma Overd, photo by Cecil Sharp

The most prolific singer in Langport“, Emma Overd (sometimes known as Mary) was born in Somerset, 1838, and gave us 46 songs. Known locally as an extrovert, Cecil Sharp noted that she was a passionate, dramatic singer, recalling that, during her performance of ‘In Bruton Town’, “the good lady rose about the end of the third verse, when the unfortunate murdered lover appears in a dream to his beloved, and declaimed the rest of the tragedy in melodramatic style, thumping the table in her excitement”. In descriptions of other songs, he reported that she, “sang her song very excitedly and at break-neck speed, punctuating the rhythm of the refrain with lusty blows of her fists on the table”. Between-songs refreshment came in the form of, “a moog of cider”.

Indeed, her first meeting with Sharp in July, 1904, gives us an idea of her larger-than-life character. Maud Karpeles, Sharp’s biographer and assistant, takes up the story.

She flung her arms around his waist and danced him round and round with the utmost vigour, shouting, ‘Lor, girls, here’s my beau at last.’

Maud Karpeles on Emma Overd

“She lived in a mean street, which was inhabited – so [Sharp] was told – by ‘bad people’. She was out when he first called upon her, but was said to be at the public house round the corner. As he approached the public house he saw a group of women standing outside and chatting. ‘Is Mrs Overd here’ he asked. ‘That’s my name,’ an elderly woman replied, ‘and what do you want of me?’ Cecil Sharp explained that he was hunting for old songs and hoped that she would sing him some; whereupon without any warning she flung her arms around his waist and danced him round and round with the utmost vigour, shouting, ‘Lor, girls, here’s my beau at last.’ In the middle of this terpsichorean display Cecil Sharp heard a shocked exclamation, ‘But surely that is Mr Sharp,’ and looking round he saw the vicar, with whom he was staying, and the vicar’s daughter, both gazing with horror at the scene. When asked what he did, Sharp said: ‘Oh, I shouted to them to go away – and away they went.'”

The friendship between the singer and the collector lasted, and Sharp visited Emma Overd to collect songs 11 times over the course of five years.

Songs collected from Emma Overd

Mrs Webb

There are 148 references to Mrs Webb in the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, none of which seem to mention her first name. Perhaps not as celebrated as the likes of Cecilia Costello, Louie Hooper or Lucy White, Mrs Webb contributed a fine repertoire of songs when the collector, Henry Hammond, came visiting in January and February, 1906.

We researched Mrs Webb in as much depth as we could a few years ago, but her story isn’t an easy one to piece together. Although the VWML notes that her songs came from King’s Norton, Worcestershire (now Birmingham), the folk songs scholars, Steve Gardham and Bob Askew, believe that she moved to Bath at some point in her life and that the songs were collected there, almost certainly in a workhouse. Whether she learnt her songs in the Midlands or somewhere en route to Somerset, we may never know. Regardless of place, however, Mrs Webb’s songs have certainly stood the test of time.

Songs collected from Mrs Webb

Traditional songs that we have from the singing of Mrs Webb include:

Marina Russell

The life of Marina Russell was mostly one of hardship. Born Mary Anne Sartin in Corsecombe, Dorset, 1834, she was known for singing from an early age. A member of the local girls’ choir, she often wandered the streets, actively learning new songs by asking those she met along the way. According to the Orpington Folk Club website, “She learned ‘Love Farewell (Johnny and Molly)’ from an old man in Corsecombe who took the trouble to teach it to her, [and] she picked up the children’s song, ‘This Way and That Way’, from two men who acted it out.”

Variously finding work as a glover and a charwoman, she married at 21 and went on to have 11 children. Tragically, her husband died shortly after the birth of her youngest child, and two of her older children quickly followed him. Meanwhile, her eldest child, Emma, who had been sent out to work, returned home pregnant and unable to support herself. Marina took her newborn grandson in, while Emma was packed off to Weymouth Workhouse. The older woman spent much of her remaining working life trying to make ends meet.

Witnesses recalled her dancing around the table and singing, ‘Mark Me Once More Then, John’

By the time the Hammonds collected from her in 1907, Marina Russell was 75 years old and, according to their notes, “severely diminished in her faculties and teeth”. However, other witnesses recalled her dancing around the table and singing, ‘Mark Me Once More Then, John’, a song that Henry Hammond described as, “a rollicking tune with a great beat.”

Back in 2017, Tradfolk interviewed the traditional folk musician, Paul Sartin, who had spent time studying Marina Russell’s life after discovering that she was his great, great, great grandfather’s niece. You can read that interview here.

Songs collected from Marina Russell

The Hammond brothers collected around 100 songs from Marina Russell in 1907, including…

Cecilia Costello

Cecilia Costello. Photo credit: Bob Etheridge

Cecilia Costello, or Ciss as she was known, was born in Birmingham in 1883. Her parents were Irish immigrants, and it was said that her mother was related to the bushranger, Ned Kelly. Most of her songs came from the singing of her father, although her fascination with music led her to the Tivoli Theatre of Varieties (a music hall on Hurst Street, now the Birmingham Hippodrome) at a very early age. She showed so much enthusiasm for the songs she heard there, the proprietor visited her family home on Pershore Street and gifted her a month’s free pass.

In 1896 she began working at Philips Screw Factory, Barford Street. Years later she recalled that a sign on the wall demanded, “No larking or singing”, which only prompted her to sing to her coworkers even more.

She came to a certain level of fame after Marie Slocombe and Patrick Shuldham-Shaw visited her to record her songs for the BBC Sound Archives in 1951. These recordings were used in the influential radio series, As I Roved Out (circa 1953), and her versions of ‘I Wish, I Wish’, and ‘The Lover’s Ghost’ were published in The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs (1959). An album of her singing and storytelling was released on Leader Records in 1975.

Cecilia Costello was the only source singer to leave us a traditional song about the Peaky Blinders.

For nearly two decades following the BBC’s initial visit, interest in Cecilia Costello and her songs lay dormant. However, an interview with the archivist and collector, Charles Parker, in 1967 sparked renewed curiosity. The story goes that Parker referred to her in the Birmingham Evening Mail as, “now dead”. Upon reading this, one of her neighbours lept from her seat and ran over to Cecilia’s house, brandishing the newspaper and yelling, “Mrs Costello, you’re not dead, are you?”

Far from it. Cecilia went on to perform her songs at the Grey Cock Folk Club (which had been named after one of her songs, an alternative title for the aforementioned ‘The Lover’s Ghost’), and subsequently recorded more songs and reminiscences for Charles Parker, Pam Bishop and Jon Raven.

21st-century readers may be interested to learn that Cecilia Costello was the only source singer to leave us a song about the Peaky Blinders. She recalled seeing gang members around Digbeth, and how people would cross the road to avoid having to make eye contact with them in passing.

Songs collected from Cecilia Costello

Traditional songs that we have from the singing of Cecilia Costello include:

  • ‘The Cruel Mother’ [Roud 9]
  • ‘The Grey Cock’ or ‘The Lover’s Ghost’ [Roud 179]
  • ‘I Wish, I Wish’ or ‘Died For Love’ [Roud 60]
  • ‘My Bloke’s a Peaky’ [Roud 24185]
  • ‘Come Write Me Down’ [Roud 381]

Phoebe Smith

Phoebe Smith and her husband, Joe. Photo credit: Peter Kennedy

Phoebe Scamp was born in Kent in 1913. As the younger sibling in a large traveller family, Phoebe learnt her songs from her elder sisters and her uncle, Oliver Scamp. When the BBC’s Peter Kennedy came to record songs from her brother, Charlie, he noted Phoebe’s vocal talents and recorded her singing in 1956.

Phoebe Scamp became Phoebe Smith after marrying her husband, Joe, a scrap dealer. They settled in Woodbridge, Suffolk, where they shared a love of music. In particular, Phoebe enjoyed step-dancing to Joe’s fiddle playing, although the songs were her first love. By all accounts, she was generous with her talents, always happy to drop what she was doing and sing a couple of songs for visitors.

I can picture them, you know, in the sorrow parts as well as the happiness. They’re human.

Phoebe Smith describing traditional songs

Mike Yates, the former editor of the Folk Music Journal, was one such caller. He described Phoebe as, “one of the most magnificent singers that I have ever heard. She sang in a slow and dignified manner, dwelling on certain notes, letting each song’s story unfold without haste… Phoebe was in a class of her own when it came to English singers.”

Of the traditional songs that she loved so dearly, Phoebe Smith once remarked, “You can imagine… feeling for them… things that happened…what they did. I can picture them, you know, in the sorrow parts as well as the happiness. They’re human.”

Songs collected from Phoebe Smith

Phoebe Smith sang versions of the following traditional songs…

In writing this article, I leaned heavily on Still Growing: English Traditional Songs and Singers from the Cecil Sharp Collection, which was published by EFDSS in 2003.