Created by author and archivist, Steve Roud, the Roud Number Index was devised to catalogue folk songs, looking at variants in title and lyrics, as well as location. For example, Roud number 200 (or Roud 200, as it would more commonly be spoken about) is known by at least three titles: ‘Edward’, ‘My Son David’, and ‘Henry’. Despite the differences in title, there are thematic and lyrical similarities that tie them together, suggesting that they originated from a single source. Rather than catalogue all the variants separately, the Roud Index seeks to gather them into groups so that anyone studying the song can easily access information on it.
How many songs are in the Roud Index?
When we spoke to Steve Roud in 2018, he explained that there are 250,000 entries in the Roud Index. The ordering of the index is chronologically based on when he found them, rather than the perceived date of composition (which, in most cases, is unknown). For instance, he started with ‘The Gypsy Laddie’, or Roud 1, and then continued with whichever song came to his attention next.
“It’s literally the next song I come across, that’s the next number,” he told us. “That’s the beauty of the system in that it’s infinitely expandable.”
How did the Roud Index begin?
Steve Roud started his Roud Number Index in 1970, compiling library index cards in a shoebox. His interest in indexing songs grew out of his love for pop and R’n’B records of the 1960s. Beginning with a band like The Rolling Stones, he would look at their record sleeves and find out where the original blues songs they were playing came from, and then note down the origins.
“I’ve always had an interest in looking at where [music] came from,” he explained. “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.”
As his interest in English folk music and folklore developed, he began to focus on their song lyrics. The Roud Index does not list tunes, however. It is focused purely on lyrics, collectors, source singers and places of origin.
Where is the Roud Index located?
Initially kept in shoe boxes, the Roud Index eventually moved onto Steve Roud’s personal computer, where it eventually grew to 15,000 entries. The full 250,000 entry index is now housed at Cecil Sharp House in Camden, London, where it is looked after by the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library.
Can I visit the Roud Index?
The easiest way to access the Roud Index and explore Roud numbers is via the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library website, where the songs are digitised and geolocated against a Google Map. You can search the index by Roud number, by location, by song collector, by source singer, by first lines… it’s a very thorough and deeply enthralling archive.
Does Steve Roud ever give talks on Roud Numbers?
Steve Roud occasionally gives talks on the Roud Index. The best way to find out about these is via the EFDSS website. There is also an in-depth lecture on the Roud Index, given by Steve, on the Library of Congress Youtube channel. You can watch that below.