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Thank you for the music

17:17 12 February 2009



You might be forgiven for thinking folk music has strictly Celtic origins but as Mak Norman and Sean Goddard explain, it has some very strong Sussex roots which are famous up and down the country...

ASK the English to consider traditional music and most people's minds will flit to a bar in Ireland or Scotland, fiddles blazing and listeners enjoying the warmth of ancient Celtic tunes. If a TV drama shows scenes of windswept Scottish Highlands or perhaps the rolling landscape of Galway, the soundtrack inevitably plays a sweetly, piped air.

When it's an English scene, however, the music is most often anything but traditional, presenting the idea that folk songs and music from the UK are solely part of a rich and vibrant Celtic heritage, bound up in its countryside and its people - to which the English music heritage literally plays second fiddle.

This isn't new. Almost 100 years ago, the English classical composer Ralph Vaughan Williams addressed an audience in Oxford and warned:

"For years English folksong has been the ugly duckling of the folksong family. For years musicians and experts, while fully recognising the existence of traditional art in every country, denied the possibility of there being any English folksong."

Vaughan Williams championed the research of English folk music and today at Cecil Sharp House, the home of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, the Vaughan Williams Library contains the most important concentration of material on traditional song, dance, and music in the country.

In the early part of the 20th century, Vaughan Williams, Cecil Sharp and others at the time, including George Butterworth, who died at the Somme, made the very first recordings of folk songs with wax cylinder machines.

And it is fair to say that of all the counties in England, it's Sussex that appears to have drawn the greatest attention from folk song collectors over a period of some 130 years.

Legends of the folk world David Penfold and Peter Verrall were from Rusper and Monks Gate, near Horsham. Songs such as The Trees They Do Grow High (May 1907) and Rambling Sailor (April 1907) can be heard online today.

Ultimate accolade
Folk Song Society member Kate Lee famously discovered the harmony singing of the Copper family in Rottingdean in 1898. The story goes that she invited two renowned local singers from the Copper family up to the house of Sir Edward Carson, QC, an acquaintance of hers. She then plied James and Thomas Copper with a bottle of whisky, while they sang a number of songs from the family repertoire. Some of these songs were published in the Journal of the Folk Song Society in 1899 and James and Thomas became honorary members of the society.

More than 50 years after Kate Lee's trip to Rottingdean, the BBC took interest in the Coppers resulting in James Copper appearing on the front page of the Radio Times and in a radio programme about his life. The ultimate accolade for the Coppers resulted with James, his brother John and their sons Bob and Ron performing their unaccompanied harmony singing at the Royal Albert Hall in 1952.

At the same lecture given to the Oxford Folk Music Society in 1910, Vaughan Williams, went on to comment on the emerging awareness of English folk music: "It seems that the ugly duckling is beginning to show its plumage and is, in the opinion of many, turning out to be as white a swan as any of its elder brothers."

As with George Butterworth, Vaughan Williams used a number of folk songs he had recorded, as inspiration for classical compositions and hymns. A fine example is To Be a Pilgrim: The original melody came from Our Captain Calls All Hands, sung by Mrs Verrall from Monks Gate.

And so the folk songs and music of Sussex and other parts of England continued to be discovered and recorded: Henry Burstow in Horsham was found to have an astounding folk song repertoire of more than 400 songs - all of which he could sing at the drop of a hat.

In 1952 the BBC employed the American song collector Alan Lomax and seconded Peter Kennedy from the folk dance and song society to lead the folk music and dialect recording scheme. The idea was simply to go out among the people of the British Isles and collect songs, music and comment which could subsequently by used by the BBC in its programmes. While Lomax and Kennedy did much of the work themselves, they asked local people to help. Down here in Sussex, for example, Bob Copper collected songs from fishermen in Hastings. Recordings were aired on the BBC in Peter Kennedy's Sunday morning radio programme, As I Roved Out.

This BBC project inspired amateur collectors to seek out local singers, some revisiting Lomax and Kennedy's informants, while others discovered new singers and musicians.
They brought their own (or shared) heavy tape recorders and reels of tape, which were both expensive. One of the first people in Sussex to start recording local people was Mervyn Plunkett, who lived for a time in West Hoathly. He recorded songs from people that Peter Kennedy had met such as George 'Pop' Maynard at Copthorne.

Another major local find was Scan Tester, a multi-instrumentalist from Horsted Keynes. Scan is most well known for playing the Anglo concertina. Although Scan died in 1972, tunes collected from him are still played today in folk clubs countrywide.

Another local activist was Tony Wales, who lived in Horsham. Tony started the first folk club in Sussex in 1958 - the Horsham Songswappers. Tony invited traditional 'source' singers he knew to come to the club and swap songs with local enthusiasts. Local singers did come too, but there was an uneasy conflict in many cases because the club was quite formal and performers had to be ready to appear at a set time. Traditional singers were not used to this because they may have only sung around the house or in the more informal pubs. Tony himself recorded the first LP of Sussex Folk Songs and Ballads, put out by the Folkways label in New York in 1957, and in 1961 organised the first Horsham folk festival. Recordings made at the festival were broadcast on BBC radio and others were released commercially.

Anyone can play a part in keeping our English traditional musical heritage alive and learning a couple of songs is a good place to start. There's no right way to sing them but listening to the precious recordings available to us of the old country singers is certainly the place to start. After all, it was their music, handed down often orally through the generations with little or no outside influence. Their approach to the songs was every bit as natural as their Sussex accents.

Today, traditional songs and music can be heard regularly in Sussex with folk clubs or smaller sessions at established venues in many towns including Lewes, Brighton, Eastbourne, Arundel, Horsham, Worthing and Chichester.
To hear a selection of the songs mentioned, visit www.sussexlife.co.uk

Thanks go to:
Vic Smith for allowing the use of photographs taken of traditional singers at the Coppersongs club in 1970;
Andrew King for help in identifying cylinder recordings on the British Library Archival Sound Recordings website;
Rod Stradling, Brian Matthews and Musical Traditions for use of tracks from Just Another Saturday Night.

Other collectors
Ken Stubbs who lived in Edenbridge and made numerous recordings in the Ashdown Forest area.
Mike Yates made an incredible number of recordings throughout Sussex. Mike has recorded songs from Johnny Doughty, originally a Brighton fisherman who retired along the coast to Rye.
Mary Ann Haynes, a traveller who lived in Brighton, and Gordon Hall, along with his mother Mabs, who lived in Pease Pottage.
Brian Matthews recorded many singers in the 1960s. He recorded in many pubs including the Royal Oak in Ardingly, The Plough at Three Bridges and the Royal Oak, Milton Street. Matthews recorded many fine singers including Cyril Phillips, George Belton and Pop Maynard.
Topic Records have produced an excellent series of CDs called Voice of the People which includes a number of Sussex singers in its collection.
From 1843, when the Rev John Broadwood published Old English Songs as now sung by the Peasantry of the Weald of Surrey and Sussex, the county has proven to be rich with wonderful traditional singers and musicians. An example is Samuel Willett, the singing baker of Cuckfield, whose repertoire was collected by John Broadwood's niece, Lucy. Samuel Willetts' version of To be a Farmer's Boy appeared in her book, English County Songs published in 1893.


The English Folk Dance and song Society

Find local folk events near you

Listen to The Trees they do grow high by Vaughan Williams

Listen to the rambling sailor by Vaughan Williams

More about Henry Burstow

For more information on Scan Tester, go to the Musical Traditions websitet

An interview with Gordon Hall by Vic Smith


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