Voices from the past can still be heard today through the living social history of songs passed down through generations, whether they’re still sung by tradition-bearers, recorded by folk song enthusiasts or printed in broadsides or books, says Fiona Mountain. She tells Historia how the story of a murder committed over 200 years ago lives on in a folk song collection by a Derbyshire singer, an audio drama, and her own novel, The Keeper of Songs.
Folk music literally means the music of the people; the traditional voices of a country or region.
In the early twentieth century, enthusiasts including Cecil Sharp, Lucy Broadwood, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Percy Grainger travelled the length and breadth of the country collecting songs from working men and women; everyone from farm workers to fishermen, mothers to miners.
Many of the songs they collected on phonographs and wax cylinders were ancient, going back to the sixteenth century and before. Some were originally shared in ballad-sheets, know as broadsides, the newspapers of their day, while many were kept alive only through the oral tradition, never written down at all, but passed on from father to son, mother to daughter, through the generations.
Renowned folk singer Shirley Collins has often described how, whenever she sings the old songs, she feels singers from generations past standing at her shoulder. She describes how she’s always wanted to be a “conduit for the spirits of the soldiers, farm labourers and their wives, who first kept the songs alive”.
Ancient songs are voices from the past, and, thanks to song hunters through the ages, we can still hear them today through a wealth of free archives.
You can loose yourself for hours time-travelling in Broadside Ballads Online, a digital collection of almost 30,000 popular songs from printed ballad-sheets dated between the 16th and 20th centuries. Browsing the Wax Cylinder Collection‘s subject index alone transports you on a wonderful journey. A stroll and scroll through the letter B, for instance, takes in beggars, bigamy and bilberries!
The most important archive of traditional song, dance and music is arguably the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library (VWML), maintained by the English Folk and Dance Society (EFDSS).. A multi-media library of pamphlets, periodicals, press cuttings, photographs and phonograph cylinders, it incorporates the Roud Folk Song Index. This is a database of around 250,000 references to nearly 25,000 songs collected from oral tradition, from all over the world, compiled by former librarian Steve Roud.
The most famous collection of folk songs is possibly the 305 Child Ballads, collected by American scholar Francis James Child (1825-1896). Typical themes are romance, historical events, murder, morality, folk heroes and supernatural experiences. After the folk revival in the 1960s, many singers rediscovered the beauty and poetry of these ballads from England and Scotland – and their American variants.
There are hundreds of variations of the song Died for Love, otherwise known as Sweet William, Willie the Bold Sailor Boy and I Wish My Baby Was Born. It originates in England in the early 1600s and has been collected all over Britain, Ireland and North America. A tragic tale of a woman pining for her true love who has set out to sea and not returned, it’s been performed by Fairport Convention and Martin and Eliza Carthy, among others.
This rediscovery and reinterpreting is what makes folk songs so vibrant and the tradition of collecting traditional songs lives on. In the process of researching my new novel, The Keeper of Songs, I had the privilege of learning from a real-life ‘keeper of songs’, the Mercury music-nominated folk singer, Sam Lee.
One of the songs featured on Sam’s album The Fade in Time is Bonny Bunch of Roses, a Napoleonic ballad telling of the conversation between Napoleon’s son and his mother. Sam leaned it from Freda Black, an octogenarian Romany gypsy singer.
After Stanley Robertson taught ballads to Sam over a four-year period and made him custodian of the songs, Sam’s quest saw him knocking on doors, visiting camps, seeking permission to take the old songs to a new generation. Sam founded the Song Collectors Collective and many of his spine-tinglingly lovely recordings are preserved on the website, free for all to listen and be inspired.
Derbyshire folk singer Bella Hardy’s album The Dark Peak and The White features adaptations of traditional Derbyshire folk songs, including her own version of The Runaway Lovers, a centuries-old murder ballad, which is the refrain that runs throughout The Keeper of Songs.
In his book Murders in the Winnats Pass, Mark Henderson details how, in 1768, a well-to-do young couple, mounted on fine horses, were journeying to the chapel of Peak Forest, in Derbyshire, to be married. But as they rode through Winnats Pass they were ambushed by a gang of miners, robbed and killed.
The crime remained a secret but the perpetrators didn’t go unpunished. One fell down Winnats and instantly died. Another was crushed to death by a stone which fell on him near the place where the victims were buried. A third took his own life, a fourth lost his mind, and the fifth confessed to the murder on his deathbed.
The tale was first collected by the son of a local lead miner, in the early 1800s. Over the following two centuries numerous version were recorded as the legend evolved though a long chain of storytellers, changing to reflect the preoccupations of different ages. It was shaped by the influences of the local lead mining industry, the beginnings of Methodism in the Peaks and the dawn of tourism.
It’s been, in turn, a tale of divine retribution to reflect churchgoing sensibilities, a tale of romance and terror to please admirers of the picturesque, and a ghostly tale to enthral tourists. It’s made all the more haunting for being apparently true. Clara’s ornate leather saddle is poignantly displayed in the little museum in Castleton.
However, the magic of old folk songs is that they are not museum pieces, but living social history. They have a liminal quality; they take us into different worlds, realms and times. They carry hundreds, sometimes thousands, of years of learning and wisdom and have been shaped by generations of passion or suffering; pain, rejection, hope, anger and forgiveness and love. We have much to learn from them.
Fiona Mountain worked for BBC Radio 1 for ten years before becoming an author. She’s written six novels and is a winner of the Mary Higgins Clark Award from the Mystery Writers of America. Her new novel, The Keeper of Songs, inspired by folk songs and set at Chatsworth House, has been adapted into an audio drama featuring Bella Hardy’s music, Henry and Clara.
Winnats Pass, Derbyshire: Stephen Bowler via Flickr
The Joviall Crew, or, Beggars-Bush, broadside ballad: Broadside Ballads Online
The Sailor Boy and his Faithful Mary, broadside ballad: Broadside Ballads Online
Sam Lee: image supplied by Fiona Mountain
Cover of The Dark Peak and The White by Bella Hardy
Newspaper story about the Winnats Pass murder: Leigh Chronicle and Weekly District Advertiser, 13 July 1888: via FindMyPast