Jeannie Robertson: Emergent Singer, Transformative Voice.

Jeannie Robertson: Emergent Singer, Transformative Voice. – book reviews

Steve Roud

One measure of the relative health of a particular field of study is the number, range and quality of books which are published. On this score, the study of traditional song in Britain and Ireland is barely surviving, which is perhaps not surprising considering the meagre institutional support given to the subject. The books reviewed or mentioned here amount to a not very steady trickle at best. However, they include a major set of volumes giving access to previously unpublished material, a study of a particular singer and her repertoire, and an introductory bibliography which gives an indication of the range of titles being published. Other notable recent items, not reviewed here, include: Motif Index of the Child Corpus: The English and Scottish Popular Ballad, by Natascha Wurzbach and Simone M. Salz (Berlin: Walter De Gruyter, 1995); The English Occupational Song, by Gerald Porter (Umea: University of Umea, 1992); Scottish Ballads, by Emily Lyle (Edinburgh: Canongate, 1994) reviewed in Folklore 107 (1996):126; and Narrative Singing in Ireland: Lays, Ballads, Come-All-Yes and Other Songs, by Hugh Shields (Blackrock: Irish Academic Press, 1993). Honourable mention should also be made of Gale Huntington’s Sam Henry’s Songs of the People (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1990).

The Greig-Duncan titles from Mercat Press represent volumes 5 and 6 of the projected eight-volume set devoted to the collection of northeast Scottish songs amassed by Gavin Greig and Revd James B. Duncan in the early years of this century, based on their papers in Aberdeen University. Volume 1 was published in 1981, and by the time this review appears, volume 7 should also be available and volume 8 well on the way. It is a tribute to the dedication of the editors and publishers of this set of volumes that their enthusiasm for the project has sustained them over fifteen years, despite a change of publisher and the regrettable death of its instigator, Patrick Shuldham-Shaw. Each volume has a different team of editors, but the unifying force has been Dr Emily Lyle.

When it is finished, the Greig-Duncan Folk Song Collection will be, without any doubt, the most important collection ever published in British folksong studies. It certainly puts the halfhearted Cecil Sharp’s Collection of English Folk Songs (Cambridge University Press, 1974) in the shade, and even surpasses in size, range and breadth most of the North American state collections, which many British scholars have envied for so long.

Many of the items in the collection were received as a result of the sustained local interest engendered by Greig’s Folk-Song of the North-East column, which appeared in the Buchan Observer every week from 1907 to 1911. Greig clearly had an enthusiastic and dedicated readership, and their letters are quoted in the notes to the present volumes.

Nowadays we may frown on such “collecting by post,” but neither Greig nor Duncan were purely armchair scholars, both getting out and about amongst “the people” with notebook and pencil in hand whenever opportunity arose. Nevertheless, the fact that many of the songs are contributed directly by those who sang them, or at least by people who knew the singers personally, in hindsight can be seen as a distinct advantage. Much has been written about the “mediating” effect of our predecessor collectors – they consciously selected those songs which fitted their idea of what a folksong was and silently ignored anything else. It is clear from Greig’s comments that he, too, had primarily aesthetic criteria by which he judged songs, although his definitions appear to have been broader than those of most English collectors of his generation. But here we have our advantage. To a certain extent, Greig’s singers who contributed by post selected their own material, and it is their criteria which shape the collection as we see it today.

The history of folksong publishing in this country is such that modem researchers will readily understand if I praise these volumes first by identifying what the editors have not done. First and foremost, they have not selected the “best” or “most complete” version for inclusion. Second, they have not cobbled together versions to make readily signable songs, nor have they supplied lacking lines from elsewhere or from their own imagination. They have not supplied guitar chords, nor pianoforte accompaniments. They have not foregrounded the tunes at the expense of the texts, or vice versa, nor have they given Child ballads more importance than children’s rhymes. A remarkable achievement indeed. What we are offered here is every single version of every song in the collection, and every tune. Some songs are thus represented by a dozen versions, others by just a tune, but the reader is thereby provided with a wealth of raw material without the further mediation of selective editing.

For each song we are given notes which indicate where in the collection it is to be found, dates of collection, where possible one or two sources of comparative versions, and, most important of all any song-specific comments made by the collectors or their informants.

Volumes 5 and 6 are dedicated to Songs of Love and Marriage (as also will be volume 7), and bring the total of songs so far to 1,268. As the introduction to volume 6 points out, about half the songs in the collection are concerned with some aspect of “love.” Volume 5 covers happy relationships, while volume 6 is aptly described as the “Heartbreak Hotel” of the collection. The songs themselves range from the grand themes of the Child ballads (and plenty of them to keep the Big Ballad scholar busy for a good while) through the more down-to-earth concerns of the so-called broadside ballads, to the dialect ditty in praise of the ploughman’s lassie or the sailor-boy lover.

Seeing such a mass of raw material in one lump, so to speak, even if it does come from one particular corner of Scotland, gives us the chance to make a few grand generalisations, which can be tested by further study. Recently some scholars of Scottish folk song have been happy to acknowledge the strong connections between the Scottish and Irish traditional song repertoire, but have been less willing to admit the same for Scottish and English traditions. These volumes, however, show the clear overlap, at least in simple repertoire terms, north and south of the border. Perhaps all we need say is that a good song is a good song whether sung in a Sussex or an Aberdeen accent, or maybe that the broadside trade took little notice of national borders.

Nevertheless, if we take all the volumes in this series into account, two major differences between England and Scotland are highlighted. Firstly, Scotland has reams of songs about farm work and life (“bothy songs”), set in identifiable geographical locations, which are almost entirely lacking in the English tradition. The second striking characteristic of the Scottish tradition is that a relatively high proportion of songs can be traced to identifiable authors. Some of these are minor published poets; others are schoolteachers or local rhymesters from various walks of life. There is no doubt that these songs are traditional in that they have been passed on informally from person to person and generation to generation. Ireland has a somewhat similar situation. But there is little like this in England, and we can’t simply blame our selective collectors. On a purely aesthetic level the Scottish tradition gains greatly in variety and immediacy by the presence of these pieces, and their absence in England is regrettable.

The only real criticism of this series of volumes is that the songs are presented without detailed commentary or analysis. There is a school of thought, which I have never quite understood, which dismisses the presentation of material without analysis as almost worthless – “mere antiquarianism,” said with a slightly disdainful tone of voice. Well, take no notice of that. Without raw data there can be no analysis, and the present editors have provided a feast of data which, by being published, gives us all a chance to join in the analysis, and not just those who can spend time in Aberdeen University archives. Long may they continue.

Full-length studies of particular singers or communities are pretty rare in Britain and Ireland; indeed, even the North Americans have only a handful. They are particularly valuable in complementing song texts and tunes to get some inkling of the why and how of the traditional performances. The only British ones to spring to mind are: Robin Morton’s Come Day, Go Day, God Send Sunday (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973) which studies John Maguire of County Fermanagh; Ewan MacCoil and Peggy Seeger’s Till Doomsday in the Afternoon: The Folklore of a Family of Scots Travellers: The Stewarts of Blair (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1986); Bob Copper’s autobiographical A Song for Every Season: A Hundred Years of a Sussex Farming Family (London: Heinemann, 1971); Early to Rise: A Sussex Boyhood (London: Heinemann, 1976); and Ginette Dunn’s The Fellowship of Song: Popular Singing Traditions is East Suffolk (London: Croom Helm, 1980). Porter and Gower’s study of Jeannie Robertson is thus very welcome indeed.

Jeannie Robertson was a seminal figure in the post-war revival in Scotland, appearing on the scene just at the right moment to become the first superstar of the movement. She was “discovered” by Hamish Henderson in 1953 and was soon being hailed as “a monumental figure in twentieth-century folksong” and a “singer sweet and heroic” (Porter and Gower 1995, 3). Concerts, broadcasts and commercially-available recordings soon made her well-known throughout Britain and North America. Folklorists, song-collectors and budding revivalists flocked to her door, and she must be the most-recorded traditional singer ever in Britain. Most notably, the School of Scottish Studies tape-recorded her singing and talking about her life over several years, and they should be applauded for their foresight in doing so. The first section of the book is given over to Jeannie’s lifestory, with generous chunks from of these and other people’s tapes. Part two presents the texts and tunes of eighty of Jeannie’s songs (out of the 128 known to have been in her repertoire), with annotations. In part three, modestly entitled “Commentary,” the editors display their academic credentials in an analysis of the songs, tunes, rhythmic features, performance styles, and so on. The book works best when the same topic, such as Jeannie’s approach to her repertoire or the differing performance situations in which she found herself, is treated in the very readable lifestory section and again in the Commentary section in academic-analytic terms. We thus get the best of both worlds.

It is perhaps surprising that no one has ever produced a decent bibliography of British folksong materials. The nearest we have is James Porter’s The Traditional Music of Britain and Ireland: A Research and Information Guide (New York: Garland, 1989), but because this is concerned with music there are numerous gaps on the song side. In addition, there is W. Edson Richmond’s Ballad Scholarship: An Annotated Bibliography (New York: Garland, 1989) which is more than adequate in its field but is strictly confined to ballad material only.

David Atkinson’s English Folk Song: An Introductory Bibliography cannot be compared with these major book-length works, but it is a brave attempt to cover a wide field in a short space. There are 401 entries, organised into useful categories (which is not always the case in bibliographies) such as Collecting, Ballad Studies, Occupational Songs, Children’s Songs, and Regional Collections. Books and articles are included and brief annotations given, although these are descriptive rather than evaluative. My only criticism is that the absence of cross-references-perhaps deliberately omitted to avoid clutter – results in some confusion for the reader. For example, Davis Gilbert’s Some Ancient Christmas Carols is included under “General Collections,” but is not mentioned in the “West Country” section or, more surprisingly, in the “Carols” section. Conversely, Ian Russell’s writings on the Yorkshire carol tradition are listed under “Carols” but not under “Yorkshire” Perhaps a second edition could sort out these anomalies with the occasional cross reference. Otherwise, this is a very useful piece of work indeed, which adds to the excellent reputation being built up by the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library for its booklet and cassette series.

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