he picture on the cover highlights an intractable problem for this kind of survey. It shows a street ballad vendor with his roll of songs, the most visible of which is one called ‘The Policeman’. Two things strike me immediately: this looks like commercial music (the vendor certainly intends profiting by it), and it has an urban context. Surely this is some distance from the usual connotations of the term ‘folksong’? What is more, ballad vendors undoubtedly pirated music-hall songs, with all the frustration that this has created for some folksong researchers. Harry Clifton’s song ‘The Calico Printer’s Clerk’, for instance, circulated as a Manchester street ballad. If that is accepted as folksong, then so ought another of Clifton’s songs ‘Work, Boys, Work’, a song Tressell describes as a ‘Tory anthem’ in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. This causes huge anxiety because it weakens the arguments that place folksong in ideological opposition to other kinds of song. Cecil Sharp hoped that folksongs would drive music-hall songs off the streets.
E. David Gregory stresses that his book is a work of cultural and intellectual history, not ethnomusicology, folklore, or even cultural studies. I am not sure I follow the distinctions that he intends by these comments. It is, in a nutshell, a study of what he calls a ‘recovery’ of folksong by mid-Victorian collectors who were active before the first folk song revival of the 1880s. He outlines in his introduction the difficulty of finding a satisfactory definition of folk-song. He prefers the term ‘vernacular song’ because ‘folksong’ is now so contested, though it is still in common use and hard to avoid. In his own words, the material he is focusing on is ‘lower-class music passed on from generation to generation through oral tradition’ (p. 3). Immediately, he recognizes that this is complicated by its relationship to another vernacular form, the broadside ballad. Moreover, the term ballad is not without definitional problems: there are ‘popular ballads’ in the sense used by Francis Child, or as used by Boosey in his Ballad Concerts. There is also the much- debated link between traditional ballads and broadside ballads, which has thrown doubt on how many ballads were truly of communal origin.
Gregory is prepared to allow the commercial popular music of the nineteenth century to be described as ‘vernacular’ if it enters the oral tradition and survives (whether in town or country). Thus, he would seem, in contrast to the folksong revivalists, to be happy to accept as folksongs American commercial ballads like ‘Grandfather’s Clock’ (Henry Clay Work, 1876); but what about blackface minstrel songs that survive in oral tradition, such as Stephen Foster’s ‘Camptown Races’? In a discussion of Davidson’s two-volume Universal Melodist, in which the presence of blackface minstrel songs is noted, this issue is not taken up. Categories he is concerned with are narrative ballads, like ‘Lord Randal’, non-narrative songs, like ‘Seventeen Come Sunday’, occupational songs, like ‘The Four Loom Weaver’, and, in keeping with his broad definition of folksong, national songs, such as ‘The British Grenadiers’, and music-hall songs that prove lasting, such as ‘Pretty Polly Perkins of Paddington Green’.
The first part of the book, consisting of two chapters, is actually a summary of the work of early collectors from the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century. When we arrive at the threshold of that century, it is clear that England is lagging far behind Scotland in its concern for folksong and ballad collecting, but publications soon begin to appear sporadically. A significant collection was The London Minstrel, but it was a wayward miscellany that managed to include several Scottish songs as well as some of Charles Dibdin’s sailors’ songs. Once a tighter English focus became the norm, the term ‘national song’ caught on. It is found in the title of William Kitchiner’s The Loyal and National Songs of England of 1823. The patriotic resonance of the title, however, still permits Handel’s music to be included.
In the chapter that looks at collectors of national and regional songs in the 1820s and 1830s, it may come as a surprise to readers to learn that the poet John Clare was seeking out songs in Northamptonshire. In fact, none of Clare’s collection was published until 1983, in George Deacon’s John Clare and the Folk Tradition. A landmark publication was William Chappell’s A Collection of National English Airs (1838), and Gregory explains why this was a ground-breaking work, especially in its serious attention to tunes. However, it was not without an antecedent, since Gregory makes a case for regarding it as a continuation of the historical concerns of the eighteenth-century collector Joseph Ritson, whose work had been completed by a nephew and published belatedly in 1829. Above all, Chappell had laid the foundation for his celebrated later publication Popular Music of the Olden Time (1855-59). The latter, in its comprehensiveness and its inclusion of tunes, went far beyond anything achieved before. The critical evaluation of this mighty work forms one of the most interesting sections of Gregory’s book.
Chapters tend to begin with a few contextualizing paragraphs designed to give an idea of the social and cultural history of whatever period is being dealt with. However, it is not always clear what light some of this historical commentary is supposed to shed on what follows. Do we really need to know what Berlioz, Schumann, and Wagner were doing before we read about the Percy Society in the 1840s? Would not some sort of context on literary antiquarianism have been preferable?
A frustrating feature of folksong editing of the period under discussion was its frequent omission of tunes, although they may be referred to by name. Generally, it was the folk texts that were thought interesting and worth preserving. The present book contains many music examples, but they leave much to be desired in their presentation: text is sometimes poorly aligned to notes, slurs are nonexistent, tails of notes are apt to crash into lyrics, any song that begins with an anacrusis has a first bar filled out with rests, and some examples end, inexplicably, with one or two empty bars. Elsewhere the author shows how keen he is on careful editing, whether in describing the perspectives and practice of ballad editing after 1860 or in his account of his own editorial methodology and the reasons for his decision to restrict his survey to England.
The value of David Gregory’s book is that it gives academic attention at last to a period of song collecting that has been unduly neglected. It is not only to be recommended for its treatment of major figures like William Chappell but also for the information it provides on the activities of those who may not be so well known, such as John Broadwood, the uncle of the later folksong collector Lucy Broadwood. Not the least of the book’s attractions is its coverage of the collecting of music of various English counties, notably Yorkshire, Lancashire, Derbyshire, and Northumberland. He stresses that his book should be regarded as an interim, not a final, report; as such, it is to be welcomed and is a report on this subject that is long overdue.
Gregory, E. David Victorian Songhunters: The Recovery and Editing of English Vernacular Ballads and Folk Lyrics, 1820-1883. Pp. viii þ 450. (Scarecrow Press, Lanham, Md. and Oxford, 2006, £29.99. ISBN 0-8108-5703-0.).
Last modified 9 December 2015