Ruth Tongue


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A problematic figure. Though belonging to the gentry class and educated in music and drama, she was passionately attached to country life and believed herself to have a special rapport with the craftsmen and labourers of Somerset, her native county, and also with Gypsies. She claimed (incorrectly) that she had been born between midnight on a Friday and cockcrow on a Saturday, that this gave her psychic gifts, and that therefore many people had confided tales, songs, and magical lore to her when she was a very young child. Her family moved to Hertfordshire while she was still a child. Much later, after the Second World War, she returned to Somerset; from about 1950 she began giving talks on folklore to local groups, and also on radio, enriched with vivid performances of tales and songs. She impressed Katharine Briggs and Theo Brown, and the former helped her to organize her material and arranged for its publication. The result was four books, Somerset Folklore (1965), edited by Briggs; Folktales of England, written mainly by Briggs but containing many of Tongue's stories; The Chime Child, or Somerset Singers (1968); and Forgotten Folktales of the English Counties (1970).

The problem is that Tongue was a performer, and that many years had passed since she had learnt these songs and tales; the uniform style and recurrent themes and phrases make it virtually certain that they had been reshaped, perhaps only half-consciously, to suit her personality. Some look like patchworks, built up round mere scraps of traditional beliefs or sayings. She should be regarded as a creative singer and storyteller reworking fragments of tradition, not as a reliable collector.

The Chime Child contains sketches of her chief informants among country singers, but these are based on very early childhood memories; in Forgotten Folktales she gives only the vaguest hints as to where, when, and from whom she had obtained the stories; any notes she may have made at the time were lost in moves and fires. Somerset Folklore is the soundest of her books, in which much information about local beliefs and customs is given straightforwardly and reliably. The others must be used with caution.

Obituary, Folklore 94 (1983), 890.Robert and Jacqueline Patten, ‘Ruth Tongue’, in Women and Tradition, ed. Hilda R. E. Davidson and Carmen Blacker 2001: 205–16.

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