song revival

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Sabine Baring-Gould (1834—1924) Church of England clergyman, author, and folksong collector

Frank Kidson (1855—1926) writer and antiquary

Lucy Etheldred Broadwood (1858—1929) musician and folk-song collector

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There have been two major song revival movements in England; one lasting from the late Victorian period to the 1920s, the other commencing after the Second World War, and they are conveniently termed the first and second Revivals, although there was a degree of continuity between them. The starting-point of the first Revival is conveniently placed at 1898, with the formation of the Folk-Song Society, although it is clear that this was a culmination of a growing interest in traditional song evidenced by the increasing number of publications through the second half of the 19th century. Sabine Baring-Gould, Frank Kidson, and Lucy Broadwood had all published their first volumes of songs before the Society was formed. What distinguished these new folk-song enthusiasts from their primarily antiquarian and literary predecessors was a growing interest in the use of traditional music as raw material for the renaissance of English musical taste, the identification of the ‘folk’ as carriers of a valuable song tradition, and the willingness to leave the library and undertake fieldwork in villages up and down the country. The motives of these early collectors were a mixture of nostalgia, romanticism, and nationalism, but they were all driven by the idea that here was something essentially ‘English’ which had all but been destroyed by universal education, railway travel, urban development, industrialization, and the styles of popular music purveyed by the music hall. The movement received a further boost from 1903/4 when major propagandist Cecil Sharp, and young musicians such as Ralph Vaughan Williams, Percy Grainger, and George Butterworth became enraptured by folk-song tunes and commenced a collecting boom which lasted until the outbreak of the First World War, and which resulted in the major manuscript collections which still exist today.

The first revival movement achieved several positive results. In addition to the large quantity of collected material which would not otherwise have been recorded, the public awareness of a mass of vernacular song was raised, and it became accepted for the first time that England had an interesting and valuable musical heritage. Many English composers made use of folk music in some form or another in their work and certainly enriched the home-grown classical repertoire, and schools taught British ‘folk-songs’ to children in music lessons. Unlike the parallel dance revival, however, the first song revival did not result in a major upsurge in the practice of folk-singing, and it apparently had no appreciable effect on those segments of the population who sang traditional songs. Folk-Song Society members were mainly academics, musicians, or composers, although a few were professional singers who included folk-songs in their recitals. Put simply, the movement made a difference to music in the middle and upper classes, but none in the working classes, and it certainly did nothing to reverse the perceived decline in popular musical taste. On the negative front, the collectors' severely selective definition of folk-song has left us with a hopelessly unbalanced view of the repertoire of traditional song at the time, and the assumption that the rural poor were the only possessors of traditional culture. As they took little interest in the singers themselves, performance venues, or events, we have little knowledge of the social context in which the songs were sung.


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