Talk Report: 2017-10-11

Report on Yvette Staelens talk: The Lost Singers of Somerset

We have all heard and probably sung “Dashing away with the smoothing Iron” and “I’ll give you one-oh…” and “Oh no John, no John, no John no…” But do we realise that they are part of a collection of songs that might easily have been lost? Yvette Staelens came to Wells on October 11th to talk and sing to members of U3A. With both words and music she explained how Cecil Sharp, by recording great numbers of these everyday ‘folk’ songs, made a huge contribution to our English musical heritage.

The word ‘record’ ‘is misleading because Sharp only very rarely used a phonograph, instead meticulously writing down the words and score of the songs as he heard them. He arrived in south Somerset in 1903 to stay with his Cambridge friend Charles Marson, the vicar of Hambridge. Wishing to find English songs to teach to his London schoolboy pupils, Cecil wrote that he wanted to find the music and words that “…come out shyly when the gentry have gone to bed…after the Music Hall songs….” His first contact with these were the songs of the Vicarage gardener in Hambridge. This led onto further research, over many school holidays and many years, covering the lanes and villages of all Somerset and always travelling on his trusty bicycle.

Sharp was a keen and proficient photographer and, when possible, he took photographs of the singers: both men and women stand modestly outside their cottages dressed in working clothes. These photographs are in themselves a record of a way of life which might otherwise have disappeared unrecorded. A whole social history of Somerset was revealed. A handicapped child unable to attend school, whose only learning was listening to grown-ups singing as they worked, could not read or write but had a wonderful repertoire of songs. A pauper shoemaker and a disabled man, ending their days in the workhouse, had little or no schooling but were able to remember both the words and music of a whole repertoire of songs - all so nearly lost forever. Not all the people wanted to sing for this strange gentleman but Cecil Sharp had a friendly charm which usually broke down the barriers of class. Nearly always the singer and the recorder became friends, so that he able to return again and again to record important variations of words or music or sometimes a song which had been at first forgotten.

Yvette told us that, although Sharp wrote the words down accurately, he sometimes adjusted the words to be less bawdy when they were published! - as the first collection were in in 1904 by him and his friend the Reverend Charles Marson. Over the following years Sharp collected over 1500 tunes and songs from hundreds of different singers. The English Hymnal was published in 1906 and, wishing to make the hymns more accessible to a wider public, the publishers used several tunes garnered from folk music. Together with a number of other Victorian and Edwardian enthusiasts Cecil Sharp had - probably just in time - saved for posterity a very important part of our English musical heritage.

Yvonne had sourced songs found by Sharp in the Wells area and played these tunes for us on her recorder. She has a beautiful singing voice and used this as she reminded us of the lovely words and tunes of many of the songs of which she spoke. It was altogether a various and fascinating hour and she was thanked enthusiastically by the whole audience.