ONE HUNDRED ENGLISH FOLKSONGS
There are two theories respecting the origin of the folksong. Some hold that folksongs were composed in the past by individuals, just like other songs, and have been handed down to us more or less in — correctly by oral tradition; that they were the fashionable and popular songs of a bygone day, the compositions of skilled musicians, which found their way into the country villages and remote neighborhoods where, although long forgotten in the towns and cities of their origin, they had since been preserved. To put it in another way, the folksong, it is contended, is not a genuine wild flower, but, in the jargon of the botanist, a “garden-escape.”
THE first serious and sustained attempt to collect the traditional songs of the English peasantry was made by the Rev. S. Baring-Gould some thirty years ago in the West of England. It is true that the Rev. J. Broadwood had made a small collection of Sussex songs and published them privately among his friends as far back as 1843, and that Miss Mason’s Nursery Rhymes and Country Songs (1877) and Northumbrian Minstrelsy (1882) had both previously been given to the public; nevertheless, the issue in 1889 of the First Part of Songs and Ballads of the West marked, I think, the real starting-point of the movement, which has had for its aim the systematic collection and publication of the folk-music of England. Prior to that date the knowledge that folksongs existed in this country was confined to very few, and it was popularly assumed that the English peasant was the only one of his class in Europe who had failed to express himself spontaneously in song and dance. How, in the face of the facts which have since been brought to light, such an amazing misconception could have obtained credence and escaped disproof is an enigma which has never been properly solved. Happily, this grotesque error was exposed before it was too late to make amends for the contemptuous neglect with which our predecessors had treated their national musical heritage. A few years later, with the passing of the last survivors of the peasant class, it would have been quite impossible to have recovered anything of real value, and the products of a great peasant art would have been irrevocably lost. It may be thought that, owing to the late hour at which the interest in our folk-music came ultimately to be aroused, it is but a shrunken harvest that has been garnered. But I do not think this is so. That the postponement has added very materially to the difficulties of the collector — by compelling him, for instance, to take down his songs from aged and quavering throats instead of from young, fresh-voiced singers — is, of course, true enough. Nevertheless, I do not think that this has appreciably affected either the quality or the abundance of the recoveries. Indeed, our belated conversion has even had some actual advantages. For the investigations have thereby come to be made at a period when the scientific spirit is abroad, and consequently the work has been conduced with thoroughness, accuracy, and honesty of purpose. And this is scarcely the way in which it would have been done a century or more ago. For the 18th century musician had other notions, and was little disposed to trouble himself with ethical considerations where the collecting of the people’s music was concerned. Fortunately, the present day collector has set up a very different standard, and has realized that his first and chief obligation is to record just what he hears, no more and no less, and that the aesthetic as well as the scientific value of his work depends wholly upon the truthfulness and accuracy of his transcriptions. And if the investigations have throughout been conducted in this spirit — and it is a claim that may, I think, justly be made — this is owing in no small degree to the influence exercised by the Folk-Song Society (founded in 1898) and the example which, by means of its Journal, it has set to collectors.