Folk-Song Society

Folk-Song Society
   Founded at a meeting of sixteen interested parties in London on 16 May 1898, which included Alice Bertha *Gomme, Kate Lee, A. P. Graves, J. A. Fuller Maitland, and Laura A. Smith. At the Society's formal inaugural meeting on 16 June 1898, Lucy *Broad-wood and Frank *Kidson, who would both play a significant role in the Society's development, were added. The Society's 'primary object' was ' . . . the collection and preservation of Folk Songs, Ballads and Tunes, and the publication of such of these as may be advisable'. Meetings were to be held, at which papers would be read and discussed, which would include 'vocal and instrumental illustrations' (Keel, 1948: 111). It should be noticed that from the start the tone of the Society was academic - collection and study, rather than performance and teaching were the objectives. The first four Vice-Presidents chosen - Sir John Stainer, Sir Alexander Mackenzie, Sir Hubert Parry, and Dr Villiers Stanford - demonstrated the intended standing of the new Society in the respectable musical establishment of the late Victorian era.
   The Society's annual *Journal was launched in 1899, and for the rest of the Society's existence it served as the major source of raw material for the folk-song movement. A pattern soon evolved which was adhered to for many years. The proof sheets of the songs chosen for inclusion were circulated to members of the Committee, and their comments invited, and Frank Kidson in particular provided historical information from his own vast library. The journals thus included not only the songs themselves, but important comparative and analytic comments by the collectors themselves and a range of experts, but no unified editorial commentary. As time went on, articles began to appear beside the collections of songs, but they were always in a minority.
   Despite its roster of distinguished names, the Society had got off to a somewhat shaky start. Already in 1900 there were discussions on the need to increase the subscription, and by 1904 it had almost ground to a halt. The main problem was the protracted illness, and death in 1904, of the Secretary, Kate Lee, who had been the driving force from the start. In that year, Lucy Broadwood took over as Secretary, Cecil *Sharp and Ralph *Vaughan Williams joined and reinvigorated the Committee, and the Society was set fair for a re-launch and increasing popularity and influence. Folk-song collecting became all the rage for budding English musicians until the outbreak of the First World War, and the membership soon included Percy *Grainger, George *Butterworth, Edward Elgar, and Edvard Grieg amongst others.
   Throughout its life, the Society resisted suggestions to change its name to include the words 'English' or 'British', but its journals actually included very little that was not collected in the British Isles, and the bulk of the material was English. Nevertheless, important contributions on Irish, Manx, and Scots song were published from time to time. Until the war, individual members were busy collecting, giving lectures, demonstrations, and concerts, and were active in promoting folk-singing through local music competitions, and so on. The Society itself, however, still had no structure, no unified voice, no Director to speak on its behalf, and could only act as a medium of exchange, not as a driving force. The Society was hit badly by the war, with several of its promising younger men being killed, and its continued existence was only ensured by the unflagging efforts of Kidson, Broadwood, Anne * Gilchrist, and a handful of others.
   By the late 1920s, the collecting boom was over, most of the founders and leading figures had died, Sharp (1924), Kidson (1927), Broad-wood (1929), and the feeling amongst many of those who were left was that the collecting work had been done - no new songs would be found, only variants. An approach from the * English Folk Dance Society for the Folk-Song Society to join them in *Cecil Sharp House was considered by a joint Committee and, despite some strong reservations voiced by Lady Gomme, the combined *English Folk Dance and Song Society came into being on 31 March 1932.
   The leading members of the Folk-Song Society were primarily interested in the tunes of the songs, and this is reflected in the contents of the Journal, especially in the earlier years. Tunes were published exactly as they were noted, but texts were often not printed, or only one or two verses would be given. By tacit agreement, if not overt policy, the Society's definition of folk-song was narrow. Hardly anything which had an identifiable author, however far back in time, was accepted for publication in the Journal, and 'modal' tunes had a far greater chance of inclusion than others. Nevertheless, the pages of the Journal include a vast amount of material on British folk-song which would otherwise not have been published, and it is this which is one of the two main legacies left by the Society. The other is the thread of interest in traditional song which continued into the new English Folk Dance and Song Society, and thereby into the post-war second *revival and through to today.
   ■ Frederick Keel, JEFDSS 5:3 (1948), 111-26; Wilgus, 1959; Ian Olson, ED&S 57:1 (1995), 2-5; E. A. White, An Index of English Songs Contributed to the Journal of the Folk Song Society (1951).

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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