Trying to find my way around an unfamiliar corner of the north-east corner of Somerset, on a route I would not have chosen, there came music from the radio that reminded me of the history of the people of this place.
The announcer on Classic FM played a promotional jingle for Alexander Armstrong’s weekday morning programme. There were bars from Ralph Vaughan Williams’ English Folk Song Suite: Songs from Somerset. The Folk Song Suite includes tunes that would once have been instantly recognizable to many of the inhabitants of Somerset farms,
Somerset was once so filled with songs that one of England’s most famous composers could write a medley of them. Cecil Sharp, who became the most prominent among those who promoted the revival of folk songs and folk dances would come to stay with Charles Marson, the rector of Hambridge, and the two would go out on song collecting expeditions.
In my home parish of High Ham, in 1904, Cecil Sharp had written down songs sung by Frederick Crossman, my great, great uncle. The songs that were sung and recorded in the 1980s by his granddaughter, Mrs Amy Ford, who lived at the foot of Stembridge Hill. In the interview Amy Ford gave in 1984, she described how she learned some of the dozens of songs she knew:
My brothers and grandfather and all the lot were ringers, bell-ringers, and they used to have Christmas parties. And we used to go one year to one ringer’s home and another year to another ringer’s home. The family combined, and of course, other bell ringers as well. And that’s how it got round, used to hear these songs and then, if you got interested and knew the chorus, then you’d say when you met him next time “Here, Tom, let’s have that song again, I remember you sang it last time.” So that’s how it went round, how we got on to it’.
Perhaps there are still some corners of England where a latter day Cecil Sharp might find enough songs to fill a songbook, such a collection of folk songs in 21st Century Somerset would probably create a very slim volume.
Somewhere that sense of local identity that was the heritage of Fred Crossman and Amy Ford got lost along the way. Perhaps it was due to the mobility of the population, perhaps it was due to the uniform culture brought by the mass media, but the songs were lost. Attending primary school in Somerset in the 1960s, I can recall learning no local songs. We could sing songs like the Canadian song Land of the Silver Birch, but we could sing nothing from our own community.
Perhaps it is time for another revival.