Ilkley Moor will not be reincarnated

The Year 7 lesson was on karma and rebirth. The four Year 7 classes I teach engaged with the ideas with the same bubbly enthusiasm with which they engage with the rest of life. They designed their own samsara drawings, the wheel of life with its six realms of gods, demi-gods, humans, animals, hungry ghosts, and hell. The latter two realms attracted the most attention, spectral figures were drawn and flames were coloured deep red.

A saying attributed to the Buddha was read, “when a bird is alive, it eats ants. When the bird is dead, ants eat the bird. Time and Circumstance can change at any moment. Do not devalue or hurt anyone in life. You many be powerful this time, but remember: Time is more powerful than you. So be good and do good. ”

During one lesson, a thought occurred, “Does anyone know the song On Ilkley Moor?”

There was a look of complete incomprehension. I attempted to explain that the sort of cycle described by the Buddha was captured in an English folk song.

“Does anyone know any folk songs?”

A room full of blank faces.

It seemed sad, I was not from the county, but I knew of Gloucestershire folk songs.


Everywhere once had its own songs. Certainly, my own village contributed to the work of Cecil Sharp, the collector of folk songs. A century ago, Sharp had visited our village and had written down songs sung by Frederick Crossman, my great great uncle, songs that were sung by his granddaughter, Mrs Amy Ford, a neighbour of ours in my childhood days.

English people seem to have have lost their songs for singing. With the loss of so many of the songs and the disappearance of many of the traditions that marked the seasons of the year, there has been a loss of identity and a loss of a sense of history. The losses of exacerbated by those who would, quite reasonably, celebrate the traditions of those from other cultures, but who never seem to find it in themselves to celebrate the traditions of ordinary English working people.

Were Cecil Sharp to travel around England today he would find few songs anywhere to write down.  Schools where children might once have learned the culture and traditions of their own communities seem to have little place for songs. The airwaves and are filled with mediocre blandness and even older people like myself are hard pressed to remember words for singing.

Tha’s been a courtin’ Mary Jane.”

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