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Something to sing about

Jon Lewis | 20:31 UK time, Friday, 26 November 2010

Guest blogger Georgina Boyes, writes:

"On the 4th December, I’ll be having a small celebration.  And if you enjoy English traditional music, you might like to join in. Why? On that day in December 1903, a (then) relatively unknown composer collected his first folksong. It was a beauty. Inspired, he spent the rest of that day travelling between villages, meeting and notating songs from other singers. And over the next ten years, he recorded around eight hundred songs, tunes and carols that provided a source of melody and an approach to music that influenced his writing for the rest of his long career.

"The composer was Ralph Vaughan Williams. He’d already given lectures on folksong, but he’d only heard recital performances until that day 107 years ago when Georgina Heatley invited him to her father’s parish in Essex to hear some village singers. It was a revelation. “I am like a psychical researcher who has actually seen a ghost,” he reported, the folksongs he’d heard were not “quaint and old, but something which is beautiful and as vital now as it ever was.” His use of folksong tunes for hymns probably led to more adults singing English traditional music than anyone before or since, and his classical works continue to be played and enjoyed across the world.

"But when he heard that first song - Bushes and Briars - Vaughan Williams didn’t just note the tune. He also took the unusual step of staying on to talk to the man who’d sung it to him - Charles Potiphar (74) of Ingrave, who’d been a labourer on a farm and on the railways and also worked as a bricklayer and shepherd. Mr Potiphar told him about making the tunes for folksongs and Vaughan Williams, unlike other collectors of his time, listened and became convinced that singers could – and did – create and greatly influence the songs they sang. It shouldn’t be a surprise, he wrote, “that an unlettered countryman can inherit from his still more unlettered forefathers a melody like Bushes and Briars – adding, without doubt, to it something peculiarly his own.” And far from having “finished its work” and “dying out”, Vaughan Williams believed “folk-song has plenty of vitality left.” Few people at the time believed him, but I think events have proved he was right.

"So on the 4th December this year, you might like to join me with a song, a dance, or even a tune in celebration of Vaughan Williams, Charles Potiphar and the vitality of traditional music."

You can see and hear more about Vaughan Williams' work on folksongs and carols in a performance with Coope Boyes & Simpson, Fi Fraser, Jo Freya and Georgina Boyes at St Michael's Church in Coxwold, North Yorkshire on 3rd December.

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