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Roy Palmer

Roy Palmer, who died on 26 February 2015, was a dedicated collector and disseminator of traditional songs, folklore, and of the ephemeral detail that fills the spaces in the history of ordinary people. Though his name is familiar to the thousands of people who read his books and the articles that he wrote for magazines and journals, he was a private person who, while he appreciated the recognition that he received, was content to plough his own furrow in his own way.

Roy was born at Markfield, in Leicestershire, the son of a lorry driver. He recalled that he was nine years old when the headmistress of his primary school at Newtown Linford introduced him to English folk songs. His favourite was the stirring tale of Admiral Benbow who ‘lost his legs by chain-shot’. As a child, he loved to escape into books and read voraciously and widely. At secondary school he had a rather radical English teacher who lent him books that expanded his horizons considerably. He maintained this habit throughout his life, reading widely around the subjects that he was researching.

He attended the grammar school at Coalville and won a state scholarship to Manchester University, where he studied French for his first degree, and then completed a thesis on Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables for his MA. It was during this period that his interest in folk song grew as a result of hearing radio programmes like As I Roved Out and the Radio Ballads. He started to attend folk clubs in Manchester and to perform songs, such as The Foggy Dew. At the same time, however, he began to extend his musical interests and attended concerts by the Halle Orchestra as well as jazz sessions. He also began to read and write poetry, some of which was published, and he took part in poetry readings. In 1953, he married the girl that he had met at school and with whom he had kept in touch by mail, writing several times a week while studying for his BA. Pat Palmer was to be his musical advisor, photographer and treasured assistant for the next 65 years, as well as being the mother to their three sons and managing the household.

After two years of National Service in the Army, he went back to Manchester to train as a teacher. His first teaching post was at Mytholmroyd in Yorkshire, where Pat spent the cold winter evenings teaching him to read music and to play first the recorder, and then a mail-order guitar. Occasionally they would go over to the folk club in Bradford. He started to treat his pupils to French folk songs as an interesting way of finishing a lesson. English folk songs were, however, extracurricular activities for him at that time.

In 1963, he went to Birmingham to become the Head of Modern Languages at Shenley Court Comprehensive. Here he discovered a very active folk scene, in which a key figure was Ian Campbell and he remembered seeing Joe Heaney and other great traditional singers who were attracted to Campbell’s club at Digbeth. He became a resident at the left wing folk club, The Partisan, and met Charles Parker, who was to be a great influence on him. He became actively involved in the work that Parker and his friends were engaged in: collecting songs and stories, studying traditional singing and gathering oral history of the area. In 1965 Parker formed the Birmingham and Midlands Folk Centre, of which Roy, and others such as Pam Bishop, Joan Smith and Olga Nicholls were to become active members. One of the key functions of the group was to ensure that the material they were collecting was effectively disseminated, and the first strand of that activity was to be its use in stage performances, such as Of One Blood, which was produced and directed by Parker. They also put on mummers’ plays and organised local concerts, taking the songs back to the areas from which they had come. This was the acorn from which the Banner Theatre group, which is still in operation today, grew. The second vehicle for the material was the Grey Cock Folk Club, which attracted a number of young performers to become its floor singers, including Pete and Chris Coe. The Grey Cock also brought in performers from London, including Ewan MacColl, A L Lloyd, and Peggy Seeger as well as European performers not often seen in England.

Roy’s role became that of researcher and writer for the group. He once told me: “I’ll never forget Charles Parker saying to me, ‘words are important’.” His impressive list of books and articles had been started while he was still living in Yorkshire with French Travellers in England 1600 – 1900. He was also, for several years, the reviewer of folk books and records for The Teacher. He now turned his hand to the writing of the folk plays such as The Funny Rigs Of Good And Tender-Hearted Masters which told the story of a carpet weavers’ strike in Kidderminster. Members of the Folk Centre were loosely linked to Ewan MacColl’s Critics Group. MacColl used to come to Birmingham at weekends and there were some joint activities between the two groups, in which Roy was involved. He was, however, becoming deeply involved in researching the folk music of the Midlands and in the collection of songs. Though the original contacts were made by Charles Parker and others, Roy’s name is particularly associated with two singers, George Dunn and Celia Costello, who he met and recorded. He was introduced to George Dunn in 1971 and met with him regularly until his death in 1975. He was proud of the fact that he had been able to take a copy of the Leader record of George’s singing to him in hospital shortly before he died. The recordings of his interviews with George Dunn and some of his songs now form part of the 140 hours of recordings that Roy gave to the British Library Sound Archive, and which can be listened to online. These recordings formed the basis for Roy’s book George Dunn, The Minstrel Of Quarry Bank.

The Folk Centre produced a record in 1972 called The Wide Midlands, which Roy produced and sang on. The work that had gone into researching the songs was made use of in the book Songs Of The Midlands, produced in the same year, edited by Roy with musical assistance from Pam Bishop and Katherine Thomson. He edited a number of books of songs for Cambridge University Press which were primarily intended for use in schools, but which have proved a valuable resource for singers generally. Rather than simply giving the songs and some detail about their origins, these books introduced essays on the socio-historical context of the songs, illustrated with contemporary broadsides and pictures. Later productions, such as The Rambling Soldier and A Touch On The Times extended this idea. His books are all meticulously researched, well written and trustworthy. They invite the reader to enjoy the songs and the supporting matter while subtly influencing your view of their place in society and history.

In 1972 Roy moved to Dame Elizabeth Cadbury School at Bourneville, to become its headmaster. It was from this role that he took early retirement in 1983, at the age of 51. In effect, this was a career change rather than an end to work, since it gave him the opportunity to do more research and writing. There was a sense of deja vu however when, shortly after he retired, Roy had a part as an ‘extra’ in the film, Clockwise, starring John Cleese. In a very brief appearance (blink, and you’ll miss him), Roy was a natural as one the headmasters.

Retirement gave him more time too for enjoying poetry. He was for several years chair of the Friends of the Dymock Poets and an active member of the societies devoted to John Masefield and Edward Thomas. He and Pat would give readings of poems. As a young man he had aspired to be remembered as a poet, but in an interview in 1996 he said, “I didn’t become a poet, but I’ve had intense gratification from my writing and from the people I’ve met and the places I’ve visited.” He said to me on another occasion that “… at its best, folk song is poetry. There is also music and there is history – folk song brings them all together.”

When I talked to him in 1998, he told me about the enormous pleasure that he took in research – what he described as “the joy of the chase”. He likened it to doing several jigsaw puzzles, each in different rooms. He was seeking to discover the background of the songs and their reflection of, and effect on, history. He believed that the songs can still speak, even in changed circumstances. He modestly described his work as “creative welding of bits and bobs”.

Roy’s political views, formed while at Manchester University, were left wing and he was for many years a member of the Communist Party and a strong supporter of the unions and of CND. As a young man he frequently sang for CND marches and trade union events. He was an admirer of E P Thomson, as can be gauged from the obituary he wrote for him in the 1994 Folk Music Journal. Thomson’s approach to teaching the history of working people through their culture was a model that he adopted for his own work. His views were also influenced by others in the folk world such as Harry Boardman and A L Lloyd. Throughout his life he continued to support causes he believed in. Increasingly, these became about environmental issues and local causes such as public rights of way.

Roy was a kind man and one for whom the phrase ‘a gentleman and a scholar’ might have been coined. Talking to other people about him since he died, I have heard similar tales of advice and help given freely, of bundles of songs or articles arriving through the post and of postcards which showed appreciation for something that Roy had enjoyed. This was my experience too. While it was Roy who first approached me with a question that I was able to help him with, over the years that followed, the boot was usually on the other foot as he patiently answered my questions and supported my fledgling flights into publication of my own research. He was a member of the Editorial Board of the Folk Music Journal for more than 20 years. The current Editor, David Atkinson, described how he was always among the first to respond to a query, and to comment on articles submitted, combining supreme good sense with a wealth of knowledge and an eye for what was important to the wider readership of the Journal. It was this wise advice and his unflagging support for others, as well as his own remarkable achievements, that led to him being awarded the Gold Badge of the English Folk Dance and Song Society – its highest award.

Roy Ernest Palmer was born on 10 Feb 1932 and died on 26 February 2015. He is survived by his wife, Pat, and by three sons, Simon, Adam and Thomas, and their seven grand-children. Music runs in the family and many of them are musicians so, at a recent day of commemoration for Roy, it was a joy to hear the family band play, as they had at his funeral, keeping alive Roy’s love of traditional music.

by Martin Graebe