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Signal Books ISBN: 9781909930537

Over the years, the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould’s reputation as a song collector has not been as high as the one he’s enjoyed in the literary world, and this book seeks to evaluate the man and his achievements in our particular field from a modern perspective, but taking into account the mores and knowledge (or lack of it) of the period when B-G was actively collecting. The end result is a fascinating and informative book which will be of interest to anyone who has an interest in song collecting and the oral tradition; and it will, I believe, go a long way in causing a re-assessment of his not inconsiderable achievements.

The book follows Baring-Gould through his life, starting with his early years and influences and continuing through his adult life, his career both as a curate and budding writer, before homing in on his song collecting activities, which included a good deal of folk customs and associated lore. One has to remember that we are dealing here with one of the pioneers of song collection, with very few examples to follow, and no established methods or parameters, and it is very much to B-G’s credit that he got so much background information on his informants during his interviews with them, and that he followed up on the song backgrounds so assiduously. There is an interesting section on other collectors and his interactions with them (and from a modern perspective, it has to be said that B-G emerges from the comparisons in a favourable light, since he recorded more contextual social information than some others). There are also pen portraits of a number of his more notable singers.

The complexity and distribution of the surviving manuscripts is also discussed, giving this reader a considerable admiration for the tenacity of a thorough-going Baring-Gould scholar, as Martin Graebe undoubtedly is. There are background notes on song origins and so on, and an assessment of the more recently uncovered “Killerton Hoard”, a mass of additional material that has been assimilated into this book.

But it is on the publication of the songs, and their dissemination by Baring-Gould and others, that much of the book’s later content turns, with a good deal of attention being paid to his editing of the texts he collected. He plainly had a burning desire to save the songs and their tunes, and to see them being sung, and to this end he acknowledged that many texts might be unpalatable to the average Victorian, and amended them accordingly. While he was an established and popular writer of novels, his “amendments” have not always been viewed positively by succeeding generations. However, the fact is that he got the songs out there via every means available to him (including concerts and even a stage play) and at considerable cost to himself. In my view, he had no more failings than many of his contemporaries in the collecting field. He plainly foresaw a time when broader views might prevail, as this quote shows: “Our object was... to resuscitate and to popularise the traditional music of the English people. As, however, to the antiquary everything is important, I have deposited a copy of the songs and ballads with their music exactly as taken down (my italics - JW), for reference, in the Municipal Free Library, Plymouth.” This “Fair Copy”, painstakingly hand-written over a period of years, demonstrates how strongly he felt about his songs and tunes, in their entirety, and the importance of preserving them in their original state.

The book winds up with a brief resumé of Baring-Gould’s latter years – he was nearly 90 when he died – and is followed by appendices covering the tunes (by Julia Bishop), some example songs, and additional material concerning the singers and manuscripts.

Altogether, I found this to be a very readable and enjoyable examination of a remarkable polymath, who was evidently well-liked and respected in his own community as a landlord, vicar and human being; an archaeologist, antiquarian, song collector, novelist and researcher with an open-mindedness in his approach to song collecting that leaves many other collectors of the era in the shade. This reassessment of him is plainly overdue, and left me wishing I’d met the man. Highly recommended.

John Waltham

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This album was reviewed in Issue 122 of The Living Tradition magazine.