Wednesday 21 November 2018

Cataloguing and indexing traditional folk songs - A talk by Steve Roud

To start off November we were thrilled to welcome Steve Roud who gave us a fascinating introduction to the challenges of indexing traditional folk songs.

The write up of the evening is kindly contributed by Natalie Kent (@natalielkent)

At the beginning of his talk, Steve posed us with a question: How many ways can you spell the world ‘old’? It turns out in the world of folk song cataloguing the answer is an incredible 9 (so far), giving a small sense of the challenges involved in creating and finding records for these songs.
Steve has been working for many years to create the Roud Folk Song Index, with an aim of indexing all the English-language folk songs in the world. He was formerly a local studies librarian for the London Borough of Croydon, and brought this specialist knowledge and experience to his work on folk song cataloguing. He describes his interest in folk song and folk lore as a ‘passion’ and an ‘obsession’. He has published numerous books on these subjects.

The folk songs Steve works with are not necessarily what modern audiences would associate with the term ‘folk song’; apparently defining folk song is a controversial area, but for Steve this typically means songs that predate recorded sound, by singers who are untrained amateurs, delivered face-to-face with no accompaniment. These attributes make folk songs a rich resource for social historians. Steve is not interested in modern folk arrangements, and he has a cut-off date of around 1950 when he is indexing.

Folk songs are very ‘slippery’, which makes them extremely difficult to catalogue! Each time someone sings a song it will be different, so collectors often keep multiple different recordings. However, each recording might have a different name. Conversely, the same name might refer to 25 different songs. There are also issues of spelling to contend with; transcribers might imitate accents or follow spelling conventions of different dialects. In order to cope with these ‘slippery’ songs, Steve devised the system of Roud numbers, where the same number is given to every different version of a song. This system has proved extremely useful in the wider world of folk song, and recordings and song books are now typically published with Roud numbers.

When Steve is indexing he tries to prioritise what the user will find useful over following international standards to the letter (a principle he started following in his work as a local studies librarian). His records include a title, but also a first line, which is often what users will remember. There is a difficulty when specifying the place a song is from, because people moved around and often travelled to London when recordings were made. Therefore, place collected really means the place the performer originated, as that is where the song probably came from. Steve also includes audio files where possible, which is especially helpful for any users who do not read sheet music.
The songs he indexes might exist in any format, including manuscripts, books, journals, newspapers, photographs and sound recordings. The index he has created now has a staggering 250,000 records for songs (with a further 250,000 records for broadsides), all input by Steve.

While folk song is seen as an oral tradition, Steve pointed out that it hasn’t been a purely oral tradition since the invention of print. Broadsides containing words of popular songs could be bought very cheaply and were widely circulated, providing a much more tangible way to research folk song. Steve brought along some wonderful examples of broadsides for us to look at.

Another wonderful treasure Steve showed us was a small scrapbook dating from the American Civil War. Entitled ‘The campfire songster’, it contains an individual’s collection of songs (some printed, some handwritten, and some with musical notation), which they presumably carried with them during the Civil War and sang with round the campfire.

Steve’s index is a huge achievement which is of significant value to folk song enthusiasts and social historians alike. All were impressed by the obvious skill and dedication he has put into this project. Steve’s enthusiasm for this fascinating area made this a very enjoyable evening all round.

The main indexes to Steve’s work are available on the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library website -