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Journal of the Folk-Song Society

(London, 1899-1931)

Prepared by Richard Kitson
Online only (2023)

Founded in London in 1898 for the purpose of making known the collections, publications, analyses and discussions of the folksongs of the British Isles—England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales and British Canada—the Folk-Song Society began publication of a journal in 1899, which continued until 1931, resulting in eight volumes, each encompassing from two to five issues. The purpose of the publication was the dissemination of the music and words of a variety of folksongs to an interested community.  The volumes are numbered I to VII; but the various issues or sections of each volume are hardly discernible being without numbers until the years following the First World War.  Only by means of locating the few introductory or concluding essays, reports on the business of the society and observing the dates attached to such reports is it possible to discern the parts (issues) of certain volume. The folksongs of each volume are published in sections, each representing the work of a single collector, or several collectors, often working in specific parts of the counties.  At first the collections are a random series of folksongs, but by Vol. IV, considerable organization is applied by presenting the songs in groups based on related topics: among them, for example, sailor songs, street cries of vendors, love songs, patriotic songs and carols. In most cases the songs belong to collections notated (written down) by particular persons, who found singers in many localities of the British Isles, Newfoundland and Ontario, Canada. While publication of the notation of the majority of the songs came from the hearing memories of the collectors, the recently invented phonograph made possible more correct versions of the notation.

Each published song is headed with one or two titles and important information pertaining to the origin of a song, a subtitle or a second title for the same song, in some cases two or more versions of the song’s melody, different melodies for the same words of songs, variant phrases of the melodies, and names of the singers from whom the songs were collected, their ages, occupations and places of residence in various counties or locations. No indication of tonality is given for songs in major and minor modes, but many of the melodies are cast in pre-tonal modes—Dorian, Lydian, Mixolydian and Aeolian—and these are indicated. When the basis of the melody does not match or encompass all notes of a modal scale, the number of notes, the position of gaps and the alteration of certain scale degrees are given. The tempo and indication of the manner of performance and words of the various verses of the songs are noted in some cases. In many cases the words of all the known or remembered verses are supplied. Translations of songs in Scottish, Irish and Manx Gaelic, and the Welsh language are provided. For almost the entire collection, remarks by one or several folksong authorities are provided demonstrating different locations of melodies, the use of different melodies for the same words and the use of different words for a single melody.

The following are biographical notes about the folksong collectors active in the society, pioneers all in this field, contributors of their own collections for this publication, and providers of editorial comments.

Frank Kidson (1855-1926), one of the founders of the society and an editor of part of the journal, was an early folksong collector, who compiled an index of airs in fifty-seven manuscript volumes, and published collections of folksongs singly and jointly with Alfred Moffat.

Lucy Broadwood (1858-1929), a descendant of the early harpsichord and pianoforte maker John Broadwood, followed family traditions of collecting folksongs, particularly those of southern England, Scotland and Ireland. She gave great support to the foundation of the Folk-Song Society, acting as honorary secretary until 1908, and remained active as a contributing collector and editor of the journal until her death. Among her publications are English Country Songs (1893) in collaboration with J. A. Fuller Maitland and English Traditional Songs and Carols (1908).

Anne Gilchrist (1869-1854), an authority on Gaelic-Manx songs and the printed sources of folk music joined the Folk-Song Society in 1906 and gave generously with her collections and editorial remarks. With Lucy Broadwood, she published the Clague collection of unprinted Gaelic-Manx folksongs from the Isle of Man, and later the Tolmes collection of songs from the Isle of Skye.

Cecil J. Sharp (1859-1924) began to collect English folk-songs for the enrichment of a musical tradition predominately German in origin. In 1902 he published A Book of British Song for Home and School, in1904-09 collections of Folk-Songs from Somerset, and in 1907 English Folk-Song: Some Conclusions. Upon joining the Folk-Song Society, Sharp contributed a considerable number of songs for the journal. Later with fellow folksong enthusiast Maud Karpeles, Sharp gathered folksongs in the Appalachian mountains of the United States (1916-1918).

The aforementioned English collector Maud Karpeles (1885-1976) was assistant to Sharp from 1911 to 1924. For the journal, she contributed folksongs from Newfoundland and Ontario, Canada and provided many editorial remarks.

Australian-born pianist and composer Percy Aldrich Grainger (1882-1961) found inspiration for folksong collection in Edvard Grieg’s love of national music. Using the phonograph to record folksong singers’ renditions of old songs, Grainger published and contributed to the society’s journal various folksongs he had found and annotated. Owing to his use of the phonograph, Grainger’s versions of folksongs are the most detailed in the entire collection with explicit tempo indications, phrasing marks and crescendo and decrescendo indications.

  1. J. Moeran, born in Norfolk in 1894, died in Ireland in 1950, was a prolific composer of songs and instrumental music. Love of the folk-songs of his native county and Ireland led to his collection of songs from these places.