Poetry versus Song

This is from the book John Clare by John Lucas, about an agricultural worker who gained some fame for his poetry in the early 19th century, at a time when his beloved countryside in Northamptonshire was being enclosed, and access was being criminalised. He suffered severe mental health problems and died n 1864.

“In 1825 he wrote to his publisher Taylor, to give him the correct name of he ballad ‘Peggy Band’, he told him that its tune is ‘Capital as my father used to sing it but I cannot say much for the words for you know that the best of our old English ballads thats preserved by the memorys of our rustics (whatever they might have been) are so mutilated that they scarcely rise to mediocrity while their melodys are beautiful and the more I hear them the more I wish I’d skill enough in music to prick them down.’

Clare was n fact to teach himself skils enough to be able to transcribe the tunes of well over 200 ballads. He wrote out versions of such ballads as ‘the Banks of Ivory’, ‘The Maid of Corram: or Lord Gregory’, and ‘A Fine Old Ballad’ (‘Fare you well my own true love/And fare you well for a while’). He also taught himself to play the violin and would ‘scrat’ out these and other melodies. In a projected ‘Essay on Popularity’ he noted that ‘paltry balladmongers provide ‘common minds’ with something as ‘old as England’, that is, songs that ‘still live on as common in very memory as the rain & Spring flowers’ and in ‘The Village Minstrel’ he remarks of his protagonist, Lubin, that

‘as the load joggd hom ward down the lane

When welcome night shut out the toiling day

His followings markt the simple hearted swain

Joyng to listen on his homward way

As rests warm rapture rousd the rustics lay

And thread bare ballad from each quavering tongue

As ‘peggy bond’ [sic] or the ‘sweet month of may’

As how he joyd to hear each ‘good old song’

That on nights pausing ear did echo loud and strong.’…

When Margaret Laidlaw, the mother of James Hogg, ‘The Ettrick Shepherd’ met Sir Walter Scott, she rebuked him for daring to enclose within a book – his famous collection of Border Minstrelsy – her favourite songs. ‘There was never ane of my sangs prentit till ye prentit them yoursel, ad ye hae spoilt them awthegether. They were made for singing an no for readin: by ye hae broken the charm noo and they’ll never be sung mair’.

This is an extraordinary outburst. And one that really stopped me in  my tracks. So many of our folk songs were collected by musicians who wrote them down, to preserve them, but she is claiming the opposite is happening. It also reminds me of tales of European explorers with their cameras trying to take photos of distant peoples who feared the camera would steal their souls.

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