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The Varmint Show

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Bob Varmint (aka Croft) explores 'Singing Landscapes'

The themes of music, landscape and place have appeared consistently in this column. This month it is the turn of Bob Varmint to offer thoughts on how music and landscape can be mapped, observed and recorded. As listeners will know, the Varmints 'transcend eclectic', so from grunge in our previous column we move to folk; and from Seattle to the home of the Varmints, Somerset.


Collecting songs and mapping musical heritage

Recent articles in the Varmints column have provided examples of how new research is mapping our recent musical heritage, and an area that has seen significant recent research and heritage attention is folk music.

The tradition of collecting folk music can be traced back for well over a century in the west of England with such collectors as Sabine Baring Gould (1834-1924), also an archaeologist, working in Devon and the most prolific collector, Cecil Sharp (1859 –1924), working across the west country in the early years of the 20th century. The establishment of the English Folk Song Society in 1898 has ensured that this part of our musical heritage is preserved. In recent years there has been a revival in interest in the work of Cecil Sharp and others and a recent debate on this in the Guardian newspaper demonstrated that research is still adding to our understanding of the history and analysis of folk-song recording. The work of Yvette Staelens and CJ Bearman, part of a Bournemouth University-hosted project on the 'Singing Landscapes', has generated detailed understanding of folk traditions for the southern and south-western counties of Somerset, Gloucestershire and Hampshire.

The mapping of places visited by Cecil Sharp and the lists of local singers provides a valuable record of the folk heritage of these three counties. An example – the Somerset Folk Map (PDF 1.1MB) – is reproduced here. Copies of the other two county maps can be downloaded from the Roots Quartet website.

A century on from the work of Cecil Sharp, contemporary folk music is alive and well. But we should remember that folk music is often closely connected to the historic environment, and sometimes – explicitly – to archaeology. Having mapped the 'singing landscape', Yvette Staelens has also now contributed to it. Details of her music can be found on her website, but here we offer an exclusive, an original song written and performed by Yvette Staelens titled 'Nan Tow's Tump' (MP3 4.4MB), based upon the legend attached to one of the largest Bronze Age burial mounds in Gloucestershire.

Legend has it that a local witch, Nan Tow, was buried upright in it. The song is Yvette's somewhat spooky elaboration of that story. Another archeologically inspired folk style ballad is from Yvette's 'On Weymouth Strand' CD. It's called 'Nial's Quest' (MP3 4MB) and was inspired by a poem by Adam Thorpe - 'The Nine Ladies on Stanton Moor'. It concerns a stone looted from a circle and used as a gatepost!

The Varmints recommend these tracks, and hope this column encourages readers to return for more, and perhaps even listen to the radio show, 10pm on Fridays -

Thanks to Yvette Staelens and the Singing Landscapes project for permission to use illustrations from the project. Photographs (below) are from the English Folk Dance and Song Society; click images for larger versions. Somerset Folk Map – © Yvette Staelens, CJ Bearman and Somerset County Council.

Betsy Holland (top) was born in Kentisbeare, Devon in 1880. Her family were travellers circulating around mid and north Devon and West Somerset. In August 1907 she was travelling with her husband and several small children and was met by Cecil Sharp near Simonsbath in Somerset. He was so impressed with her performance of the Execution Song he called it 'the finest and most characteristic bit of singing I had ever heard.'

Louisa (Louie) Hooper (middle) was born in 1860 and her mother was one of the most renowned singers in her part of Somerset until her death in 1892. She lived next door to her sister Lucy White in Westport in central Somerset. They were among the first singers collected by Cecil Sharp and he was very fortunate to find them at the outset of his collecting career. They were natural musicians with a huge repertoire of songs. Cecil gave Louie a concertina and she lived on to become the Grand Old Lady of Somerset folk songs and was visited by increasing numbers who followed in Cecil's footsteps. In 1942-43 she was visited by Douglas Clevedon of the BBC and several of her songs were recorded for posterity. She died in 1946.

William Wooley (bottom) lived in Over Stowey, Somerset and was visited by Cecil Sharp in 1907.


Somerset Folk Map – (PDF 1.1MB)

Nan Tow's Tump by Yvette Staelens, original song – (MP3 4.4MB)

Nial's Quest by Yvette Staelens, from On Weymouth Strand (MP3 4MB)

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