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Archive -> 1905-1914 -> ‘As a Tale That is Told’ Extract 40



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‘As a Tale That is Told’ Extract 40

Page 134-140
Account of Folk Revival




To-morrow shall be my dancing day,
I would my true love did so chance
To see the legend of y play,
To call my true love to my dance.
Sing, on, my love,
Oh, my love, my love, my love,
This have I done for my true love.

Taken down from a Cornish peasant about a hundred years ago and published in a collection by Sandys.

It is sung to a morris dance tune used in the North.
Another indication of the sacred nature of the dance.


The most interesting part of my life was the time when I was taking part in the revival of English Folk Song and Dance.

The origin of that revival goes back many years to the days when Emmeline Pethick was responsible for the singing class in the Esperance Club.

I am afraid our Club had never followed the conventional routine of Girls’ Clubs of thirty years ago. Our members were mostly employed in sedentary work, tailoring and dressmaking and so we had no sewing class, but we made dancing, singing and acting our chief occupations.

At Christmas time we always had a party and before the ordinary dancing we used to have a Cantata. We got a little tired of Cantatas “for female voices only” and hit on the plan of giving a performance of Scottish By this time Emmeline Pethick was married and Herbert MacIlwaine had taken on the musical directorship of Club. He was an Irishman with music in his bones and a way with him that won the heart of the singing class and enabled him to do what he like with the singers in a way that probably no professional teacher could ever have done. And in the autumn of 1905 we were discussing what our next winter’s musical programme should be.


The day was a misty autumn day, clearing later to a sky of cloudless blue. The scene was a garden “In a fair land, in a fair land, in Sussex by the sea” and the girls who were to play such a large part in the folk dance revival were just going back to town after two joyous weeks spent holiday-making with dance and song and game. And I was looking on at their departure, standing on the steps of the beautiful old house that had been the scene of so many happy holidays, and I who knew the reality of their lives in workshops and factory knew of the long hours, the poor wages, the unhappy sunless homes, crowded and unsanitary as few of us realise they were thirty years ago, was filled with sadness a the utter insufficiency of all we were trying to do to make things better for them. I was tired of the few hours in which we vainly tried to lighten burdens far too heavy for young shoulders to bear. I was tired of interviewing employers, sitting on Committees, soliciting charity, and the coming winter looked very dark and very hopeless. I longed for some life giving wind which would sweeten these lives and lessen the weariness, some weapon which would conquer the dirt and the dreariness and the muddle in which these city girls lived. I grudged their you to the industrial machine their health and strength to the toil which brought so few amenities to the worker. More than anything else I think I hated their always having to take


and never having anything to give and they as I knew so generous and warmhearted.

Then Herbert MacIlwaine who was standing by me told me that he had just been reading in the Morning Post the account of an interview with the late Mr. Cecil Sharp who had been collecting songs from country folks, songs that had been sung to him by unlettered folk in remote country villages and which had been traditionally handed down from singer to singer. Herbert MacIlwaine said that he believed that the musically unlettered members of our singing class would probably take to these songs as to no others, that they were the natural inheritance of the country folks and as there were few Londoners who were three generations away from the peasant forefathers it might be they would learn these songs easily and with joy.

It sounded to me a wonderful idea and I went to see Mr. Cecil Sharp a few days later and told him our idea. He was enchanted with our suggestions and told me he had always wanted some such experiment to be tried and he there and then gave me the first volume of his “Somerset Folk Songs” and wished me luck with the experiment.

Mr. Sharp was Director of the Hampstead Conservatoire of Music but was leaving owing to some trouble with the authorities. He was not allowed to use any rooms except his study and he was very upset and miserable. Later, when we became friends and the success of the revival of folk song


and dance first became apparent, he told me that my visit that day was a turning point in his life and that ill luck fled and the future became hopeful. He was a curious mixture, as probably we all are, sometimes quite charming and helpful and then again very obstructive and unkind.

In a few weeks’ time we invited Mr. Sharp to come to the Club and judge the effect of the introduction of the Songs to the workers of the City. He was more than delighted as the girls sang in unison the first half dozen songs we had learned. “The Seeds of Love”; “Mowing the Barley”; “Lord Rendal”; “Blow away the Morning Dew” were among the first we learned and I quote here an article reprinted from the “Country Gentleman” which Mr. E.V. Lucas wrote after hearing these girls sing and which he gave me permission to use.
“….Such was my experience a few nights ago, when I listened in a kind of trance, to some score of old English songs sung by a little company of sweet voices from a girls’ club.
Hence for a good half of this evening of old English song I could not see the platform at all, except through a mist, such was the effect of these lovely, lovely airs. Music, when it touches me, touches me too deeply for words, and has me utterly at its mercy.

Here, however, it was not only the music; it was the idea too. It was the thought of this lost England of ours – the exquisite freshness of the early days – the old simplicities and candours. …..But the idea of a sweet and simple England was intensely vivid, and possibly one was conscious, too, of the contrast between these songs and the singers themselves – the songs all lucid open-air gaiety, and the singers the members of a club for working girls in the north-western district of this grimy latter-day London. Here, at least, for an hour or two, they seemed to be doing what they were born to do – so different a lot from that which circumstances have given them. “Blow away the morning dew” they sang, with all the vigour and happiness that young girls can display, waving their innocent arms as they did so; while one knew that some of them had never seen a dewdrop.


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‘As a Tale That is Told’ Extract 40