Songs of the West

March 1, 2018

Rocky Cliff with Stormy Sea, Cornwall, by William Trost Richards (1902)

Collecting folk songs became almost a craze among 19th-Century musical scholars who were concerned that the old traditional country songs and dances were dying out. Some blamed it on the Industrial Revolution: As young people from rural areas flocked to the cities, and the cities ate up surrounding rural areas, folk traditions began to disappear. So the folklorists went out among the people to hear and write down the old songs.

They had to write them down. Sound recording was not yet possible, so the folklorists took down the melodies in musical notation. Some then took it upon themselves to enhance the melodies with piano accompaniment. And then, faced with what one might call the earthiness of some of the lyrics they heard, some folklorists took it upon themselves to rewrite the lyrics.

In Songs of the West, the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould did just that. In the 1880s, he traveled throughout Devon and Cornwall in southwestern England to collect songs “from the mouths of the people,” as the subtitle proclaims. But Baring-Gould apparently felt that those mouths needed to be washed out with soap, so he provided his own words.

The Introduction makes no apology for this bowdlerizing:

In giving these songs to the public, we have been scrupulous to publish the airs precisely as noted down, choosing among the variants those which commended themselves to us as the soundest. But we have not been so careful with regard to the words. These are sometimes in a fragmentary condition, or are coarse, contain double entendres, or else are mere doggerel. Accordingly, we have re-written the songs wherever it was not possible to present them in their original form.

Given the tenor of the times, Baring-Gould had no choice. The original lyrics to song No. 45, “The Mole Catcher,” for example, which Baring-Gould described as “very gross,” are admittedly on the bawdy side. But despite the censorship, Songs of the West is a valuable and entertaining collection of music that, thanks to Baring-Gould’s devotion, preserves folk traditions that might otherwise have been completely lost. He enlisted the help of three other music scholars — the Rev. H. Fleetwood Sheppard, F.W. Bussell, and the eminent folklorist Cecil J. Sharp (aptly referred to in the book as “C. Sharp”) — to help him take down the tunes and to render the very fine piano accompaniments. The work contains 121 songs with detailed notes about their origins and the adjustments Baring-Gould and his co-authors made to them.

Baring-Gould was himself a Devon native, born in Exeter. His church career took him to Yorkshire for a time, where he wrote the well-known hymn, “Onward Christian Soldiers.” In 1881, he was able to return to Devon, where he found the time to produce numerous books and articles on various subjects, but Songs of the West was his masterwork. The Songs of the West website, run by Martin Graebe, author of As I Walked Out: Sabine Baring-Gould and the Search for the Folk Songs of Devon and Cornwall, provides an excellent review of Baring-Gould’s work on the songs.

Project Gutenberg’s version of Songs of the West is based on the fifth edition of the book, as reprinted in 1913. The HTML version features MP3 audio files of all the songs, transcribed by a DP volunteer, so you can enjoy listening to them while viewing the music.

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