Steve Roud, co-editor of the new Penguin Book of English Folk Songs, is a man obsessed.
He has made it his mission to index all of the traditional songs ever collected in the English language — totalling, at the last count, almost 25,000.
Some have been recorded only once or twice; others are known all across Britain, Ireland and the Americas. What the vast majority of them have in common is that you’ll never hear them in a folk club.
Oral transmission has always been central to folk tradition.
Nowadays, we might be picking up our material from CDs or YouTube videos instead of learning them at the plough or windlass, but the songs are still being passed on through performance.
Yet we no longer live in a world where every county or port has its own distinctive musical tradition.
The only places where folk songs are transmitted directly are folk clubs, and folk clubs are much the same the country over.
In this shrinking world, oral transmission has produced a canon. What you’ll hear in folk clubs is, for the most part, a small and unrepresentative selection of folk songs, sundered from their regional roots and sung much the same way everywhere.
Songs that were fortunate enough to be anthologised by Vaughan Williams or recorded by Steeley Span are now known to millions.
For thousands of others, perhaps just as good, the Roud index is more a memorial than a catalogue.
But it doesn’t have to be like that.
Back in the Sixties and Seventies, folk revivalists would spend hours hunting through old archives and manuscripts in pursuit of forgotten gems.
The reason we hear great songs like ‘annachie Gordon’ and ‘the Flandyke shore’ in folk clubs today is not because there’s a single unbroken line of oral transmission.
It’s because Nic Jones put in the hard yards at Cecil Sharp House.
Thanks to the tireless work of people like Steve Roud, these resources are more accessible than ever.
We can browse the EDFSS’S immense Vaughan Williams memorial library online, and classic reference works like Bertrand Bronson’s traditional tunes of the child ballads are widely available in print and electronic form.
So let’s use them, and rescue more of our wonderful folk tradition from the obscurity in which it languishes.
MONDAY, FEBRUARY 1
GARDNERS: Tostock. 8.30pm. Free. Traditional sing around. Contact Dave 01359 241554.
CAMBRIDGE FOLK CLUB: Cambridge Wine Merchants. 7pm – 9pm. Free. Acoustic folk jam session.
TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 2
RISBY FOLK CLUB: The Crown and Castle. 8.30pm – 11pm. Free. Nibbles.
WAVENEY VALLEY FOLK COLLECTIVE: Local artists night. Crossways Inn, Scole, IP 21 4DP 8.30pm – 11pm. Free. 07958758602 www.waveneyvalleyfolkcollective.co.uk
THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 4
CIRCLE DANCING: United Reformed Church, Whiting St 2pm-3.30pm. Contribution fee £5. Contact Jen Larner 01284 705548 – email@example.com
CIRCLE DANCING: Drinkstone Village Hall. 10pm – 11.30pm.