My current research subjects are listed here, with further information and links below.
- The work of the early twentieth century folk song collectors in the eastern counties, including Ralph Vaughan Williams, George Butterworth and others
- Songs and singers in the North End of King’s Lynn, Norfolk, 1870-1970
- The Dulcimer in East Anglia
- Stepdancing competitions in England
- Miss Gayton’s Hornpipe
- Parry’s Barrel Organ
- Julia Clifford, Irish fiddle player who lived in Norfolk 1978-1997, and her fiddle-playing siblings
- Mid-twentieth century radio programmes featuring traditional singers and musicians, made by John Seymour and Bob Roberts
- ‘The accidental folk song collector’ – sparked by the writings of the remarkable photographer P.H. Emerson, who lived and worked in both Suffolk & Norfolk in the late 19th century.
- 19th century musicians in Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Norfolk, including travelling musicians
Early twentieth century folk song collectors in the eastern counties
For the last twenty years I have been researching the early twentieth century folksong collectors in the eastern counties, and in particular, the singers (fishermen, farmworkers) they collected from. Some of my findings were originally published on the East Anglian Traditional Music Trust’s website, but I have now revised and updated all this work and published it here on this website: King’s Lynn singers in 1905 (which is just part of a much wider study of singing in the town) South Norfolk singers in 1911 (folksongs collected by Ralph Vaughan Williams and George Butterworth, near Diss) and ‘Southwold singers in 1910’ featuring the legendary (but real) Ben Hurr!
These writings supersede earlier versions which may still be found on the EATMT website and contain some inaccuracies.
The image above shows George Butterworth’s notations of songs and words on his visit to south Norfolk, courtesy of the English Folk Dance and Song Society and the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library which has digitised all these collectors’ original manuscripts.
Further along the line will be my latest research into songs collected in south Suffolk in the early 20th century.
Songs and singers in the North End of King’s Lynn, Norfolk, 1870-1970
In April 2021 I will be presenting my latest work at the Traditional Song Forum’s 2021 conference “The Folk Voice” (on Sunday 18th), after which it will be published online. This takes its starting point from Vaughan Williams’ collecting in the fishing community in the North End of King’s Lynn in 1905, but thanks to a recent discovery, we now have more information about singing in the nineteenth century. Using this new find and also some mid-twentieth century recordings, has inspired me to take a look at singing in this community over the course of a hundred years.
All this material is being published on my sister website, Unsung Histories. as discrete articles: “Henry Flanders Songbook”, “The Herring Singers”, “The fishermen that got away”, “The other Mrs Benefer” and “The self-sufficient singers of the Tilden Smith”.
The (free) Folk Voice conference details are here. It will streamed live on YouTube: here’s the link, which will only operate 4pm-6pm on Sunday 18th April, but it will also be available later on their YouTube channel.
John Howson and I have researched this subject for nearly forty years and rather than having just a page or two on this website, we have built an entire website devoted to the history of the East Anglian dulcimer, its makers and players: www.eastangliandulcimers.org.uk
In 2019 I started work on some research into stepdancing competitions , starting with East Anglia and then broadening across the southern half of England. This is developing with a particular focus on Somerset and the relationship with the early folk revival 1900-1939.
The far reaching story of one tune and dance across two centuries, and one young dancer’s rise to fame and sudden disappearance from the stage.
An investigation into the barrel-organ taken onboard Parry’s Polar Expeditions in 1819-1825. Early recordings of popular dance tunes, many of which are still known today, designed to keep the crew fit and interested during the long winter months when the ships were icebound searching for the North West Passage.
In June 2020 I gave a short presentation to the Traditional Song Forum called “Will the real Paddy O’Rafferty please stand up!” – Paddy O’Rafferty being one of the tunes on the barrel-organ. I aim to publish the article in the future. Here’s a link to find out more about the Traditional Song Forum and how to join their excellent Zoom meetings.
Julia Clifford (1914-1997), fiddle player from Lisheen in Co. Kerry, lived in Thetford, Norfolk for the last twenty years of her life. Lisheen is in an area known as Sliabh Luachra (the rushy mountains), renowned for its poets and traditional musicians. Julia and her brother Denis Murphy came from a musical family and recordings made of the two of them brought the music to wider attention in the 1970s.
Julia and her husband John Clifford, also a musician, had been living in London since the 1940s, but shortly after the recordings came out, they moved out to Thetford in Norfolk, and as far as publically available information goes, they all but disappear from view. However, this period, and especially after 1981 when John died, saw a busy period of music-making for Julia, with a younger generation of enthusiasts and a new audience on the English folk scene.
I knew Julia and played with her on occasions. Although my focus at that time was seriously on my own local musical traditions from East Anglia, I loved her Sliabh Luachra slides and polkas and visited her home to learn from her, with a packet of her favourite biscuits in the bag of course! A number of other people in the locality took her out and about to sessions and folk clubs and further afield to festivals and other events too.
Her musical talents and legacy were eventually celebrated in the UK in 2019 in a wonderful one-off event called ‘I Looked East and I Looked West’, held in Suffolk on the weekend of 26th-28th April 2019. This incorporated a photographic display as well as workshops, concerts and sessions.
To mark the anniversary of the event, in April 2020, the photographic exhibition created for the festival has been uploaded to this website and may be accessed here: The Julia Clifford Project or from the top menu.
There’s also some information about Julia’s music on my Sliabh Luachra page and links to further resources.
In 2019/2020, Julia Clifford was featured in two editions of the RTÉ radio programme, ‘The Rolling Wave’, the second of which included an interview with me talking about her life in England – here’s the link to that programme.
During 2020 it became apparent to me that apart from Julia’s well-known brother Denis and her oldest sister Bridgie, there was also more to be found out about her other siblings who played the fiddle. They all emigrated to the United States. So, a new extension to the Murphy family project begins!
During my researches into the singing in King’s Lynn, I came across a newspaper report of a radio programme being recorded there in 1955, which was made by a team including the writer John Seymour (of “Self-Sufficiency” fame). This has led me towards a re-evaluation of Seymour’s broadcasting output and contribution to mid twentieth century folk music collecting. He was good friends with the singer Bob Roberts and they worked together on some of the radio broadcasts in the 1950s when they were both living in Suffolk. Work in progress.
Working from documentation such as contemporary writing, genealogical sources and newspaper reports, I am piecing together a picture of jobbing musicians around the eastern counties. More work in progress!
Other research interests:
- The history of dancing jig dolls This culminated in a book “The Brightest of Entertainers” co-written with Pat Pickles, published in 2018 and short-listed for The Katharine Briggs Award in 2019 by The Folklore Society.
- I’m a member of Instep Research Team, which has a website full of information about stepdancing from across the British Isles.
Details of some other research projects are on the Publications page
I am just setting up a new blog page for all my writings, musical and otherwise – Unsung Histories. Early days as yet, but there are a few short pieces on there already, so please take a look!
If you think my research skills could be of use to you, please get in touch.
Recent commissions for other people include genealogical research for ‘Taking Steps’ (history of Dartmoor stepdancing) and projects on Robert Cinnamond, singer from Northern Ireland and Henry Price, musician from Oxfordshire.