The New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs, Edited by Steve Roud and Julia Bishop

Does this expert guide to a musical heritage throw out the mystery along with the myths?

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The Independent Culture

The first Penguin Book of English Folk Songs appeared in 1959, under the editorship of Ralph Vaughan Williams and AL Lloyd, and has been a resource for generations of singers who have continued the folk tradition - or at least revived it. For throughout the short history of folk scholarship – from the moment Cecil Sharp overheard a gardener, John England, sing "Seeds of Love" – opinion has been that the tradition, like Pan, is dead, and we have only the dying embers to tend. The same was said in 1959, when Bob Copper and Peter Kennedy travelled the country to record still-surviving source singers. And it is said today, despite the fact that acclaimed young singer and collector Sam Lee has spent the last six years recording Traveller and Romany source singers largely unknown to the "folk community".

More than half a century after the first Penguin book, the folklorist Steve Roud, with musicologist Julia Bishop, has edited a new, handsome hardback of more than 500 pages and 151 songs, with sheet music and notes. It is in ten thematic parts – opening with soldiers and sailors, and proceeding through songs of love, lust, work, animals, nonsense, death, crime, and religion. There are only a handful of crossovers with the first book, so it is a companion rather than successor, though there is a stronger emphasis on the Broadside Ballads – songs that emerged into print through the 18th and 19th centuries – rather than the older and more mysterious songs.

Steve Roud is famous for his digitised song database, The Roud Index. He has written acclaimed books on superstition and folklore, in which he demonstrates that numerous "ancient" customs were Victorian creations. A similar approach figures in his notes here. For Roud, more or less all origins point to a song's first printed appearance. Beyond that lies fancy and wishful thinking.

This makes sense with Broadside Ballads, and songs associated with specific battles, heroes or criminals, but it is reductivist when it comes to the preliterate, mythic and folkloric elements of the tradition. How we connect to that buried matter dictates how we listen to it, sing it, and value it. It is arguable that some songs were sung long before they were written down, and that their origins remain a beautiful mystery.

Take "Barbara Allen", one of the most popular. Its earliest printed mention is in Pepys, and from this, Roud avers that here lies its origin. But can we assign written origins to an oral form? Especially with a song as familiar-strange as "Barbara Allen"? At its core is the unexplained cruelty of the woman, the weakness of the man, and the vegetal immortality for them both, as "the rose and the briar" . Its mystery suits personal interpretation more than definitive analysis.

While it is a wonderful resource of knowledge and scholarship, the book ignores the role of the Romany and Traveller singers. Having heard, on a recent song-collecting trip with Sam Lee, an 84-year-old Romany singer recite "Barbara Allen" with a verse I've never heard before, about tears in a golden bowl, experience suggests that belief in a textual origin for traditional songs is as much a leap of faith as those neo-pagan interpretations of "John Barleycorn" Roud scorns. Luckily, the songs are here to inhabit and make one's own, for with the tradition, it's not only where it comes from but what you do with it that counts.