Roy Palmer: Author whose passion for social history resulted in esteemed anthologies of folk song and folklore

His early books sought to introduce secondary school pupils to a wide range of social and historical issues through vernacular song

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The Independent Online

A singular presence, colourful and stimulating, Roy Palmer was a man of many parts. While by profession a distinguished schoolmaster, he was also one of the most significant of contemporary field workers exploring folk song and folklore. As such, the sheer breadth of his industry helped bring about a much deeper understanding of our social history.

The only son of a lorry driver, Palmer spent his formative years in Leicestershire, where he was educated at Coalville Grammar School. After reading French at the University of Manchester, he spent his National Service in the Army. He began his teaching career in Yorkshire, and for 11 years, from 1972 until early retirement in 1983, he served as headmaster of Dame Elizabeth Cadbury School in Birmingham.

His early books sought to introduce secondary school pupils to a wide range of social and historical issues through vernacular song. He took particular sphere of experience – popular sports, transport, crime or social protest – and grouped songs together. Volumes such as The Painful Plough (1972), Poverty Knock (1974) and The Rigs of the Fair (1976) established his reputation.

Other scholarly anthologies included A Touch on the Times (1974), devoted to songs offering social comment on particular historical events. No less authoritative are A Ballad History of England and Everyman's Book of English Country Songs (both 1979).

In 1986 he distilled his extensive knowledge into what has become a standard volume, The Oxford Book of Sea Songs. Three years earlier had come a major new edition of folk songs, each initially collected by Ralph Vaughan Williams in the early years of the 20th century. Palmer's own collection of field recordings now resides in the Recorded Sound Archive of the British Library.

Something of a new departure was The Sound of History, dating from 1989. Much more discursive than was usual, its extensive contents invariably betray Palmer's own deeply held political ideals. Later years brought further reissues of Vaughan Williams' folk songs, together with a major series designed to encompass the folklore of all English and Welsh counties.

As individual in print as he was in the flesh, Palmer always revelled in the time spent chewing over new ideas with musicians he had come to know and respect. After all, this sharing of experiences was what the job was all about.

Palmer was a longstanding member of the Folklore Society and chairman of the Friends of the Dymock Poets. In 2004, he received both an honorary degree from the Open University and a gold badge from the English Folk Dance and Song Society. A rare distinction, richly earned.

Roy Ernest Palmer, folk musician, collector, writer and broadcaster: born Markfield, Leicestershire 10 February 1932; married 1953 Patricia Madin (three sons); died Worcester 26 February 2015.

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