Article MT329. Note: place cursor on red asterisks for footnotes.  Place cursor on graphics for citation and further information.

American Songs in the British Folk Repertoire

Final part of the Old world / New World Triogy

[Introduction] [The Background] [English Song Collectors] [Singers' Repertoires] [Minstrelsy] [Print] [Changes in Collecting Attitudes] [Conclusions] [Notes]


The Norfolk singer Walter Pardon had a collection of 78 rpm gramophone records.  In all there were a total of 92 records, most of which had been in his family collection for many years, although a few Irish and Scottish instrumental had been given to him by Reg Hall shortly before Michael Yates examined the collection.  The majority of recordings were by Jack Daly, one of Walter's favourite singers.  There were also a number of recordings of songs which Walter was known to sing himself, though it is not known whether or not Walter learnt these songs from the recordings.  These are:

There were also a number of recordings by American (or pseudo-American) singers.  These are: (The Hill Billies were actually an early British 'country' group and not the band of that name which came from the area around the town of Galax in Virginia.  Memories of the Old Homestead Pts.  1 & 2 comprises Sweet Genevieve, Our Hands Have Met, After the Ball, Home, Sweet Home, Silver Threads Among the Gold, Old Folks at Home. 'Mac & Bob' were pseudonyms for Lester McFarland & Robert A Gardner.  'Big Bass Sambo' was the stage name of Harry Frankel, an American minstrel performer.)

Two other recordings were of songs which have turned in the repertoires of other British singers, though which were not, apparently, sung by Walter Pardon.  These are:

(Little Town in the Ould County Down was sung by at least two Gypsy singers, Phoebe Smith from Suffolk - Veteran VT136CD - and Levi Smith from Surrey - Michael Yates unpublished collection.  Phoebe believed that the song had been composed by a Gypsy, though this is not the case.  We are sure that many singers would have known the song via an influential 1921 recording made by John McCormack.  The Volunteer Organist was known to several singers, including George Belton of Sussex - Musical Traditions MTCD518-0.)

Over the years there have been very few studies of American songs that have been found in the repertoires of English 'traditional' singers, such as Walter Pardon.  In order to begin to rectify this situation Musical Tradition Records issued a three CD set of recordings - Wait Till the Clouds Roll By (Musical Traditions MTCD518-0) - in early 2020.  There are a total of 34 early American recordings of songs and tunes from America, as well as 42 American songs and tunes from British singers on the Wait Till the Clouds Roll By set.1  As is usual with Musical Traditions CDs, a booklet of notes accompanies each album, and a further article, also titled Wait Till the Clouds Roll By (Musical Traditions article number 328), also accompanies the series.  This present article takes a more detailed look at just how, and why, American songs and tunes entered the English musical tradition.

The Background:

First, some historical information - but bear in mind that, with anything relating to 'ordinary people' in history, for the most part, we just don't know.  It has been suggested that the sung music of the Pygmies and Bushmen of Africa may well be the remains of the original sung music of all humanity.  Certainly, it has been shown by recent work by those involved with the Cantometrics project, that people moving 'out of Africa' took their songs/music with them where ever they ended up in the world.  So we don't have to make an argument that people have always sung.  It should be clear that an ordinary person of the lower classes, from the 1801 Census until fairly recently, had just three pieces of information about them available to historical researchers: their birth; marriage; and death.  Prior to that, virtually nothing.  Unless they fell foul of the Law, or did something quite remarkable that resulted in a written record of some kind - that was it!  It should also be clear that most of the ordinary singers of songs would not, as singers, find a place in a written record of any kind. 

This, of course, is one of the problems with 'history' ...  most of it relies on the written record, and such records relating to ordinary people will only describe extra-ordinary events.  And if singing for one's own pleasure and the entertainment of one's friends were as normal for most ordinary people as they clearly were ...  then there was nothing extra-ordinary about it, and thus little in the way of records of it.  Considering songs/music moving between the Old and the New worlds, it must be clear that the first songs sung in North America (with the obvious exception of the songs/music of the 'First Nations' peoples) came from Europe.  Equally, we know that songs/music have moved back to the Old world from the New, both by written/printed and recorded methods and by oral means.

If we enquire about the first noted British traditional song or the first noted printed/written song in Britain, we encounter that "We just don't know" answer.  The reason is that there are all sorts of pieces now found in oral tradition that occur in early manuscripts but we don't know if they were newly written or taken from oral tradition, nor are we likely to know.  One of the carols in Child, Judas (Child 23.  Roud 3964),2 dates back to the 13th century, Chevy Chase (Child 1162.  Roud 223) refers to a 14th century battle, but we don't think the ballad was contemporary with the battle, and when it was written we don't know.  The Crabfish (Roud 149) goes back into the mists of time as a tale and is known throughout Europe.  A handful of songs which were 'traditional' in 1900 are mentioned in the sixteenth century (Frog went a-Courting (Roud 16), Brian O'Lynn (Roud 294), Joan's Ale (Roud 139), Martin said to his Man (Roud 473), Chevy Chase), but that doesn't tell us if they were traditional then, or what else was around.  If we turn to America and ask about the first Old World song/tune noted there, or the first example of American song/tune noted in Britain we might expect to be on steadier ground since the time-span is a good bit shorter - but no.  Maybe the colonists were too busy with matters of day to day survival to bother with noting down songs, but we can guess that most of them were also current on the Old world at the time.  The American War of Independence (1775-1783) certainly produced some new American songs: Yankee Doodle (Roud 4501), Stony Point, The Liberty Song, Free Amerikee, and all have known authors.  American song in Britain?  Again we really have our work cut out.  Probably Minstrel songs of the 1840s, but there must have been stuff before that.  Yankee Doodle?

Rod Stradling remembers Sandy Darlington, at a concert in Padstow, having spent a while getting his banjo in tune, responded to mutterings, "You have the tradition - we have the banjo!" A good riposte - but a reversal might provide "You have lots of good and old songs - we have a hundred years of experience of how to perform them." Because we really feel that many of the American songs/tunes aren't in any real way superior to ours, but that it was their performance style that attracted their British audience.  And the reason - local radio in America.  True, a very few British performers found their way onto British radio, but their performances were simply those that they used in their own local pub, in front of a known audience of a dozen or so.  Whereas their American counterparts, singing on local radio, could count on an audience of thousands, and that relatively locally, not to mention financial rewards - which necessitated work and practice!  That's not to suggest the Brits didn't work on their songs, or practice them - Harry Cox certainly did! - but his approach was micro subtle, as was appropriate for the cohort of very able singers he knocked about with.  Much the same could be said of most British country singers - and those that stood out more did so because of personal charisma than their ability to perform the songs really well.  A perfect example is Sam Larner, who was loved for his 'performance' of Sam Larner - and was not, honestly, all that good a singer of some of his songs.  And I think - if we're honest - much the same could be said of the other well-known charismatic singers: Fred Jordan; Johnny Doughty; Gordon Hall; Charlie Scamp; Bert Lloyd.3  The other reason the Americans stood out, and were instantly popular, was - as Tony Engle once said - that they always had a rhythm section ...  instrumental accompaniment.  We don't know of any convincing argument as to why traditional singers, English particularly, rarely accompanied themselves on fiddles, guitars, banjos as their American counterparts did.  Certainly many of them had played instruments in church bands, before Victoria's 'gentrification' programme got under way.  Flora Thompson in Lark Rise to Candleford wrote that in the mid-19th century, almost all the instruments in southern English villages had been sold to cover doctors' bills and similar important expenses, and that it wasn't 'til around 1875 when a hike in agricultural wages coincided with mass-produced European instruments becoming available, that home-made music returned to the pub and hearth.  Even then, it was almost always for music rather than song accompaniment.  This was much the same in Ireland, we think, but rather less so in Scotland.

However, Scotland has produced many fine singers, especially among the Travelling Community.  Singers such as Jeannie Robertson, Bella Higgins, Belle, Cathy & Sheila Stewart, Lizzie Higgins, Geordie Robertson, Lucy Stewart, Betsy Whyte (actually two fine singers shared this name), Jane Turriff, Stanley Robertson, Martha Reid, Blin' Robin Hutchison and Duncan Williamson could run rings around most English Gypsy singers (though English Gypsy singer Phoebe Smith could, I believe, equal any Scottish Traveller when it came to singing).  Why should this be the case?  It is often said that Scottish people were more literate than their English contemporaries, though this may not be the case with Scottish Travellers.  We do know that many Scottish Travellers earned money by singing in public.  Perhaps, unlike English Gypsies, Scottish Traveller Society was more tight-knit and that traditions such as singing, music making and storytelling, held more meaning to the Scottish Travellers.  You can gain an insight into how this might have been by listening to Duncan Williamson talking about Jack Tales and how they were blueprints for how one should live one's life.  Or listen again to Williamson talking about how the tune to the ballad Bonny James Campbell (Child 210, Roud 338) fits the word so perfectly.4

Even when the English began to play instruments again, it was almost always for music rather than song accompaniment.  This was much the same in Ireland - John Moulden confirms:

Rod Stradling asked John why he thought Americans (many of whom were, after all, of English or Irish stock) were so willing to accompany their songs, while their cousins this side of the pond, generally resisted it.  He replied: I think that exactly mirrors the English situation: no accompaniment was the norm, and the very subtle, free rhythm traditional English singing style couldn't easily accommodate it.

In Scotland the situation was much the same, though Ian Olson mentioned that many Scottish farms were rather bigger than English ones, and farm workers tended to 'live in' in bothies and similar accommodations.  Thus, there is a problem here in separating 'traditional' song and its instruments, and other song, for the two would mix in the farms and their kitchens, where piano and expensive instruments such as the accordion and fiddle mingled with the cheaper ones such as concertina, Jew's harp, penny whistle, and mouth organ.

An important difference was the audience size and financial rewards available in the States compared to here.  But novelty usually engenders change, so that once the idea of being a professional or semi-professional singer, after the 'folk boom' in the late-sixties and seventies became a possibility, accompaniment became almost mandatory ... and free rhythm and subtlety in accompanied song were in scarce supply throughout these islands.

English Song Collectors:

In 1847 the Reverend John Broadwood published a small collection of folk songs which he had noted, words and tunes, from some of his parishioners.  This was Old English Songs.  Broadwood asked his church organist to arrange the tunes so that they might be published and the organist queried Broadwood's ability to correctly note down the melodies.  Broadwood insisted that his transcriptions were correct, adding, 'Musically it may be wrong, but I will have it exactly as my singers sang it.'  John Broadwood's book contains sixteen songs, all of which may be termed 'folk songs'.  In other words they were the kind of songs that members of the Folk Song Society (founded in 1898) would have recognized as 'folk songs'.

John Broadwood played the flute and was musically literate, as was his niece, Lucy Broadwood, who was one of the founding members of the Folk Song Society and who became the Honorary Secretary and editor of the Society's annual Journal.  Other early Society member including Cecil Sharp, George Butterworth, Percy Grainger and Ralph Vaughan Williams, were also trained musicians and while these people were scouring the English countryside in search of 'folk songs' they were also ignoring much of what their singers were actually singing.  We have previously mentioned the fact that when Cecil Sharp gave a lecture in 1903, the year in which he began to collect 'folk songs', he said:

Clearly, it only took Sharp a very short period of time to decide what he was looking for, and to be able to differentiate between 'Real Folk Songs' and 'drivel'.  Interestingly, the four songs listed by Sharp, were all written by Americans.  If we relied solely on Sharp and his fellow collectors of this period, then there would be little if any information available about their singer's full repertoires.

Actually, two collectors mentioned above did come across a couple of American songs, though probably without realizing that they were American.  In 1903 Percy Grainger collected a version of the song The Birds Upon the Tree (Roud 1863) from the Lincolnshire singer Joseph Taylor, while in 1893 Lucy Broadwood and J A Fuller Maitland included the American song Silly Bill (Roud 442) in their book English County Songs.  The song had originally been collected from a singer in Leicestershire by H H Albino.

And this brings us to our first problem, namely that of definition(s).  Sharp was clearly aware of a distinction between what he called folk songs and 'other songs' - which his singers clearly knew and enjoyed singing, but which were not to Sharp's taste.  Perhaps we should call the latter 'traditional songs'.  There has long been a confusion between traditional songs and folk songs.  Sharp and his Edwardian co-collectors used the Folk Song definition of:

Sharp's 1903 comments are particularly interesting in that the 'sentimental balderdash / drivel' of Grandfather's Clock, A Life on the Ocean Wave, Woodman Spare That Tree, Wait Till the Clouds Roll By are, some 117 years later, authentic traditional songs, passing all the tests that Sharp used to define them as such.  By which we mean that they are still performed by a small number of people within (by today's standards) the same community from which they came via oral transmission.

We would argue that Sharp's definition was actually one for Traditional song rather than Folk song, and we would add to it that such songs and tunes would normally be performed within the community from which they sprang, and (again normally) not for financial gain.  Whereas, our definition of a 'Folk song' is a song or tune that the community has taken as its own and used for its own purposes at a particular time.  As a consequence, it does not need to be 'anonymous', nor need it originate from within the community, though it will have been selected by it and passed on orally within it.  The non-professional criterion will still probably apply.  Accordingly, a 'folk song' will exist for a period of time, for a particular community - and was not / will not be a folksong outwith that period or community.

Cecil Sharp and his contemporaries were free with the use of the term 'oral tradition'.  In other words, songs were passed from one person to another by word of mouth.  But, song texts have been printed on paper almost since the invention of the printing press and these printed sheets - known as broadsides - were sold up and down the length of the country.  Edwardian song collectors, such as Cecil Sharp, the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould and Frank Kidson, amassed collections of broadsides which contained the texts of the songs which they were collecting.  Clearly, broadsides were a means of transmitting folk song texts among the people who bought the sheets.  And yet Sharp and the other collectors seem to have ignored the fact that print played a part in 'folk song' transmission.

Singers' Repertoires:

One singer who sang 'folk songs' to Lucy Broadwood and Ralph Vaughan Williams was the shoemaker Henry Burstow (1826 - 1916), of Horsham in Sussex.  In 1911, a few years after singing to the collectors, Burstow published a book, Reminiscences of Horsham, in which he listed the titles to 420 songs which he knew.  Along with the 'folk songs', there were clearly a number of songs listed which were of American origin.  These include the following titles, though there may well be others, as some of Burstow's unidentified titles may or may not, be of American songs. Where, we may ask, did Henry Burstow get so many of his songs?  Some came from family and friends, while others came from printed sources: In the late 19th and early 20th century newspapers often had a column devoted to song texts, and this may be what Burstow was referring to when he said that he had learnt songs from, 'other printed matter'.  Many singers learnt songs from the News of the World which, for many years, published the words to Music Hall songs.  The newspaper was first publish in 1843.  Collector Keith Summers, in Sing, Say or Play, said that several Suffolk singers cited the News of the World as a source for songs.6

We have said that members of the Folk Song Society collected only 'folk songs'.  But one contemporary song collector, Alfred Williams, who was not a member of the Society and who was not musically literate, did collect the words to a far wider group of songs, including American ones.  The words to some of these songs appeared in his book Folk Songs of the Upper Thames, printed in 1923.  These are:

In 1922 The Folk Song Society's Journal included songs collected by the composer Ernest John Moeran from a Norfolk singer called Harry Cox (1885 - 1971).  Over the years Cox was visited by a number of song collectors and in 2000 Topic Records of London issued a double CD of field recordings made of Cox (TSCD512D).  The booklet accompanying this issue lists the titles to 141 songs that Harry Cox apparently knew, some in fragmentary form.  Only a very small number of these songs show any connection to America.  Two songs, The Faithful Sailor Boy (Roud 376) and The Ship That Never Returned (Roud 773) must, at one time, have been extremely popular in England, as just about every English singer of traditional songs that we have met knew parts, if not all, of these songs.  Another Norfolk singer, Walter Pardon (1914 - 1996 previously mentioned above) certainly knew them.  We know the title to 182 song that Walter knew and, along with The Faithful Sailor Boy and The Ship That Never Returned, he also knew several other American songs: We could name any number of singers who had American songs in their repertoire, but will end here with just one more, namely Harry Upton7 of Balcombe in Sussex.  Harry not only sang some American songs, but he also owned a number of broadsides, many printed by Henry Parker Such of London, which had been bought by Harry's family when they went to Brighton on a Saturday night to visit the Music Hall there.8  Apparently there was a broadside seller outside the Music Hall Theatre and most of the family's sheets came from this man.

American Songs on British Broadsides belonging to Harry Upton:

American Songs known to have been sung by Harry Upton: We might finally consider the fifteen songs selected by the Millen Family of Kent for inclusion in their CD 'Down Yonder Green Lane' (Open CD 003).  The Millen Family, like the well-known Copper Family of neighbouring Sussex, sing in harmony.  Presumably the songs were actually chosen by the Family itself, and not by a record producer, and, if so, then they give us a snapshot of the type of songs that the Family enjoy(ed) singing.  The chosen songs are, In Yonder Old Oak (Roud 361), Hail Smiling Morn (Roud 1346), The Old Owl (Roud 496), Poor Old Joe (Roud 9601) Dame Durden (Roud 1209), Sweet Bye and Bye (Roud 7651), Farmer's Boy (Roud 408), Good Old Jeff (Roud 1740), Sportsmen Arise (Roud 1216), Mistletoe Bough (Roud 2336), Buttercup Joe (Roud 1635), Old Uncle Ned (Roud 4871), Old Oaken Bucket (Roud 27512), The Baby on the Shore (Roud 25401) and While Shepherd's Watched' (Roud 936).

Six of these songs - Poor Old Joe, Sweet Bye and Bye, Good Old Jeff, Old Uncle Ned, The Old Oaken Bucket and The Baby on the Shore - are by American composers.  We also know the titles to four other songs which were in the Family repertoire - See the Lads With their Lasses Trip the Meadows Along, The Wreath, You're the Kind of Girl that Men Forget and When You and I Were Young, Maggie (Roud 3782) - the latter two songs also being American. 

Although this is only a small number of songs, it is interesting that almost half are by American composers and that four of the songs - Poor Old Joe, Good Old Geoff, Old Uncle Ned and The Baby on the Shore are what the Millen Family call 'Plantation songs'.  Another name for this type of song is 'Minstrel Songs', a style of song which was once highly popular in Britain.  In fact, if we examine the songs mentioned in the various singer's repertoires above, as well as those collected by Alfred Williams, we find the following song titles, some of which are listed more than once:

We may speculate as to why songs about black slaves living in the southern states of America were so popular with singers in Victorian Britain.  One suggestion could be that British rural workers could empathize with the song's subject matter.  Clearly, 19th century English farm workers were not slaves, but their working conditions could be very hard indeed and many workers complained that they were, themselves, little better than slaves.


Looking at the lists of American songs sung by English singers, it is soon apparent that many of these songs come originally from the American Minstrel stage.  In 1828 Thomas Dartmouth (T.  D.) 'Daddy' Rice (1808 - 1860), a white blackface minstrel performer (who became known as 'the father of American Minstrelsy') began to perform a song and dance titled Jump Jim Crow (Roud 12442) on the stage.9  Legend has it that Rice first saw a disabled African slave called Jim Crow, or Jim Cuff, who was working as a stable boy, performing the piece and that Rice based his song and dance on what he had seen.  It may be that Rice's tune was originally an Irish jig.  Rice's song was performed in what was then deemed to be the language of African-American slaves. Rice's use of African American vernacular speech caught the popular imagination and many later Minstrel songs contained similar vernacular expressions.  For example several of the songs recorded in the 1920's by the American performer Uncle Dave Macon, songs such as I'se Gwine Back to Dixie (Roud 18324) and Carve Dat Possum (Roud 7780), are sung in the vernacular.  In 1836 Rice made his first appearance in London.  He performed in the short play Oh, Hush! before moving to the Adelphi Theatre, where he acted in longer plays.  A year later Rice married one Charlotte Bridgett Gladstone in London.  In 1844, he stared in a version of the play Otello.  When Rice appeared at Ducrow's Royal Amphitheatre (now The Royal Court Theatre) in Liverpool he performed Jump Jim Crow with 'witty local allusions'.

Daniel Decatur Emmett (1815 - 1904) is perhaps best known as the composer of the song Dixie (Roud 18324).  In 1840 he began to work in travelling circuses, where he performed as a blackface singer and banjo player.  In 1843 Emmett formed the first blackface minstrel troupe, the Virginia Minstrels, which appeared that year at New York's Chatham Theatre.  The song Dixie was written in New York sometime around 1859 when Emmett was a member of Bryants Minstrels.  It later became the rallying cry for the southern Confederacy, causing Emmett to say, 'If I had known to what use they [Southerners] were going to put my song, I will be damned if I'd have written it.'

Emmett is also credited with writing the song Old Dan Tucker (Roud 390) in 1843 while a member of the Virginia Minstrels.  Like Rice's Jump Jim Crow, the song Old Dan Tucker is written in African American vernacular.

As we said above, Daddy Rice based Jump Jim Crow on a song and dance that he had witnessed being performed by an African slave.  And it now seems possible that Daniel Emmett, rather than writing Dixie and Old Dan Tucker himself, had either stolen the songs from black performers or else had used songs by black performers as the basis for his 'own' compositions.  Dan Emmett was apparently friendly with the musical Snowden family of Ohio.  This family of freed slaves had a band and Emmett almost certainly heard them play.  According to the family, 'Dixie' was composed either by Ben and Lew Snowden, or else by their parents Thomas and Ellen Snowden.  While Old Dan Tucker, supposedly written about a man called Daniel Tucker who lived in Elbert County, Georgia, was, according to local legend, composed by some of his slave neighbours.

If it is correct that both Daddy Rice and Daniel Emmett obtained (stole?) some of their songs from black performers, then surely we have a situation which would today be called 'cultural appropriation'.  But there is more to it than that.  Here we have extremely competent black singers and musicians who were not allowed to perform their own songs and music to a white audience.  This material had to be performed by white men who dressed as 'negros' and who had their faces blackened to represent black people.  Confused?

But perhaps the greatest song writer of this genre was Stephen Foster (1826 - 1864) the 'father of American music', whose songs included Oh! Susanna (Roud 9614), Hard Times Come Again No More (Roud 2659), Camptown Races (Roud 11768), Old Folks at Home (Roud 13880), My Old Kentucky Home (Roud 9564), Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair (Roud V288), Old Black Joe (Roud 9601) and Beautiful Dreamer (Roud 24434).  So far, nobody has suggested that Foster's songs were composed by anyone but Foster himself.  Foster is rightly remembered for his minstrel songs (in 1849 he published a collection of 'Ethiopian Melodies' which contained the song Nelly Was a Lady popularized by the Christy Minstrels), although he also composed many parlour ballads, as did another song writer, Henry Clay Work (1832 - 1884).

Work came from an Abolitionist background, saying that his minstrel songs were, 'designed to encourage slaves, rather than ridicule them'.  He wrote a number of songs which became popular both in America and in Britain, including: Kingdom Coming (The Year of Jubilo) (Roud 778), Come Home, Father, (Roud 839), Wake Nicodemus (Roud 4988), Marching Through Georgia (Roud 9596), The Ship that Never Returned (Roud 775), My Grandfather's Clock (Roud 4326) and Ring the Bell, Watchman (Roud 13630).

One of the first Minstrel troupes to visit Britain was the Virginia Serenaders who arrived in 1843, later followed by Raynor & Pierce's Christy Minstrels, who opened in London's St James Theatre on 3rd August, 1857.  The term 'Christy (or 'Christy's') Minstrels comes from a black-face group formed by Edward Pearce Christy in Buffalo, New York, in 1843.  Raynor & Pierce's Christy Minstrels included several members from the original America troupe.  The Minstrels then moved to the Surrey Theatre and then to the Polygraphic Hall in London's King William Street.  In 1859 they were performing in Liverpool's St James's Hall, before touring and performing in various provincial halls.  The group then returned to London, before disbanding in 1860.  Within a year four new 'Christy Minstrel' troupes were performing throughout Britain.  In 1864 one of these troupes began playing at the St James Theatre, the same theatre that the original group had played at in 1857, and such was their popularity that they continued to perform there for 35 years, before retiring in 1904.  The Christy Minstrels popularized dozens of songs, including: Blue Tail Fly (Roud 1274), Camptown Races (Roud 11768), Grape Vine Trot, Jump Jim Crow (Roud 12442), Jordan is a Hard Road to Travel (Roud 12153), Oh! Susanna (Roud 9614), Old Bob Ridley (Roud 753), Old Dan Tucker (Roud 390), Old Folks at Home (Roud 13880), Old Joe Clark (Roud 3594), Old Johnny Boker (Roud 1329 or 353), Old Zip Coon (Roud 328), The Ole Grey Goose (Roud 3619), Polly Wolly Doodle (Roud 11799), Turkey in the Straw (Roud 4247) and Year of Jubilo (Roud 778).

Such was the popularity of the Minstrels in Britain that British music publishers were soon printing both words and music to these songs.  For example, John Leng & Co. of Dundee, the publishers of the Dundee Advertiser issued 'Nigger Minstrel Songs' as 'The English People's Songs no. 3'.  The songbook, featuring a drawing of a backface minstrel playing a banjo on the cover, cost one penny and contained the following songs.  In the Hazel Dell (Roud 13780), I'se Gwine Back to Dixie (Roud 18324), John Brown's Body (Roud 771), Massa's in de Cold, Cold Ground (Roud V8653), The Old Folks at Home (Roud 13880), Lily Dale (Roud 2819), The Old Kentucky Home (Roud 9564), Wait for the Wagon (Roud 2080, 2835 or 3716), Good Old Jeff (Roud 1740), 'Tis but a Little Faded Flower (Roud 248521), Hard Times, Come Again No More (Roud 2659), Oh! Dem Golden Slippers (Roud 13941), Sweet Genevieve (Roud 13645), Poor Old Joe (Roud V46032 or 9601), Belle Mahone (Roud 13636), Marching Through Georgia (Roud 9596), White Wings (Roud 1753) and The Cottage By the Sea (Roud 4327).  The songbook is undated, but as the song 'Golden Slippers' was written in 1879, the songbook cannot predate this date.10

With the availability of such printed material it was only natural that British performers, both amateur and professional, should take up the Minstrelsy mantle.  For example, in the run up to the Great War one person from the Kentish village of Woodchurch could say, "Every year during the dark nights around Christmas time, we were visited by the Glee singers and the Nigger minstrels - all local fellows."11  Professional stage minstrels included G H Chirgwin (1854 1922), who was known as 'the White-Eyed Kaffir', and G H Elliott (1882 - 1962), known as 'the Chocolate-Coloured Coon'.  Elliott based his act on that of an American performer, Eugene Stratton (1861 - 1918) who had come to England in 1880.  Stratton's most popular song, Lily of Laguna (Roud V8513), was taken up by Elliott.  Today we rightly condemn 'blacking up', but it is indicative of its one-time popularity when we remember that G H Elliott appeared in three Royal Variety Performances (in 1925, 1948 and 1958).

And popularity for the Minstrels was such that British Minstrel groups were recorded, one such group being the Zono Minstrels who cut six sides in 1913.  At least one song recorded by the Zono Minstrels, De Old Banjo (Roud 31136) was still being sung in the 1980s by the Kentish singer Charlie Bridger.12


When Harry Upton mentioned that his family purchased broadsides outside the Brighton Music Hall, it would seem probable that some of the broadside sheets would have contained the words to the songs which were then currently being sung on the Music Hall circuits.  Today we tend to think of broadsides as only carrying the words of folksongs - but this is not the case.  Printers, like Henry Parker Such (1808 - 1882) and his family of London, also included the words of popular American songs on their sheets.

Popular songs, such as those by Stephen Foster and Henry Clay Work, were also sold by American and British publishers who sold the songs, words and music, on A4 sized folios, usually with an illustration on the front cover.  In America the trade for this type of printing centered around the so-called 'Tin Pan Alley', in New York's Manhattan district.  In the mid-19th century there was little copyright consistency in the world of American music publishing.  Publishers could, and often did, use fictitious names for song writers and composers, thus increasing their profits and it was not until the 1890s, when publishers began congregating together in 'Tin Pan Alley', that this practice ceased.


This was a time when many American (and British) homes had a piano and sheet music was in demand.  Parlour ballads, along with hits from Broadway musicals and the American Music Hall, and other forms of popular music, were printed and deals struck with British publishers who gained the rights to publish American songs and music in Britain.  One British publisher, Francis & Day (later Francis, Day & Hunter) printed numerous 32 page folios with titles such as Album of Famous Old Songs, Album of Old Time Favourites, Community Song Albums, Plantation and Minstrel Songs and Hillbilly Album.13  The two Community Song albums (nos. 3 & 6 and dated to c.1928 - 30) shown here contains many songs which have been recorded from traditional singers.  These include: The Miner's Dream of Home (Roud 1749), The Old Rustic Bridge by the Mill (Roud 3792), Wait Till the Clouds Roll By (Roud 9088), Won't You Buy My Pretty Flowers? (Roud 12906), The Dear Little Shamrock (Roud 3769), On the Banks of Allan Water (Roud 4260), The Lincolnshire Poacher (Roud 299), My Grandfather's Clock (Roud 4326), The Gypsy's Warning (Roud 1764), A-Hunting We Will Go (Roud 12972) and While Shepherd's Watched Their Flocks by Night (Roud 936). A number of these songs, together with others in the Francis & Day folios, are by American composers.


Other British song folios were published by Lawrence Wright (also known as Horatio Nicholls), Campbell Connelly and Felix McGlennon.  And there were other collections, such as The Scottish Students Song Book, The News Chronicle Song Book and The People's Song Folio all of which contained the words of songs which were highly popular.

In 1899 the composer Scott Joplin published his Maple Leaf Rag.  Three years later he published one of his most popular tunes, The Entertainer.  Joplin was not the first ragtime composer; one Ben Harney, from Kentucky, had previously published his You've Been a Good Wagon, But You Done Broke Down in 1896 and this is sometimes described as the first ragtime tune, so named because of its ragged rhythm.  However, there is another song, La Pas Ma La, which had appeared in 1895.  It was performed by Ernest Hogan, a Minstrel performer with the Georgia Graduates, and suggests a link between the Minstrel Shows and the birth of Ragtime music.  Ragtime tunes were printed as sheet music and the vogue for this type of music lasted until about 1919, when Jazz recordings were becoming popular both in America and in Britain.  American Jazz, in turn, inspired the growth of British Dance Bands, many of which had featured singers, several of whom sang the latest American pop songs.

Inventor Thomas Edison produced several different forms of recording machines in the 1870s and cylinder records and, slightly later, 78 rpm records were soon being sold to the public.  It wasn't long before Music Hall singers were recording their songs for posterity and Michael Yates has previously discussed this in a short article The Other Songs - Musical Traditions Enthusiasms article, number 40 (dated 2003).  This article, which considers how songs recorded by British Music Hall singers entered the repertoires of English traditional singers, does not refer to recordings made by American performers in America.

Many early American records were brought into Britain by merchant sailors and this may explain why ports, such as Liverpool, became centres for American music in Britain.

American recording companies soon joined up with British companies, such as Decca, Edison Bell Winner, HMV, Panachord, Parlophone, Regal/Regal Zonophone, Rex and Zonophone, so that their recordings could be released in Britain.  In some cases, American performers made recordings in London while touring the country.  For example, the early country singer Carson Robison, or his accompanying musicians, recorded a total of 83 tracks in London in 1932, 1936 and 1939.  Many of Robinson's recordings entered the British traditional song repertoire.


It seems that during the early 1930s people began to learn songs from records, rather than from printed music sheets.  English Gypsy singers seem to have been especially drawn to recordings by early Country singers, such as Gene Autry and Jimmie Rodgers.  On the 3 CD set Wait Till the Clouds Roll By (Musical Traditions records MTCD518-0) you can hear California Blues performed by both Autry himself and by the young Gypsy singer Derby Smith.  You can also hear Jimmie Rodgers singing Rock All Our Babies to Sleep (Roud 4378), He's in the Jailhouse Now (Roud 18801) and Mother, Queen of my Heart (Roud 9708) alongside Gypsy versions of these songs sung here by Doris Davies, Derby Smith and Levi Smith.

Changes in Collecting Attitudes:

In 1932 the Folk Song Society merged with The English Folk Dance Society, to form The English Folk Dance and Song Society.  During its existence, The Folk Song Society's annual Journal had published 'folk songs' which had been collected by the Society's members.  However, by 1932 the Society felt that all the 'folk songs' had been collected and that their work was now done.  It seems that no 'new' songs were being submitted for publication, only versions or variants of songs which had previously been published.

True, one or two people did continue to look for songs, but this was not the norm and most members of the EFDSS appeared to be more interested in dance, rather than in song.  One singer of note, the Welshman Phil Tanner, was recorded by Columbia Records at the request of Maud Karpeles, who had been Cecil Sharp's secretary and was later a leading light in the EFDSS.  Four songs were recorded in November, 1936, and issued commercially in the following year.  These were:

Late in 1937, Tanner was visited at his home by a BBC recording crew, led by W R Owen, and The Oyster Girl (Roud 875) and The Gower Reel were recorded for BBC archival purposes.  Finally, in April, 1949, and again in April, 1949, the BBC again visited Tanner and recorded a number of songs. All of these songs are of the type that Cecil Sharp would have recognized as 'folk songs'.14

Another fine singer, Harry Cox of Norfolk, was recorded in 1934, this time by Decca Records, and again at the request of the EFDSS.  Cox travelled to London by train, where he was met by the Anglo-Irish composer Ernest John Moeran, who had first encountered Cox in the early 1920s when Moeran was collecting folk songs in East Anglia.  Two songs were recorded, Down by the River Side (Roud 291) and The Pretty Ploughboy (Roud 186), and issued on a Decca 78 rom record which was available from the EFDSS.

Some songs were also recorded by the BBC at The Eel's Foot pub at Eastbridge, Suffolk.  In 1938 and 1939 A L Lloyd took a BBC team to the pub, while in 1947 Ernest John Moeran returned to East Anglia with another BBC team.  Moeran recorded four 'folk songs', though a couple of songs which were recorded by A L Lloyd, Duck Foot Sue (Roud 9553) written by the American Harry Bennett, and the American IWW (International Workers of the World) song Poor Man's Heaven (Roud 16821), were American in origin.  No doubt A L Lloyd , a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, was delighted to find the IWW song being sung among rural Suffolk labourers. This, we feel, was an important turning point in the history of song collecting in England.  Members of the Folk Song Society were often, socially speaking, far removed from the people who sang songs to them and Lloyd, who came from a working-class background in London, had been raised in a very different society from that of the Edwardian collectors.

During World War Two a large number of American troops were stationed in Britain prior to the D Day landings in 1944.  American servicemen were encouraged to mix with locals and there were often dances arranged on American bases where locals were invited to attend.  Many servicemen also enjoyed drinking in local pubs.  Sussex singer Harry Upon (mentioned above) told about singing the song Canadee-I-O (Roud 309) in a pub one night in 1940 and a visiting Canadian airman joined in.  It was obvious to Harry that the Canadian knew the song, which was a puzzle to Harry because he had previously thought that only himself and his father knew the song.15  It seems almost certain that some English singers would have picked up America songs from the visiting troops.  On one occasion Michael Yates was told by a person in Kent that he had heard two black American servicemen playing guitars and singing blues in a Kentish field just prior to D Day.

In the early 1950s A L Lloyd and fellow Marxist Ewan MacColl were responsible for starting what became known as 'the second folk revival' when they led the way by opening folk clubs and recording albums of folk songs.  Further impetus was given by the BBC who, in 1953, launched a weekly radio program called 'As I Roved Out'.  The BBC wished to gather together recordings of British and Irish dialect, which could then be used by actors who were unable to lean directly from dialect speakers.  It was soon realized that one way to collect such material was to record the speakers singing songs along with their speech.  And so As I Roved Out was born.  Collectors, such as Peter Kennedy, of the EFDSS, Alan Lomax, Hamish Henderson, Sean O'Boyle and Seamus Ennis were sent out with EMI portable tape recorders and their finds were broadcast on the weekly program.  The general public, it seems, liked the recordings and many listeners were soon writing in to the BBC telling of other singers.  Again, though, much of the material gathered fitted the Cecil Sharp definition of 'folk song'.

Although the BBC recording scheme officially began in 1953, there had been activity just prior to this date.  In late 1951 a person wrote to say that his mother, Cecelia Costello, was a fine singer and knew a number of songs.  Mrs Costello was visited in November 1951 by Marie Slocombe of the BBC and Patrick Shuldham-Shaw a musician and member of the EFDSS.  The following thirteen songs were recorded:

It must be said that Mrs Costello provided a set of beautifully sung songs to the BBC and we are all the better from having them.  But who, we wonder, actually selected the songs?  Was it Mrs Costello herself, of did Marie Slocombe and/or Patrick Shuldham-Shaw make a selection, while ignoring other songs (songs which were perhaps not quite 'folk'?)  We do not know, but we do know that when other collectors visited Mrs Costello, they were able to gather a far wider harvest of material, including some American songs, such as Kitty Wells (Roud 2748), No Irish Need Apply (Roud 1137), I Have Roamed Through Many Lands (Roud 10364), A Bunch of Shamrock (Roud 3769) and Saturday Night I Lost My Wife (Roud 20273).  This newer breed of collectors included Pam Bishop, Roy Palmer, Charles Parker and Jon Raven had come to folk music via the folk clubs and, like others with similar backgrounds, they took a far wider approach to gathering the songs that a singer actually sang.16

The folk clubs and folk festivals of the 1950s and early 1960s encouraged many people to seek out singers and musicians who were still from a 'traditional' background.  Very few of these new collectors were trained musicians, but were motivated more by an interest in hearing and preserving what was actually being sung and played at that time.  Researcher George Frampton had this to say about John Howson of Veteran Recordings in Suffolk:

As well as those collectors mentioned in the above paragraph the new collectors included Norman Alford, John Baldwin, Dave Bland, John Brune, Paul Burgess, Paul Carter, Jim Carroll & Pat Mackenzie, Peter Coe, Gwilym Davies, Nick & Mally Dow, Ginette Dunn, Jim Eldon, Robert Forrester, Tony Foxworthy, Steve Gardham, Brian George, Rory & Alvina Greig, Dr Reg Hall, Fred Hamer, Desmond & Sheila Herring, Ken Langsbury, Neil Lanham, Bill Leader, Sam Lee, Ewan MacColl & Peggy Seeger, Alison McMorland, Paul Marsh, Brian Matthews, Bob & Jacqueline Patten, Dr Carole Pegg, Mervyn Plunkett, Steve Roud, Doc Rowe, Dr Ian Russell, Maggie Sands, Peter Shepheard, Andrew Smith, Vic Smith, Sam Steele, Rod and Danny Stradling, Ken Stubbs, Keith Summers, Andy Turner, Tony Wales, Jim Ward, Colin Wharton, Dr Russell Wortley, Terry Yarnell, Michael 'Mike' Yates. 

Some of the collectors were carrying out 'field work' as part of an academic requirement.  Most, though, were doing it purely out of love for the music and for the people who so willingly gave us their songs. 

Using just about affordable and portable semi-professional recording machines, some of their recordings appeared on LP records issued by Topic Records of London.  Such albums were restricted to just over 40 minutes of playing time and there was still a tendency to include only the 'folk songs' that were in their singer's repertoires.  Other songs, Music Hall and Parlour Ballads for example, were often omitted.  It was only with the arrival of the CD disc, which could carry almost 80 minutes of recordings, that much wider repertoires were able to be included.  For example, Walter Pardon's first LP A Proper Sort (Leader LED063) contained the following eleven songs, all but one of which fall within Cecil Sharp's folksong definition:

But, when Musical Traditions issued a 2 CD set, of Walter's songs Put a Bit of Powder On It, Father (MTCD305/6), almost half of the songs (23 out of a total of 51 songs) were probably from the British or American Music Hall stage, and which would not have been collected by Cecil Sharp, had he heard them being sung by one of his singers.  Again, if we examine the songs collected from Shropshire singer Bill Smith by Bill's son Andrew, we find a considerable number of Music Hall songs.  On the CD Bill Smith - a country life (Musical Traditions MTCD351) I would say that about 18 of the songs are 'folk songs', while there are possibly 36 songs which come from other sources, such as the Music Hall.  There were also 4 American songs in Bill's known repertoire.  (As many of Bill Smith's songs were only fragments, it may be that one or two songs have been wrongly classified.) Clearly, in this case, Bill knew far more Music Hall songs than 'folk songs', some of which, such as The Cuckoo (Roud 413) and The Two Magicians (Child 44, Roud 1350), he actually learnt at school.

In other words, English collectors from the early 1960s onwards have not limited their collecting solely to what Sharp et al perceived to be 'folk songs', and this has made a big difference in understanding just what actually constitutes the English 'folksong' repertoire.


Old folk songs mingling with both British and American Music Hall songs were nothing new in that Ludlow pub.  American songs have been popular in Britain since at least the early 19th century when American performers began visiting Britain.  Minstrelsy became a craze in the mid-19th century and its popularity may have encouraged other types of American performers - from, say, the American Music Hall - to visit Britain.  Ragtime and Jazz music entered Britain in the early 20th century.  Ragtime tunes were first sold as sheet music before being overtaken by 78rpm recordings.  The BBC played many of these recordings and American music was soon being heard all over Britain.

When the Edwardian folk song collectors began searching for 'folk songs' they, sadly, ignored much that was actually being sung by 'folk singers'.  Perhaps some collectors dreamt of a time when there had been a 'pure' folk society, one where 'folk songs' were the only type of songs which were sung by 'the peasantry' - a term beloved by those same collectors.  In truth, there was probably no such time.  People have always had eclectic tastes when it came to songs and singing and, hopefully, we will continue to do the same today.

It should come as no surprise to find so many American songs being sung in Britain today and in the last couple of hundred years.  The surprise is that so little attention has been paid to this phenomenon by musicologists in the past.  Today we still have a chance to examine and try to understand just what has been happening in the 'folk' world.  Tomorrow might just be too late.

Michael Yates & Rod Stradling - Swindon & Stroud.  2000.

[Introduction] [The Background] [English Song Collectors] [Singers' Repertoires] [Minstrelsy] [Print] [Changes in Collecting Attitudes] [Conclusions] [Notes]


Article MT329

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