‘I’ve bought to cease someplace!’ How Steve Roud compiled his epic folks tune archive

When Steve Roud was younger, he started amassing data. Hardly uncommon for a kid of the Fifties – however this boy from south London was totally different. Not content material with simply listening to LPs, Roud started indexing them – his personal and ones he discovered talked about in newspapers and magazines. He used previous shoe bins as a primitive submitting system and wrote the titles on 5×3 inch document playing cards that his mum purchased him as soon as every week. He quickly realised his passion was turning into one thing extra. “With out realizing it,” he says, “I used to be turning into a librarian.”

Quickly sufficient, Roud would change into one for actual, working a lot of his profession for the London borough of Croydon. His infatuation with indexing would persist too, these shoe bins lastly swelling into one thing exceptional. Whilst a youngster, Roud had been fascinated by folks music – how throughout the centuries, dozens of voices might ship songs taking pictures numerous other ways, their titles and lyrics shifting whilst their cores remained the identical. As he grew up, armed with correct coaching and new expertise, Roud took to collating this bounty in earnest, looking down leads and creating a sublime methodology to hint a tune’s heritage.

The outcome, the product of 52 years of effort, is the Roud Folk Song Index. Together with a whole bunch of 1000’s of references to tens of 1000’s of songs, Roud’s work spans the anglophone oral custom, taking in English villages, Appalachian hilltops and harbours within the Caribbean. The index has change into indispensable for people followers worldwide, bolstering family tree initiatives and provoking musicians. In its dimension and ambition, Roud’s challenge speaks to the challenges of constraining such a various custom – and even to deciding what folks music truly is.


People have systematically collected conventional English music for greater than a century. Within the years earlier than the primary world conflict, lovers corresponding to Ralph Vaughan Williams and Cecil Sharp scoured nation lanes and village inns for individuals to document, frightened that industrialisation and concrete life would quickly wash conventional tunes away. Musicians each, Williams and Sharp additionally wished folks melodies to tell English classical music, simply as Sibelius did in Finland or Antonín Dvořák in Bohemia. Visiting King’s Lynn, in 1905, Vaughan Williams frolicked on the Tilden Smith, a pub the place native fishers had been sheltering from January storms. The songs Vaughan Williams heard there could have influenced a few of his most well-known compositions, acceptable for a person who as soon as referred to as music “the expression of the soul of a nation”. These early English collectors, for his or her half, had been shadowed by colleagues throughout Britain and Eire, and within the New World.

Ralph Vaughn Williams 1951
Early collector of folks music … composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. {Photograph}: Getty Photographs

Up to some extent, the Roud People Music Index suits into this older custom. For one factor, it incorporates the efforts of Francis James Little one, an American collector who amassed more than 300 ballads within the late nineteenth century. However in important methods, Roud’s work is totally different. In contrast to earlier collectors, he dispassionately notes songs referenced in different sources. When doable, he supplies digital scans of tune sheets, avoiding the behavior of purging lyrics that older collectors thought of impolite or inappropriate. However converse to specialists within the subject and what actually makes Roud’s index particular is its colossal scale. “It’s big,” says Dr Fay Hield, a folks musician and ethnomusicologist on the College of Sheffield. Roud himself says his database now boasts about 25,000 tunes, painstakingly gathered from newspaper archives, magazines and songbooks, to say nothing of previous collectors and fellow “nerds” on-line.

Spend time exploring Roud’s index and this scale might be nearly overwhelming. There are war songs and love songs and songs about cattle and mining and bar-room cheats within the East Finish. There are songs about Bonnie Prince Charlie, and finding solace in death, and one, Hares on the Mountain, the place the singer decides to neglect male advances and “attend to my education” as an alternative. This thematic unfold is matched by geography. Between migration and colonisation, slavery and settlement, anglophone tradition has swept the planet. Variations of 1 tune, The Lowlands of Holland, had been as soon as recognized at Axford in Hampshire, Perth in Scotland, and throughout the Atlantic in Maine and Tennessee, alongside dozens of other places. It’s tougher to know the way previous these songs truly are – the most effective Roud can do is inform us once they had been first jotted down or printed, one thing moderately totally different – however right here too his index is huge in scope. One of many older tunes within the index was first mentioned by Samuel Pepys in 1666, whereas most had been put down within the nineteenth century.

Francis James Child (1825-1896), an American scholar best known today for his collection of English and Scottish ballads.
Francis James Little one (1825-1896), an American scholar greatest recognized immediately for his assortment of English and Scottish ballads

Past the songs themselves, in the meantime, Roud’s index is spectacular for its system of references. Transmitted orally, or else discovered from ephemeral printed sheets referred to as “broadsides”, folks songs are sometimes arduous to trace again to a single supply (Roud maintains a separate Broadside Index as a part of his bigger folks tune index). To clarify what he means, Roud provides the instance of Gypsy Laddie, a tune with about 500 totally different variations and 100 titles. As Roud laconically places it, this might make greedy how tunes interacted “fairly chaotic”. However by grouping songs collectively by way of so-called “Roud numbers” – each encompassing each variation on a selected tune – he makes it simple to search out and evaluate dozens of Gypsy Laddies without delay. As Tiffany Hore of the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library says, that helps researchers reply a torrent of vital questions (the VWML additionally hosts the index on its web site). Amongst different issues, provides Hore, that features how totally different musical cultures intermingled, or how songs modified over time.

Not that Roud’s affect is just all the way down to his expertise for record-keeping. He has battled to unfold his index’s reputation, operating workshops and attending conferences. He’s by no means been paid for his indexing, besides to cowl bills, and his residence has change into a fortress of paperwork and books. However maybe essentially the most telling instance of Roud’s dedication got here when he began digitising his index within the Nineteen Eighties. Desperate to share his passion, he started posting floppy disks, typically 20 at a time, to subscribers all over the world. From there, Roud remembers he spent hours on the cellphone, serving to muddled (and infrequently aged) followers work his database on hulking Commodore computer systems. “I did suppose it was vital,” he says of his efforts. “While you’re in a small subject like ours, you do are typically cooperative, since you’re both that means or at one another’s throats.”

Hore is extra direct: “It’s his complete life, actually.”


If the Roud People Music Index is essentially the most bold challenge in conventional music, Sing Yonder could be a detailed second. The brainchild of Karl Sinfield, an novice folks musician and graphic designer, it goals to take each tune in Roud’s database and provides it context. Providing potted histories of performances and suggestions on setting notes, Sinfield says he needs Sing Yonder to make the index “extra approachable, extra accessible”. He jokes that at his present tempo it’ll take him 630 years to get by way of each tune on the listing – however he’s hardly the primary to be seduced by the vastness of Roud’s database. For if skilled researchers now take the index nearly as gospel, habitually quoting the Roud quantity each time they reference a tune, others are tugging Roud’s work far past the academy.

For starters, the College of Sheffield’s Hield explains how she makes use of Roud numbers to craft her personal preparations of songs, borrowing lyrics from a number of variations. Then there’s its rising affect in family tree. As Roud places it: “I get letters from individuals saying, ‘I’ve discovered my great-grandad’s identify in your index, inform me what you realize!’” As he admits, that always isn’t a lot. However since his database began adding audio recordings of songs, Roud can more and more provide individuals crackly renditions by long-lost ancestors. He’s anxious to replicate fashionable considerations in different methods, corresponding to including a function to go looking songs by location. Working with colleagues, Roud has additionally began organising ballads by topic – a boon given round half the requests he receives are on particular subjects corresponding to poaching or the harvest.

Not that Roud would ever declare that his database is ideal – and even perfectable. To a big diploma, that’s all the way down to the challenge’s sprawling nature. Cobbled collectively over the span of two generations, Roud has come too far to start out once more from scratch. In follow, that makes sure tweaks, corresponding to categorising songs by the race of the singer, extremely difficult. That’s doubly true, Roud provides, on condition that many early collectors ignored or actively disdained these very questions. In Britain, most individuals had been white till the mid-Twentieth century, and whereas on a visit to Appalachia, Cecil Sharp shunned ballads sung by African People.

Some within the folks neighborhood have worries about precisely what will get added to Roud’s index. Roud himself presents a simplified clarification: “Songs sung informally by peculiar individuals, by their very own volition, of their on a regular basis lives, and handed on from individual to individual and down the generations.” However Hield fears that Roud’s work overlooks all the pieces the folks custom has to supply. Ought to new folks songs, she ponders, obtain their very own Roud numbers? What about dramatic reworkings of previous favourites?

Folk song collector … Cecil Sharp.
People tune collector and musician … Cecil Sharp

In fact, none of that is distinctive to Roud’s index. Arguments about what constitutes folks music have grumbled on for many years. Roud speaks for the sphere at giant when he says that deciding what makes it into his index is a “very knotty” query. But when he has some limits – as an example rejecting modern folks compositions on the grounds that they’re not carried out spontaneously – Roud does appear to have a broadly catholic angle in direction of his database. “If Harry Cox had sung Yellow Submarine then it must go in,” is how he places it, partnering the Norfolk farmhand and folk giant with the Beatles’ traditional. In an identical vein, Roud fortunately contains songs ignored by the likes of Cecil Sharp, together with Jamaican ballads, and music corridor ditties that saved being sung after the curtain fell. The purpose, he emphasises, is much less a tune itself and extra the custom that grows up round it.

A few of Roud’s judgments do really feel subjective. However maybe that’s inevitable given the infamous malleability of the style on the whole. As Louis Armstrong is rumoured to have put it: “All music is folks music. I ain’t by no means heard a horse sing a tune.” Hore agrees. “It’s very arduous to say what a folks tune is these days,” she suggests, including that even a pop hit like Candy Caroline might plausibly declare the title given its oral popularity since England’s current Euro 2022 victory.

As a self-proclaimed historian, nonetheless, Roud appears content material sticking to the music of instances passed by. On the identical time, he stresses that he’s constrained by what he can discover in archives, noting, as an example, that few early collectors had been within the music of immigrants. Past these tussles over definition and delineation, furthermore, you get the sense that Roud can be buried beneath the burden of his index if he tried to develop it additional. “I’ve bought to cease someplace,” he says of the concept of indexing fashionable folks performers. “I’m ready for any individual else to try this – another fool like me to come back alongside! However then they’ll have the issue of defining what folks is. It’s even worse now than it was once.”

But even when the Roud People Music Index can’t provide a dictionary definition of folks music, everybody I spoke to nonetheless considers it a extremely helpful useful resource. In addition to its huge breadth, it’s true in how its songs proceed to evoke common themes. Few girls would these days disguise themselves as males and sneak aboard their lover’s battleship, as in Jack Munro (Johnny’s Gone A-Crusing). However as Hield explains, that hasn’t stopped some in immediately’s queer neighborhood from “looking for themselves” in these very tunes.

Hore makes an identical level, suggesting that songs about love or loss are by no means going to age, even when the lyrics danger sounding vintage to fashionable ears: “They talk about what it’s to be human.” That seems like a good abstract of Roud’s challenge as an entire. In the meantime, the person himself retains working in his 73rd 12 months, and his battered shoe bins slowly collect mud.

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