So it is not surprising that, in the 19th century, when scholars started looking enthusiastically for folk traditions, customs, songs and tunes, they inevitably took a county, or a couple of adjacent counties, as their natural unit of study.
When Baring-Gould turned his attention to collecting the old songs of Devon and Cornwall, he was steeped in all these Romantic assumptions, as anyone, taking an interest in such things, would inevitably have been.
He therefore deliberately looked for the oldest, remotest rural singers, preferably illiterate, as they would be untainted by commercial or ‘art’ music. He asked for their oldest songs. He decided that the words, very often similar to those of a printed broadside ballad, were modern, and less important than the tunes, which he felt (with no actual evidence) must be genuinely old, and indigenous to the area. In A Book of the West: Devon (1900) he states: ‘In folk-song, then, we may expect to see reflected the characteristics of the race from which it has sprung, and, as in the counties of Devon and Cornwall on one side and Somersetshire on the other, we are brought into contact with two, at least, races – the British and the Saxon – we do find two types of melody very distinct. Of course, as with their dialects, so with their melodies, the distinctions are sometimes marked, and sometimes merged in each other. The Devonshire melodies have some affinity with those of Ireland, whilst the Somersetshire tunes exhibit a stubborn individuality – a roughness, indeed, which is all their own.’
So, Celtic/British good, Saxon not quite so good.
He goes on to refer to the ‘exceeding grace and innate refinement’ of the Devonshire tunes, and speculate as to where and when they originated, suggesting that many of them may have been written by some local church musician.
So maybe not so old, but very local.
Though he does not mention it in this particular book, in other places, such as Old Country Life (1889), S B-G also puts forward another theory, slightly at odds with his conviction that all the tunes are ancient and local, that many of his old singers, for whom singing was a family tradition, could be descended from some of the itinerant musicians who, in the Middle Ages and Tudor period, had journeyed from one castle or large noble household to another, until all who were not in the employ of a particular lord were forbidden to wander by an Act of 1597, which classified them as ‘vagrants and sturdy beggars.’ They had thus had to settle on the land, keeping their music only for church or community functions, and three centuries later he was collecting the remnants of this once courtly music from their peasant descendants. His descriptions of many of the singers, like Robert Hard or James Parsons, often emphasise the intelligence and refinement in their faces, clearly suggesting the possible sophistication of their ancestry.
In the show which I mentioned earlier, which was, admittedly, an entertainment rather than an academic exposition, we used to illustrate this theory with the song ‘Go From My Window.’ Many 16th century composers made lute variations on it. Baring-Gould collected a version, complete with a story, from the matchlessly named Ginger Jack Woodrich of Thrushelton, who had heard it from a tramp in a Bideford pub. One of our musicians, Mick Bramich, would play a version on the lute, then I’d tell the story, exaggerating my very mild Devon intonation, and we’d do the song. But does it prove the theory? Maybe it was already a folk melody before the lute composers got hold of it? In this case it’s old, but not so local. Clearly the discussion could run and run.
The folklore myth was surprisingly durable. It was accepted as a given truth by the early collectors that in seeking out the oldest, remotest informers, they would get as close as possible to the essential, timeless folk soul. It was behind the use of folk material in all Nationalist schools in classical music and in the various 20th century folk ‘revivals.’ It was still believable in the 1970s and 80s, although many of its assumptions were finally beginning to be questioned. In recent decades, careful scholars like Georgina Boyes in The Imagined Village (1993) and Ronald Hutton in The Stations of the Sun (1996) have taken it apart to reveal the agendas and fantasies behind it. Also, it had long been apparent that the fact that a song had been heard and written down in Devon did not make it a ‘Devon folksong,’ as it could well have also been collected and published as a ‘Norfolk folksong’ or a ‘Sussex folksong.’ It was pointed out that the very people who often carried the songs were the ones who moved about the most, the drovers, sailors, gypsies and pedlars.