Even apparently location specific songs such as ‘Widecombe Fair’ were shown to be part of a common stock of fair songs, each with a different list of names (though it is true that only Widecombe has completely identified itself with its song). The actual idioms of the music from many parts of the country, far from being uniquely ‘of’ that one place, were fairly similar, from Yorkshire to Cornwall.
My choice of this subject came about through a conversation in the pub with Sam Richards, who collected folklore and songs in the Westcountry throughout the 1970s and early 80s, and I acknowledge his paper in the 2000 Devonshire Association Transactions, entitled ‘Devon Music in Time and Place,’ as a valuable starting point. In it he writes:
‘I am still often asked about Westcountry, or Devon, music, especially the traditional music. And the agenda behind the questions, which I often feel as a pressure, is for me to confirm that there was, indeed, at one time, a Westcountry style of music, or at least something distinctive, and that it continues in remote, esoteric pockets which no one except someone who has done my amount of research would know about.’
(I remember asking Sam this very question, back in the late 1980s, and how he carefully sidestepped giving a direct answer – many conversations since then have shown me why it was the wrong question, and I apologise for any pressure he may have felt!).
He continues: ‘Either this, or an equally acceptable answer would be that there was indeed a Westcountry (or Devon) music, but that the 20th century, popular culture and the Devil’s work eroded it to nothingness. The answer which is least welcome, but the only honest one I know, is that there is little evidence for regional styles of folk, popular or religious music, and nor is there much evidence elsewhere in the country for exclusively regional music.’
None of this, of course, is intended to denigrate Baring-Gould or his contemporaries. They were of their time, just as we are. Looking clearly at the assumptions he brought to his work, which may no longer stand up, does nothing to diminish the actual collection of songs that he made, or the effort he put into preserving them, or his respect and affection for his singers, which were ahead of his time, and compares well with the attitudes towards their informants of better known and more influential collectors. Like everything else he did, the song collecting reveals the man, in all his contradictory greatness. End