“I have to stop somewhere!” How Steve Roud compiled his epic folk songs archive | Folk Music

WWhen Steve Lauder was young, he started collecting records. It wasn’t unusual for a 1950s kid – but this boy from south London was different. Not content to just listen to LPs, Roud began indexing them—his own and those he found in newspapers and magazines. He used an old shoebox as his original file system and wrote the title on a 5×3-inch note card his mom bought him once a week. He soon realized that his hobby was turning into something more. “Unconsciously,” he said, “I was becoming a librarian.”

Soon Roud will be a real human being, having spent most of his career working in the London borough of Croydon. His fascination with the index will also continue, and those shoeboxes have finally swelled into something extraordinary. Even as a teenager, Roud was fascinated by folk music – how across centuries, dozens of voices can send songs in countless different ways, even if their core remains the same, with their titles and lyrics. change. As he grew up, armed with the proper training and new technology, Roud began to carefully sort through those bounties, looking for clues and developing an elegant way to trace the song’s legacy.

The fruit of 52 years of hard work is the Rudd Folk Song Index. Including references to hundreds of thousands of songs, Roud’s work spans the English-speaking tradition, covering English villages, Appalachian hilltops, and Caribbean ports. The index has become an integral part of folk music fans around the world, supporting genealogy projects and inspiring musicians. For its scale and ambition, Roud’s project speaks to the challenges of limiting so diverse a tradition—and even determining what folk music really is.


phosphorusTraditional British music has been systematically collected for over a century. In the years leading up to World War I, aficionados like Ralph Vaughan Williams and Cecil Sharp scoured country roads and country hotels to tap people, worried about industrialization and City life can quickly wash away traditional music. Musicians Williams and Sharp also hope that folk melodies will inform British classical music, as Sibelius did in Finland or Antonin Dvorak in Bohemia. In 1905, Vaughan Williams visited King’s Lynn, where he spent time at Tilden Smith Bar, a pub where local fishermen sheltered from January storms. The songs Vaughan Williams heard there may have influenced some of his most famous works, fitting for someone who once called music “an expression of the soul of a nation.” In the case of these early British collectors, they were influenced by their colleagues in England and Ireland as well as in the New World.

Early Folk Music Collector… Composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. Photo: Getty Images

In a way, the Rudd Folk Song Index fits this ancient tradition. On the one hand, it incorporates the efforts of the American collector Francis James Child, who collected more than 300 ballads in the late 19th century. But in important ways, Roud’s work is different. Unlike earlier collectors, he calmly recorded songs cited in other sources. When possible, he provides digital scans of song sheets, avoiding the habit of weeding out lyrics that older collectors find rude or inappropriate. But speaking to experts in the field, what really sets the Roud Index apart is its sheer size. “It’s huge,” said Dr Fay Hield, a folk musician and ethnomusicologist at the University of Sheffield. Rudd himself says his database now holds about 25,000 tunes, carefully collected from newspaper archives, magazines and songbooks, not to mention past collectors and online “nerd” buddies.

Take the time to explore Roud’s index, the scale is almost overwhelming. The East End has war songs, love songs, and songs about cows, mining, and barroom cheating. There are songs about Bonnie Prince Charlie, Finding Consolation in Death, and one, Hare on the Hill, where the singer decides to forget about male pursuits and instead “take my schooling.” This thematic spread matches the geography. Between immigration and colonization, slavery and settlement, English-language culture swept the planet. Variations on a song “Dutch Lowlands” have been known in Uxford, Hampshire, Perth, Scotland, and across the Atlantic in Maine and Tennessee, among dozens of other places. It’s hard to know how old these songs actually are – the best Roud can do is tell us when they were first written down or printed, which is a little different – but here too his index range is quite wide. An older tune in the index was first mentioned by Samuel Pepys in 1666, and most of the tunes were dropped in the 19th century.

Francis James Child (1825-1896), an American scholar known today for his collection of English and Scottish ballads.
Francis James Child (1825-1896), an American scholar known today for his collection of English and Scottish ballads

Meanwhile, aside from the songs themselves, Roud’s index is impressive for its reference system. Orally transmitted, or learned from ephemeral printed papers known as “broadsides,” folk songs are often difficult to trace to a single source (Roud maintains a separate Broadside index as part of his larger index of folk songs). To explain what he meant, Roud cites the example of Gypsy Laddie, which has about 500 different versions and 100 titles. As Roud succinctly points out, this can make it “very confusing” to grasp how the tunes interact. But by grouping songs together through so-called “Roud numbers” — each containing every variation of a particular tune — he could easily find and compare dozens of Gypsy Laddies at once. As Tiffany Hore of the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library says, this helps researchers answer a number of important questions (VWML also hosts the index on its website). That includes how different musical cultures have come together, or how songs have changed over time, Hore added.

Not that Rudd’s influence rests solely on his recording talent. He has been working hard to spread the visibility of his index, giving seminars and attending conferences. He has never been paid for the index, other than paying fees, and his home has become a bastion of documents and books. But perhaps the best example of Rudd’s dedication is when he began digitizing his index in the 1980s. Eager to share his hobby, he began releasing floppy disks, sometimes 20 at a time, to subscribers around the world. From there, Roud recalls spending hours on the phone helping confused (often older) fans with his database on the massive Commodore computer. “I do think it’s important,” he said of his efforts. “When you’re in a small field like ours, you do tend to cooperate because you’re either that or you’re down each other’s throats.”

Hall was more direct: “It’s his whole life, really.”


IIf the Roud Folk Song Index is the most ambitious project in traditional music, Sing Yonder may be a close second. It’s the brainchild of amateur folk musician and graphic designer Karl Sinfield to take every song in Roud’s database and give it context. Singfield, who provided a full history of the performance and advice on setting the notes, said he hoped Sing Yonder would make the index “more accessible and more accessible”. He jokes that at his current pace it would take him 630 years to read every song on the list — but he’s not the first to be drawn to Roud’s vast database. Because if professional researchers now treat the index almost as gospel, habitually citing Roud numbers whenever they mention a song, others will pull Roud’s work far beyond the confines of the academy.

First, Hield from the University of Sheffield explains how she used Roud numbers to create her own song arrangements, borrowing lyrics from multiple versions. Then it became more and more influential in the family tree. As Roud puts it: “I get letters from people saying, ‘I found my great-grandfather’s name in your index, tell me what you know!'” As he admits, that’s usually not much. But since recordings of songs have been added to his database, Roud has increasingly been able to offer great renditions of long-lost ancestors. He is eager to reflect modern concerns in other ways, such as adding the ability to search for songs by location. Working with colleagues, Roud also began organizing ballads by topic—about half of the requests he received were about specific topics, such as poaching or harvesting.

Not that Roud would claim that his database was perfect—or even perfect. To a large extent, it depends on the sprawling nature of the project. Pieced together over two generations, Roud has come too far to start from scratch. In practice, this makes certain adjustments, such as categorizing songs by singer’s ethnicity, extremely challenging. This is doubly true given that many early collectors ignored or actively despised these issues. In Britain, until the mid-20th century, most people were white, and when traveling to Appalachia, Cecil Sharp eschewed African-American ballads.

Some in the civil community are concerned about what exactly will be added to Roud’s index. Rudd himself offers a simplified explanation: “Songs sung at random by ordinary people in their daily lives, and passed on from person to person and from generation to generation.” But Heard worries that Rudd’s work ignores the importance of folk traditions. everything that can be offered. Should the new folk songs have their own Ruder number, she thought? How about a dramatic makeover of an old favorite?

Folk song collector...Cecil Sharp.
Folk Song Collector and Musician…Cecile Sharp

Of course, none of this is unique to the Roud index. Debate over what is folk music has been going on for decades. Roud, who represents the entire field, said deciding what to include in his index was a “very tricky” problem. But if he has some limitations—such as rejecting contemporary folk pieces on the grounds that they are not performed spontaneously—Roud appears to have a broadly Catholic attitude toward his database. “If Harry Cox ever sang Yellow Submarine, it had to go in,” he said, pairing the Norfolk farmhand and folk giant with the Beatles classic. Similarly, Roud happily includes songs overlooked by the likes of Cecil Sharp, including Jamaican ballads, and concert-hall ditches that keep going after the curtain. He emphasized that the point is not the song itself, but the traditions that have grown up around it.

Some of Rudd’s judgments do feel subjective. But given the genre’s notoriously malleable nature, that’s perhaps inevitable. As the rumored Louis Armstrong said, “All music is folk music. I have never heard a horse sing.” Hall agreed. “It’s hard to say what a folk song is these days,” she suggested, adding that since England recently won Euro 2022, even a pop song like Sweet Caroline could legitimately claim the title.

However, Rood, a self-proclaimed historian, seems content to stick to the music of the past. At the same time, he stressed that he was limited by the material held in the archives, for example, that few early collectors were interested in the music of immigrants. Moreover, beyond these debates about definitions and depictions, you get the sense that if Rudd tries to expand the index further, he will be buried under the weight of the index. “I had to stop somewhere,” he said of the idea of ​​indexing modern folk performers. “I’m waiting for other people to do this – and other idiots like me! But then they’re going to have the problem of defining what a person is. Now it’s worse than before.”

However, even though the Rudd Folk Song Index could not provide a dictionary definition of folk music, everyone I spoke with still considered it a very valuable resource. Aside from its enormous breadth, so does how its songs continue to evoke universal themes. Few women these days disguise themselves as men and sneak aboard a lover’s battleship, like Jack Monroe (Johnny’s Great Voyage). But that hasn’t stopped some in today’s queer community from “trying to find themselves” on these tunes, as Heard explained.

Hall makes a similar point, implying that songs about love or loss will never go out of style, even if the lyrics sound archaic to modern ears: “They’re talking about human nature.” It feels like a nod to the whole of Roud A fair summary of the project. Meanwhile, the 73-year-old continued to work, his tattered shoebox slowly collecting dust.

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