Folk songs are an extremely important part of our traditional heritage, but they are probably one of the most misunderstood in modern times, because now they are special and even exotic, but they used to be so ordinary. It is hard to realise nowadays how much singing there was in most people's lives before the commercialised music industry took over. Everybody sang – around the home, at the pub, at work, on trips out, walking along the street, in the school playground, and on special occasions such as harvest suppers, weddings, and Christmas parties. There was nothing unusual about it - in fact, at most convivial gatherings everyone was expected to contribute something to the proceedings. Cecil Sharp claimed that in the mid-19th century every village in England was 'a nest of singing birds', and there is plenty of evidence that he was quite right.

Sussex was particularly well-served for folk singers, and our musical traditions are better documented than most other counties. The first ever collection noted from ‘the mouths of the people’ was published in 1847 by the Rev. John Broadwood, of Lyne, on the Surrey border, and many of the later Victorian and Edwardian folk-song collectors visited Sussex with their notebooks and pencils. The first songs in the first issue of the Folk Song Society’s journal in 1899 were collected from the Copper Brothers of Rottingdean. After World War Two, many new enthusiasts came with their tape-recorders, and we therefore have details of several thousand songs in our database, from the 1840s to the late 20th century, in manuscript, print and audio. And we have the writings of Bob Copper to fill in much of the social background.

Are these Folk Songs?

As we have already seen, up to about the time of the First World War, ‘folk song’ and ‘folk singing’ was so common, and so unremarkable, that few people took much notice of it. Before the invention of recorded sound and broadcasting, singing was one of the few ways that ordinary people could participate in music, and it was ideal for keeping good company, passing the time, amusing yourself, or entertaining others. You didn’t need to be specially trained, you probably knew everyone present, and, best of all, it was free.

What and how people sang differed, of course, depending on their own personal circumstances. Younger people usually liked relatively modern songs (often from the Music Hall), while educated ‘middle class’ people sang mostly respectable composed songs, from sheet music, at the piano. Working class people were more likely to sing unaccompanied songs which they had learnt by ear from family or friends, or from penny songsheets (called broadsides) or pocket songsters. A few of these songs went back centuries, but many had been written for the broadside trade in the 19th century. And a man, for example, might sing different songs in the pub to those appropriate at home in front of the children, just like those children would know which rhymes to use amongst themselves and those in front of their teachers. Sailors might sing shanties while hauling ropes at sea, but would never sing them in the pub while on leave.

Where did the songs come from?

Any song can become a folk song, but those which are singable, unaccompanied, by amateurs in informal sessions stand a much better chance than those which rely on complex arrangements or accompaniment. But it is not the origin of a song which makes it a folk song, but the fact that ordinary people have thought it worth learning and performing and, crucially, passing on to each other down the generations.

Many songs originated in the commercial popular music of the time – Musical Hall, the stage, pleasure gardens, blackface minstrels, comic tavern songs, and so on. A catchy tune, understandable words, nothing too fancy, and a new song had a chance of incorporation into the ‘voice of the people’ – but it only lasted more than a few months if a sufficient number of people thought it worth learning, performing and remembering. Probably the main bulk of our ‘folk songs’ were originally written for the broadside trade. They therefore first reached ‘the folk’ by way of print, but soon entered the ‘oral tradition’ when they were sung and passed on down the generations.

What happened to folk singing?

Broadly speaking, throughout the first half of the 20th century, folk-style singing was in rapid retreat from the onslaught of commercial popular music circulated by the gramophone and the radio. But a closer look at this decline shows that it wasn’t simply that the folk songs themselves began to be seen as ‘old-fashioned’ (which they were), but more importantly that the general habit of singing was gradually crushed by an increasingly powerful music industry. Slowly but surely, songs became what you bought and listened to, rather than what you created yourself. Most new pop songs and styles were not easily translated into informal amateur singing, and opportunities for old-style singing shrank dramatically. As in all commercial fields, novelty rather than longevity was what mattered.

So how come we know so many song these days?

But soon after World War Two a new generation discovered ‘folk song’, and a vigorous ‘Folk Revival’ took place, which still continues today. Revival styles and repertoires were markedly different from what went on before, of course, but one of the direct results of the new movement was that a new band of enthusiasts went out into communities, armed with tape-recorders, seeking out people who remembered the old songs and could still sing them in the old way. Thousands of new recordings were made across the country, and again Sussex was well represented. We must be grateful to those who helped preserve this small corner of our traditional heritage for posterity. Mike Yates, Ken Stubbs, Mervyn Plunkett, Peter Kennedy and Tony Wales were some of the key collectors, and many of their recordings are accessible through the Sussex Traditions website.

In addition to further generations of the Copper Family, ‘newly discovered’ old singers in Sussex included Pop Maynard, George Spicer, Johnny Doughty, George Townsend, Gordon Hall, George Belton, and the concertina-player Scan Tester, all of whom were excellent performers and became deservedly well-known across the country. But there were many other, less well-known performers, who contributed to our valuable store of recordings from the past.

Are these Sussex Songs?

One of the general misconceptions about folk songs is that they are local, in that particular songs are rooted in particular places. With the exception of strong traditions of ‘dialect’ songs in a few areas, such as Lancashire and Tyneside, most folk songs were not found in only one place, but were sung all over the country. Even the mention of a local place-name in a song does not prove anything, because we know that singers changed details in songs to give them an appearance of being local, but the rest of the song stayed the same.

There is therefore no real separate identifiable category which can be called ‘Sussex songs’, and most of time we must accept the phrase to mean songs sung in Sussex rather than originating from, or about the area.

Nevertheless, broadly speaking, one would not expect many songs about coal mining in a sheep-farming community, or vice versa, and a fishing community would be expected to have a higher proportion of songs about that occupation than a hill-farm village. But the crucial point to remember is that, like all other communities, fisher-folk were by no means restricted to songs about their work, and they also sang songs from the general, nationwide, folk-song repertoire. Even a hundred miles from the sea people sang about sea battles; everyone sang songs about fox-hunting even though they did not take part in that ‘sport’; and The Derby Ram song was sung all over the English-speaking world, although the people of Derbyshire may like to claim it as especially their own.

Are the songs true?

Some songs, such as murder ballads or accounts of sea battles, were based on actual events, but most were not, and were written as a form of storytelling. But we know that many singers had great faith in the truth of their songs, and would point to a particular spot where they had been told the event took place, or offer the names of people from a nearby village who took part. And even if they didn’t present a song as literally true, they certainly believed in a sort of poetical truth – that’s the way such things do happen, or did happen in the past.

The Sussex Traditions Database

We have tried to include every single reference to Sussex folk song which we can find. Where possible, we provide the item itself, as a sound file or digitised image, or we give a link to another site (such as the British Library, or the English Folk Dance & Song Society) where the item can be found. In some cases (for example, where a book is still in copyright or a recording still in private hands), we still record the item’s existence so that determined researchers can follow the trail to locate them.

The level of detail in each source varies, of course, but when possible we give full information about the song, the singer, place, date, and so on. Remember, when listening to the audio clips, that these are not professional studio recordings but made in pubs and homes with whatever equipment was available. And the singers did not rehearse or have the opportunity to choose the best ‘take’ – they were ‘live’ in every sense.