The Full English: on a mission to revive interest in our musical heritage

A modern-day folk supergroup, featuring Seth Lakeman, Martin Simpson and Fay Hield, has come together to highlight the riches held in the national archive of traditional song

The Vaughan Williams Memorial Library in London's Cecil Sharp House is accessed by a pair of swing doors, one of which features a window. The window, librarian Malcolm Taylor tells me, was "the first thing that I did when I took over here. I banged a hole in that door and put a window in." I can't help noticing that it's a bit lopsided. "Yes, it's not even square. It's a very badly done window."

The thing is, he says, it's a kind of symbolic window. The library is steeped in history. It's not just the books and papers it holds: it is the repository of England's national folk music and dance archive, home to documents recording the traditional songs, tunes, dances and customs painstakingly collected in the first half of the 20th century by a variety of enthusiasts including Vaughan Williams and Cecil Sharp themselves. It has its own place in musical history.

As Taylor points out, the room we are standing in has a strong claim to be called the centre of the 50s and 60s folk revival: "Everybody has come here – Ewan MacColl, Peggy Seeger, Martin Carthy, the Watersons. This was the source. This was where they got the songs from. One of the first days I came in, in 1979, Bert Lloyd was standing here. Looked like Paddington Bear." Indeed, when Taylor first arrived at the library as a student he felt intimidated – "I was confronted by these two opaque doors and I found it hard to push them open" – hence the sudden burst of DIY when he became librarian.

The subject of the library's symbolic wonky window has come up because it seems roughly analogous to Taylor's new project, The Full English, a bold Heritage Lottery-funded attempt to make the library's vast archive available to the public online: he talks excitedly about bringing the people's music back to the people. "When we first sat in the pub and discussed the project, I said that what I wanted to do is get this stuff out of this dusty room and made available to communities where it was first made. You'd get people from Lancashire complaining that they were interested in seeing the songs collected in the north-west by Anne Gilchrist, but they couldn't because they were here, in London, a long way away."

An accompanying album and tour draw on the collection and feature a kind of folk supergroup involving, among others, Fay Hield, Seth Lakeman and Martin Simpson: they were only supposed to be playing some songs at the launch party, says Hield, but then: "If you're going to put a set together, you might as well make an album, and then you might as well tour, so now it's turned into a bit of a beast."

In which case, it fits perfectly with the database, which has turned out to be a bit of a beast as well. Taylor can wax on at length about the difficulties the project has faced – from securing lottery funding to deciphering the handwriting of the song collectors ("don't get me started") – but he seems understandably delighted with the end result, which allows users to search 19 different collections of traditional song, not merely by title, collector, subject or original singer, but by the location they were originally collected in. "If you think that some of the songs were collected just down the road from you, it sends a bit of a shiver," says Taylor.

"We appreciate and love our old art, our old architecture … but this music has just been neglected for so long," says legendary folk singer Shirley Collins, who moved to London in the 1950s in order to be near the library. Now 77, she has forthright views about everything from the nu-folk scene ("I call it no folk") to how traditional English songs should be sung. "Restraint is something I like, and it's something that's sadly missing in today's world," she sighs. "All this ghastly flashing about and emoting and shrieking."

She notes with sorrow that while the revival of 60s folk in recent years might finally have rid the music of its baleful image problem, it hasn't translated into an increased interest in traditional song: listeners drawn to the sound of Pentangle or Sandy Denny or the remarkable albums Collins made with her late sister Dolly haven't gone on to explore the source material, a state of affairs she hopes The Full English might rectify. "I think, in this present day, when everything is so anodyne and so steamrollered, when everything comes out of one jukebox or whatever, it's marvellous to have this stuff there for people to be aware of. It's like digging out a Bronze Age hoard. Well, not a Bronze Age hoard, but some wonderful archaeological discovery. I really feel it's that important."

To Taylor, The Full English isn't so much a musical resource as a historical one. "The thing about traditional culture and song in particular is that embedded within it are the stories and the lives and the cultures of ordinary people," he says, calling up a selection of songs about Napoleon. A significant proportion of these, you can't help but notice, paint him not as a bogeyman at the head of enemy forces, but in a rather admiring light. "No, Napoleon was a bloody hero," nods Taylor. "There's a lot of radical history in these songs, stuff the establishment didn't want to be known. They're voices from below."


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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