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Widecombe History Group Talk December 2006

Widecombe Village Market
Where To Stay In Widecombe

Widecombe History Group Talk on The Rev Sabine Baring Gould and his collection of Westcountry Folk Songs


The Life of Rev Sabine Baring Gould and the Folk Songs that he collected.

by

Marilyn Tucker & Paul Wilson.

It was about 25 years ago that Marilyn and Paul formed The Wren Trust, with the aim of promoting the preservation and performance of Westcountry Folk Songs and Music. Over the years they have been very successful in achieving their aims, recording much of the material collected by Baring Gould including much of what he had published in his book ‘Song of the West’. First published in four parts in 1890 and in one edition in 1892.

Baring Gould collected these songs straight from the mouths of the local singers at that time. He would visit pubs and inns and listen to the songs of the areas many songs were similar but with their local variations.

The variations of Widecombe Fair being of particular interest to us.

Baring Gould wrote many books both factual and fictional. His factual books had a great deal to do with Devon and Dartmoor. He was the Vicar of Lewtrenchard and Lewdown, an archaeologist and historian. It is said that he ‘cleaned up’ some of the songs to make them suitable for publication. The Wren Trust have spent a tremendous amount of time researching him and his music and there are over 200 songs stored at Plymouth Library. The National Trust’s Killerton House, houses Baring Gould’s personal library including a portfolio of a further 650 or more songs and with their co-operation and that of ‘The Baring Gould Corporation’ Wren have been able to catalogue and bring to the public’s knowledge much of his work that had been either lost or forgotten. Mention was also made of Cecil Sharp, a contemporary of Baring Gould who did edit some of his work.

We were given renditions of some of the songs within in vast collection beginning with ‘The Bellringing Song’ better known perhaps as ‘The Bells of North Lew’

‘Rosemary Lane’ was next. A song about a sailor who possibly on his way across Devon stayed the night in a cottage and shared a bed with a young maid with distressing results.

The Oxenham Arms in South Zeal appears to have been a great source of folk songs, both ancient and modern, at that time. He recorded the old songs but one is left wondering what those ‘modern songs’ of the nineteenth century would sound like today if we only knew! This does highlight the fact that what appears to be common and uninteresting today, is historical and valuable tomorrow!

Mention of William Cann of South Zeal brought memories of Bob Cann who instigated The Dartmoor Folk Festival held in South Zeal every August. Bob always sang William’s version of Widecombe Fair and we were treated to that version.

Baring Gould in his ‘Song of the West’ also tells of the people from whom he collected his material.

It was the village concert parties that gave him the most satisfaction. Not the wealthy with their ‘chamber music’, it was the ‘real’ folk, the poorer people that fascinated him with their raucous and true to life stories and songs that he was determined to collect.

The ‘Dilly Song’, some ten verses about a bird that sang at Christmas, entertained us next and we were encouraged to participate.

It was after this that we were given a copy of some information being held on microfiche about Widecombe Fair. Wren has some more notes for us and they have agreed to give us what they have, this we are sure will benefit us as we progress towards the launch of our book about ‘The History of Widecombe Fair’ next year.

The names of Uncle Tom Cobley’s fellow travellers varies according to which rendition is sung. More headaches to try to unravel. This includes names like Daley, Nankivell, Bickel, Hawkin, Wig-pott, Parsley, Wills(on), Gribble, Tribble and several more!

Mention of a will and letter at Killerton relating to The Uncle Tom Cobley who died in 1794. (Incidentally we have a copy of this and another dated 1840 - more research!). This also included an inventory of UTC’s assets. There is a version of ‘our song’ that relates to going to Tavistock?

Baring Gould’s private life is quite varied in as much as he is reputed to have gone to Yorkshire and met a ‘mill girl’ who he considered marrying. He is reputed to have sent her to a ‘finishing school’ so that she obtain the necessary graces to fit the task. He joined the Fabian Society, met George Bernard Shaw, corresponded with Conan Doyle and wrote a book once about Weir Wolves. Was there a connection with The Hound of the Baskervilles?

He recorded the story of Lady Howard who would ride through Okehampton Castle with a headless coachman and a coach made of bones - here was another song!

Back to South Zeal for a song about lifting potatoes in the Channel Islands and another about and Old Ewe. Dead Mates Land, similar to Cecil Sharp’s ‘The Seeds of Love’.

A Harvest Song again from the South Zeal area, it is interesting to note that South Zeal is still a centre of Folk Music.

This interesting and enjoyable evening was brought to close with the singing of a ‘Wassail Song’. At the beginning of the year in many area of the countryside, particularly those that grew/grow fruit trees, there is/was a wassail ceremony. The word ‘Wassail’ means ‘Good Health’. The ceremony is often held in orchards to secure a successful harvest of apple and pears etc. This song is called "A Little Robin Redbreast". A superb ending to a superb evening.

Wren Trust produce CDs with traditional songs. They have also CDs featuring children with whom they do a tremendous amount of work and workshops. On the 19th December they are holding their Carol Service at St James’ Chapel in Okehampton and if you wish to be part of the service -Get There Early!

So ended another grand evening for our Local History Group!

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