Getting to know English Folk Songs

One of the pieces we are learning this year is the English Folk Song Suite by Ralph Vaughan Williams, arranged by Gordon Jacobs. There have been some fantastic musicians who helped preserve folk songs, including Percy Grainger, Cecil Sharp, and Ralph Vaughan Williams himself, and this piece is a great example – a joyous medley of traditional songs brought to life for orchestra.

Reimagining music for orchestra, and medleys, are two great passions of mine, so I wanted to write this blog post to start introducing the genius of Vaughan Williams in writing this piece. We’ll start with a recording of this piece from┬áthe Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields conducted by Sir Neville Marriner, then we’ll look at one of the folk songs in particular.

I love this Marriner recording because of the life and vigour in the outer movements, and the expressiveness of the oboe in the middle movement.

Seventeen Come Sunday

The first movement of the suite is entitled ‘March – Seventeen Come Sunday’. The movement features three different folk songs, the first (reappearing at the end of the movement as well) being Seventeen Come Sunday itself.

One thing I love about folk songs is how they evolve over time. This little tune is reported as once being a sad narrative of a young maid’s abandonment by her love, but later versions are more lively. It tells the story of a young man’s encounter with a pretty maid, their ensuing relations, followed by his leaving. You’ll find many versions of the lyrics online, as can be expected with songs that are passed down through generations by word of mouth. Published versions are likely to be more ‘polite’ transcriptions of what local folk singers may have sung in the past when describing relations between the two young characters in the song!

Each verse is broken up with a short chorus, again with many different versions arising of the lyrics, but here’s one version you can use to sing along at home!

With me ru-rum ray,
Fother riddle ay
Wok fol lare diddle-i-do

Phonograph recordings

The likes of Grainger, Sharp and Vaughan Williams showed a lot of foresight for their time – back in the early 1900s people such as these were out roving the villages and meeting folk singers, collecting transcriptions and recordings of traditional folk songs to preserve them.

At that time, Edison’s invention of the phonograph was the medium for making recordings, with wax cylinders having the sound etched into them. You can hear one of this fascinating recordings from 1906 of Seventeen Come Sunday, recorded by Percy Grainger, here on the British Library website.

Example of phonograph used by Vaughan Williams and others in early recordings of folk songs

Having successfully captured this recording, Grainger then went on to score this song for mixed chorus and brass band, which you can hear below.

A bit of very mild geekery

We can’t talk about the origins of this folk song without then looking at how Vaughan Williams has used it in his composition!

You can hear from the phonograph recording that the bar lengths feel slightly fluid, and see from Grainger’s transcription of the song that it has changing time signatures. The song starts with 2 beats in a bar, moves to 3 beats for 3 bars, then returns to 2 beats for the end of the verse. Vaughan Williams writes the opening of the suite’s first movement all in 2 beats per bar – how else could it be a March?! To achieve this, sometimes he omits beats, but sometimes he changes the stress of where the downbeat falls. Compare Grainger’s transcription (top) with Vaughan Williams’ version (bottom) to see exactly how it’s been done:

Musical notation comparing Grainger and Vaughan Williams versions of folk song Seventeen Come Sunday

There are also a few differences in notes (especially in the ‘chorus’ on the last line), which could reasonably be explained by the numerous different versions of this song that have arisen as it’s been passed down over time.

In any case, one thing we noticed in our first read-through last Friday was that the irregular phrasing means it’s not always obvious to the ear where we are in the phrase – this verse and chorus in the RVW version (bottom line) is 13 bars long, not a common phrase length!

A quick search online will find you a variety of versions of the lyrics and melody – feel free to let us know which ones you like best in the comments!

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