Clare Crossman shares her research into the time that composer Ralph Vaughan Williams spent in Meldreth. His work collecting the music and words of local folk singers has preserved an oral tradition that he saw was at risk.
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) was an undergraduate at Trinity College, Cambridge from 1892 to ’94. In 1906 he and his wife Adeline came to Meldreth for a summer holiday and they returned for visits in 1907 and 1908. In 1906 they leased a large house called The Warren at the North end of the village where it stood on its own, surrounded by fields.
He cycled a great deal and as Meldreth had its own station it was easy to make day trips through the surrounding areas, near the river Mel. He collected songs in Orwell, Bassingbourn, Fowlmere, Little Shelford and Royston. He rode out to pubs where the singers traditionally performed: in Meldreth it was Ginger Clayton; in Fowlmere it was Hoppy Flack; in Bassingbourn, Mr Harmonin; Orwell Billy Waggs. He may have been told about the source singers by Lucy Broadwood, Secretary of the Folk Song Society but many songs could have been collected by chance encounters. Most of the singers were farm workers or in the labouring trades.
From Hoppy Flack in Fowlmere, he collected May Song and Lord Ellenwater. Nothing much is known about Ginger Clayton in Meldreth, as he does not seem to have been resident there; but John Valentine Harman (Harmon) was an agricultural labourer who lived at the Tan Yard in Bassingbourn with his wife and seven children. The Lakes of Cold Fen was collected from him.
Most of these people would have been illiterate so they sang their literature, as in the oral tradition, and Vaughan Williams collected the tunes first and words later as he believed these folk melodies were dying out. Much of his annotation is held in the Rare Books and Manuscripts Room of the British Library. Many of the songs were known to him in other variants and the words were available as published broadsides but they were sung in this area and known by those who sang them and heard by those who listened.
Songs from this area of south Cambridgeshire include:
- Lakes of Cold Fen (Bassingbourn 1907, text from traditional sources)
- Lord Ellenwater (written down in full as sung by Hoppy Flack, Fowlmere)
- Cambridge May Song (as sung by Hoppy Flack, a Christian version of traditional pagan May songs)
- Georgie (from an unnamed singer, Fowlmere 1907)
- The Green Bushes (Mr Wiltshire, inmate of Royston Union 1907, text traditional)
- The Trees They Do Grow High (Ginger Clayton, Meldreth text completed from Broadside).
The words and stories had a long tradition, but the tunes were important to Vaughan Williams.
Joan Baez sang a version of The Trees Do Grow High:
The trees they do grow high and the leaves they do grow green
The days are gone and past my love that you and I have seen
It’s a cold winters night my love that I must lie alone
My bonny lad is young but he is growing.
O father dear father you have done me much wrong
You have married me to a boy who is too young
O daughter dearest daughter if you’ll stay along with me
A lady you will be while he’s growing.
We’ll send him to college for a year or two
And then perhaps in time my love the boy will do for you.
We’ll buy him white ribbons to tie around his waist
To let the ladies know that he is married.
I went unto the college and looked over the wall
I saw four and twenty gentlemen a playing at the ball
One of them my own true love, but they wouldn’t let him come
Because he was a young lad a growing
At the age of sixteen he was a married man
At the age of 17 the father of a son
At the age of eighteen on his tomb the grass grows green
Cruel death had put an end to his growing.
I’ll make my love a shroud of the Holland cloth so fine
And every stich she put in the tears came trickling down
I’ll sit and mourn all on his tomb until the day I die
But I’ll watch o’er his child while he’s growing.
Oh he is dead and buried and in the churchyard do lie
The green grass grows over him oh so very high
I once I had a sweetheart but now got n’er a one#
So fare you well my true love forever.
The tune she sings is in a major key whereas the tune collected by Vaughan Williams is in a minor key and far more wistful and melancholic. You can hear it sung with this tune by Bert Jansch when he was singer with Pentangle.
To hear the rest of the songs you may need to come to the concert which is on March 8th 2019 with Penni Mclaren Walker and Bryan Causton at the Hub in Melbourn … More details anon.
In the writing of this piece, I am greatly indebted to Cambridgeshire folk singer Mary Humphreys whose careful research in manuscripts at the British Library and the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library has made the task of finding these songs very easy. Her book Folksongs collected in Cambridgeshire is published by Hedingham Fair and is available directly from her site.