Readers of Electric Eden would have no doubt found Rob Young’s evocative descriptions of Ralph Vaughan Williams and Cecil Sharp collecting traditional folk song in the early 1900s like text from another planet. In 1959, the former published the first edition of The Penguin Book Of English Folk Songs in collaboration with A L Lloyd, at a time when the folk revival was about to take hold. While the likes of Joan Baez and Bob Dylan were making folk sexy for a modern US audience, they were still looking to England for their cues; Dylan famously re-recorded part of his epochal Freewheelin’ LP after spending time in London with Martin Carthy.
A century later and English folk music has again reached a zenith. Hell, Mumford & Sons even backed Dylan at the 2011 Grammys, while their running mate Laura Marling elevated the music to new levels with her A Creature I Don’t Know album. The New Penguin Book Of English Folk Songs couldn’t be better timed.
As Roud and Bishop explain in their intro, collecting folk songs isn’t an easy game: even the most popular come with varying lyrics and tunes, while deciding which should make the cut isn’t easy. They’ve opted for what they admit is a “simplistic evolutionary argument” and collated 151 of the longest-surviving, most popular English folk songs out of a pool of thousands. But then folk music is “of the community”; if these songs have survived, it’s because they’re the ones – The Cruel Mother, The Frog And The Mouse, The Wild Rover – whose themes have resonated throughout generations.
With all lyrics, tunes and the best part of a quarter of the book given over to notes on each individual song, this is an utterly indispensable collection of music for murder, wooing and wanton abandon.