Interview with Malcolm Taylor OBE, Library Director of the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library and the English Folk Dance and Song Society's Archive
This summer, the Full English digital archive was launched (http://www.efdss.org/efdss-the-full-english). It contains an unprecedented amount of digitised material relating to English folk music, available now at the click of the mouse to artists and researchers all over the world. Malcolm Taylor, the driving force behind the project, kindly took the time to talk to me about the project.
How long did it take to digitise and upload the 58, 000 items that the database contains?
All the digitisation was done within the first year of the project. We would send off batches of our materials to the digitisers and they would return them and take more. Most of the archives involved did it in-house. We had the bonus of the material from the University of Melbourne, which wasn't in the original plan, but we found out that there were digitisations of original Grainger material that we managed to acquire and got permission to us.
The Full English project sounds like an organisational challenge, to say the least. How did you handle the problem of integrating metadata from different repositories?
We created all the metadata ourselves. No metadata came to us from the other archives. So we catalogued partially from original documents that we had access to here, and then from the digital images received from other archives. A really crucial element was that some of the metadata already existed in the Roud Index, so we imported that. The rest of it we had to generate from new.
From the literature on the website, it sounds as if description has been carried out at the item level.
We made a decision that in order for the catalogue to be of maximum use to our users we would go down to item level, so that each item could be approached in a a variety of ways. So, for example, in Sharp's manuscripts there might be material from eight different counties, different countries even, and many variants. Users often approach material by title or first line, or a particular singer, but also geographically. So we had to accommodate that. An important aspect of the project is that it is not just relevant to people with an interest in folk music but maybe also genealogy and local history. In other words, it is about people and places as well as music dance and customary events. The magazine Who Do You Think You Are picked up on this and did a little article on about the website, which delighted us.
This project puts extremely powerful search capabilities in the hands of users, particularly the ability to search songs by location. Was it difficult to index the materials so that this would be possible?
If possible, each version of a song carries with it the place it was collected, who by, when and where. That really depended on the collectors ability to note such data. The Roud Index has been our model for this approach, which we have replicated in TFE catalogue. As for identifying the songs themselves, which can have a whole variety of titles, first lines, spellings, etc., what Roud has done is to bring all such variances together under a single number, as did Professor Child and Laws, but on a much wider scale.
When you did the Take 6 and the Devon Tradition projects, were these seen as trial runs for the Full English project, or did the idea come later?
When we first went to the Heritage Lottery Fund, we went there with a Full English-scale project and were told, quite rightly, that it was a bit too ambitious at the time and we should really do a pilot project, which turned out to be Take 6. The whole point of a pilot is that you can then go back and say "we've successfully delivered the pilot, now we can do the whole thing," so in total there are now nineteen collections and over 80, 000 images up online as part of The Full English. And we're still doing it--there are still some elements to complete, mainly correspondence and miscellaneous materials which we are still working through, though all the music has been done.
It sounds as if the scans from the collections have been edited so as to present only the material relevant to the collectors' interests in folk music. Is there any danger that individual items might thereby be presented out of the wider context?
Yes, to a degree. All the collections at Cecil Sharp House are copied in full and will be hosted in their entirety. In the case of Vaughan Williams , Grainger and Alfred Williams we needed to identify the relevant parts of these much larger collections for inclusion, all of which were housed elsewhere. So, the context issue could be said to be challenged with them, although Alfred Williams' interest in Sanskrit could be said to speak volumes about the man but little in terms of his interest in English folk song. Moot point. However, when cataloguing, the name of the holding repository is always identified so as researchers can further pursue their investigations at source.
What is the thinking behind the inclusion of music hall songs in addition to 'traditional' folk song?
Throughout the history of the folk revival people have argued about what qualifies as a folk song. Definition of this in the early twentieth century would certainly influence what they collected, although field workers such as Alfred Williams tended to be more individual in approach and collect whole repertoires of songs. So we decided not to put ourselves in that invidious position but simply show what is there. For example, Never Cut Your Toenails On A Sunday is clearly a music hall song, but it was collected and so we put it up. We're not involved in that argument --we just put up what exists.
Are there plans to provide transcriptions of the hand-written entries?
Yes, they are already going up. Certain images display a little 't' in the top corner, which means that a transcript is available to view. It's early days --we have two to three hundred pages transcribed so far. We are about to do the same thing using volunteers for the tunes, using ABC format. ABC coding turns the music into a pictorial as well as a midi file. So the transcription process has started, but it will be on-going because obviously by next autumn we are not going to have all the transcriptions up on the site.
The database does not seem to include classical compositions inspired by English folk songs (e.g. those by Vaughan Williams and George Butterworth). What is the rationale for this?
Once the tunes are used in other compositions they cease to be primary material. TFE is focussed on primary material, from the source, although some arrangements will be found. For example, in the Sharp and Butterworth papers. Someone once said that the composers put the music into evening dress, and we don't see that materials to be of central importance, even though of interest in the revival as a whole. The point is, most of the folk music that has come down to us in books and journals have been edited in some way. These notebooks are as close as we can get to the voice of the people, with all its annoyances and irregularities. I think that we have done two important things in this project: to collaborate with other archives, since it's unusual for archives to collaborate with each other in this way; and to make this source material widely available and known for the first time.
What results do you hope the project will eventually achieve? For example, do you think it will give an impetus to folk performance?
Well, it remains to be seen. We hope it gives people a greater sense of the breadth and depth of the material and how it links up geographically. For example, we have a fantastic maps facility which lets you see how songs travel, sometimes as far as the USA and Newfoundland. It demonstrates that when people move, they take their traditions with them. The project will give a new generation a huge new source for repertoire, as has been demonstrated by the Full English Band who have recorded a couple of songs that to my knowledge have never been recorded before, just because they now have access to them. And of course the material can be a huge inspiration to writers and artists as well--the stories and imagery that have come down through these songs and words are often remarkable.
Do you think that the tool will also be useful for social historians?
Yes. For example, at the moment I am working on a project at the Maritime Museum about Nelson and his times. In the songs and broadsides we have another, an unofficial source of the history from the voices from below. Whereas historians once pooh-poohed oral tradition as a source, now they are taking it more seriously because it is an alternative view of history. To illustrate some historical epochs, there is actually nothing better than some of the street literature of the times.
Are you pleased with the reaction so far?
Reaction, hmmm. We're tinkering with the website and improving it all the time, and have responded to many suggestions. It is interesting about response, though --when things are working well, you generally don't hear very much. If things are wrong, you hear lots - and that is good and useful if constructive. It is usually much later that people say something is working well. The Digital Folk programme that went out on Radio 4 generated a huge response, so we're pleased with that. Also, a recent issue of the TLS has a review of The New Penguin Bookof English Folksong, the Full English band's CD and the website. That I think speaks volumes about the seriousness with which the project is being taken as a cultural tool. We are hoping that it will become a huge resource for teachers, that in the next part of the project where we go and work in schools and communities all over England it will be a stimulus for teachers to find materials about their communities and themes that they want to investigate. There is definitely huge potential there.
How did the accompanying folk 'super group' album and tour come together?
Quite separately, really. The EFDSS, supported by PRS for Music Foundation, commissioned Fay Hield to develop a project from The Full English materials. Fay ran with it and organised a super-group that has been touring, with support from Arts Council England, and selling out halls wherever it goes. This was not part of the original project but has become a wonderful add-on from a different funding source. We're delighted with the attention that it has generated, and Fay has made really good use of the website to unearth gems that have been largely unknown since first being noted down.
I noticed an interesting warning that the materials reflect the attitudes of the writers and not of the project itself. Is there anything in particular that comes to mind?
No, not specifically, but all of this material is a product of this time and anybody studying history will know that attitudes and vocabularies change over time. We've not edited the content on the website. When we develop the education part of the project we will be very careful in what we select for use in classrooms and community projects, but that has always been the case. But once editing begins with such source materials we are in a way back to square one. Hence the warning.
Do you have any personal favourites amongst the items that are now online?
Having done quite a lot of the cataloguing and having seen so much of the material, this is an impossible question. I suspect the answer would change every day. For me, it is not so much individual items but groupings of materials which generate a real closeness to the collecting experience. My favourite grouping is probably in the Vaughan Williams' scrapbooks. Vaughan Williams was mainly interested in tunes but actually asked his singers to write down the words of songs and send them to him. And they did! There are lots and lots of letters of song lyrics sent to him by the singers, which are touchingly poignant. The important and often missed point about the collectors was that they gave value to songs and music that the singers owned and made the singers feel that they had something important to offer.
Are you and the EFDSS surprised by the level of enthusiasm shown for the lecture series (much of which is sold out)?
No, not really. I think now is the right time for such a project. There is a revival of interest, a new generation coming in, and research has moved forward. People's perception of this material and access to it has changed, so I'm not surprised that people have been coming to see what it is all about.
Is there any plan to digitise the archival sound recordings held by the library and archives and make them available along with the manuscript items (so that users can hear how the songs were performed)?
With sound there are a new set of issues to contend with, both technological and legal. However, I think the next logical step for the Full English will be to include sound recordings, and whether we do this by streaming materials directly from the website or simply linking up with other archives, such as the materials on the British Library's World and Traditional Music site, is the question. What has just been achieved in Scotland is a model of what is possible. Our wax cylinders collection, which was so fragile we removed it to the British Library, is now available online and could certainly be linked. And I have spoken to the British Library about putting up the Grainger sound recordings, which can then be linked to the transcriptions available on TFE. So, given copyright clearance and a prevailing wind, sound is on the agenda -- one day.
The interview was conducted by Isabel Taylor (no relation). Many thanks to Malcolm for his time.