The Traditional Song Forum blossoms in the Zoom age

Martin Graebe
Martin Graebe, one of the Traditional Song Forum founders. Photo: Derek Schofield

Have you ever wondered about the backstory to a traditional song that you have heard or have enjoyed singing? Have you ever thought: “Where does this song come from? Is it a true story? How old is it?” But does “folk song research” make you think “dusty archives”? So many questions! The Traditional Song Forum (TSF) is a good place to start finding some answers in the lively world of folk song research, now easily accessible online and, as with everything else, on Zoom.

How it all began

“It was all Steve Roud’s fault!” says Martin Graebe, a founder member and the TSF secretary.

“In 1997 Steve [a folklorist, author and creator of the Roud Folk Song Index] invited all the people he could think of who were involved in folk song research to a meeting at Cecil Sharp House. Following presentations and discussion, it was agreed that there should be more opportunities for people to share information and ideas about their work and interests. So in January 1998, the Traditional Song Forum was formed.

“We aim to bring together people who are interested in knowing more about traditional song, whether for serious research or for personal interest. And we determined that all our meetings would be free of charge and open to anyone.”

Membership and meetings continue to be free but donations are always welcome via the Friends of TSF scheme. This helps to keep the organisation going, although, as Martin points out, all the officers give their services free of charge.

The talks presented, just in recent months, range from music-hall songs to Robin Hood ballads, from Welsh hymn tunes to songs of Newfoundland, song recording among Scottish farm workers in the 1950s to representation of women in Irish song and ballads – and that is just a sample. There is always something to learn.

“You can see,” says Martin, “that the range of topics covered is very broad and most people can find something of interest in the meetings. Above all, it is a chance for anyone who cares about traditional song to hear about it in an easily accessible form.

“While we don’t specify that we are talking solely about songs in the English language, the nature of our membership and their interests makes this the case, though we have, several times in the past, heard about songs in the Celtic languages.”

New advances

Since TSF was formed there have been a number of developments in folk song research. In particular Martin notes the availability of material online.

The Vaughan Williams Memorial Library database at Cecil Sharp House “is an important example”, notes Martin, “but there are many other collections worldwide that have become available online in the last twenty years.” Many TSF members, including Martin, have published books that, in his own words, “might not have been as successful if we had not had access to information from fellow researchers and internet sources”.

The ability to search for genealogical information online is another trend which has been reflected in many publications. This adds a bit more life to the stories of the singers from whom songs were collected.

“One of the big trends has been better understanding of the significance of street literature in the transmission of folk songs.”

Martin explains that this was why the annual Broadside Day was initiated in 1999. He says the study of the texts of songs is relatively easy and this is where much research has focused in the past. “Fewer people have made a serious study of the tunes of folk songs,” he adds, “ but the availability of new computer programs to assist in tune analysis are making this an area that is likely to grow.”

Zoom ups and downs

In normal times, TSF held meetings three times a year, always in a different part of the UK and Ireland, including Aberdeen, Dublin, Sheffield, Newcastle and London, aiming to reach as many people as possible. Since May last year, all the meetings have been via Zoom and have been held fortnightly. Martin has noticed pluses and minuses.

“In the past not everyone could get to every meeting. Now every member can be at every Zoom meeting. We always had a few overseas members – now we have a significant number of people coming in from abroad, particularly the USA and Canada. Many of them have joined TSF and our membership is more than double what it was at the beginning of the year.”

The Zoom format works well for presentations. “We have had a steady stream of people willing to give talks about aspects of traditional song that interest them. This may be academics sharing their work (hopefully in an accessible manner!) or it may be an enthusiast who wants to share their interest in a topic. We keep the meetings to 90 minutes which, we feel, is a comfortable time for people to concentrate on a computer screen.”

‘We have been very pleased that the “new” audience for the online meetings is diverse. Our youngest speaker was 17’

Some meetings have included a “book club” section in which contributors have reviewed a book which has interested and inspired them.

However, not everything is practical on Zoom. “We miss the sort of ‘round table’ sharing of information that formed the morning session of TSF meetings – the essence of a ‘forum’ – and the informal discussion at tea breaks and over a pub lunch that helped people form working relationships.

“Technically, Zoom can be challenging. We have had a few problems but no real disasters. And we have learnt a lot about managing the meetings. The feedback we get suggests that we are getting this right and that people are enjoying the meetings.

“We expected that, once the first Covid cycle had passed, numbers would drop. They haven’t, and we are consistently getting close to our limit of 100 screens – but not everyone attends every meeting (though Steve and I have to!)”

A changing demographic

As with many folk clubs and organisations the issue of attracting a wider demographic is always present. In respect of gender, Martin thinks that there is a reasonable balance of both speakers and members. “We aspire to do better,” he adds.

“We have been concerned for some time that there were a lot of greyheads at our meetings,” says Martin. “We have been very pleased that the ‘new’ audience for the online meetings is more diverse. Our youngest speaker, so far, was 17, while our oldest was in his 80s – both were excellent.

“We are particularly pleased at the number of younger academics that see us a valuable platform to talk about their work. But we have also seen a number of older, more experienced figures in the USA attending the meetings, and many of them have contributed as well. We hope that, in the future (and a not too distant one!) younger people will take an interest in organising and running TSF and take over from us old folks.”

Into the future

TSF has a YouTube channel and a growing number of the previous talks are available. This includes the Roy Palmer Lecture, given in November 2020 by Jeff Warner. Online TSF will host the annual Broadside Day on 20 February. Having postponed from last summer, the TSF conference will be held online on the theme of “the folk voice” and spread over 18 and 19 April and 2 May.

It may be some time before TSF can return to face-to-face meetings. “Online meetings will certainly continue into 2021 but we might reduce the frequency of them when we restart face-to-face meetings,” says Martin, adding: “We will see.” Zoom meetings will continue “as long as a reasonable number of people want to have them – and as long as there are still things to talk about.” There is still much to talk about!

A final word

“Anyone who has an interest in traditional song is welcome to join TSF and will, we are sure, benefit from doing so. It is free and it’s easy to join. Go to www.tradsong.org and, on the home page, you will find a link to the registration form. Fill it in and send it on – we will do the rest.”

For more information see tradsong.org. Martin Graebe is the author of As I Walked Out: Sabine Baring-Gould And The Search For The Folk Songs Of Devon And Cornwall, available from ­martinandshan.net. This article appeared in Folk London 311, February-March 2021