The former librarian has spent more than 50 years compiling the Roud Folk Song Index, cataloguing 25,000 traditional songs. So how did he do it? And what exactly is a folk song?
By Andrea Valentino
When Steve Roud was young, he began collecting records. Hardly unusual for a child of the 1950s – but this boy from south London was different. Not content with just listening to LPs, Roud began indexing them – his own and ones he found mentioned in newspapers and magazines. He used old shoe boxes as a primitive filing system and wrote the titles on 5×3 inch record cards that his mum bought him once a week. He soon realised his hobby was turning into something more. “Without knowing it,” he says, “I was becoming a librarian.”
Soon enough, Roud would become one for real, working much of his career for the London borough of Croydon. His infatuation with indexing would persist too, those shoe boxes finally swelling into something remarkable. Even as a teenager, Roud had been fascinated by folk music – how across the centuries, dozens of voices could send songs shooting countless different ways, their titles and lyrics shifting even as their cores remained the same. As he grew up, armed with proper training and new technology, Roud took to collating this bounty in earnest, hunting down leads and developing an elegant method to trace a song’s heritage.
The result, the product of 52 years of effort, is the Roud Folk Song Index. Including hundreds of thousands of references to tens of thousands of songs, Roud’s work spans the anglophone oral tradition, taking in English villages, Appalachian hilltops and harbours in the Caribbean. The index has become indispensable for folk fans worldwide, bolstering genealogy projects and inspiring musicians. In its size and ambition, Roud’s project speaks to the challenges of constraining such a varied tradition – and even to deciding what folk music actually is.
People have systematically collected traditional English music for more than a century. In the years before the first world war, enthusiasts such as Ralph Vaughan Williams and Cecil Sharp scoured country lanes and village inns for people to record, worried that industrialisation and urban life would soon wash traditional tunes away. Musicians both, Williams and Sharp also wanted folk melodies to inform English classical music, just as Sibelius did in Finland or Antonín Dvořák in Bohemia. Visiting King’s Lynn, in 1905, Vaughan Williams spent time at the Tilden Smith, a pub where local fishers were sheltering from January storms. The songs Vaughan Williams heard there may have influenced some of his most famous compositions, appropriate for a man who once called music “the expression of the soul of a nation”. These early English collectors, for their part, were shadowed by colleagues across Britain and Ireland, and in the New World.