FOLK music is, by its very nature, an oral tradition, often linked to storytelling, as with the great ballads of the northern Borders. They would be handed down by singers and within families, and because repetition is a great aid to memory, they often contain repeated lines, couplets or choruses.
And then there are the cumulative songs – traditional or recent – of which the best known is The Twelve Days of Christmas, with other familiar examples being The Barley Mow, Green Grow the Rushes, and Old MacDonald Had a Farm.
Folk historian, actor and musician Tim Laycock found a new old cumulative song for the Ridgeway Singers and Band 2017 Christmas concerts – Four and Twenty Fiddlers, with subsequent verses mocking the other trades including barbers, priests and tailors. This was collected by the Hammond brothers at Mosterton, in West Dorset, in the early 20th century and proved a tongue-twister for the singers and a rousing delight for the audience at Durweston village hall.
The Ridgeway Singers and Band originally came together four years ago, as part of the contribution by Artsreach, Dorset’s rural touring organisation, to the South Dorset Ridgeway Partnership’s three years exploration of the history, legends, geology and landscape of the Ridgeway.
Originally the Ridgeway programmes focused entirely on West Gallery carols from villages along the Ridgeway, but as the popularity of the group has grown, so has the area from which Tim and fellow musical explorer Phil Humphries have drawn their material.
The Durweston concert, To Keep Wold Christmas Up, included Hark! from manuscripts at Hinton St Mary, Shepherds Arise, collected by the Rev Pickard Cambridge of Bloxworth, and Hark The Herald Angels Sing from Durweston, which has a rich archive of West Gallery and other old carols and songs.
There were also jigs and hornpipes by Benjamin Rose, the early 19th century musician and composer from Belchalwell, the Melbury Wassail, with words collected by Thomas Hardy and music by Tim Laycock, and readings of several William Barnes poems.
But it’s not all traditional or 19th century words and music – there are also new works which are helping to build a new heritage of seasonal songs and music. These include The Ridgeway Carol (One Bright Star) by Tim Laycock, inspired by geographical and historic places along the Ridgeway and Anna Eveleigh-Morse’s delightful song In Praise of Dorset Apples, celebrating both the tradition of cider and Dorset varieties of apple, such as Sheepsnose and Slack-ma-Girdle.
Anna also wrote the musical setting for a wry and moving little poem by Thomas Hardy, The Levelled Churchyard, in which the remains of the dead, all removed from their graves, bemoan the way they have been “mixed to human jam.”
The Ridgeway Singers and Band will also be performing their Christmas concert at Winfrith Newburgh church on Sunday 17th December and at Dorset County Museum in Dorchester on Friday 22nd.