Teaching Folk in Schools

Vivien Ellis

Vivien Ellis

Vivien Ellis is an Associate Musician of the Digital Miscellanies Index at the Bodleian Library, working to extend public involvement in and awareness of Broadside Ballads, and other popular early vocal material.

“I am working Spitalfields Music as a specialist folk support musician in a project at Phoenix School. The school admits children with language and communication difficulties whose needs lie within the autistic spectrum. The young people on this project, the majority of whom are boys, are aged 14-16 years old and are from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds. This project is very exciting, and I think the result will be amazing.

The project is an eight-week series of folk music-themed workshops culminating in a performance in Platform in Spitalfields Music Summer Festival,  on Monday 17 June, 6.30pm at Shoreditch Church; the young people, together with a team of five professional musicians, will perform  their own short suite of folk music with original material written on the project.

The project is led by oboist Julian West, who is Head of Open Academy, the Royal Academy of Music’s creative learning and participation programme. Emily Askew, a versatile young fiddle and bagpipe player, is teaching one of the students to play the pipes. Double Bassist Rus Pearson is teaching three students and one of their teachers to play the double bass and Spitalfields Music Core Trainee Music Leader Katherine Tinker, a talented young pianist, is teaching one of the students keyboard skills. Alongside the development of everyone’s instrumental skills, I’m turning the group into a choir and supporting an emergent percussion section of cajon, bodhran and frame-drums.

We’re creating a ‘dronescape’, recording sounds we hear around us in the school and in Bow which will form part of the sound score in the concert.

My brief was to find suitable material for use in the project. I used the indices at the Bodleian Library to find something relating to Bow, and of popular origin.  I went to the ballad index and found Bow Fair which turns out to be an absolute gem – I think that our performance of this ballad will be the first in the modern era. I have also found a jig entitled ‘Bow Bells’ which imitates a peal of bells.

The origins of Bow Fair lie in an annual 15-day fair which, from at least 1686, took place each May in Haymarket, and then moved to the site of today’s Curzon Street and Shepherd Market giving the area the name Mayfair. In 1764 the well-to-do residents felt it lowered the tone of the area and the Fair moved to Fair Field in Bow. It flourished in Bow until the mid 19th century, when the drunken rowdy behaviour of the crowds caused the authorities to ban it.

Puppets were evidently a popular entertainment at the Fair. Mr Flockton, who is mentioned in the ballad, was the last great proprietor of such shows and whose puppets were at the height of their glory in about 1790. Other attractions, mentioned in the ballad, included jugglers, fencers and boxers, ballad-sellers, swings and roundabouts, sausage stalls and gambling tables. An eccentric character called ‘Tiddy Dol’, who sold gingerbread in ornamental dress at the fair in Haymarket, figures in Hogarth’s picture of the ‘Idle Apprentice’.

We are on a wonderful journey of discovery together, learning the Bow Fair ballad. As no melody for the song is indicated we’ve found and adapted our own. Wanting our performance to be interactive, with audience participation, the students have created their own chorus made up of cockney rhyming slang.

Within the sessions we are having lots of discussions about what we recognise in the song – what is it talking about? Where are all the local places mentioned in the song, and do they still exist? What kinds of people are mentioned in the song, and would we recognise them in Bow today? It’s a really great process and we all love singing the song. It is unfolding a whole vibrant world to us – a ‘peep through the casement’ – without hyperbole, without mentioning the word ‘history’.”

The Bow Fair Ballad comes from a collection of popular musical and poetic ephemera bequeathed to the Bodleian Library by Walter Harding. The Harding Collection represents the largest of its kind collected by a private individual in any library in the world.

More information about Walter Harding and the Harding Collection can be found here: http://digitalmiscellaniesindex.org/about/harding-collection.php

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