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An exhibit of material from the collection of Lewis Becker, Professor of Law, Villanova University School of Law. March 13, 2006 – April 28, 2006 Falvey Memorial Library Villanova University
The Beginnings of Academic Collecting of Folksongs (Exhibit Case 1)
Thomas Percy (1729-1811), scholar and Church of Ireland bishop of Dromore, rescued an old manuscript containing much older songs and ballads just as it was about to be used by a servant to keep a fire going. This led to the 1765 publication of Reliques of Ancient English Poetry which was a literary version – i.e., an “improved” version - of the songs and ballads in the manuscript. Today making such “improvements” without indicating that revisions had been made would not be considered scholarly methodology. A century later, the original text of the songs was published in the three volume scholarly edition shown in this case. Because of Victorian sensibilities, songs deemed too indelicate were published in a separate volume entitled Loose and Humorous Songs. The publication of Percy’s Reliques in 1765 was a major landmark in the publication of books devoted to older ballads and songs.
Many early collections of traditional songs and ballads, such as Percy’s, emphasized the words over the music. In contrast, Rimbault’s publication was a comparatively early attempt to focus on the traditional tunes in addition to the words.
Percy’s Reliques seems to have sparked an interest in collecting older ballads and songs an example of which is seen here in Cunningham’s collection. These ballads and songs were anonymously composed and were in English (i.e., to the exclusion of songs in Irish or Scottish Gaelic). David Vedder (1790-1854), a minor Scots essayist and poet, previously owned this copy of Cunningham's collection and, as shown below, interlaced it with fascinating handwritten notes and commentaries on various aspects of Cunningham’s selections.
Hogg, James. The Jacobite Relics of Scotland; being the Songs, Airs, and Legends of the Adherents to the House of Stuart. 2 v.
Edinburgh: William Blackwood, 1819-1821
Image taken from v. 1
In contrast to collections of songs on general subjects, other authors, including James Hogg, focused on songs of a specific type. Seen here is a collection of songs and ballads pertaining to the cause of the Stuart kings. Hogg’s work has been extremely influential although it has been regarded by some as unreliable as a collection of authentic songs, since Hogg admitted that he selected the best parts of various song versions he was presented with – and some believe that Hogg also “improved” the songs by inserting his own compositions.