22 August 2023
Performing Folk Music Found in the Archives | User Stories
Folk musicians Pete Dilley, Katy Ryder, Alice Jones and Simon Robinson wrote new music for 19th-century ballads found in the British Library’s collection. The group recorded and performed the ballads as part of the Living with Machines exhibition, co-curated by the British Library and Leeds City Museum.
I’m a singer-songwriter and guitarist, and I’ve always drawn on the folk canon in my music. Leeds Museums and Galleries asked me who would be the go-to people in Yorkshire to write new tunes for some broadsheet ballads, for an exhibition with the British Library called Living with Machines. It was a bit like assembling the Magnificent Seven, or Ocean's Eleven. I asked people I knew from the scene who like to delve deep into folk music archives.
Living with Machines was about how machines developed, and how this impacted people's lives in positive and negative ways. For example, it showed very intricate textiles that were created using early machines like looms, and right next to them there would be a ballad sheet, about the demise of the weaving industry because of technological advances, and our recording of the song. A lot of the stories are about the North and the area around Leeds.
The broadsheet manuscripts from the British Library archives are quite interesting to see, because a lot of them have been pasted into different books. Often they were kept in books which don't have that much relevance to them: it was just a good way of storing them, a bit like dried flowers. Musicians and songwriters probably wouldn’t think of going to the British Library to find things like this, but you can. I think the curators looked at them and said, they should be sung.
We’ve managed to give these songs a new lease of life
A lot of people say that folk music isn't really folk music unless it's being performed. It’s a beautiful thing that we’ve managed to take these songs that were sat around in the British Library with no music to them, and give them a new lease of life. Who knows, maybe one day people will take the tunes we wrote and sing them with new words.
A lot of the ballads are decorated with nice woodcuts which give a sense of the era that they were written in. When it came to making a CD of our music, and doing the lino cuts for the album cover, the ballad sheets themselves were so special that I incorporated them into the artwork.
Before the project, I was already aware of broadside ballads. They're basically a combination of tabloid newspapers and songs in the charts. People would sell them on the streets, and maybe sing the songs so that if you wanted to buy them, you could learn the tune. It was a massive industry throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. While I had used them before, I don't think any of us had come across these particular ballads from the British Library.
When Pete asked me to join the project, it was like getting to delve into hidden treasures. Looking at these ballads, one thing that struck me immediately was the level of detail they contained about different professions, and how much skill went into them. One of the songs that we sing, that I arranged, called ‘The Felting Machines’, contains so many words for different jobs in the textile industry. I still don't really know what half of them mean.
There’s a ghost of a tune still in the words
Simon and I each came up with a tune for that one, and sent it to the group at about the same time to ask what they thought of it. The tunes that we came up with, completely independently of each other, were very similar. It was almost as if there's a ghost of a tune still there in the words.
As I was writing the music, I was thinking about the workers whose lives were affected by the mechanization of industry. You also try to imagine the context that the songs would have been sung in, perhaps people sitting at home, coming up with their own tunes. There wasn't such a distinction back then between a musician and an ordinary person. Broadside ballads were really entwined with people’s lives. A lot of people would paste them on the wall, almost like wallpaper: they were surrounded by them.
Playing these songs is an act of solidarity through time
We had a really good time playing the songs live and I think we all thought it would be a shame to put them to bed. Very kindly, the museum gave us permission to produce a CD of the tracks. It always takes you longer than you think to make an album, but we’re hoping to release it later this year.
The other night I was at a gig supporting a folk musician called Jon Wilks. He said something that I really agreed with: that playing these old, traditional songs is an act of solidarity through time.
I do a lot of work with archives and broadsides. We were all interested in the idea of these old ballads and creating new music for them, or finding the original tunes. We're from a very similar area, so we had all come across each other in different folk settings.
I chose to write music for a Lancashire song called ‘The Colliers’ New Hymn’ which was all about people dying in a mining disaster – it's very profound and depressing. A lot of the most successful ballads represent lived experience. That’s what made them popular, because there were similar things going on all around the country. When I searched for ‘The Colliers’ New Hymn’ online, I found several other versions which change the details of the colliery accident. It’s really interesting to see that some of the ballads were so poignant that they were used again for other causes and events.
The things the ballads describe are still happening
We’d essentially constructed the songs in the studio, and then they asked us to perform them live at the exhibition. It was quite a task to deconstruct everything and work out what was feasible. It's always a little bit nerve-racking to debut a new group of people, but once we’d managed to cram all of us onto the stage, I enjoyed it immensely. We were doing chorus songs and trying to get people to join in with tunes they’d never heard before, and everyone was with us: there was a really nice communal feeling.
It’s amazing how you find yourself singing these songs from a hundred years ago and realising that the things they describe are still happening. I perform a song called ‘Adieu to Old England’, which is all about people being absolutely on the bread line while a small percentage of those with all the money are controlling what's going on. I think the ballads are always going to resonate because the situations keep coming back round again. It’s almost as if the past is reaching forward into the future.
I love the idea of the ballads being like a public service broadcast, a way of people getting news out. They were printed in Leeds, and Manchester, and all over the place, but they all have a very similar message. Even though the songs are from the 18th and 19th centuries, a lot of what they’re saying is very relevant today. We're doing a gig in Manchester soon and it's been postponed now three times because of train strikes: there's a massive irony in how similar things are now.
We each picked two songs to go away and focus on. It was quite diplomatic: some of them just spoke to individuals more than others. We were each in our own little world, coming up with bits of melodies. I would occasionally send something across to the others to say, what do you think of this idea? A lot of the arranging happened in the studio: we didn't really have a chance to get together beforehand. This group has a nice mixture of instruments, I think, and I like the split of male and female voices. It just so happens that we all offer different things.
It was powerful hearing all the instruments together live
It sounds really corny, but the melodies just came to me as I wrote. You just look at the words and sort of feel what the message of the song and the rhythm of the words gives you. I think Pete managed to find one of the original tunes but some of them we couldn't find any reference for. Hopefully these new tunes will give them a new life.
We recorded the tracks with a friend of mine, Tim Hay, who works at Leeds Beckett University. They've got some incredible equipment there so it was a really cool experience. There was a grand piano, and a studio engineer with a fear of accordions. Apparently he couldn’t deal with that wheezy kind of sound, so when Alice brought her harmonium in, he had to stay away.
I don’t think we ever initially planned to perform the ballads for an audience, but when we did, it was quite a powerful moment hearing all the instruments together live for the first time. There’s something almost primal about the emotions in some of the songs.
As told to Lucy Peters
The Living with Machines album will be released later this year. The exhibition was based on the Living with Machines research programme led by the British Library and the Alan Turing Institute. The programme was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) via UK Research and Innovation’s (UKRI) Strategic Priorities Fund.