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15 May 2013

The Banks of Green Willow

As cultural institutions make more of their material available online, great opportunities lie waiting to be discovered. Not only is it possible to browse collections from one institution, it's also possible to reunite objects, recordings and manuscripts which have been stored in separate institutions - sometimes for over a century.

The Wealth of Marshland (photographer, Peter Henry Emerson, 1887)

The English folksong "The Banks of Green Willow" is one such example. You can hear a version of this song, sung by David Clements and recorded by the composer George Butterworth, on our sounds website. It's a wax cylinder recording made in 1909 so the quality is not what we're used to now - but it's incredible we're able to hear it at all!

The cylinder is on long term loan to the British Library from the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS). For some more information about Butterworth's fieldwork, take a look at the EFDSS web page on George Butterworth in the "Take Six" section.

Now, if you search the catalogues of "Take Six", you'll find three transcriptions of "The Banks of Green Willow" and the catalogue entry mentions David Clements as a performer.

The third transcription at the bottom of the page closely matches the recording of our wax cylinder recording. If you listen to a recording of Butterworth's orchestral piece, "The Banks of Green Willow" (which you should, it's a wonderful piece of music), you'll hear David Clements' version of the song appearing as a kind of counter melody. Rather than variations on one theme, "The Banks of Green Willow"  may be seen as a montage of different versions of the same folksong that Butterworth discovered existed in the course of his fieldwork.

Butterworth served in the First World War and was twice awarded the Military Cross. Tragically, he was killed during the Battle of the Somme in 1916; his second Military Cross was awarded posthumously. Butterworth's friend, Vaughan Williams, inherited his fieldwork; the transcriptions above are in Vaughan Williams' handwriting.

The EFDSS has been working on "The Full English", a project to digitise a substantial part of its collection, in partnership with the British Library and others. The digitised resources will become available online in June 2013.

More information about Emerson's photograph can be found in our online gallery.



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