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THE ESPERANCE MORRIS BOOK.
OPINIONS OF THE PRESS.
DAILY NEWS. Mar. zyd, 1906.
The Esperance Club, of which Miss Mary Neal is the hon. secretary, meets at 50 Cumberland Market, N.W., and consists of working girls who for the most part follow sedentary occupations. To make life more interesting to them socially is the object of the promoters of the Club, and singing and national dances form a part of the week's programme. The songs are learnt by ear, so that it will be seen that the study of music as an art is not pursued. School cantatas were sometimes taken up, but of these the girls became tired ; and last summer a friend suggested to Miss Neal that the old English folk-songs collected in country districts by Mr. Cecil Saarp would be the very thing for her Club. The experiment has been tried with brilliant success.
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" The teaching of these songs to the girls," said Miss Neal, " had the effect of magic. They were always singing them, at home and at work. Then I thought we would have them instead of a cantata for our Christmas party. I brought from Oxfordshire one of the men whom Mr. Sharp had seen dance, and in two evenings he taught the girls six dances that had been in the family for five generations. I never saw such charming dances, and I have had a good deal of experience. Those who attended our party said the entertainment was the prettiest thing on the London boards. So we are going to repeat it at the Queen's Hall. The girls are in costume. One of them, by the way, wears her great-grandmother's wedding dress."
" I think," said Miss Neal, enthusiastically, " that I have struck a really good thing. I want to get specimen dances from all over England, and have them taught to Londoners in social work. I never would have a cake-walk in the Club, for I don't think we ought to depend for our songs and dances upon niggers."
PALL MALL. March 27th, 1906. By permission.
" An old Song " is the conventional zero of valuation— and no wonder when you can buy a new one in the gutter for twopence. A century ago you might have sold your old song for a shilling—to a gentleman in Grub Street, who would lick it into shape according to his own ideas, add a verse or two to give good measure, and pass it on, " freshly done up," to a publisher of " broadsides " for, shall we say, half-a-crown. You—to make your part probable in the transaction—were a hawker, whose business it was to know a shilling's worth when you came across it, and hearing a new ditty in country kitchen or at country fair, you stowed it in your mental wallet against your return to the marts of town. You did not forget it because you could neither read nor write, and people without those accomplishments are consoled by the possession of a memory.
An intelligent posterity would have been all the more grateful to you (let us develop our fond imagination) if you had noted the tune as well as the matter, and if your literary customer and his publisher had thought it important enough to ask for. But they didn't, and if posterity wanted the tunc, it should have been there to pay for it. You got that shilling honestly, at any rate, amongst your Autolycus takings.
Those melodies which you failed to cage are still sounding by English firesides and English hedgerows—not so loudly as of yore, and sometimes only in the cracked quavering voice of a bedridden old woman, with whose rushlight soul they will presently sigh themselves forth from the void. You may still catch them—imprison them within bars of notation—if you are quick, enthusiastic, patient, and tactful—especially tactful. How can you really care for a silly old creature's song ? Are you not laughing at her in your sleeve, or putting a clumsy disguise on your vulgar curiosity or pompous charity ?
Clear yourself of these suspicions, and you may lure the shy bird, and in time accumulate a fine collection of the vanishing species. Expert fowlers like Mr. Cecil Sharp and Mr. Marson will surprise you with their accounts of the multiplicity of folk-songs that still await the recorder—but await him only for a few more years, until the last " illiterate " has gone to rest, and the last memories in England have succumbed to the corrosion of elementary education.
The folk-song flics before the railway. It nestles with especial cosiness in Somerset, in Lincolnshire, and indeed, in all the backward parts. It is in a Sussex village that the old gaffer lives who can sing you five hundred ditties, and not all —no, not by any means—to the same tune. That worthy is, so to speak, the Kimberley diamond of the treasure-seekers, but they have made other finds only less remarkable. Singers with a repertoire running into these figures are not frequent, but still very far from unique.
The folk music, both in song and dance, has been saved from corruption by the wholesome shelter of neglect. By its want of relation to reading and writing and other implements of vulgarity it has been preserved from insensitive interference. Those who know declare that it is almost subconscious. Attention rests only on the words ; you may sing them over to any tune in the world, and the veteran from whom you have garnered it will declare that " you've got it quite correct, sir." What you have " got " may be in a literary sense chiefly the rubbish with which the Grub Street gentleman aforesaid overlaid the ingenuous charm of some age-long lyric. What you are really seeking is the melody which he never heard and could not therefore improve out of existence.
The beauty of spirit of this spontaneous, unregenerate, and truly national music are becoming known amongst the elect. And with that knowledge has arisen a question of a practical character—whether the indigenous melody thus discovered does not open up new lines of popular culture amongst the class to which its origin must be credited. Those who have heard the folk-songs sung here and there by the children of the people declare that the effect has a freshness and reality unattained by any other efforts at the inculcation of true music. "They are English girls, and it is in their bones," was the comment of one who heard the Esperance Club choir sing "Madam, will you walk ? " and "Hares on the mountains." The rendering of folk-songs and dances arranged for at the Queen's Hall in the beginning of next month will serve to submit the issue and its suggestions to the judgment of a wider criticism.
DAILY CHRONICLE. Apr. yd. 1906.
A little entertainment that may indeed " light such a candle in England " as will not immediately be put out, delighted last night an overflowing audience at Queen's Hall. It was nothing less simple and homely and cheering then the singing of some old English folk-songs and the dancing of old English dances by the girls of the Esperance Club—all regular London work-girls from Cumberland Market.
The songs were, of course, in themselves, not an entirely fresh revelation. Their very names are racy of the soil, fragrant with the breath of the countryside—" Mowing the Barley," " Blow away the morning dew," " The trees they do grow high," " The Wraggle-Taggle Gypsies O ! "*
The entirely new and wonderful part of the experiment, however, has been the teaching of these beautiful old songs to the Cockney girls.
Tn the case of the Esperance Club—as last night's performance showed—nothing conld have been more magically successful.
* From "English Folk-song? (or Schools " (J. Curwen & Sons Ltd., 2S. t&).