1891: The challenge facing our brilliant 'singing baker'

Sam Willetts, was known as the 'singing baker' and lived on Cuckfield hill. He spent his life living with the challenges of dwarfism but history has recorded him to be a gifted musician who made a significant contribution to our nation's folk archive. This colourful character's story and his encounter with smugglers and other tales were featured in an earlier article.


Willetts corresponded with music collator Lucy Broadwood, who lived near Horsham. It's clear from his letters that while he happily passed on his own repertoire - collating material from others was not a straightforward task:

Sam Willett can be seen in the doorway of his shop (colourised photograph)

Two years after her death in 1929 Lucy Broadwood's executor, her nephew Leopold Broadwood offered to the Folk Song Society letters and MSS., her phonograph and phonograph cylinders. The Society was delighted to receive them and called them ‘The Lucy Broadwood Collection’ in her memory. The society is now part of the English Folk Dance and Song Society where they are now preserved. One of the documents refers to difficulties encountered by Sam Willetts in collecting songs from other local musicians.


Lucy Broadwood told the committee: ‘Mr Willetts very capably inscribed both words and music of over 20 songs from memory "according to the rules of composition" prefacing the whole with an essay and the information that his father had been a composer of anthems and of a poem 1,500 lines long, written with the intention of convincing a Calvinistic preacher of the fallacy of his doctrine.'


But Mr Willetts added a comments on the difficulties he encountered in collecting the material on Miss Broadwood’s behalf. He wrote that he ‘had sustained defeat’ for ‘no sooner do our old men see my paper and pencil than they become dumb, and not only dumb, but sulky.’ The willing, evidently, had not always a way with them.


Did the musicians feel that the material was their own preserve and did not want it copied and compete with their own performances? Or were the musicians aware that they would sing the songs for fun - and accuracy was not their strong suit? They might miss-remember or adapt the words - and perhaps be be sensitive that they would be 'found out'. Certainly there are many variations of well known songs to be found in the EFDSS archives.


Take the song 'Athur O'Bradley' below mentioned in Sam's letter to Lucy below and the accompanying video clearly demonstrates the challenge that faces folk singers. This song is nearly 1000 words long - and it is attributed to several parts of the country - and the lyrics do differ. For example can see one version on the EFDSS site and a slight variation at the Wiltshire Community History site.

A letter from Sam Willetts to Lucy Broadwood about the song 'Arthur O'Bradley'. See the must watch video below.

(Above) A YouTube video of "The Full English" folk group singing 'Arthur O'Bradley' at the Radio 2 Folk Awards 2014. This brilliant performance of this very challenging song demonstrates consummate musical skill, amazing recall of complex lyrics and the oral dexterity needed by the vocalist. If you like folk music - this is a must watch!

Sources

Mr Willetts’ Manuscript is among the Broadwood papers. The correspondence took place in 1891.


Letters to Lucy Broadwood: A Selection from the Broadwood Papers at Cecil Sharp House compiled by Margaret Dean-Smith from the Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society Vol. 9, No. 5 (Dec., 1964), pp. 233-268 (36 pages). Can also be found at https://www.jstor.org/stable/4521699


Lucy Broadwood (1858 – 1929) https://www.exploringsurreyspast.org.uk/themes/people/musicians/lucy_broadwood/


The English Folk Dance and Song Society was formed in 1932 by the merger of two organisations, the Folk-Song Society, and the English Folk Dance Society. The Folk-Song Society, founded in 1898, was founded by a number of individual folk song collectors and enthusiasts who wanted to share their experience and improve the quality of collecting and publishing. Although the main area of interest is the folk songs of Britain and Ireland, no geographical limit is set to the society's activities. The English Folk Dance and Song Society's aims are to maintain itself as a centre of excellence for the study, practice and dissemination of traditional English folk song, dance and music; to provide national and local outreach services that enable and increase access; and to celebrate diversity and promote equality.


Contributed by Malcolm Davison.