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Ian Anderson

The Editor's Box

Ian Anderson's comment column

What grasp of our roots do most of us have? Lucky the person who has intimate knowledge of their forebears, let alone which of the many mongrel strands in our nation’s cultural heritage are lurking somewhere in their make-up. How quickly do all these things get absorbed, lost, forgotten.

I was lucky that in her senior years, my late mother got deeply interested in family history and took herself off around record offices and ancient parish registers, entering into epic correspondences with fellow, distantly related researchers. But even then it took the citation of a song source in one of Shirley Collins’s typically rigorous sleeve notes to catalyse an astonishing discovery.

This person, ‘collected’ by Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1904, shared my mother’s maiden surname, and had lived in part of Sussex where some of her family had come from. Was there an EA Stears in the family tree, I enquired down the ’phone. My mother said there was an Ernest Alfred on a 19th Century twig she hadn’t investigated: she’d have a ferret around. A day later she called me back. “It wasn’t Ernest Alfred,” she said, excitedly. “It was Emily Agnes, your great grandmother! I asked your uncle who used to hang out with the old ladies, and he said everybody knew the story of Mr Vaughan Williams coming to call. Actually, she did used to sing some of those old songs you’re interested in…”

“How come I’m in my fifties before you tell me this?” I asked. “Oh, it never occurred to me you’d want to know…” I’ll never forget the chuckle from Bob Copper when I told him my exciting news over the ‘phone. “I always knew you were one of us,” he said, and I so much wanted to believe it.

This set in train a bit more diligence on my mother’s part. My late father’s grandmother had come from the Somerset Levels: his mother, her daughter, was a social climber who had tried to expunge all details of her ancestry among peat diggers, railway labourers and publicans. Well, my mother wasn’t overly fond of her mother-in-law’s snobbery, so gleefully set about researching the Somerset Levels ancestry in great depth. And so was later able to tell me that another more distant relative – some generations up the tree, across and down another branch – was a source for Cecil Sharp in 1909.

Traditional source singers on both sides of my family. What could be better than that? Well, in becoming the family archivist my mother ended up with all the photos and there, in a box from my great-great-grandfather, who’d ended his days as a village schoolmaster on the Isle Of Wight at the turn of the last century, was a photo of his Morris dancing daughters. I cannot tell you how proud I am that I have women Morris dancers in the ancestry. There they are on page 29 this issue…

Far too late and unfit of legs, I really wished I’d learned to dance the Morris when I was young. But perhaps this special May issue will inspire you to don the bells or find your way inside a folk beast of some sort. At least I had ten minutes inside Alex Merry’s sheep at Sidmouth last summer – that’s not a euphemism! – and can vouch for the startling personality readjustments that such guising brings about.

Ian Anderson

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