Traditional Drama Forum - No.7 ISSN 1743-3789 April 2003

Folk Play Material at the British Library Sound Archive

The British Library Sound Archive

The Sound Archive holds over a million discs, 185,000 tapes, and many other sound and video recordings. The collections come from all over the world and cover the entire range of recorded sound from music, drama and literature, to oral history and wildlife sounds. They range from cylinders made in the late 19th century to the latest CD, DVD and minidisc recordings. We keep copies of commercial recordings issued in the United Kingdom, together with selected commercial recordings from overseas, radio broadcasts and many privately made recordings.

The catalogue includes entries for almost two-and-a-half million recordings held in the Sound Archive and is updated daily. It is one of the largest catalogues of its kind anywhere in the world, covering both published and unpublished recordings.

The Sound Archive offers public access to a wide range of specialist publications, books, magazines and journals covering every aspect of recorded sound. The Recorded Sound Information Service enables users to consult the Archive's extensive collection of printed material and also operates a free information service by post, phone, fax and e-mail. The Listening and Viewing Service provides public access to the Archive's collection of recorded sound and video. A range of charged services, including a transcription service, which can provide copies from the collections, is available to academic institutions, commercial users and private individuals.

There are seven main subject areas within the Archive, headed by curators who are able to offer specialist advice and assistance: Classical Music, Drama and Literature, International Music Collection, Jazz, Oral History, Popular Music, Wildlife Sound.

The International Music Collection

The International Music Collection is one of the world's largest collections of recordings variously described as traditional, folk or 'world' music. It encompasses most musical traditions of the world with recorded performances dating from the infancy of sound recording to the present day. We hold music of most of the world's major religions, work songs, wedding and funeral music, accompanied songs and instrumental music, as well as popular styles based on folk traditions such as bhangra, rumba, soukouss, highlife, son, cumbia, tango and rembetika. It is an essential reference collection for students and scholars of ethnomusicology and anthropology; for the media (filmmakers, theatre producers, radio broadcasters, and journalists); and for musicians of all backgrounds.

The "Traditional Music in England" Project

For the past two years we have run a project (sponsored by the Heritage Lottery Fund, The Friends of the British Library and the AVIS Family Trust) entitled Traditional Music in England. The following describes the project in broad terms.

It is widely accepted that music plays an integral part in the lives of all human beings; it offers us entertainment and helps us to mark our rites of passage; it documents our history and allows us to identify ourselves, describing our characteristics as individuals, communities and nations. While scores and manuscripts of 2000 years of art music can be studied in libraries, orally transmitted traditional music has no such document. For these musics the only document is the recording. Since the turn of the 1900s and the advent of sound recording technology, people have taken on the task of this type of cultural documentation. Archives around the world make it their business to preserve these documents as part of their national heritage. The recordings drawn in to the British Library Sound Archive through this project have made it the most comprehensive collection of recorded English music anywhere in the world. It has ensured that the most significant collections not already in institutions are safeguarded and made accessible for enjoyment and broad educational purposes.

The recordings have been digitised onto CD Recordable for archival and playback purposes and fully documented onto our online catalogue at The catalogue now includes some 13500 entries for this project. See for some tips for searching. Prospective users can listen to all the recordings free of charge through our listening service based at the new St Pancras building in London, or via our remote listening post in Boston Spa.

Besides the obvious long-term outcome of the preservation and documentation of national heritage materials, the project is intended to raise the profile of English traditional music on a popular level, particularly in schools and teaching institutions, thus encouraging future generations to continue the work begun a hundred years ago into the next century.

For more information on the background to the project, notes on the collections the project has dealt with, a short piece on the background to English traditional music recording, and a list of relevant links, refer to our website at

Folk Play Holdings

It's to a large extent via this Traditional Music in England project that most of our holdings of Mummers plays have come to us. However, there was a fair amount of material already here either as part of other collections or amongst the BBC Archive discs. Searching the catalogue with terms such as "mummers plays", "guisers", "plough jags", or "pace-egging", "morris dancing", etc., will reveal a variety of performances dating back to the 1930s. Some are excerpts of longer performances, others are renditions just of songs associated with certain plays - in many cases, the catalogue entries also give Roud Index numbers to facilitate closer classification. The holdings also include a large number of interviews with some of the protagonists. These are interesting in that they provide information on the social context of performances.

The catalogue entries give shelfmarks, such as 1CDR0013901 or 1CL0062503, which should be quoted when making a listening appointment.

Examples from the Sound Archive Catalogue

Some examples from our holdings are:

Examples from the Main British Library Catalogue

The Sound Archive does not itself hold transcripts for the plays. Some of these can be found on the main Library catalogue ( however. For example:

Example from the British Library Manuscripts Catalogue

In addition, transcripts or other types of manuscripts may be found in the British Library's Music Manuscripts department. Their catalogue can be searched at An example of a record is the following:

44870. THE 'REVESBY PLAY': the text of a play of the mumming type, partly in verse, entitled (f. 3) 'The Plow Boys, or Morris Dancers', followed (ff. 15, 16) by 'A Song, called Landlord & Tennant', a copy evidently contemporary with a performance at Revesby, co. Linc., 20 Oct. 1779, noted in a different hand on f. 1 (actually at Revesby Abbey, the seat of Sir Joseph Banks, Bart., according to Sir H. Ellis in his revision of J. Brand's Observations on Popular Antiquities, i, 1813, p. 401). Names of the local actors are recorded on f. 2 b and of the singers of the song (in another hand) on f. i. Edited, with a few verbal variations, by T.F. Ordish, The Folk-Lore Journal, vii, 1889, pp.331-356. Reprinted, without the song and with emendations, by J. M. Manly, Specimens of the Pre-Shaksperean Drama, i, 1897, pp. 296-311, and Sir E.K. Chambers, The English Folk-Play, 1933, pp. 104- 123. See also C.R. Baskervill, 'Mummers' Wooing Plays in England', Modern Philology, xxi, 1924, pp. 225-272; Brit. Mus. Quart., xi, 1936, pp. 23, 24; and E.C. Cawte, Alex Helm, R.J. Marriott and N. Peacock 'A Geographical Index of the Ceremonial Dance in Great Britain', Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Soc., ix, no. i, Dec. 1960. pp. 1-41 (where the present MS. has the siglum 'B Mad'). Paper; ff. ii + 16. Quarto. A.D. 1779. Original marbled paper covers. The title 'Morrice Dancers at Revesby' appears in a modern hand on a label on the front cover (f. i). Belonged to Sara Sophia Banks (sister of Sir Joseph Banks) in 1780 (signature, f. 2) and later to Sir Henry Ellis, K.H., Principal Librarian of the British Museum (d. 1869): given by him (see note by the donor, f. ii) to William John Thoms, F.S.A. (d. 1885), and by the latter to Sir George Lawrence Gomme, F.S.A. (d. 1916). Presented by Alice Bertha, Lady Gomme.

Dr Janet Topp Fargion,
Curator, International Music Collection
Tel: 020 7412 7427

© Copyright 2003, Janet Topp Fargion. Webmaster Peter Millington (, Last updated on 14/04/2006