The Harvard folk song scholar James Madison Carpenter undertook long collecting field trips in Britain during the late 1920s and early 1930s. The result was a collection of around 14,000 pages of material plus hundreds of field sound recordings (some of the earliest), tune transcriptions and photographs. Latterly, he also collected a large number of folk plays, as well as folk songs, which is why he is of interest to us here.
Carpenter published very little from his collection, and it only became publicly accessible after The Library of Congress, American Folklife Center, acquired it in 1972. The collection was microfilmed and most of the recordings transferred to tape. Copies were made available to the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library of the English Folk Dance and Society (EFDSS) and the Central Library, Aberdeen. However, using the microfilm was a daunting task, and the Library of Congress Guide to the Collection had it limitations. Use of the collection for research has therefore been relatively slow.
This situation has just changed. As reported earlier in Traditional Drama Forum No.3, an international project team led by Dr. Julia Bishop of the National Centre for English Cultural Tradition, University of Sheffield is in the process of compiling a critical edition of the Carpenter Collection. The first phase of this project, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Board, has just borne fruit - The James Madison Carpenter Collection Online Catalogue.
For most people, the key part of the online catalogue will be its search facility. It is possible to search for words in any of the text, or in specific fields - All names, Contributors' names, Places, Dates, Genre, Page numbers, and Child no. or title. (Child no. refers to ballads in F.J.Child's collection.) Genre categories mostly relate to folk song, but other art forms and traditions are also covered. Genres of particular relevance to folk plays include:
|Play||- 505 hits|
|Play text||- 287 hits|
|Song associated with play||- 204 hits|
Searches initially display a list of matching item titles, which can then be clicked through to the full record. An example full record for a play text is given here in the Appendix.
In addition to the search facility there are excellent introductory pages from the project team, a browse facility (effectively a massive list of contents), and a bibliography of over 200 references. More information can also be found in a special issue of Folk Music Journal (1998).
We have Eddie Cass to thank for his indexing of the folk play material, although standards were set jointly by the project team. Contextual information - place, contributor's name, etc - is thorough, although Carpenter did not date many of the items. Two of the more useful play-specific fields are the play type - hero/combat play, plough play, etc - and the character list. A minor quibble is that I would have liked to have seen alternative character names listed where they occur, especially to expand uninformative designations such as "Ploughboy No.1".
The dominance of folk song in the collection has inevitably resulted in some oddities in the folk play records. Following folk song practice, there is a field for "First Line". It remains to be seen how useful this field will be. Ironically however, the folk plays fare better than songs proper, because wherever songs occur in plays, the catalogue has separate embedded items, each with its own first line. So for instance, with some of the more operatic plough plays, there may be first lines for half a dozen song stanzas, whereas a long Child Ballad only gets one. There is therefore plenty of material for anyone who would care to undertake research on songs in folk drama [hint!].
The design and presentation of the website is excellent. My only technical criticism relates to the index of places. Place names are given in the full records as hyperlinks that bring up the index. This is hierarchically arranged by nation, county and village. Clicking on the county name brings up a list of all the villages in the county for which there is material. Clicking on a village brings up information such as grid reference, alternative spellings, and narrower addresses, but not a list of the actual records. Instead you have to run a separate search for the village name. In my view, the programming could have been taken a step further to make the village name a hyperlink that launches the search automatically. The project team is aware of this point, and it may be rectified (one advantage of online publication over hard copy).
I have to confess that when I first encountered the Carpenter Collection in the 1970s I was somewhat disappointed. At the time, I was primarily interested in the folk plays of Nottinghamshire, and Carpenter's only play for the county was from Clayworth - a village that had previously been covered by R.J.E.Tiddy (1923). In fact my initial perception was that Carpenter had simply revisited the ground previously published by Tiddy, Baskervill, E.K.Chambers, etc. While there appears to be some truth in this, I now see that it is an over-simplification. Carpenter found more folk play material than all his forebears put together, collecting from numerous new locations. Who can blame him if he did revisit previously-covered villages. Every field collector needs good leads, and in any case corroborative evidence is always valuable as it reveals the stability or variability of the tradition.
Putting my minor criticisms aside, there is no doubt in my mind that this online catalogue represents a major resource for folk play research. There is enough material in the catalogue alone for several research projects, even before the primary material itself is touched.
This brings me to accessibility and the future. Currently, access to the primary Carpenter material is limited, and for many people not convenient. However, The Library of Congress has already digitised all the manuscripts and images, and the sound recordings, about to be digitally remastered. The plan is to make these universally available online, linked to this catalogue. At the moment the project team is seeking the necessary copyright permissions, and this is likely to take some months. This will be a further major leap forward and it is well worth the wait.
In an ideal world, I would also like to see the images supplemented with machine-readable transcripts. This would enable full-text searching, which would be a great improvement over indexes of first lines. However, this another major task, and one that is not likely to happen in the near future. One can but hope.
To summarise, Julia Bishop and her team have compiled a major new research resource for anyone interested in the folk arts. I congratulate them on an excellent catalogue, which I am sure will be used heavily. In fact why not click on the following hyperlink and explore it now.
C.R.Baskervill (1924) Mummers' Wooing Plays in England
Modern Philology, Feb.1924, Vol.21, No.3, pp.225-272
E.Cass (2002) The James Madison Carpenter Collection
Traditional Drama Forum, Jan.2002
E.K.Chambers (1903) The Mediaeval Stage: Vol.1
London, Oxford University Press, 1903
F.J.Child (1888) The English and Scottish Popular Ballads
Houghton, Miflin & Co, 1888
Folk Music Journal, 1998 [Carpenter Collection Special Issue]
Library of Congress (1996) Guides to the Collections in the Archive of Folk Culture: The James Madison Carpenter Collection: AFC 1972/001
http://www.loc.gov/folklife/guides/carpenter.txt, June 1996
R.J.E.Tiddy (1923) The Mummers' Play
Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1923
Reprinted: Chicheley, Paul P.B. Minet, 1972, ISBN 85609-014-X
Appendix - An Example Full Record