“Card Indexers of the Human Soul”*: Folk Music in the Ron Heisler Collection

The Ron Heisler Collection is one of Senate House Library’s (SHL) largest radical collections described on the SHL website as containing “About 50,000 19th- and 20th- Century books, pamphlets and periodicals published by or relating to labour and radical political movements, and to political expression in art, drama or literature”. It is a phenomenal resource and an ongoing donation from Ron Heisler.

What is not immediately apparent from this collection description is just how much folk music material is nestling within it, particularly that of the second English folk revival of the late 1950s and early 1960s. It is in some ways curious that folk music is contained within the Heisler collection: as a musical form it is often tied to ideas of nationhood and longing for the past, notions that are reactionary rather than radical, and the dissemination of folk music via collection and transcription has tended to remove it from its roots. Yet in Heisler you will find song books from Ireland and the British Isles, books and pamphlets outlining folk dances such as clogging and the Morris, and publications espousing folk music’s educational benefit.

The term “folk music” is a behemoth with problems of definition far beyond the bounds of this blog post, but two comments do seem relevant here and suggest possible reasons for its inclusion in a radical collection. A. L. Lloyd stated that folk music is “the blending of continuity and variation” (p.16) while the New Penguin Book of English Folk Song that “folk songs are learnt and performed by non-professionals in informal, non-commercial settings” (Roud & Bishop, 2014, p. xii). The voices expressed via folk songs are non-institutional, are roused by necessity or love not commerce and, if not quite radical, nonetheless maintain links to an often hidden history whilst ensuring contemporary relevance.

Many folk purists argue that true folk music springs from the land, from rural communities, where songs were learnt via oral traditions and performance. These folk songs are well represented in the Heisler collection by 20th century collections of traditional songs gathered from different locations. One name in particular reappears regularly in this context: Frank Graham, a local history publisher from Newcastle. One such Frank Graham publication is a 1969 facsimile of ‘the Bishoprick Garland’ - “a collection of legends, songs, and ballads of the County of Durham” collected in 1834 by Sir Cuthbert Sharp.

‘The Garland’ is a gathering which, whilst not in itself radical in content, does give expression to stories of the everyday, of 19th Century daily life in a particular English region. Some of these stories relate to work such as ‘the Collier’s Rant’, an oft-collected “true pit song”, and songs devoted to life at sea. These songs give voice to workers, voices not usually given free expression in the manager-owned newspaper presses.

Frank Graham logo
Frank Graham's logo

Perhaps the most traditionally radical aspect of these publications is Frank Graham himself. Graham was a former University of London student (he spent time studying Classics at King’s College and became active in student politics via attendance at London School of Economics and Political Science lectures). He was a lifelong committed Communist who fought in Spain with the International Brigades and on return to Britain taught for the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA). It was whilst teaching that he noticed the dearth of published material on English North Eastern 19th and early 20th century history, leading him to found his own publishing house for this purpose. As with other folk collectors (Cecil Sharp, A. L. Lloyd) it is possible that Frank Graham’s own leftist political beliefs, so tightly bound with broad notions of “the people”, led him to the rich seam of folk song and its reproduction for wider dissemination and preservation.

Frank Graham’s involvement with both folk music and the WEA is not unusual; a distinct urge to educate was apparent in the first English folk revival heralded by folk collectors such as Cecil Sharp and Vaughan Williams in the early 20th century and Heisler’s collection has some interesting examples of this ‘improving’ impulse.

Sing as We Grow cover
'Sing as We Grow' cover

‘Sing as We Grow’, compiled by Will Sahnow (1946) – another Communist who in this guise was the General Secretary of the Workers’ Music Association (founders of Topic Records) – is one such example. The song book is aimed at introducing the “ordinary adolescent boy or girl” to the joys of community and part-singing, and the songs range widely from “straight” to “jazz” (Sahnow’s words). Songs by Edward Carpenter, Robert Burns and Langston Hughes lie alongside African-American spirituals and translations of Russian and Chinese songs.

There is also the inclusion of the old English song ‘the Cutty Wren’ which has links to the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt. Whilst early folk music was rarely protest music it was often a vehicle for describing social injustice – in this case baronial power. Again, perhaps what is most radical about this collection of songs is the social intention of the publisher and song collector. Will Sahnow writes in his editorial “the choice of songs should be democratic with no dictatorship from above” – which although removed from the realities of state communism was an admirable utopian ideal.

Wood Craft Folk
Images from 'Who's for the Folk?'

This book also contains the song ‘Youth and Maiden’ which is described as a Woodcraft Song, which segues nicely into another Heisler item: ‘Who’s for the Folk’? Folk Pamphlet no. 2, delineating the aims and ideals of the Woodcraft Folk.

This document sets out its stall from its first line: “the Woodcraft Folk seek to establish a new social order” – a “co-operative commonwealth, in which poverty is vanished”. To engender this social revolution the Woodcraft Folk regularly held annual gatherings, called the Althing, in rural idylls, spurning “the smoky city” for “folk life in folk dancing, glee singing, mumming…” as can be seen by these photographs from Folk Pamphlet no.2.

These images are reminiscent of other attempts at idyllic folk societies such as the Woodcraft Folk’s antecedent the Kindred of the Kibbo Kift – with the uniforms, emphasis on health, peace, and folk crafts - but also of more fascistic groups and gatherings with similar leanings. This combination of education and folk music, as tools for a new dawn, has both utopian and paternalistic elements – much like the middle class song collectors gathering and transcribing the songs of the working class.

One name appears more than once in the Heisler material dating from the second English folk music revival and that is John Foreman, otherwise known as the self-styled Broadsheet King. John Foreman was a printer but also an enthusiastic collector and singer of music hall songs, through which he eventually entered the world of folk music.

Foreman combined his interests in some lovely self-published booklets, one of which  is simply called ‘Songs’, although the stylised CND symbol centred in musical notation on the cover gives a clue as to the nature of these songs, mimicking as it does the image on the record ‘Songs for Aldermaston’. This booklet exists in the Heisler collection in two versions – one black and white and the other expanded in contents and with additional blue tones – but both contain a variety of illustrative and typographic styles (mainly hand-drawn and typewritten).

Broadsheet King's 'Songs'
the Broadsheet King's 'Songs'

The songs were sung at the Aldermaston anti-nuclear marches, and rail against the H-bomb and Strontium 90 fall-out. These songs were to be sung by the marchers in unison; to aid this communal singing the songs are a combination of traditional folk or spiritual tunes with new lyrics describing the current situation (lyrics in the booklet are written by stalwarts of the folk revival and left wing political actions such as Ewan MacColl, Alex Comfort and Peggy Seeger). This combination of old and new gives credence to A. L. Lloyd’s understanding of folk music as both continuation and variation.

These political songs of the 1950s and 1960s hark back to the Industrial Revolution when the disruption of rural communities and migration to urban areas led also to the crushing of the communal means of oral folk song transmission. Instead, songs of urban life produced in the isolated conditions of industrial work were written and, as befits a more literate workforce, disseminated in print via broadsides – a tendency referenced by the Broadsheet King’s chosen moniker.

John Foreman also printed the booklet to accompany the ‘Folk Song Festival’ held in February 1965 at the Manchester Free Trade Hall. This concert was organised by the British Peace Committee and the Manchester Peace Committee, and showcased artists such as Anne Briggs, Leon Rosselson, and Sandra Kerr (known to a certain generation as co-writer of the music to ‘Bagpuss’). However, the main aims of this concert are clear – it is a concert for peace, against war, and against the atomic bomb.

Adverts from the 'Folk Song Festival' booklet
Adverts from the 'Folk Song Festival' booklet

What is most fascinating about this booklet is the range of photographs of left-wing writers and artists – of Bertrand Russell, Paul Robeson, Peggy Seeger - and adverts which provide a vivid insight into the links between the British Left and folk music during this period of the Cold War. Invitations to holiday in communist countries sit alongside adverts for Collet’s Record Shop, promoting vinyl by many of the big names of the contemporary folk movement.

These are but a few of the folk music items held in the Ron Heisler Collection. They highlight how folk music, if not always radical in content, has been used and adapted by folklorists, song collectors, educationalists, and left-wing activists to push for and espouse a more cooperative, communal way of life and society. The New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs claims in its introduction that what is important about folk music is not the origin of the songs but the process of learning, performing and passing them on – it is the dissemination that is the folk element, and quite possibly also the radical aspect, a dissemination hopefully continued by their inclusion in the Ron Heisler Collection.

*(A. L. Lloyd’s description of academic folklorists, p.346)


Brunner, J. … [et al.] [no date] Songs. London: Broadsheet King.

John’s songs: a day with a music hall master. 2016. BBC Radio 4. 19 July, 11:30.

Lloyd, A.L. (1975) Folk song in England. St Albans: Paladin.

Roud, S., Bishop, J. eds. (2014) New Penguin book of English folk songs. London: Penguin.

Sahnow, W. (1946) Sing as we grow. London: Worker’s Music Association.

Sharp, C. (1969) The Bishoprick garland; or, A collection of legends, songs, ballads, &c. belonging to the County of Durham. Newcastle-Upon-Tyne: Frank Graham.

Stevenson, G. Will Sahnow. [Online]. [Accessed 12 October 2016]. Available via this link.

Topic Records (1965) Folk Song Festival. London: Topic Records.

Watson, D. (2007) Frank Graham. North East History, v.38, pp.186-191.

Woodcraft Folk [19--] Who’s for the folk?: an account of the aims and ideals of the Woodcraft Folk. London: Athenaeum P.

Woodcraft Folk. History. [Online]. [Accessed 12 October 2016]. Available via this link.