The Romantic National Song Network: the story so far… by Kirsteen McCue

This is the opening blog of the Romantic National Song Network and I wanted to use this first blog as an opportunity to give a little bit of an introduction to our network, our meetings so far and to explain the materials you will find here. From this week across the Spring of 2019 you’ll see a growing range of blogs appearing and you’ll also see a small catalogue of ‘song stories’ being posted on the website. On 18 March 2019, as part of its Knowledge Exchange + series, the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland will host an event with singers from conservatoires across Britain who’ll perform a selection of songs to complement the resources online and this will be made available also on the website. We’ll keep you posted about these new developments via twitter and on the blog here. And if you think we should be aware of further work happening elsewhere relating to British song culture during the period 1750-1850 then please do let us know and we’ll share this too.

The Romantic National Song Network began in the Spring of 2017 and it arose from my awareness, across recent years, of the exciting work of several colleagues on song culture in the 18th and 19th centuries in Wales, Ireland and England. There have been some major projects which have built considerable interest in national song culture in Scotland too, from new scholarly editions of writers who were known for their prowess as songwriters and editors, to new work on the tunes for these songs, via projects like the Bass Culture in Scottish musical traditions musical traditions. Other complementary projects will be mentioned here on the website and in some of the blogs. I have been lucky to have worked on the new Stirling/South Carolina research edition of The Collected Works of James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd, as editor of Hogg’s final collection of songs and an edition of his contributions to contemporary musical collections and miscellaneous songs. This opened my eyes to the wide range of national song collections and printed song-sheets produced for domestic consumption in the early decades of the 19th century. More recently I have had the pleasure of working on the AHRC-funded Editing Robert Burns for the 21st Century: prose and songs project. Burns’s unrivalled popularity as songwriter, in his own day and from then until now, furthered my interest in the major cultural contributions made by large collections of national songs and the fashion and growing industry for printing songs for performance across the British Isles. So, in planning the network I really wanted to bring all these strands together to start exploring some of the connections between these diverse British nations during a very busy time in history. Truth be told, the looming contemporary discussions about British identity, considering recent referenda, also played its part when considering the complexities facing the nations of Britain two hundred years ago.

So far we’ve had two very stimulating meetings. The first was held in September 2017 at the University of Glasgow, hosted by Special Collections at our University Library.  Network members chatted through the parameters of the project at length. The original plan behind the network was to bring together a range of scholars working on national songs (printed with music for performance) in Britain across the period 1750-1850 from a variety of different perspectives: the network comprises musicologists, literary scholars, historians, performance historians, and collections and publishing history specialists. Our aim was to create a website which would open up the field and share some useful research materials, beginning to ‘map’ the connections (differences and similarities) between the printed/performed song cultures of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales during the period. We also wanted to see how new songs marketed as ‘British’ sat alongside the publishing/performing traditions of the four nations. While I’d envisaged something a bit more ‘bibliographical’, at our first meeting it became clear that a project of the scope of the RNSN would not be able to do this in any comprehensive way. There is, as we already knew, a large number of national song collections, let alone separate song-sheets, created to encourage performance of songs, printed across the British Isles and Ireland during the period. So, we came up with the idea of creating and sharing a select number of song ‘biographies’, what we ended up calling our ‘song stories’. With the help of our wonderful digital advisor, Brian Aitken, we were able to identify two different ways in which we could do this: through a chronological or ‘time-line’ approach, allowing us to follow a song’s appearance and development across a defined time period; and a song ‘map’ which would allow us to take one song and zoom in and out on a number of different elements of it, including its music, its text, the creation of the song, the singers who perhaps made it famous, and the publishers/editors who chose to disseminate it. Across the winter of 2017 and the first months of 2018 we developed the technical aspects of the ‘song stories’ and network members from each nation established a shortlist of possible stories, with the aim of covering as much of the period as possible and allowing us to focus on key collections, songwriters/composers as well as on the publishing and performance histories of certain songs from the period. We are aware that 15 songs are only a ‘taster’, but we hope that it provides a really interesting cross-section. Other songs and themes will be picked up through the blogs.

The view from Special Collection at the University of Glasgow








In June 2018 our second network meeting took place at the British Library, where we were hosted by Dr Rupert Ridgewell, Head of Music Collections at the BL, who is also on our network. We were introduced to the ‘In the Spotlight’ project at the BL, where we were able to see direct links between national song culture and theatrical performance. We were also able to examine a wide range of collections and volumes and boxes of song sheets from the period. Network members were then able to share work-in-progress presentations on the shortlisted song stories. In the afternoon we invited a group of Early Career Researchers, who were working on a variety of research topics and projects which engaged directly with the network, to attend and to give informal presentations on their work. Several of these colleagues have kindly written blogs which will be appearing on the website, so you’ll get to read about their research in more detail in the coming months. Topics were wide-ranging and highlighted many different connections to national songs: we had presentations on the collecting and creating of national ‘tunes’ and their appearance in theatrical works and questions about the comparable lack of ‘English’ collections during the long 18th century; our young Irish colleagues spoke of the Irish tunes of Edward Bunting, the Irish Song Project and late 19th century Irish Art song; and we also heard about the gendered choral singing of Welsh songs in the later 19th century. These led to extended discussions about the packaging of nation via song culture during the period.

Since then, major work has been underway by the network members to research, write and prepare the 15 song stories for sharing with you. We have invited both our ECR colleagues from the second network meeting, alongside a number of key scholars working on many different and complementary aspects of National song culture elsewhere in the UK, Ireland, Canada, the USA and Australia, to share their findings and thoughts with us via a series of blogs. To start the ball rolling Oskar Cox-Jensen’s song story about Charles Dibdin’s English song ‘True Courage’ is about to appear, along with a blog by I. J. Corfe all about the popular Irish song ‘Erin go bragh’.

We hope you enjoy the range of stories coming your way. We are keen to have comments and other suggestions for the website beyond the official end of the project. So, do email or tweet us and keep in touch.

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