Mobile menu

William Barnes and Music

By Bonnie Sartin

William Barnes was brought up surrounded by the folklore, traditions, music, song and dance of Dorset. What is quite surprising is that with his rise from peasant lad to respected intellectual he didn't automatically discard them as rural activities beneath his notice. There are dozens of references in his poems to fairs, festivals and feasts where the musical talents of the village folk play an important part. 'Bob the Fiddler' is a classic example. Who could possibly refrain from stirring their stumps in merry jigs when he begins to play? Every time I read the poem it takes my right back to my days with The Yetminster & Ryme Intrinseca Junior Folk Dance Display Team and I just have to smile. At Woodcom' Feast they dance the four hand reel, which was one of our favourites. Bob the Fiddler will also sing a song or tell a story as do many of Barnes characters. The labouring folk of Dorset were having a very tough time of it so any jollity was to be encouraged even if the upper classes frowned upon some of the quaint and sometimes crude customs.

There must have been times when even Barnes cringed a trifle, particularly when it came down to the content of some of the folk songs. There are a fine selection on the subject of seduction. Soldiers in their flashy uniforms marching around the countryside chasing young ladies who succumbed to their advances. Lots of hatched without the matched so to speak. Funnily enough we actually sang some of these in primary school courtesy of the BBC and programmes like Singing Together. One of these was 'Oh! No John' a version of which was collected in Dorset from Mrs. Bowering of Cerne Abbas. Another came from the singing of Mr. J. Greening who lived at a place called Cuckold's Corner. Very appropriate I always think. There were plenty of songs on things that did not fit in with the chirpy image that Barnes mostly tried to portray in the countryside. Around him was a great deal of grinding poverty but he did his best by going into local villages and towns and performing his poems to Dorset folk in the language they could understand on subjects they were very familiar with. There is no doubt in my mind that he was an absolute star.

'Christmas Invitation' started many a Yetties Christmas Concert and 'Zummer Evenin' Dance went very well with the tune of the 'Dorset Four Hand Reel' which we recorded in 1983.

Naturally we had to do 'Linden Lea' because that is such a well-loved poem. My wife comes from Leeds and she learnt it while at primary school. I'm sure the linguist in Barnes would have been intrigued and delighted to hear his poem being sung by 35 youngsters in a broad Leeds accent. Alan Chedzoy, bless his cotton socks, let us peruse a chest which contained around 27 Barnes poems that had been set to music. It, apparently, belonged to the original William Barnes Society. From it we chose a setting of 'The Stagecoach' which was absolutely wonderful. I can practically feel the wind in my hair when I sing it. We also used 'Praise O' Dorset' and I can remember writing to The Society of Dorset Men for permission to sing their theme song. Well, it seemed like the polite thing to do.

Our versions of Linden Lea, Praise O' Dorset and The Stagecoach can now be heard interspersed with a new recording of Barnes and Hardy's poems by Alan Chedzoy entitled The Bride-Night Fire. Alan has done the recording to raise money for The William Barnes Society and the Thomas Hardy Society.