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The Captain's Apprentice: Ralph Vaughan Williams and the Story of a Folk Song

Reviewed by Keith Jones

(Random House: 2022) by Caroline Davison

This book, chosen as the winner of the New Angle Prize awarded in 2023, is hard to categorise. Even its subtitle does not encompass the range of Caroline Davison's personal memories, consideration of the folk song tradition in British culture and the description of the past in an ancient Norfolk town. This is not a book that will be enjoyed by those who want a tight narrative and a steady focus on a limited subject. On the other hand, the core story was for her a cue for meditating on the ways of life of rich and poor over the past two centuries and the way the tunes and words of long ago continue to haunt us and influence us.

So it's a personal book, as much about Caroline Davison's thoughts and musings as about the ostensible subject. That subject is the encounter between the young Ralph Vaughan Williams and the fisherman James Carter in a pub in King's Lynn in 1905, where Carter sang a sad song to a great tune (why, oh why do we not have a clear transcription of this tune?). Vaughan Williams was one of those who was in those years gathering the orally transmitted songs of the poor, which they feared were passing away, and the song which gives its title to Davison's book moved him profoundly.

The song was not old. Its bitter theme is about the ill-treatment by Captain William Doyle of an apprentice named Robert Eastick on a local ship in the mid 1850s, leading to the lad's death (either by suicide or abuse) on shipboard. It is a lament for a cruel episode of a kind all too common among poor people long ago. It's similar in theme to Crabbe's poem in The Borough (1810) which was the source for Britten's opera Peter Grimes (1945). Suffering and mortality were all around our ancestors, for whom song, dance and the practice of religion provided interludes of enjoyment and solace, as they progressed through a violent and unpredictable world to their deaths in the workhouse. That world was now fading, in the age of modern recorded music, and, ironically, the collectors of the old songs made use of early recording equipment to capture their performances.

From this story Davison makes repeated sorties into a multitude of themes: the life of Vaughan Williams himself, his family, relations and friends; other collectors of the old songs as far away as the Hebrides or Cornwall and their influence on musical education during the 20th century etc. etc. The book thus takes the form of a sort of blog, treating its subjects in what feels a haphazard way. One of the dizzying results of this decision is to provide us with details late in the book which are relevant to the beginning of the story. So that, for example, we have imagined scenes of the past, reminiscences of the author's life, descriptions of landscape far from Norfolk and narrative of Vaughan Williams's childhood inserted into the story of his marriages. All this is fascinating and entertaining, but we are very glad of the detailed index as we make sense of it all. Dipping in and out is as rewarding as reading the book through.

Those of us who enjoy Vaughan Williams's music know how he frequently suspends the forward drive of the music to convey a supernatural sense of stillness and mystery. Although he said he did not have a religious faith, the holiness of things permeates his work, and his church music and hymns are staples of the repertoire. This awareness of the depth of reality was clearly awakened by his contact with the suffering lives of James Carter (fisherman) and his like, and the songs they sang. This very enjoyable book leads us into close encounters with a different world, over a century ago.

Caroline Davison will be talking to the Suffolk Book League at an event on Wednesday 24th July 2024. 


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