It may have been Karl Marx who said that you only really get to know the history of a country if you read its novels.
Equally revealing, and sometimes more so, are the songs of the people. Roy Palmer’s lifelong dedication to collecting the folk songs of England and writing about its folklore have made a very significant contribution to knowledge of our social history. And his collections are conducive to contemporary performance and enjoyment at all levels, from classroom to professional performance.
Roy was born in Leicestershire and won a state scholarship to Manchester University where he obtained BA and MA degrees. He taught for many years, the last 11 of which were as head of the Dame Elizabeth Cadbury comprehensive school in Birmingham.
From the 1960s, he was involved in singing and discovering and publishing traditional songs and his magnificent collection of field recordings is now in the recorded sound archive at the British Library. He was one of the very great song collectors. You don’t just study history with him, you feel its live presence in your ear.
He published a number of anthologies of traditional songs and street ballads reflecting different aspects of social, military, maritime, industrial, agricultural and recreational history. He contributed articles to periodicals, including the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS) journal, on whose editorial board he sat for 20 years.
He also published several authoritative books dealing with the folklore of mainly Midlands counties, the most recent being The Folklore of the Black Country (2007). In 2004 he received an honorary MA from the Open University and was awarded a gold badge, its highest honour, by the EFDSS and he was also a longstanding member of the Folklore Society. For the last seven years he was chairman of the Friends of the Dymock Poets.
In 2014 he collaborated with the General Federation of Trade Unions and Topic Records on a double CD, Voice and Vision, and was recently busy preparing for a follow-on edition of some lesser-known songs.
He was a lifetime communist and his love of working people over the years shines through all of his work in a gentle and unobtrusive way but with all of the sense of sacrifice and determination that has been involved in propelling history forwards through struggle.
Roy’s work is a striking reminder of how little official and established history knows of our past and how the school curriculum should be transformed to include his discoveries. He was one of our greatest teachers.
His educational commitments meant that his books are very accessible and suitable for aficionados of folklore and the song tradition, as well as being perfectly suitable for school history or music lesson. Most are produced with a combination of historical notes, lyrics, music and, very appealingly, illustrations.
His many hours of dedicated research in the school holidays paid off and he brought to light the genuine voices of working folk and their popular artists and balladeers for a new generation.
Many of his books are classics and uniquely present the words and sentiments and tunes of our ancestors as they made the sound of history. He was a very precise and learned scholar of these matters and fastidious, without a hint of pedantry.
His thematic, large-format paperback collections of songs with Cambridge University Press such as The Painful Plough or Poverty Knock are wonderful collectors’ items in their own right and complement his other hardback works, among them A Ballad History of England: From 1588 to the Present Day and A Touch on the Times: Songs of Social Change, 1770-1914.
He opened our eyes to elements of our history and the perceptions of our predecessors. It was a real act of discovery, which shone light on the lives of sailors, soldiers, agricultural workers, early reformers and trade unionists. He had a knack of quietly presenting songs that profoundly ring out with a relevance within a class-divided society and he would find early examples of songs piercing through the injustices of social exploitation and tyranny.
His books were ideal tools in the informal education programmes of youth work and trade union education as well as schools and folk festivals.
Roy sang many of the songs he discovered and his unadorned, undemonstrative style enabled the importance of the words and their historical moment to shine through. His gentle singing of The Cropper Lads is a powerful reminder of how social progress has often been fought for with great bravery, against overwhelming odds, in clandestine and heroically modest ways by unknown predecessors who took no prisoners and hanged tyrants.
The fact that Britain’s roads, ships, railways, canals — and much of everything else — were made by hand and collective hard manual labour makes its presence felt in his work, as does the humour and macabre moments faced by those forced by poverty into poaching or to become highwaymen.
Other cultural traditions have an important pedigree and Palmer’s A Taste of Ale displays the long British association between good and important times and the frothing amber nectar that has sustained us through thick and thin.
He edited The Oxford Book of Sea Songs and was an expert not only in sea shanties but important moments in maritime history such as the Nore/Spithead mutinies of 1798 which, he was always quick to point out, succeeded in winning much-improved conditions for sailors.
With news now being instant and dizzyingly prolific, it is a joy to see how the slower-moving songs of our oral tradition conveyed for hundreds of years the morality and opinions of those who toiled and fought for the elite and how they suffered and overcame adversity. Lyrics in those days were deep and lasting. They weren’t ephemeral, short hand tweets or two-minute pop songs forgotten in the competitive chaos of the charts.
He had an unmatched ear for a perfect song. No history of Britain can be fully written without dwelling purposefully in Palmer’s books. No social future would be complete without a celebration and renewed performance of the songs he so lovingly kept alive for another generation. As a result, the singing traditions of England are a vibrant source of inspiration still.
He is survived by his wife and artistic collaborator Pat and their three sons Tom, Simon and Adam and seven grandchildren.