John Clare – Traditional Musician

Katie Howson has been reading about the poet John Clare’s musical life and delving into his store of songs and tunes.

By Katie Howson

With thanks to George Deacon, author of ‘John Clare and the Folk Tradition’, and Chris Partington for identifying tunes.

If the name of John Clare is familiar to you, you may know him as the ‘Northamptonshire Peasant Poet’ and wonder why we’re featuring him on the East Anglian Traditional Music Trust website. Well, Clare (1793-1864) was indeed a poet, whose style and subject matter were influenced by traditional form and dialect, and he did indeed live for a long time in Northamptonshire. But he was also a fiddler and collector of songs and folklore and lived for much of his early adult life in the village of Helpston, six miles north of Peterborough, which now lies in Cambridgeshire.

Clare collected a number of songs from his family and community, including classic ballads such as Lord Bateman, Died for Love and Bushes and Briars. He described one singer, Francis Gregory, landlord of the Blue Bell in Helpston as: ‘fond of merriment, and a singer though his notes was not more varied than those of the cuckoo, as he had but two songs … one called The Milking Pail and the other Jack with his Broom.’ The walls of the pub, like many others, were plastered in old ballad sheets, providing those who could read with a library of songs.

Clare’s correspondence and notes provide us with an insight into another musical context: ‘The Smiths gang of Gypsies came and encamped near the town and as I began to be a decent scraper, (i.e. fiddler – ed.) we had a decent round of merriment for a fortnight, sometimes going to dance or drink at the encampment and at other times at the public house.’ The Gypsy families included Boswells and Grays as well as Smiths, with a number of renowned musicians amongst them.

Clare rated himself as fairly rough fiddle player and said he only played ‘one tune in twenty by notes’. The range of tunes and dances which he jotted down or copied out is similar to that found in other contemporary collections such as the Gray publication featured in our previous newsletter (see Standard tunes of the time, including Quickstep to the Battle of Prague, Astley’s Ride and Brighton Camp are found alongside un-named hornpipes, which he may have noted down by ear from his local musical colleagues. Some of these tunes are identifiable versions of well known and widespread tunes such as Staten Island and Fisher’s Hornpipe.

Below is one tune from Clare’s collection, a very playable jig, which he probably copied out from a contemporary printed collection. A further 262 dance tunes are included in the book ‘John Clare and the Folk Tradition’ by George Deacon, 1983, republished in 2002 by Francis Boutle. The book also contains many songs and some fascinating background to Clare’s musical activities.

Bedford Races

Bedford Races

Further tunes from Cambridgeshire were found in a manuscript written out by William Clarke from Feltwell. These have been transcribed and published by Mary Humphreys and Anahata and is available on Mary’s website. This collection also featured in the Village Music Project and the tunes can be found HERE.