John Clare and the Folk Tradition

Book Reviews

James Fenton: The New York Review, September 2004

In addition to his botanizing and his ornithology, Clare was a collector of folk music and ballads. George Deacon, whose study of this important aspect of Clare's achievement was first published in 1983, tells us that Clare is probably the earliest collector of the songs people actually sang in southern England. Deacon’s study gathers the tunes and songs that Clare collected and is well worth having.

Tom Paulin July 2002:

George Deacon’s study of Clare – it is also a very scholarly anthology – is a classic work, which brings us so close to Clare we can almost hear his living voice. We can also hear his father’s and mother’s voices, so that a vanished world and a neglected culture comes back with an eager and vital freshness. We return to the greenwood and feel free. Here, we watch Clare’s imagination grow in confidence, as he transcribes songs, adapts them and writes his own songs.


In the annals of Clare scholarship, George Deacon’s work will always be celebrated – the son of singers and himself a singer, he puts us in close and living touch with the oral culture which formed Clare.

Times Education Supplement 2nd December 1983:

What should we not give,though, for a substantial clutch of songs-words and tunes-gathered from inside:recorded by one of "the folk", not collected from him? Much. And low and behold, here it is: John Clare and the Folk Tradition, the extensive collection of songs and tunes made by the poet John Clare in and around his home village of Helpston in Northamptonshire in the early 19th century. Clare's father new "above a hundred" ballads Clare’s early biographer Martin describes the young poet learning songs from "Granny Bains, the cowherd of Helpston". Both parents contributed to the material printed here; of Granny Bains we cannot be sure, though Clare does mention her as a source of village traditions. In his very full and informative introduction Deacon quotes Clare's note in a fair copy manuscript of the songs, "I used to spend the long evenings with my father and mother and heard them by accident hum over scraps of the following old melodies which I have collected and put into their present form."

Sunday Telegraph 24th April 1983:

This is a notable anthology of English folk song, as well as an important addition to the canon of Clare's poetry. A bargain.

British Book News August 1983:

George Deacon in this scholarly and fascinating book prints the song texts and tunes in Clare's manuscripts, with detailed discussion of each item, and a lengthy and cogent introduction surveying the entire question of Clare's engagement with tradition. In the space available he can give only a hint of the mass of material hidden in Clare's poetry and prose, but he can make perfectly clear the profound importance of Clare's work for the social historian and the folklorist. For Clare's painstaking delineation of the social and cultural life of his village - Helpston, in Northamptonshire - is made from the inside, yet by a man is sufficiently apart, because of his gifts, to realise the importance of what he knew and tried to set it down. For publication of this material is well overdue and we must be grateful that it has found in George Deacon such an assiduous and sensitive editor.

Vic Gammon, Folk Music Journal 1984:

George Deacon is owed a great debt of gratitude for making available to the public the richness of the poet John Clare's manuscripts relating to song dance, music, and custom. Readers will find powers of fascination between the dark covers of this book. Editing primary material is a difficult and in many ways thankless task, one that is bound to lead to disagreements, as no two people would tackle the task in exactly the same way. Let me say from the outset that the quibbles I have about the book are far outbalanced by the pleasure I have derived from it. No one interested in English tradition will want to be without a copy.

John Clare and the Folk Tradition is a rich, and diverse, if somewhat necessarily chaotic book. It is a work of social history, and literary study, a work of folklore, as song collection, and dance collection and a tune collection. It makes a significant contribution to our knowledge of an English poet neglected in his Day but increasingly gaining recognition now. Through the work of this man our knowledge of English traditional culture is enriched. Readers of this journal will want this book and George Deacon should receive a vote of thanks for having written and compiled it.

London Review of Books 19th December 1984:

Encouraged by London literary friends after the success in 1820 of his first collection of verse, Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery, he began to write down anecdotes of local customs, sports and superstitions, and to collect songs he heard his father and neighbours saying-a game with the intention of publishing what would have been a unique cultural history of a parish, assembled from the inside.This material is selected and analysed in George Deacon's John Clare and the Folk Tradition, one of the most informative and valuable studies of Clare's poetry yet to appear.

Ian Russell, Folklore vol. 96:I, 1985:

George Deacon's thesis is that John Clare, the Northamptonshire poet (1793-1864) was a product of the folk tradition. His evidence for this is largely taken from the Clare manuscripts at Northampton & Peterborough libraries. From these sources he has reproduced Clare's collection of song texts, his two tune books for the fiddle, and relevant references in his poetry, autobiographical notes,and correspondence, including mention of customs. These records are preceded by an important essay that successfully relates Clare’s poetry to the oral tradition in which he grew up, in which he participated, and of which he was an observer. Deacon asserts, "his poetry has a musicality redolent of the tunes he played and assiduously collected, while its rhythm and metre are as much a product of ballads and song as they are of a conscious attempt to innovate" (p 10). The book is a tour de force, meticulously edited and annotated.