Music in Edwardian Somerset

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Phonograph

by Janet Seaton

The Langport & District History Society's April meeting at Langport Library featured a presentation by local author David Sutcliffe, on the history of popular music in Edwardian Somerset.

He first spoke to the Society in 2013, about the Vicar of Hambridge, Rev. Charles Marson, a friend of the folk song collector, Cecil Sharp.

His lively talk was illustrated by snatches of popular songs and music from the Edwardian period. In addition to a modern music player, he brought a phonograph dating from 1919, on which he played an early recording of 'Home Sweet Home'.

He explained how he had researched the music scene in Somerset by going through local newspapers at the Somerset Heritage Centre in Taunton, gathering information about what music was played and sung, about bands and choirs, and about local venues. This talk contained many references to music in and around Langport, which was fascinating to the audience, some of whom recognised them and contributed their own memories. David felt that Edwardian music had largely been forgotten, and his talk illustrated how popular various strands had been then. Almost all music at that time was live, whereas now 99% is recorded. Phonographs, or gramophones, were very expensive, costing about £400 in today's money.

Brass bands were hugely popular. Out of an estimated 30,000 bands in the country, he counted 100 in Somerset, including the Langport Town Band, under the direction of Edward Purchase, a local publican. Encouraging the development of brass bands was thought to divert people from the dangers of alcohol, hence the Temperance Bands.

Amateur singing at home was common. The most popular parlour song in Somerset was 'Down the Vale', of which he played an extract. Gradually, however, professional singing in public began to replace it, and many church choirs, choral societies and amateur operatic societies were established.

Music Hall, which had begun in the 1840s in London, began to spread. Minstrel troupes and 'blackface' singers toured the country, singing about plantation slave life — which sounds strange to our modern way of thinking. They were gradually overtaken by white-faced female troupes of Pierrots, who entertained audiences in seaside resorts.

Finally David described the local folk music scene at the time, and reminded us of Cecil Sharp's collection of folk songs from local singers.

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