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Vaughan Williams Memorial Library to create a Folk Song Subject Index

Have you ever wanted to find folk songs about sea battles, or unrequited love, or ghosts?

The English Folk Dance and Song Society’s Vaughan Williams Memorial Library (VWML) is undertaking a substantial new project to index, for the first time, what folk songs are about.

This important new subject index for folk songs, along with a thesaurus of keywords, will be made freely available on the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library’s website. The new tool will provide a powerful new way to explore the Library’s comprehensive online resources, alongside existing indexes and catalogues.

The one-year project, starting in May 2018, has been generously funded by the National Folk Music Fund and the Marc Fitch Fund.

Why a subject index?

Users of the Library’s online catalogues can already search our folk song heritage by title, first line, place, singer, and classification numbers (such as Roud numbers). But it can still be difficult to find songs by subject, or by type (e.g. harvest songs). The words of folk songs are not usually couched in standard natural language – they are poetical, allegorical, and imaginative. So, for example, there are many songs which feature a suicide, but none of them actually mention the word. The character in question 'throws herself into the briny deep' or 'falls on his sword'.

In this new project, songs will each be assigned keywords from a thesaurus. This thesaurus will also identify synonyms (e.g. ‘coal miners’ instead of ‘colliers’), and broader and narrower related terms so that users can find songs on related subjects.

Each song will also be recorded in a master index. This will include a brief synopsis of the song, notes on its history, a sample text where possible – and links to variants of the song, as found in the VWML and Roud folk song indexes.

These two resources will be freely available to everyone via the VWML’s website. No other index exists like this. This current project will by no means create a comprehensive index, but it will lay the foundation for an important addition to the study and research of folk songs across the English-speaking world.