Tuesday 16 April 2013

Robert Story Song Project

Robert Story Song Project

This article, or a version of it, will appear in the Gargrave Village Magazine at the beginning of May 2013...


For Gargrave Village Magazine

Gargrave Autoharp Festival - the Robert Story Song Project

We are now in the countdown to the Gargrave Autoharp Festival, when - weather permitting - we will fill the village with music, on the weekend of May 31, June 1 & 2, 2013.

We are in Gargrave as guests, and – like good guests – should arrive bearing a small gift. From this rose the idea of performing some of the songs of Robert Story at our music festival. The usual reference and guide books mention Robert Story and his relationship with Gargrave – but what was the nature of that relationship and was it a happy one?

Our sources for the life of Robert Story are his own Preface to his 1857 Poetical Works, and the 'Life of Robert Story' that his friend John James wrote for the 1861 Lyrical and Other Minor Poems – that book was published after Story’s death in order to gather a little money for his widow.

As far as I can see the entries on Robert Story in the original 1885-1901 Dictionary of National Biography, and in the new Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004 onwards, are based mostly on those two sources. Also worth looking at is Robert Story's Preface to the 1849 Third Edition of his Songs and Poems - note, the Third Edition. John James' 'Life' is a great read - he was clearly very fond of Robert Story, but he does not pull punches.

There is little academic work on Robert Story - nowadays we can check this easily by using Google Scholar. As always when using such resources, go carefully - for example there was more than one poet called 'Robert Story' active in the early nineteenth century.

I first came across our Robert Story in Brian Maidment, The poorhouse fugitives: Self-taught poets and poetry in Victorian Britain, 1987. He is listed in Martha Vicinus The Industrial Muse: A Study of Nineteenth Century British Working-Class Literature, 1974 - and in John Goodridge's current Labouring-Class Poetry Project at Nottingham Trent University. We are trying to rescue these writers from what E. P. Thompson called 'the enormous condescension of posterity' - but you can see that there are already strange problems of nomenclature and preoccupation. Poor, working class, labouring class, self-taught - but how are they different from what we think of as 'mainstream' writers and the literary 'canon'? If the research record has heretofore been marked by condescension, we can say that there are now some decent studies of these Labouring-Class Writers - though maybe often about the special cases, like John Clare or the Chartist poets

From the work of John Goodridge's Project, it is clear that practically every local community throughout England had some local eighteenth and nineteenth century version of Robert Story. Indeed Robert Story is almost an ideal type, in his use of local patronage, local politics (in his case conservative politics), his poetic ambitions, successes and failures.

What is missing from the research record is the notion of song and performance. These writers wrote songs. They performed their songs, in specific circumstances, for specific communities - local songs for local people. Or they gave their songs to performers.

Is a song lyric a poem? Again there are problems of nomenclature - when the words 'lyric' or 'lyrical' are used in many not quite over-lapping ways. The academic literature tends to regard song lyrics as simply not very good poems - when they were written for different purposes, to different rules. If Robert Story is an almost ideal type of the 'Labouring-Class Writer', then the Robert Story Song Project at the Gargrave Autoharp Festival is a case study in ways to re-connect with this practice and this heritage. And demonstrate the songs' value through quality performance. In the longer term there is an intriguing academic research project here - we have already involved the musicologists.

A surprising amount of Robert Story material is now freely available on the Web - this was certainly not true five years ago. I do not want to clutter up your village magazine with Web addresses. So I have collected all the Web links in one place, here on one of my web sites...


We will also place in the Gargrave Village Hall a small exhibition of key documents - I have given up trying to not think of this as the 'Robert Story Story Board'. So that anyone who wants to find out more about Robert Story will now have a clear route forward - perhaps you can tell us which Robert Story songs you would like to hear performed at the Gargrave Autoharp Festival...

Patrick O'Sullivan

April 2013

PS I am still writing some sections of the web site, but the Subpages
1. Robert Story - The Works and
8. Robert Story's Songs - Action Research
are pretty complete