This obituary was published in Folklore, Vol.126, No. 3, Dec 2015, pp. 347-349
Roy Palmer (1932 – 2015)
Most of the obituaries for Roy Palmer, who died on 26 February 2015 at the age of 83, have described him as a folklorist and, indeed, this is how a large section of the book-buying public recognised him; particularly those who bought the volumes which meticulously documented the folklore of the Midland counties, where he lived for most of his life. He was, though, a folklorist in a very English manner and in the tradition of the popular antiquarian; less of an anthropologist, and more of a social historian. He gathered much of his material from the libraries and archives that he mined so effectively, but he was also a field worker who went out among the people of the Midlands and elsewhere, listening to their songs and stories, and to the way in which they told them. One of the results of this fieldwork is the 140 hours of his recordings of songs and oral testimony that can be found on the British Library Sound Archive website. And there are, of course, his books – more than 30 of them – which lucidly document the popular culture of the English people.
Roy Palmer was born at Markfield, in Leicestershire, the son of a lorry driver. He recalled that he was nine years old when he discovered English folk songs at school, his favourite being the stirring tale of ‘Admiral Benbow’ who ‘lost his legs by chain-shot’. As a child, he loved to escape into books and read voraciously and widely, a habit he maintained throughout his life, reading extensively around the subjects that he was researching.
He won a state scholarship to Manchester University, where he studied French for his first degree, and then completed a thesis on Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables for his MA. It was during this period that his interest in folk song grew as a result of hearing radio programmes like ‘As I Roved Out’ and the Radio Ballads. Interest soon turned to activity as he started to visit Manchester folk clubs, to meet others with similar interests and to perform songs. He also enjoyed reading and writing poetry, some of which was published, and he took part in poetry readings.
After two years of National Service in the Army, he went back to Manchester to train as a teacher. His first teaching post was at Mytholmroyd in Yorkshire, where he treated his pupils to French folk songs as an interesting way of finishing a lesson. In 1963 he moved to Birmingham to become Head of Modern Languages at a comprehensive school. He discovered a very active folk scene in the city, and became a resident at the left wing folk club, The Partisan, where he met Charles Parker, who was to be a great influence on him.
He became involved in the work that Parker and his friends were engaged in: collecting songs and stories, studying traditional singing, and gathering oral history. In 1965 Parker formed the Birmingham and Midlands Folk Centre, of which Roy became an active member. One of the group’s key aims was to use the material in stage performances and local concerts, taking the songs back to the areas from which they had come.
Roy’s role became that of researcher and writer for the group. He once told me ‘I’ll never forget Charles Parker saying to me “words are important” ‘. The impressive list of books and articles that he wrote had been started while he was still living in Yorkshire with French Travellers in England 1600 – 1900. He was also, for several years, the reviewer of folk books and records for The Teacher. His name is particularly associated with two Black Country singers, George Dunn and Celia Costello, whose songs he recorded. He was introduced to George Dunn by Charles Parker in 1971 and met with him regularly until his death in 1975. The recordings that he made formed the basis for his book George Dunn, The Minstrel of Quarry Bank.
The Folk Centre released a record in 1972 called The Wide Midlands, which Roy produced and sang on. The work that had gone into researching the songs was made use of in the book Songs of the Midlands, published in the same year, and which Roy edited. This led to a series of books of songs for Cambridge University Press which were primarily intended for use in schools, but which have proved a valuable resource for singers generally. Rather than simply giving the songs and some detail about their origins, these books introduced essays on the socio-historical context of the songs, illustrated with contemporary broadsides and pictures. Productions for adults such as A Touch on the Times (1974), The Rambling Soldier (1977), and A Ballad History of England (1979) extended this idea and introduced him to a wider audience. His books are all meticulously researched, well written, and trustworthy. They invite the reader to enjoy the songs, the anecdotes, and the supporting matter while subtly influencing your view of their place in society and history.
Roy had moved, in 1972, to become the headmaster at Dame Elizabeth Cadbury School in Bourneville. It was from this role that he took early retirement in 1983, at the age of 51. In effect, this was a career change rather than an end to work, since it gave him the opportunity to do more research and writing. While still strongly involved in research into traditional songs and broadside ballads, his work broadened to embrace folklore and a well-received series of books featuring the folklore of the counties around him. Though the lore that he wrote about took in the broad sweep of history, that history began only yesterday, enabling him to make his narrative vibrant and relevant to life as we know it.
Retirement gave him more time too for enjoying poetry. He was for several years chair of the Friends of the Dymock Poets and an active member of the societies devoted to John Masefield and Edward Thomas. As a young man he had aspired to be remembered as a poet, but in an interview in 1996 he said ‘I didn’t become a poet, but I’ve had intense gratification from my writing and from the people I’ve met and the places I’ve visited’. He said to me on another occasion that ‘… at its best, folk song is poetry. There is also music and there is history – folk song brings them all together’.
When I interviewed him in 1998, he told me about the enormous pleasure that he took in research – what he described as ‘the joy of the chase’. He likened it to doing several jigsaw puzzles, each in different rooms. He was seeking to discover the background of the songs and their reflection of, and effect on, history. He believed that traditional songs can still speak to us, even in changed circumstances. He modestly described his work as ‘creative welding of bits and bobs’.
Roy’s political views, formed while at Manchester University, were left wing and he was for many years a member of the Communist Party and a strong supporter of the unions and of CND. As a young man he frequently sang for CND marches and trade union events. Throughout his life he continued to support causes he believed in. Increasingly, these became about environmental issues, and local causes such as public rights of way.
Roy was a kind man and one for whom the phrase ‘a gentleman and a scholar’ might have been coined. Talking to other people about him since he died, I have heard many tales of advice and help given freely, of bundles of songs, stories or articles arriving through the post, and of postcards which showed appreciation for something that Roy had enjoyed.
He was a member of the Folklore Society and made regular use of the society’s library for his research. He served as a member of the Editorial Board of the Folk Music Journal for more than twenty years. The current Editor, David Atkinson, described how he was always among the first to respond to a query, and to comment on articles submitted, combining supreme good sense with a wealth of knowledge, and an eye for what was important to the wider readership of the Journal. It was this wise advice, and his unflagging support for others, as well as his own remarkable achievements that led to him being awarded the Gold Badge of the English Folk Dance and Song Society. He was also awarded an honorary MA by the Open University.
Roy Ernest Palmer was born on 10 Feb 1932 and died on 26 February 2015. He is survived by his wife, Pat, their three sons, Simon, Adam and Thomas, and their seven grand-children.
Martin Graebe is an independent researcher into traditional English song.