In a world that is increasingly dominated by mainstream pop music and electronic beats, it is often easy to forget the rich tapestry of folk songs, melodies, and dances that have been passed down through generations across different cultures. In Britain, one ambitious project has set out to change this narrative by archiving and celebrating the nation’s collective heritage in the form of traditional folk songs and dances. Dubbed ‘The Full English’, this initiative offers a veritable feast of British cultural treasures, sewn together by both old-world authenticity and contemporary relevance.
Launched in 2013 by the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS), The Full English is a groundbreaking initiative that aimed to create the largest free digital archive of British folk music manuscripts ever assembled under one roof. This vast and diverse collection comprises over 80,000 items from renowned folk song collectors such as Ralph Vaughan Williams, Cecil Sharp, Percy Grainger, Lucy Broadwood, Malcolm Douglas, Bob Copper, Hamish MacColl, and other notable names.
The Full English has successfully showcased its mission to democratize access to these historic resources for musicians, teachers, students, researchers or any folk enthusiast who genuinely wants to delve into the fascinating world of traditional British music culture. To date, an estimated 370 million people have accessed the website where they enjoy meticulously digitized scans of original manuscripts – complete with lyrics, sheet music, musical notations, photographs as well as practical guidance on interpreting this rich material.
Beyond its successful archival achievements, The Full English has also spurred on a new generation of contemporary musicians to salvage these gems from obscurity and reinterpret them for modern audiences. Spearheaded by renowned folk singer Fay Hield as a driving force behind the project, The Full English band was formed with an impressive roster of artists including Nancy Kerr on fiddle/viola/voice; Rob Harbron on concertina/guitar/voice; Sam Sweeney on fiddle/hurdy-gurdy/nyckelharpa; Martin Simpson on guitars/banjo/voice; Seth Lakeman on tenor guitar/viola/voice; Ben Nicholls on upright bass; as well as youth-folk sensation – National Youth Folk Ensemble member – Alice Moore joining for some gigs on accordion.
Showcasing an eclectic blend of age-old tunes infused with innovative arrangements and stunning harmonies reminiscent of a timeless Fordwich Mummers Play or King Arthur’s thirteenth-century tale in ‘Oak and Ash and Thorn’, their debut album received critical acclaim from BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards in 2014.
However, perhaps the most important aspect of The Full English’s work extends beyond mere performance – it inspires grassroots exploration into the repository of British balladry that occupies pub sessions at Broadstairs Folk Week or imbibing knowledge from a treasure trove during talks at Sidmouth Folk Week workshops.
Ultimately The Full English project serves as both an invaluable resource bank for musicians looking to expand their repertoire or improve their cultural knowledge while being an essential tool for teachers across England who are keen to incorporate folk traditions into their educational curriculum.
As we gaze into a future that often appears overwhelmed by global homogenization and recurring pop culture motifs, projects like The Full English remind us that our cultural roots are still alive with history just waiting to be rediscovered. In doing so, they preserve not only our shared past but also serve as vital cornerstones around which thriving communities can gather. Indeed if there’s one thing that these time-tested songs demonstrate superbly – whether standing alone as relics from another era or brought vividly back into contemporaneity straddling both old-world charm as well new-generation vitality – is how perennial themes bind us seamlessly back down through generations within our beloved “green and pleasant land”.