Sonnet: Folk memory

“Summer is a-coming in,” they sang,
“Groweth mead and bloweth seed, and spring
The woods anew.” How sweet their voices rang;
The ancient round still with the power to bring
The scent of flowers and new-mown hay to mind,
And conjure skylarks in a sapphire sky,
While for a moment, Winter’s wicked wind
Was turned aside. Long centuries roll by
But cannot touch the melodies and rhymes
Our fathers made to lighten scythe or plough.
What music of our own impatient times
Will children sing eight hundred years from now?
What legacy will we be handing on
For them to marvel at when we are gone?


At my daughter’s violin class yesterday, teachers Miss B and Miss Y had them playing, then singing, ‘Summer is a-Coming In’, a round dating from the 13th Century. Slightly incongruous in February, and with snow imminent, but a wonderful treat for us parents – and for the children too, I think. They certainly seemed to enjoy it, especially when they divided into six different parts, with the melodies and harmonies repeating and interweaving in a single swell of sound. Glorious. I believe it’s really important that these old songs are handed on, generation to generation, as reminders of who we are (or were) and where we come from. As a nation, we’ve been very careless with our folk history and memories; other countries seem to do these things much better.
I’ve said it many times before, I know, but Miss B, Miss Y and the other East Sussex Music Service staff are beyond praise, and do brilliant work with literally thousands of kids all over the county. Which is why I’m so incensed that the Service faces a 10% cut in its budget this year, and will eventually lose HALF its funding to government cuts. I fail to see what possible impact these savings could have on the overall deficit – meanwhile, we risk losing some thing truly worthwhile and inspirational that our kids will remember (and possibly even thank us for!) all their lives. Some legacy, huh?


12 thoughts on “Sonnet: Folk memory

  1. Hi Nick

    This is beautiful.
    It must have been wonderful to be there and here those voices 🙂
    England has such a rich legacy of art for future generations to enjoy en appreciate, I always thought you did a much better job with old songs for instance than where I live, where all the beautiful songs we used to sing, are bannished for not being politically correct, or too oldfashoned. But I see even in the UK it is not ideal.

    I hope somehow most will be preserved.
    Ina x

    • Thank you, Ina – I think the main reason we’re losing our traditional songs is because so many children no longer sing at school. When I was a lad, we used to have a school assembly every morning, with hymns and so on, and we also did singing and music as a class. I still remember a lot of old songs from back then that most kids today have never even heard of, and probably never will. Our daughter is at a church school, so singing is still part of daily life, fortunately; for her friends in non-church schools, the only way to do any music at all is to learn an instrument (which you have to pay for). The irony is that, thanks to the endless ‘talent’ (and I used the word in its loosest sense) shows on TV, loads of kids want to be singers, because they see it as a quick way to get rich and famous. It’s true that old songs like ‘Summer is a-Coming In’ don’t have much relevance to life as know it today, but then, I’m not sure how accurately American hip-hop reflects kids’ everyday experience of living in leafy Sussex either! N.xx

  2. This is a great poem Nick with that lovely historical weave you are so good at.

    And yes it’s a crying shame about the cuts! I always just feel so helpless in all this – we all are, aren’t we?!

    And you reminded me of the time at school (centuries ago!!) when I was in the madrigal group!!

    I can only remember two:- My bonnie lass she smileth when she my heart beguileth. and Awake sweet love thou art returned. !!!

    Wow – what a memory!! LOL 🙂

    Christine X

    • Ah, you were lucky to be a singer. I never had much of a voice (still don’t, actually, although I once played Macheath in The Beggar’s Opera: as well as acting, I had to sing a tenor part, and it was some of the most fun I’ve ever had) which is why I was so keen to learn the flute when I was at achool: I was much happier playing the hymns in assembly than singing them! I got into folk music in my teens when I was messing about with horses and working on farms and what-not; I loved the sense of being part of a tradition, doing the work the songs were about and feeling connected to the lives of the original singers. One of the (many) things I find disheartening about my work today is that it has no roots, no music of its own: not that I want to be ‘ploughing the fields and scattering’ necessarily, but there’s something depressingly ephemeral about so much of modern life and work: if I didn’t do it, would it really matter? Things to ponder on a cold Monday morning! N.xx

  3. There is so often beauty in what you write, Nick–especially your sonnets. I wrote one something like this, celebrating when my two daughters were young and sang together, but yours is deeper, trying to get all of us to understand how important it is to preserve the heritage that makes us who we are. Governments have gone foolish all over the world, though, pouring gold in Midas’s golden pockets, not realizing that if Midas becomes so golden that even his lungs are gold, then the breath of humanity, heritage, and even precious nationhood (so beloved of those who want more of what they already have an abundance of) will fail to breathe in and out and will be frozen in their golden sculpture all time. I prefer reading your poetry to thinking about their continuing quest for golden parachutes at all costs.

    • Amen to all that. Your comment is a beautiful poem in itself; it reminds a little of the oft-quoted Native American (is that still the correct term?) proverb, “When the last tree has been cut down, the last fish caught, the last river poisoned, only then will we realise that one cannot eat money.” Sadly, our society seems to be run increasingly by those who exactly match Oscar Wilde’s definition of a cynic: “a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing”. And in such an age, I truly believe poetry – ars gratia artis – becomes much more important, not less so. N.

  4. “What music of our own impatient times
    Will children sing eight hundred years from now?”

    I’m a 24-year-old teacher of students ages eight to ten, and many of them wouldn’t know who I was talking about if I mentioned some of the popular bands from when I was a teenager. So I have no idea what children 800 years from now might be singing.

    Have you ever thought of putting some of your poetry to song? I’d teach those songs to my kids!

    Grace and peace to you,

    • I’m a 43-year-old father of one, and let me tell you, the bands I listened to when I was a teneager in the 1980s are already part of some quaint historical tradition!

      I’d love to collborate with someone who could write music: I can play a bit, but composing is, to me, the highest form of art and I’ve never even tried it. If I felt I could leave one, good song behind, though, I’d feel life had been well spent! Thanks so much for your comment, Eric.

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