Since coming to live in East Anglia I have been looking for songs collected in the area where I now live. The newly issued Classic English Folk Songs revised by Malcolm Douglas, published by EFDSS in association with South Riding Folk Network in 2003 had much expanded notes on the song Lucy Wan which I have known for many years and the book included some biographical details of the source singer, Mrs Charlotte Dann ( nee Few) of Cottenham.
Spurred on by an informative email exchange with Malcolm Douglas I proceeded to extricate songs that had been archived together with Lucy Wan as part of the Lucy Broadwood collection in the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library in Cecil Sharp House. Unfortunately all the songs had texts that were fragmentary. The tunes were too good just to leave for scholars to admire in an archive, so I took the liberty of completing the texts from broadsides or song variants collected in the South of England. Since doing this work I discovered that Roy Palmer also had investigated the same archive and has published reconstructions of some of the songs which, not surprisingly, are similar to the versions you will hear on this CD.
The collector of the songs , Ella Bull ( 1871 - 1922) was blind from birth - as were two of her four sisters. The Bull family were prosperous top-fruit growers, related to the Chivers family. Ella remembered songs that the servants sang while working at the family home, 'Bernards', 27 High Street Cottenham, a village 6 miles from Cambridge.
Ella ( probably through an amanuensis ) noted the tunes and what she could remember of the texts and sent them to Percy Merrick in 1904. What prompted this correspondence is unclear but, according to a letter of Ella to Lucy Broadwood in 1911, Percy Merrick visited the Bull family in July 1905 and while there collected a version of Down Came Weeping Mary from gypsies singing at the Bull's own front door. The connection with the Bull family must have been formed prior to 1904 possibly as a result of a mutual interest in Braille development - Arthur Bull, Ella's father, was understandably very involved in this work, and Percy Merrick was himself going blind. I have concentrated on the songs Ella collected from Charlotte Few who was a domestic servant working for the Bull family in 1876-7 before her marriage to James Graves Dann. Ella Bull noted that Charlotte got her songs from her mother, Ann Few ,a native of Over, a fenland village 6 miles away. Many of the songs might have been considered rather unsuitable for young ears, dealing as they did with incest, extra-marital sex and slaughter. Nevertheless Ella faithfully reproduced all the words she could remember in her correspondence with Percy Merrick, and later Lucy Broadwood to whom she was referred by Merrick. It is quite likely that she revisited Charlotte in 1904 to get as many words as she could for the songs. Broadwood intended to publish some of them, but nothing ever came of this project. Certainly she remarked that some of the words were unedifying.
Charlotte Dann had eight children.The only surviving member of the family whom I could trace who remembered Charlotte was E. Mary Taylor ( nee Dann) a grand-daughter, who is now over 80 and living in a residential home in Cottenham. She remembered her paternal grandmother well, and was amazed to hear that Vaughan Williams himself had visited her in Cottenham in August 1907 and had collected a song from her. ( This was Lucy Wan, which had already been noted by Ella in 1904.) Charlotte married in 1879. Her marriage certificate bears her mark, rather than a signature, indicating that she was illiterate. All her songs must have been learned orally.
This very indistinct photo from Charlotte's eldest daughter's album may be of her mother. Mary was unable to confirm it, but the picture would have been taken long before Mary herself was born. Interestingly Mary did confirm that she remembered the door outside of which the lady is sitting as being just like her grandmother's. Having met both Mary and her nephew Barry Dann ( Charlotte's great-grandson) I consider the family resemblance striking.