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Doc Rowe - A National Treasure!
by John Adams and Dave Herron


In 1931 H.G. Wells wrote “In England we have come to rely upon a comfortable time-lag of fifty years or a century, intervening between the perception that something ought to be done and a serious attempt to do it” (Work Wealth & Happiness of Mankind). At the end of the last century the Victorian collectors saw a need to record for posterity the tapestry of music, custom, and song that they saw in danger of disappearing. Collectors such as Lucy Broadwood, Frank Kidson and Cecil Sharp would have been amazed and alarmed at the position at the end of the twentieth century; amazed at the wealth of material that has been amassed and alarmed at the dearth of provision for their legacy.

No properly funded centre exists in England to research and celebrate our vernacular arts. No sustained funds or facilities have ever existed in England specifically for research into our native traditions. Most research and collecting has to date been accomplished informally by individuals generally unsupported financially. One such individual is ‘Doc’ Rowe. Arguably the most important English collector since Kidson or Sharp, he has been documenting folklore, song, dance and cultural traditions for the last thirty years, and has amassed an archive of material on past and contemporary popular culture in Britain. With its particular emphasis on annual traditional events (what some call calendar custom), the collection containing a wide variety of media - video, film, photography, and audio, has already been acknowledged internationally as of major significance.

How major?
If you had a year to listen you would still not work through the 3,500 hours of open reel recordings and the 4,000 or more cassettes. Amongst the 1,500 records are some rare transcriptions. The audiotapes include all Doc Rowe's own field recordings and actuality as well as material linked to documentaries and broadcasts. There are off-air recordings and material donated by other collectors. The records and catalogues are extensive, including BBC Sound Archives (10 volumes), EFDSS Sound Library Index and catalogues of commercially available recordings.

Should you have time to browse, you might like to inspect the 900 hours-worth of viewing copies drawn from the 2,000 hours of master video tapes on custom, song, dance and interviews that Doc has personally shot. Further related material includes off-air, donated and purchased material and some of this custom actuality material dates back as early as 1912. There is 16mm footage largely from ‘The Future of Things Past’ (Wood Film / C4 1986) series that he worked on in 1985-6.

Early last year BBC2 televised a drama called ‘Shooting the Past’ in which actors Timothy Spall and Lindsey Duncan fought to preserve an antiquated picture collection from American developers. The production was peppered with haunting collages of photographic images and won public response and critical acclaim. The archive depicted could be easily matched by the feast of photographic material included in Doc Rowe’s collection. The photographic record consists of a mind boggling 40,000 black and white negatives and over 1,500 colour negatives as well as 2,500 prints and 32,000 transparencies all filed according to location, date and sequence shot. Negatives are filed in date sequence. Doc’s own work is backed up by personal indexes to other photo collections including the Benjamin Stone Collection, Cecil Sharp’s photographs of Singers (in England and USA) and the photographs on song and dance in the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library.

In addition, there is written and printed material (either as photocopies or in published volumes), field notes and correspondence. There are artefacts, posters, newspaper cuttings and video taped material. There is exhibition and display material consisting of mounted photographs, ephemera and material objects developed from Doc’s work as a designer and illustrator.

His records include computer-generated indexes to material in EFDSS Film and Video Collection, and allied subject references to footage in the National Film Archive and BUFVC collection. There are indexes to material at CECTAL (Sheffield), the Morris Ring, and the Morris Federation.

It would take an army of librarians to sort through the 7,000 books, journals, magazines and that does not include the personal diaries and letters or Docs own printed material and manuscripts. Add to that the various County, Museum and contact references, as well as calendar custom indexes detailing regions, dates and types. Over here are transcripts and texts from audio and video recordings; over there are news cuttings and sources on custom, superstition, contemporary legend, song and dialect. You can find regional texts, transcripts and files for folk plays. Specific indexes and complete runs of major magazines and Journals are available such as Folklore, Folksong Journal, Wordlore, Lore and Language and English Dance and Song. Collections of Folk Life, Oral History Journal and History Workshop Journal, sit side by side with runs of Folk Revival magazines. Elsewhere, there are various manuscripts and song collections, ephemera, Broadsheets, and posters on 20th century popular culture and folklife.

There are items such as a Mummer’s Costume, Haxey Hood Lord’s wand of office, a variety of ceremonial and ritual foods from events such as doles, or charities. Ephemera such as posters, souvenir items including key rings, tea towels, cups etc. are on display as are a number of dance costumes. Negotiations are also taking place to include other collections, which include song and dance, storytelling and childlore.

Of the man himself.
Doc Rowe's work encompasses that of teacher, designer, photographer and broadcaster. He states that a major inspiration stems from working with Charles Parker on the BBC radio documentaries in the early sixties and also in later theatre productions. A passionate and committed field worker, Doc is a strong believer in the use of modern media tools as participatory and precipitatory forms which have yet to be taken up and used both positively and creatively. He is often called on to contribute to broadcasts about aspects of folklore, tradition and oral history and has worked on a number of TV productions as researcher, consultant and writer. His photographs of traditional events are regularly published and his own books include “We’ll Call Once More Unto Your House”(1982) about Padstow May Day, “ With a Crash and a Din (Morris Ring: 1984) and a series on British Folklore for schools (EFDSS Publications: 1994-96).

In the early eighties he was based in Sheffield at the Centre for English Cultural Tradition and Language (CECTAL). He then moved to London to organise the London History Workshop Centre Sound and Video Archive. It was the experience of working with these collections that has led to the recognition of the significance of his own material and the necessity of ensuring appropriate storage security and an improved level of access and display.

This necessity was further underlined some time ago when Doc's London flat, for many years the location of the collection, was flooded. Luckily no damage to the collection resulted but a move was urgently needed. Due to the generosity of Elizabeth Wood and the Elizabeth Robson estate, the lower part of a Georgian house in Bristol was made available for Doc to rent and house the archive collection and the removal of the items to the new location followed. A further move, within Bristol, is taking place at the time of publication, with assistance from the newly formed Doc Rowe Collection Support Group, co-ordinated by John Adams of Salford University and including some key figures from the traditional arts field as consultants as well as many sponsors.

It is clear that this collection is now beyond the ability of one man to manage. As a still energetic fifty-something, Doc has done his bit and it is truly amazing that he has achieved so much without significant assistance.

But why should this have been the case? In England, although there is increasing interest in ‘our national heritage’ and traditions, all too often genuine local material is overlooked and supplanted by a synthetic nostalgia product which perhaps more readily fits the requirements of the heritage industry and the colour supplements. Often local or regional traditions are simply picked up and appropriated in a way which often trivialises (much the same as the media often do) treating them as ‘quaint, bizarre and outmoded’.

Aside from this we also suffer from a long-accepted attitude, ossified by an overwhelming influence of early folklore scholarship, that any tradition which involves groups of people from a community in a joint public activity must have origins in ritual from an earlier pre-Christian culture. Discussion still tends to be, by and large, concerned with early pagan similarities, even though many ‘traditions’ in Britain are now known to have only originated in the 18th and 19th centuries. We need to move away from this. Hypothesising about a tradition’s origin has meant that vital elements have often been overlooked and are, therefore, undocumented. It is essential to look at the diversity and vitality of the living traditions and how a community expresses its need to maintain a pattern of existence and to identify the changes in traditional culture. The place of tradition within family groups, the local background, context of the performance and performers and the social and economic changes in the community, all of which will affect the events, are all virtually unknown.

Oral history techniques go a long way to uncover these details. Similarly, the ‘folk arts’ involved in the preparation of artefacts associated with certain traditions: the costumes, the ‘hobby horses’, the garlands are rarely recorded, as are the designs which are shaped by local and individual aesthetics. Film and photography go some way to redress this. But they need to be supplemented by taped interviews, bibliographic, photographic and historical source material, to provide a social and historical background material hitherto unavailable.

This has been the bulk of Doc Rowe’s work ranging from the Padstow Mayday through Abbots Bromley Horn Dance to Scotland’s Burry Man and beyond. The continuous (“serial”) fieldwork and regular contact with communities in the British Isles where individual events occur has provided a harvest of material that is both wide ranging and constantly updated. It has been achieved by recording this undocumented material in all its variation and change through frequent visits to the community especially away from ‘their day’. This in its turn has led to a positive relationship between ‘collector’ and ‘collected’ providing a unique and more representative approach to the study of not only custom but also of dance, song, dialect etc. and the documentation of otherwise unrecorded aspects of many of our cultural traditions. This is the strength of the collection and indeed the signature of Doc’s style and what makes it unique.

It is also important not to overlook the importance of the personal contact and goodwill that he has built up over the years. There are a large number of individuals and groups that have assisted in the work over the years and, in turn, many that have been helped by the resulting collection. Doc’s interest has attracted support from other like-minded individuals and many are now sending contributions to his collection. In the past six months three significant major collections of books and recordings have been donated, as have material objects such as costumes.

Towards a national centre.
The end of this century seems an appropriate time to redress the effects of neglect; a century with vast technological upheaval, which has done so much to fragment and dislocate the culture that we are considering. The paradox here is, that the invaluable media tools - camera, tape-recorder - that are the means of expressing and developing this record are also the very tools which have been so potent in destroying our traditional popular culture.

Yet these tools, in the hands of the discerning, have all the means to reveal resolve and acknowledge the qualities of common life so lacking in our contemporary culture. By collecting and making available archive material for education, research and instruction, we can stimulate the ‘folk mode of expression’ and develop interest in local tradition generally. Paradoxically the mixed media nature of the collection has proved to be a disadvantage when searching for an organisation or institution to provide a home. Since many institutions deal only with single media, collections would be split according to group. i.e. books to the British Library, audio to the National Sound Archive. Film archives are only interested in the film and maybe the video. Likewise, sound archives and photographic archives are not interested in the other media, although television programmes would benefit from access to all of the collection, be it audio, still or movie. One would have thought that in this ‘multi-media’ age a mixed-media collection would have little problem in this respect.

It is immediately obvious that, housed to give access and effectively marketed, the whole collection could generate income from all branches of the broadcast, narrowcast and print media, provide an attractive research resource and allow us to expand our knowledge of our traditional cultural past and present. An important additional benefit would be the opportunity to return copies to the regions where material originated, a natural outcome at a time when, following political devolution, interest in regionality is growing.

A support group
The Doc Rowe Collection Support Group is a loosely-bound group of sponsors and consultants who Doc describes as ‘shareholders’. The long term aim of the support group is the institution of an integrated permanent archive incorporating a study resource of audio and visual material and the possibility of exhibition space. The dominating feature of such an archive would be its commitment to electronic dissemination of material to the academic community, the media and the public at large. By harnessing the genius of late 20th and early 21st century technology, that ‘public at large’ is potentially global, and given the large amount of Trans-Atlantic interest in Doc Rowe’s work, this would be a very significant sharing. But although the collection would be the ‘bedrock’ on which a resource could be built, it need not stop there. Many other individuals and organisations researching into vernacular arts have expressed concern over the long term prospects for the safe keeping of their own collections and, in the short term, safe keeping of similar collections no longer in the care of their original creators. All too often the material is seen simply as hobbyist material with only ephemeral significance. Sometimes personal collections are seen as something to be ‘disposed of’ by relatives or executors of an estate at the death of the owner and in extreme cases this could involve material going to the ‘highest bidder’ irrespective of its importance to the community from which it was gathered. The provision of such an archive would mean an end to such uncertainty and with the right management even provide an income for the estate which deposited the material. To this end, discussions are already underway with interested parties with regard to funding the future opportunities.

In the short term, the support group has more pressing aims. The intermediate storage of the collection is already underway, and this is being financed by the ‘equivalent of buying Doc a pint!’ scheme. If 75 people are willing to give Doc, via the support group, the price of a pint of beer per month for the next 12 months, he will not get the opportunity to drink it but it will go to house the collection in its temporary home while the permanent solution is negotiated. (I’m sure he would appreciate the occasional ‘real’ pint if you bump into him!)

A second short-term aim is to bring Doc more firmly and realistically into the digital age with some newer recording technology. Given Doc’s knowledge, research ability and skills, it seems unrealistic - if not perverse - to document the early part of the 21st century on predominantly analogue technology. To this end, approaches are being made to a variety of media equipment manufacturers and the support group will be spearheading a campaign for the provision of the equipment and the blank media.

Doc Rowe is a national treasure in charge of a national treasure and his worth is well evidenced in the exponential growth of the support group. At the end of a century which began with well- intentioned people recording for posterity a culture which was seen as declining and dying, his enthusiastic and dedicated documentation has not only recorded a large proportion of the past for our potential interest and enjoyment but shown a more optimistic view - one which embraces and celebrates that culture as a living and organic form that is still capable of expansion - a Living Tradition



Links, further information and recordings:

If you wish to contribute to the campaign to support Doc’s work and help make moves to disseminate it, you can make a donation, either on a regular basis by standing order or by a single donation. If a pint of beer is valued at 2.00 (depending where you drink it) and you consider it worthwhile giving Doc the equivalent of a pint each month, then you could ask your bank to make a standing order of 6.00/ quarter or more to:

The Doc Rowe Collection Support Group
Lloyds TSB plc, Commercial St., Halifax
Sort Code; 30-93-76
a/c 2282673

Alternatively, you could send a cheque to:
The Doc Rowe Collection Support Group
21, Halifax Road,
WestYorkshire, HX6 4AH

tel. 01 422 822 413