A Future for Ordinary Folk – Project Description

A Heritage Lottery funded project of the Charles Parker Archive Trust in partnership with Birmingham City Archives

The aim of this project was to digitise original sound recordings which exist on reel to reel tape, made by the radio producer Charles Parker (1919-1980), and to store the recordings on CD-ROM. This would enable their preservation and, with the addition of a catalogue of the contents, make them accessible to users. The recordings, chosen from Charles Parker’s substantial archive, concerned the oral tradition, vernacular speech, folk song and music, the folk revival and popular culture – see Table of Contents.

The following description can also be downloaded as a Word document

MS 4000 The Charles Parker Archive: ‘A Future for Ordinary Folk’ Project

Administrative History ISAD(G) IDENTITY STATEMENT
Custodial History
Reference Code:
GB 143 BCA MS 4000/5
The Charles Parker Archive: ‘A Future for Ordinary Folk’ Project
Scope and Content
Dates of creation of records:
Access and Use
Level of description:
part of a Sub fonds
Allied Material
Approx. 23 metres of shelving; 1188 tapes
Material available elsewhere
Physical characteristics:
Reel to reel tapes; tape boxes; CD-ROMs; papers
Archivists’ note
Name of repository:
Birmingham City Archives

The aim of this project was to digitise original sound recordings which exist on reel to reel tape, made by the radio producer Charles Parker (1919-1980), and to store the recordings on CD-ROM. This would enable their preservation and, with the addition of a catalogue of the contents, make them accesssible to users. The recordings, chosen from Charles Parker’s substantial archive, concerned the oral tradition, vernacular speech, folk song and music, the folk revival and popular culture.

Administrative history
The Charles Parker Archive comprises the sound recordings and working papers amassed by H. Charles Parker D.S.C. M.A. (1919-80) during his lifetime.

Charles Parker was born in Bournemouth in 1919, joined the Navy and commanded a submarine during the Second World War and was awarded a DSC; took a degree in history at Queens’ College, Cambridge and joined the BBC in 1949. In 1954 he moved to Birmingham as a radio features producer, and was employed full-time by the BBC until 1972. He was passionate about the cultural importance of the oral tradition and folk song and devoted much of his life to activities through which he could demonstrate their significance and continued relevance. Through the BBC he did his most famous work on the development of radio documentary techniques, his ‘radio ballad’ Singing the Fishing winning the prestigiousPrixItalia for the BBC in 1960. There is widespread recognition of the contribution he made to the art of broadcasting in the media today, a fact reflected in the biographical The Ballad of Charles Parker broadcast by the BBC in 1995.

Parker’s colossal energy was reflected in the other projects he was involved in, which extended far beyond his official work for the BBC, into lectures for the Workers’ Educational Association, the National Association for the Teaching of English, and the Polytechnic of Central London; extra-mural projects such as his collaboration with Arnold Wesker on The Maker and the Tool in 1962, and engagement in the Folk Music Revival of the 1960s and 1970s as a performer. His encounters with working people in his work for the BBC, and his association with leading figures in the Revival such as A.L. Lloyd, Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger, led him to adopt an increasingly political stance on a broad range of social and cultural issues. After leaving the BBC in 1972, he turned his unique talents as a performer and producer to the service of radical theatre, becoming a founder and mainstay of the Banner Theatre of Actuality in Birmingham. He died during rehearsals for a Banner production in 1980.

Charles Parker was a central figure in the debate about ‘Culture and Society’ which resonated through the 1960s and 1970s. This was a dispute about the relation of ‘High Art, Pop Art and Mass Society’, begun by F.R.Leavis and Edward Thompson in the 1930s. During the 1950s it had been taken up by the New Left, and was widely debated in artistic and intellectual circles. A key book in the debate was Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy (1957) which contrasted the working class culture of the 1930s with the Americanised pop culture of the 1950s, to the detriment of the latter.

Parker, like Hoggart, was deeply suspicious of modern pop culture and concerned about its effects on working class culture, but unlike Hoggart, he was actively engaged in attempting to resist American capitalism. He developed his views through lecturing on folk music to a series of Workers’ Educational Association classes in Birmingham in the 1960s, and came to believe that the vibrancy of vernacular speech was the key to good communication, and that educators had to learn from its example in order to communicate well in the era of electronic information. Secondly, he argued that the development of capitalist industrial society was in danger of destroying the social and historical roots needed to establish personal and collective identity, and that this posed critical problems for the well-being of society. He also remained strongly influenced by Christianity, which many of those who shared his political views found difficult to reconcile with his other tenets. There were undoubtedly contradictions and complexities in Parker’s views, but had he developed these lines of thought, and his related critiques of pop culture and the folk revival, as a coherent body of thought, he might have shared some of the limelight which writers like Hoggart, Adorno, Marcuse and McLuhan enjoyed in the 1960s.

Parker was, however, essentially a practitioner rather than a theorist, and believed that it was through local, regionally-based initiatives close to working-class communities that the trail had to be blazed. In the mid 1960s, he pursued an impressive range of activities. He was in regular contact with a group of folk singers and artists in London working under the direction of Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger and known as the Critics Group. The Critics Group was collecting a repertoire of regional songs which they were recording for Argo Records. Parker was the driving force behind the Birmingham and Midland Folk Centre, which undertook a similar hunt for songs from the Midlands. Some of the results were issued on the Topic record, The Wide Midlands (1971). The Folk Centre also presented concerts by luminaries such as Ewan MacColl, Peggy Seeger, the Exiles and Ravi Shankar, and organised semi-formal folk sessions, which developed into an independent club, the Grey Cock Folk Club, after 1967. Parker’s classes therefore took place not as a detached intellectual activity but as an active element in a thriving, non-metropolitan sub-culture.

Parker had been involved with theatre from his years at Cambridge, and by the early 1960s he was involved with a theatre group called the Levellers, who performed at St. Peter’s Church, Harborne, where he worshipped in Birmingham. Parker’s interest in documentary folk theatre attracted a group of people who were both active in the folk revival and committed to anti-racist and anti-fascist political ideas. Through the shows that Parker produced with this group, he worked towards a distinctive form of drama documentary in which tape recorded speech or other actuality, newspaper clippings or historical material, for example, provided the base into which traditional or contemporary folk song was woven.

Much of the technique was already in his head in 1962 when he prepared The Maker and the Tool , a multi-media documentary drama for presentation at six festivals in major cities run by Arnold Wesker in association with the Trades Councils. It came to full fruition, however, after Parker left the BBC. In the autumn of 1973 a new theatre group, the future Banner Theatre Company in embryo, was gathered from the regular performers at the Grey Cock Folk Club. The initial project was to produce a version of Parker’s radio ballad, The Big Hewer, known as Collier Laddie. The show combined Parker’s established mix of actuality, folk song and slide projection with dance and movement. Collier Laddie was produced at the Birmingham & Midland Institute, and was so successful that the group decided to take it on tour. From this success, the Banner Theatre Company was born, and over the years 1974 – 1980, Parker was involved in a series of shows with the company which gave it a considerable reputation in both the Labour movement and the community arts world.

At his death, Parker left a very substantial archive of sound recordings of speech and music, his working files of correspondence, notebooks, notes, transcripts of lectures, production books, and articles, and a library of over 1,000 volumes on the subjects of oral tradition, song, music and politics.

The recordings included in the ‘ A Future for Ordinary Folk’ project include, in addition to interviews and lecture work from the 1960s and 1970s, those made with three organisations of which he was a member: the Birmingham and Midland Folk Centre, the Grey Cock Folk Club, and the Critics Group.

The Birmingham and Midland Folk Centre, as mentioned above, was started in 1965 with the aims of collecting and carrying out research into Midland folk material from both oral and printed sources; disseminating such material through publication, performance and other means; furthering and developing the knowledge of all aspects of traditional folk music and, to this end, establishing a collection of books, recordings and documents dealing with folk music and other relevant material. At the end of the first year, according to a membership notice [in MS 4000/1/8/13/1] the members had already collected over four hundred items of Midlands song from oral and printed sources and prepared a selection of the material for publication; had acquired tapes of most of the traditional singers of Britain; had promoted a seminar on singing style by Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger; had organised a successful concert in Birmingham by Ravi Shankar; and had performed at the Singers’ Club in London and at the midlands arts centre in Birmingham. The Birmingham and Midland Folk Centre had also affiliated to the English Folk Dance and Song Society. The centre produced a long playing record in 1969 called The Wide Midlands and a book Songs of the Midlands.

The Grey Cock Folk Club grew out of the Birmingham and Midland Folk Centre, starting in 1967 as a performance outlet for material being collected. It was named after the ballad discovered and collected by members of the Folk Centre from a Birmingham singer, Mrs Cecilia Costello. Performances at the club were recorded for research and information purposes and were included as part of the tape collection of the Birmingham and Midland Folk Centre.

The Critics Group was a group of singers and musicians who met regularly with Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger from 1964 to 1971 to explore the art and politics of performance and provide criticism for each other. As well as the development of folk singing they took part in theatre projects such as the ‘Festival of Fools’, giving annual performances based on political satire. They also recorded, in 1966, as a radio ballad, a modern version of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ for schools. The group were also involved in the ‘Folksingers against Vietnam’ anti-war movement and in the Women’s movement. Again, recordings were made of the sessions for reference and educational reasons.

Persons recorded on these Critics’ Group tapes were (in alphabetical order): John Andrews; Frankie Armstrong; Rex Benjamin; Bob Blair; Brian Byrne; Jim Carroll; Phil Colclough; Pat Creedy; John Faulkner; Luke Kelly; Donniel Kennedy; Floyd Kennedy; Sandra Kerr; Pat Mackenzie; Jim O’Connor; Roy Palmer; Charles Parker; Brian Pearson; Jimmy Ross; Irwin Silber; Dick Snell; Denis Turner; Jack Warshaw; Terry Yarnell.

Custodial history
Following Parker’s death in December 1980, his widow established a charitable trust, the Charles Parker Archive Trust, to administer the archive. The material falls into two parts; papers and recordings resulting from his work for the BBC, which are recognised as being the property of the BBC, but which the Corporation have allowed to remain as part of the archive; and the papers and recordings relating to Parker’s other activities during that period and from the years after he left the BBC to his death. The Trust deposited the whole archive with Birmingham City Archives in 1985 (accession number 1985/21), and since then has worked in partnership with the City Council and the National Sound Archive in London to catalogue, conserve and promote the collection.

Draft lists of tapes, files, and miscellaneous papers were assembled before the archive came to Birmingham City Archives. This enabled some sorting to be done on arrival at the Archives and the library was stamped and numbered. The major activity undertaken since then towards cataloguing has been the listing of the manuscript material included in the archive, to enable the preparation of a computer-based travelling exhibition, ‘Man with a Microphone’, produced in 1994 to publicise the archive. This work was partly funded by the Foundation for Sport and the Arts. A more detailed description can be found in the annual reports of the Charles Parker Archive Trust.

The contents of the ‘A Future for Ordinary Folk’ project form a section of the part of the archive which comprises the reel to reel tapes. A section, and not the complete tape archive, was digitised because the material was selected to fit three criteria: the material had to be non-BBC copyright; the amount of material had to fit within the requirements of project funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund; and the material had to form a related and coherent part of the whole Charles Parker Archive. The area that fitted these criteria was that of folk music.

The overall arrangement of the Charles Parker Archive was decided upon when the papers were catalogued in 1994-1996. The collection was at that time known as ‘The Charles Parker Archive’ [CPA]. The paperwork was sorted into three sections:

CPA /1 personal papers and papers relating to Charles Parker’s career
CPA /2 papers relating to BBC programmes and non BBC projects
CPA /3 miscellaneous papers on various subjects

The reference CPA /4 was assigned to Charles Parker’s library of over a thousand books.

For the current project, the sequence was at first continued by allocating the reference CPA /5 to the digitised recordings. However, this was changed to MS 4000/5 when the catalogue for the project was completed.

The reel to reel tapes holding sound recordings had previously been arranged in chronological order of programme or project, but not given a reference number. Those which have been digitised have now been numbered as part of MS 4000/5 [CPA /5].

There were 9 tapes and 4 empty tape boxes in a later accession (number 1992/113), donated by a member of the Folk Centre/Grey Cock to the Charles Parker Archive, and these have been incorporated as part of the ‘Critics Group’ sequence (MS 4000/5/4/2). A further 41 tapes (of which 7 were blank and one tape box empty) in another later accession (number 1999/114 ) were also donated by a member of the Folk Centre/Grey Cock to the Charles Parker Archive, and these have been incorporated as part of three subdivisions of the Birmingham and Midland Folk Centre material, viz: ‘Local Field Recordings’ (MS 4000/5/3/5/5), and ‘Performances’ (MS 4000/5/3/5/6), and ‘Miscellaneous’ (MS 4000/5/3/5/7).

The chosen portion of the archive has a natural coherence, reflecting the way Parker’s diverse activities all related to his belief in the importance of folk music and vernacular speech. The 1,211 hours of recordings have been catalogued as follows:

MS 4000/5/1 Sound recordings of interviews with traditional folk performers and folk music collectors. Related performance material, folk music and folk song both local and international.

MS 4000/5/2 Sound recordings of lectures and teaching materials by Charles Parker and others relating to folk music and the oral tradition.

MS 4000/5/3 Folk Revival performance material.

MS 4000/5/4 Discussion of folk music and performance.

The third section, Folk Revival performance material, is mainly of recordings made by the Birmingham and Midland Folk Centre. The tapes held by the Birmingham and Midland Folk Centre were numbered, listed and indexed during the life of that organisation. The original list may be found in MS 4000/1/8/13. The new catalogue of these tapes can be found at MS 4000/5/3/5. A conspectus of new and previous numbers has been created for reference. There is an alphabetical index of song titles and tape numbers with the records of the Grey Cock Folk Club (MS 1642 addnl. Accession number 1995/4).

Scope and Content
The sub fonds consists of sound recordings transferred onto CD-ROMs; tape boxes; documents which were found enclosed in the box with the tape; and reel to reel tapes containing the original sound recordings.

Time periods: the original recordings were made from 1947 to 1978. Some traditional songs and music may be centuries old. There are many songs and music contemporary with the recordings.

Geography: The project includes not only songs and music from the British Isles, but from several countries in Europe including Greece, Italy, Hungary, Albania, Rumania. There is also music from Africa, India, Japan, China, North America, Trinidad. There is a particular emphasis on the West Midlands (Birmingham and Black Country) for recordings with traditional singers.

Language : The recordings are mostly in English, Scots and Irish (including Gaelic); there are local dialects, especially from the Black Country. Some songs in the Grey Cock Folk Club performances are in Italian, German, Bengali. A.L.Lloyd’s lecture and programmes include songs in Roumanian, Albanian, different African languages etc.

Music: A large variety of musical instruments are recorded, including autoharp, banjo, concertina, dulcimer, fiddle, flute, guitar, hurdy-gurdy, jew’s harp, Northumbrian pipes, uillean pipes, whistle.

Subject matter: There are many recordings which relate to the use of the tape recorder and to broadcasting and documentary skills.

The recordings with traditional singers, often elderly women and men, cover much of their life histories along with the songs they learned. They come from both rural and urban backgrounds and there is much about work (e.g. chain making, mining, farm work, factory work and domestic work) and life experiences such as childhood, religion, entertainment, travel, childbirth, poverty, death. There are also interviews with travellers about the traditions of their way of life.

Much of the interview material is of local interest to Birmingham and the Black Country and illustrates dialects, work, and life there in the earlier part of the twentieth century. There are also interviews with people from Dorset, Shropshire, Suffolk, Norfolk, Ireland, Scotland etc.

Folk music covers a huge range of subjects, touching most aspects of human life, from birth to death, love, sex, violence and murder.

There are a considerable number of recordings of folk music and song by Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl, many from long playing records they recorded, and also many talks and teachings given by them on the skills and techniques of singing and performing.

There are also songs about the sea and the navy; industrial and work songs, songs about myths and folklore; Irish and Scottish traditional songs; travellers’ songs and story telling; songs addressing the politics of both sex and class.

There is also material on racism in society, particularly in the recordings of travellers and, for example, in the recordings of Charlotte Brooks, a black woman involved in education in Washington, U.S.A. in the 1960s. There are recordings about political satire and drama.

Access and use
The reel to reel tapes containing the original sound recordings are, for reasons of preservation, not available for consultation. All recordings have been transferred onto CD-ROM. Tape speed and size have been recorded in the catalogue.

All the ‘playback’ CD-ROMs are available to be listened to on a dedicated CD player and headphones need to be used to avoid disturbance to other users of the City Archives.

The CD-ROMs may not be reproduced without written evidence of the clearance of copyright and performance rights.

The tape boxes may not be photocopied because this would cause damage to them.

Documents may be photocopied at the discretion of the archivist on duty.

Some recordings are closed to the public. There is a separate list of these.

Another preservation copy of the recordings has been made and will be transferred to the National Sound Archive at the British Library. A copy of the printed catalogue will also be also available there.

Copyright in these recordings is complicated: there is copyright in the words, the music, the sounds, the recordings themselves and there are performers’ and performing rights to be considered. It is recommended that advice is taken on all of these issues before any material is made use of.

The lists are ©Birmingham City Council (2004).

Allied material
In the Charles Parker Archive (MS 4000). Especially:

MS 4000/1/3/1 lectures and correspondence. 1955-1972.
MS 4000/1/3/2 lectures and correspondence for the WEA. 1964-1977.
MS 4000/1/3/3 lectures and correspondence for the Polytechnic of Central London. 1968-1980.
MS 4000/1/6 Publications by Charles Parker.
MS 4000/1/7 Correspondence and papers from friends, contacts etc. including A.L.Lloyd, Trevor Fisher, Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger, various ‘source singers’ and people interviewed.
MS 4000/1/8 Societies and organisations with which Charles Parker was involved, 1947-1980, including the English Folk Dance and Song Society; the Critics Group; the Birmingham and Midland Folk Centre; the Workers’ Music Association; the Grey Cock Folk Club; the Parkhouse Convention etc.
MS 4000/2 Folk music was used in many radio programmes, from the Radio Ballads (1958-1964) [MS 4000/2/64,74,78,82,87,92,94,97] onwards. For example: 2/108 Love Songs; 2/115 Romeo and Juliet; 2/117 The Making of the Midlander; 2/120 Of One Blood; 2/123 Solidarity with Vietnam etc.
MS 4000/3/9 Music and song : song books etc.
MS 4000/4 The library of Charles Parker. This contains numerous works on folk song and music and traditional oral culture. An author index is available and there is a subject list, though this is not comprehensive.

In Birmingham City Archives

MS 1611 Records of Banner Theatre. 1973-1988.
MS 1642 Records of the Grey Cock Folk Club. 1967-1988.
MS 1642 addnl. Index to tapes of the Grey Cock/Birmingham and Midland Folk Centre.
MS 1705 Records of the Clarion Singers. 1939-1992.
MS 1804 Records of the Birmingham and Midland Folk Centre.[c.1963-1968].
MS 1905 Anthony Schooling’s notes and transcripts towards a proposed book, ‘Only Listen’, based on Parker’s lectures. 1970-1985.
MS 1913 Cassette tape of BBC Radio 4 programme: ‘The Ballad of Charles Parker’. 1995.

Material available elsewhere

The MacColl and Seeger Archive, Ruskin College, Oxford.

Jim Carroll and Pat Mackenzie Archive: two performers and collectors involved in the Critics Group and with Irish and other folk singers/ musicians. Copies of recordings and paper catalogue deposited to at the National Sound Archive, British Library : NSA number C13.

South Wales Coalfield Collection, Swansea University: audio recordings: 4 interviews for ‘The Big Hewer’ study by Charles Parker 1975 -76; recording of a seminar on the History of the south Wales Coalfield presented by Charles Parker, 1973; recording of a lecture by George Ewart Evans, introduced by Charles Parker, 1975. See website http://lisweb.swan.ac.uk/swcc/audio/ttm


Fisher, Trevor: Charles Parker: Aspects of a pioneer: a personal view. (Charles Parker Archive, 1986).
Filewood, Alan and Watt, David. Workers’ Playtime: theatre and the labour movement since 1970 (2001).

Archivist’s note

List prepared by Marie Stephens and Fiona Tait, Project Archivists, Birmingham City Archives, under the ‘A Future for Ordinary Folk’ Project, 30 September 2002 to 31 May 2004.
Sub-fonds level descriptions are based on ISAD(G): General International Standard Archival Description (2nd Edition).

© Birmingham City Council

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