Traditional songs were part of the life of the village of Sompting as of other downland villages. Harriet Finlay-Johnson, the Sompting schoolteacher who revolutionised teaching methods in the early 1900s, changing it from learning-by-rote to learning-with-play, wrote in her book 'The Dramatic Method of Teaching'(1912): "The mothers of the village ... practised the Morris dance and dramatized folk songs ... in the latter art they excelled, for they had a good store of the Sussex folk songs." As, too, did the menfolk and, thanks to Harriet, all of the children. Pam Boakes (nee Bunn) writes of her memories of her childhood Christmases in Sompting in the 1950s:
"In the evening the Home Made Wine would appear: Orange, Parsnip, or Dandelion and others. It wasn’t long before the older family members got how shall we say rather merry! This resulted in Uncle Walter playing the squeeze-box, with Grandad playing the tambourine! And they would both sing old Sussex songs and dance, What wonderful happy memories."
This Sompting folksong came from Mrs Emma Blackman (nee Barnett, born 1857). Emma wrote in the West Sussex Gazette on Sept17th 1903, from Yew Tree Cottage on the Sompting Estate (built by Henry Crofts), that her grandfather had sung the following version of Young Collins on Christmas Eve 1865, when she would have been about 8 years old. (Thanks to Colin Andrews for finding this.) This song has only been collected from a few singers in the oral tradition in Sussex and Hampshire.
Young Collins early in the morn
Goes whistling through the fields of corn
A young milkmaid both neat and clean
To milk her cow tripped over the plain
Young Collins saw her as she passed
He said my sweet and pretty lass
Will you along with me now go
Her answer was Oh Collins no!
He says fair maid I mean no harm
I'll make you mistress of my farm
Of ewes and lambs and poultry too
Can you love me? Says he, or no?
Then quickly she did turn and say
The mistress of your farm I'll be
To church they went, the knot was tied
So now she is Young Collins' bride
In 1876 Emma married William Blackman, who was born in Rottingdean about 1854. William became a gardener in Rottingdean before he came to work as a cowman on the Sompting Estate. In Rottingdean there was a great tradition of folk singing, especially kept going by the Copper family doubtless Emma and William's home was full of song.
On the East Sussex downs near Rottingdean, the Copper family also worked on the land in the nineteenth century, and sang songs from the same tradition. In fact they are still singing them 'unto the eighth generation'. In the Sussex tradition there's a strong vein of lyrical songs reflecting the life of the countryside and romance - though we are not without our tragic ballads on the one hand, or, our comic songs on the other.
Shepherd Michael Blann
A shepherd of Upper Beeding and the Sompting Downs area, who was famous for his traditional folk songs in the late 19th century, was Michael Blann. He was written about by the great Worthing writer on downland shepherding traditions, Barclay Wills.
Enjoying Sussex folk song today
Some folk clubs, such as the Elephant & Castle and the Royal Oak in Lewes, are good places to hear and enjoy traditional songs. If you get a chance to hear the Copper Family (of Rottingdean), take it, as they sing their harmony folksong repertoire together as their family have done for seven, or is it now eight or even nine generations. And if you would like to learn some songs and build your confidence, you could try joining a folk-oriented community choir such as the South Downs Folk Singers. For more information, try: