Music for the Place that was England

The Captains’ Apprentice, Caroline Davison

The Captains’ Apprentice, Caroline Davison, Penguin 2023 £9.99.

In 1905, Ralph Vaughan Williams embarked on a journey to the isolated East Anglian port town of King’s Lynn. Today recognized as one of England’s most celebrated – and at times, divisive – composers, the trip profoundly influenced the trajectory of his musical oeuvre. At thirty years old and not yet famous, Vaughan Williams was a committed socialist, fervent internationalist, and cultural nationalist, a blend of convictions that might seem paradoxical by today’s standards. This combination of sensibilities has perplexed many modern commentators but earned him admiration from a wide array of public and political figures, from Michael Heseltine to Jeremy Corbyn, who championed Vaughan Williams’s symphonies during the 2017 General Election.

Born in 1872, Vaughan Williams’ visit to King’s Lynn was part of a pilgrimage into the heart of England’s folk tradition. Urged by an idealism that once led him to state that “Every composer cannot expect to have a worldwide message, but he may reasonably expect to have a special message for his own people,” the journey was part of a broader cultural effort, alongside friend and fellow composer Gustav Holst, to reject the bombast of 19th-century German classical music and create authentically English music. According to Vaughan Williams, such music was found in the rapidly disappearing olk songs of the English countryside. Despite initial setbacks, the quest led him to discover the tune called “The Captain’s Apprentice”. It is the discovery of that tune which is expertly detailed in Caroline Davison’s book of the same title, a text juggling biography, musicology, history, and imaginative speculation to encapsulate both the local and wider social character of our islands.

Davison’s narrative offers a panoramic view of Vaughan Williams’s life and the cultural milieu of King’s Lynn. Through her exploration, readers gain insights into the composer’s personal journey, his interactions with the townsfolk, and the broader socio-cultural implications of his work. Beginning with the story behind The Captain’s Apprentice, Davison handles the nuances of song ownership and cultural appropriation, illustrating the y parochial troubles and class-based problems Vaughan Williams and other contemporaries met during their song-collecting efforts. His week-long stay in King’s Lynn yielded about 70 folk songs, most notably The Captain’s Apprentice, introduced to him by seaman James “Duggie” Carter, with the aid of the local vicar, at the Tilden Smith public house. Now renamed The Retreat, the Tilden Smith is the last surviving pub of the old “North End” area of King’s Lynn. Largely levelled in the 1930s, Vaughan Williams described it as “the worst [slum] he had ever been to” and that he was “very forcibly reminded [upon visiting the area] that the appeal of the folk song was to the ear and not the nose”.

We should be grateful to Davison for such insights, as her reflections on Vaughan Williams’ “absorption with the idea of evoking place” and his belief in folk songs as “an audible manifestation of the English soil” are brought to life with her vivid sketches of King’s Lynn in the early 20th century and the isolated conditions that gave birth  to those folk traditions.

Davison develops Carter’s meetings with Vaughan Williams from local knowledge and embellishes them with her own speculative thoughts, the end result being sometimes excessively detailed and factually ambiguous discussions on the possible origins of the song itself. Such an approach, however, does succeed in embellishing the nuanced mystique of what we call “folk songs” and somewhat emulates their spontaneous transition through time, place, and the collective consciousness. Vaughan Williams incorporated the modal melody of The Captain’s Apprentice, a narrative ballad about the torture and suicide of a teenage cabin boy, into his first Norfolk Rhapsody. We are told by Davison of the original tune’s myriad verses and melodies which appeared in other parts of the country. Still, its origin likely concerns Robert Eastick, a King’s Lynn boy who drowned himself in 1856 after being sadistically abused on a merchant ship bound for Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka).

The music is haunting and sombre – Johnson Doyle, the captain of said ship, was later tried (and acquitted) for Eastick’s murder, creating a sense of profane tragedy around the whole piece. Yet, while Davison’s presence in the narrative is measured, her historical and speculative recitations serve as a compelling invitation to delve deeper into the life and attitudes of Vaughan Williams. We learn that he was a man much less interested in the stories behind the folk songs than he was in their melodies and modes, which Davison refers to as a “disconnect”. This is perhaps best exemplified in his practice of “cribbing”, the lifting of motifs and sometimes whole songs as main themes in his works. Vaughan Williams considered this a “legitimate and praiseworthy practice,” so long as it was deliberate and he “made it [his] own”.

Yet Vaughan Williams’ approach to composition, characterized by the blending of traditional and novel elements, reflects a deep-rooted belief in the power of music to express the universal aspects of the human experience. As a singer and resident of Norfolk herself, Davison’s book is more than just a window into the life of Ralph Vaughan Williams but an exploration of the nature and rich heritage of English traditional song and its lasting influence on classical composition. Unfocused at times, her attention to nuance and local lore paints an intimate picture of a subject that has been chalked up by some commentators in the wake of Vaughan Williams’ death with blind nostalgic sentimentality, and by others with charges of fascism or chauvinistic nationalism. Folk song, Davison reminds us, should not be confused with bucolic romanticizing. It is the very real expression of the human condition.

Subscribe to access the full Salisbury Review Publication.
If you are already a subscriber, click here to download the latest publication.

Share This News

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *