Working with tradition:
towards a partnership model of fieldwork

Written by Ian Russell

Director of the Elphinstone Institute, University of Aberdeen [1]

© 2006 Ian Russell

This paper has been reproduced from the April 2006 Edition of Folklore, the Journal of the Folklore Society, at, and is with their consent and also that of the Gale Group.


This paper explores the interaction between fieldworker and "tradition bearer" over an extended period of time, in the context of an ethnographic study of singing traditions in the southern Pennines of England. Using examples, it examines the negative as well as the positive aspects of the exchange, with particular emphasis on mutuality and reciprocity. It charts the development of key relationships and the ways in which they have come to maturity and achieved equilibrium. Careful thought is given to the role of the fieldworker in respect of active / passive, interventionist / non-interventionist stances. Aspects of performance, commercialisation, networking, promotion, and media relations are discussed. Following a consideration of ethical and moral issues, including exploitation and advocacy, the paper suggests a working model of partnership as a way forward for future productive field-based research into traditional expressive arts.


In 1969 I took my first steps as a young fieldworker in folklore exploring the world of traditional singing that I encountered on my doorstep in the neighbourhood of Sheffield.[2] It was my intention at that time to remain detached from the subject of my research in order to observe as objectively as possible the phenomenon I was recording, but such a neutral stance became untenable when I first encountered the local tradition of carol singing.[3] It is in the nature of this largely pub-based tradition that everyone present participates. As an incomer, I was at first gently quizzed concerning my background, then explicitly encouraged to join in, and even supplied with a set of words to enable me to do so. In such a situation it would have been churlish to have remained aloof. I decided that the best way to establish my credentials was to demonstrate a willingness to sing, and to learn the words and the tunes.[4] Such overt recruiting tactics on the part of the singers, who so clearly expected an active response from the incomer, seeking both approval and aesthetic endorsement, put significant demands on the fieldworker.[5] It is the meeting of such demands that this paper will consider.

The notion of "reciprocity" is fundamental to the relationship between the fieldworker and the so-called "informant" or "subject." Theoretical understandings of the concept in terms of power relations have been evolving among anthropologists since the development of the discipline (see, for example, Sahlins 1972,185-275). Roger Sanjek, in his paper about fieldwork practices and relations between researchers and their field of work, discusses, "the ethnographic present as gift," by which he implies the gift of ethnography to the discipline of anthropology (1991, 619-21). This he interprets in terms of reliability, validity, and truth. In this paper I want to take a different tack – to explore what it is that helps to build a healthy relationship between the fieldworker and his or her associate, and that ensures an ethical approach to fieldwork.

The interpretation of reciprocity that is expressed in transactional terms is the giving of inducements or rewards by the researcher (Goldstein 1964, 160-73; Jackson 1987, 267-9; Myers 1992, 36). I have considerable misgivings about this approach, which bears the hallmarks of paternalism, such that, at the crudest level, the "culture" of the "subject" may become the object of trade, and may be misappropriated and exploited. The present research is firmly set in the "home" world (Stoeltje 1999, 160-1), where reciprocity is manifested through implicit obligation, and at times by negotiation. I see it as a process that develops hand-in-hand with the building of relationships and growth of mutual trust over an extended period of time (Georges and Jones 1980). Humanity and friendship become paramount and the researcher and his or her associates, partners, or consultants[6] build relationships that are both interactive and balanced (Hood 1971, 222; Titon 1995, 288). The common interest in the musical traditions becomes a shared interest, as the distinctions between insider and outsider become transcended or tend to disappear altogether. This process is understood as a partnership (Myers 1993, 12-13), with the responsibility for the integrity of the relationship lying firmly with the fieldworker.

My own approach to fieldwork has been heavily influenced by a tradition of folklore scholarship in the USA that emerged in the 1960s. It represented a move away from the folklore scholar as a field collector or armchair scholar, obsessed with a passion to acquire texts, to the folklore researcher as ethnographer, concerned to record context, performance and experience. Such an approach openly acknowledges the role of the fieldworker, who is expected to demonstrate a high level of integrity, sensitivity, and openness towards the people with whom he or she works (Abrahams 1970; Paredes and Bauman 1972; Ives 1978; Glassie 1982). This is particularly timely in view of the late Alan Dundes's Presidential Invited Address to the Annual Meeting of the American Folklore Society at Salt Lake City, in 2004, in which he openly attacked proponents of this tradition of scholarship, namely Glassie and Toelken, for allowing "intimidation by their informants" to influence their scholarly judgements.[7]

Three ethnomusicological studies, in which reciprocity has had profoundly positive effects on relationships, are those by Anthony Seeger, Steven Feld, and Kay Kaufman Shelemay. In Why Suya Sing, Seeger describes how he taught bluegrass to his Amazonian hosts and collaborated with them in the publication of a recording to promote their culture (Seeger 1987, 19-23). Feld's work with the Kaluli of Papua New Guinea led to the publication of recordings, including one of the sounds of the rain forest (Feld 1982; 1991). This has sold in tens of thousands, and the royalties plus part of the proceeds were devoted to the purchase of tracts of land to prevent deforestation. In the study of her own fieldwork in Shadows in the Field (Barz and Cooley 1997), Shelemay examines the ways in which she became active in the process of transmission, while researching the culture of Jewish people of Syrian descent living in New York, especially their hymns or pizmonim (Shelemay 1997). Her acts of reciprocity included the production of a CD recording, writing letters of advocacy, and giving lectures to introduce pizmonim concerts. As fieldworkers in folklore we should recognise the need for agency; and as researchers in ethnomusicology we should acknowledge that it is appropriate to "give back," especially where firm relationships have been built up over a number of years.


The key example I have chosen for this study of the interaction between fieldworker and fieldwork partner is based on my own experience, and I shall outline briefly the subject of research and the research methodology. In the region of Sheffield in the south-east Pennine uplands, outside the main centres of population, groups of people maintain local traditions of Christmas carolling, which are quite distinct in style, performance practice, and repertoire from the popular national conception that has its roots in the Victorian era. The origins of these "village carols" predate those of the popular repertoire by at least a century. The most characteristic carols, the tunes of which were composed by members of the artisan class in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, have distinctive fuguing sections in their tunes. Other more modern items of repertoire have been added during the past two centuries, including evangelical hymns and secular songs, such as glees. The performance setting is usually the village pub where an informal group of singers assemble at a certain time each week. In some communities, the local non-conformist chapels uphold the tradition, and perform the carols as part of a perambulation of the district. The season of performance lasts as long as six weeks in some villages, whereas in others singing only takes place on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. In most traditions the singing is unaccompanied, but some sessions are accompanied by piano, organ, or, more unusually, by string or brass instruments (Russell 1997; 1999; 2004).

From Recording and Documentation to Publication

As the research progressed, my approach to the fieldwork reflected the wider concerns of progressive folklorists in the 1970s, moving from a focus on the items of tradition to a concern for the processes that distinguished it. From 1970 to 1972 the area to the north-west of Sheffield was surveyed and recordings were made to establish the different repertoires in the key venues.[8] This survey was widened and consolidated over a number of years by hundreds of hours of further recording of the singing in context, by interviews, and by archive and library research, with the purpose of investigating and understanding how the tradition fitted into the lives of the singers and their communities, the meanings it brought, and the significance it held for them.

Over a decade or so of regular contact, my status within each of the ten groups gradually changed and developed. In the pub-based groups, which have tended to draw their participants from an ever-widening network, I was no longer treated as an outsider or "incomer," but accepted as a participating member of the groups, albeit with an unusual and special agenda. With the perambulatory groups, however, my role remained distinct. Here the relationship was one of mutual respect; I recognised their role as significant performers of a distinct carol repertoire, while they regarded me as their local historian and archivist. Moreover, I found that they were unashamedly using me as a conduit for information about other carolling groups and the carols that they sang. They were naturally curious to discover how their carolling tradition compared with others, both in terms of similarity and difference.

In 1973, I was approached by a specialist record company to produce an LP of field recordings and, after consultation with the participants, this project went ahead with their support (Russell and Leader 1974). It was well received among the three communities involved (Oughtibridge, Ecclesfield, and Dungworth). More than ten years later, following a BBC Radio 4 programme that featured the carol singing at the Black Bull, Ecclesfield, I was encouraged by the singers to produce a tape of their carols, the BBC producer having kindly donated his high-quality master-copies for that purpose. When the tape was published, a scholarly basis was ensured by the inclusion of a forty-eight-page book with a detailed account of the tradition, as well as notes, references, and transcriptions of the words. Following on from this publication, other carolling communities were keen to have their tradition similarly recorded, and, in response to this demand, a publication programme was undertaken. Ten significant traditions were systematically documented and recordings compiled. This material formed the basis of a cassette (later CD) and book series (see Appendix).

Celebratory Contexts

Besides the effects of the fieldwork in terms of publication, there were other developments taking place in the context of performance that were to a certain extent attributable to the impact of the research, especially the "discovery" of significant local manuscripts.

During the 1960s and early 1970s, in the area to the north-west of Sheffield, three formal groups had been founded by local enthusiasts with the express remit of sustaining the local carols, especially the part-singing and instrumental elements, within an institutional framework. These were the Bradfield Choral Society, Bolsterstone Male Voice Choir, and Worrall Male Voice Choir. They were also joined in this endeavour by a number of local brass bands, including the Loxley Silver Band and the Stannington Brass Band. They did not see themselves in competition with the pubs, but rather as the direct descendants (as some of them indeed were) of performing carol choirs or bands--such as Worrall's "Big Set," which toured various local communities. They held large carol concerts in village halls or working men's clubs, such as the Lomas Hall in Stannington and the Victory Club in Stocksbridge, which proved to be very popular, particularly with elderly members of the commtmities who did not frequent pubs. By the middle 1980s, however, the first of these choirs had ceased to function and the focus of the others had moved away from the local seasonal repertoire to the mainstream competitive one of male voice choirs. This had left a void, of which the local carolling community, including myself, was aware. The introduction of the Festival of Village Carols in 1994 was an initiative in direct response to this situation.

Since the start of my research I had been loaned copies of local carol manuscripts to photocopy. As I became more established, I was entrusted on occasions with original manuscripts, and these have been deposited in the Sheffield Record Office (renamed Sheffield Archives) or in the Archives of Cultural Tradition in the University of Sheffield. One set of manuscripts in particular--those from the Worrall families of Mount and Dawson--are now in the Sheffield Archives. These were considered to be of great significance by local carol musicians, as they contained a comprehensive set of vocal and instrumental parts.[9] Up until 1950, they had been used by the "Big Set" choir mentioned earlier. When the owner of the manuscripts let it be known that she wished to donate them, it was on the understanding that they should not be hidden away but that their contents would be made widely available.[10] Thus, an agreement to undertake the responsibility of stewardship was implicit in my acceptance of the manuscripts.

The idea for a festival emerged out of informal discussions among a small core of knowledgeable carollers from several communities, who, like me, regularly travelled to singing sessions in the different carolling villages. Two objectives we had in mind were to provide an opportunity for carollers to learn to sing parts other than the tune and for instrumentalists to play the string parts, including the "symphonies" -- short interludes of music between the verses of certain carols. Consequently, I offered to make the music from the Mount-Dawson Manuscripts available for the festival. A total of twenty-five well-known local carols have been transcribed from this source, which have now become the core repertoire for the festivals. The organising group felt that it was essential that the festival should not be a concert, thereby separating insiders from outsiders, but rather a fully-inclusive participatory event, at which the carols could, if necessary, be learnt from scratch in a workshop situation. It was also proposed by the organisers that the festival should invite as guests local village groups to perform carols from their distinctive repertoires -- an idea that has worked well. These festivals are now well established on a biennial basis and have attracted capacity audiences of four hundred or more.

Ethical Considerations

Among the ethical considerations a fieldworker needs to take into account are the ways in which the research data are conserved and accessed, and how the research findings are disseminated. This is particularly relevant for the scholar who, like me at the time, was unattached to an institution of higher education, and did not have answers to such ethical questions on the conduct of research enshrined in a university policy. Moreover, it was my intention to make the materials resulting from my fieldwork readily available to the scholarly community.

As many ethnographic researchers have found out, it is inevitable that the client group, and occasionally also the local media, should want to know what has been discovered. Thus, I have been invited to speak to several groups in the region, such as the Bradfield Local History Society, about the local carolling traditions. Acceptance of these invitations has been beneficial for both speaker and listener, as many members of the audiences, have been, or are, participants in carolling in their locality, and their information, comments, leads, and other contributions have often proved invaluable.

I have also been approached on occasions by broadcasters and reporters for advice and assistance, to enable them to feature the various carolling traditions in their programmes and publications. When such approaches have come directly to me from the media, some of the groups have asked me to act as their spokesperson. Undoubtedly, positive media recognition raises the self-esteem of the group, while the listeners', viewers', and readers' feedback from any resulting broadcasts or publications has been of great significance to my research.

In view of my policy of making the results of my field research available to the wider community, I have organised and indexed the material and deposited copies of it in two major sound archives--the British Library Sound Archive and the Archive of Cultural Tradition at the University of Sheffield. From the beginning of the fieldwork, the principle of mutuality had been firmly embedded in my approach and built into the methodology, which I have developed and used. Thus, relationships have developed into firm friendships, while the publications and recordings of the respective carolling repertoires (see Appendix) have provided tangible and permanent tributes to the several communities in which I had carried out my field research.

The question of royalties and profit from the publications (books, tapes, and CDs; see Appendix) were ethical issues that needed to be resolved from the outset (Slobin 1992, 334), particularly as there is an unwritten view among the carol singers that the ownership of the carols is held in common and that no individual should benefit financially from them.[11] With advice, a "not-for-profit" organisation was set up to handle the publications, and each group of participants was invited to nominate a charitable body to which all royalties would be, and subsequently have been, paid.

It also became quickly apparent that the carol singers themselves were pleased to give the publications as Christmas presents to friends and relatives. In fact, Bill Gregory (1915-2004), who was one of the main sources of information for the Ecclesfield publication project, would enquire for whom (i.e. which village) I would be preparing the "next Christmas present!" [12]

Anecdotal evidence has come to light that the publications of selected field recordings (see Appendix) have enabled new participants to access the repertoire of the group they were joining -- their favourite learning opportunity being to listen to the relevant tape or CD while driving. Even experienced carollers have utilised the recordings in this way, particularly as an aide-memoire at the start of a new season. Similarly, the books that accompany the recordings are regularly seen in use by carollers as song-sheets.

The process whereby a community's carol tradition is recorded and documented, and the whole presented as a publication, which is then taken back and made available to the singers, has been termed "repatriation" (Shelemay 1997, 201). This term conveys the basic idea that recordings taken from the carollers are subsequently reunited with them. "Repatriation," however, also has connotations of a more distant, hegemonic, and distinct relationship between the fieldworker and the associate -- one in which an aspect of cultural tradition removed from the group (and subsequently lost or partially lost to them) is then restored.[13]  At none of the ten locations where the local carolling repertoire was recorded, and subsequently published, has there been a lapse of tradition. Moreover, "repatriation" has certain inapplicable connotations when applied to a fieldworker such as myself who is working in a group of which he or she is seen to be a part. Shelemay had used "memorialisation," which I consider to be the more useful term in this context (Shelemay 1997,199), while a colleague helpfully proposed the term "validation" to express the impact of published recordings on the group repertoire.[14]  A more pragmatic paradigm of the function of such recordings was given by one of the Foolow carollers, Tim Sands. He referred to the publication of their carols as "a safety net," which would come into play should the tradition falter at any stage in the future. Such recordings and books may have a supportive role in the transmission of a group's repertoire, but it is through regular annual performances that the carolling tradition is maintained and sustained.

Most experienced researchers who have conducted fieldwork in folklore will be aware that the process of carrying out an enquiry in the field -- setting an agenda, asking questions, and showing an appreciation of the material -- can contribute to a local rekindling of interest, and, in certain circumstances, may even lead to a revival of the traditions concerned.[15]  Something like this happened to me as a result of my own fieldwork and publications.

In 1991 I was invited to address a Workers' Education Association meeting in Thorpe Hesley near Rotherham on the subject of the local Christmas carolling traditions. I learnt subsequently that the people behind the invitation were using my knowledge of local carolling customs to create an interest in their own village carols, which they hoped might lead to their being revived. (The tradition of carol singing in pubs at Thorpe Hesley had lapsed in the 1970s.) My research findings have subsequently been used by them to re-establish the local repertoire and to identify knowledgeable local singers (Russell 1995). The tradition was revived in 1994, and local carolling has subsequently taken place every December since then.

The need for an ethical code is best exemplified in dealings with the media. Thus, fair and faithful representation has been emphasised in this connection, thereby encouraging respect for the carolling event itself and the participants. It is important to ensure that the people who hold the traditions are the arbiters of whether or not media recording or filming should be permitted. Film-makers have been cautioned against the dubious practice of "two takes," whereby a performance is repeated in order to shoot it twice on the same camera from two different angles for subsequent screening purposes (often causing frustration among the singers). Very occasionally, such advice has been ignored with unfortunate consequences, even resulting in negative feelings towards me as the researcher.[16]

The areas of ethics, media involvement, and relationships with local carollers have often proved tricky to negotiate -- that is, to equate the demands of the one against the needs of the other, while ensuring that the integrity of the participants is not compromised (Goldstein 1964, 160-73; Jansen 1983; Fluehr-Lobban 1991; Finnegan 1992, 214-33; Davies 1999, 45-64). I have found that the practice of consulting the leading singers of groups in an ad-hoc arrangement and respecting their wishes may reflect the views of the majority, but not necessarily the voices on the fringes. Moreover, the membership of such groups may vary from week to week as not all participants are able to attend every session, or choose not to do so. It is, of course, the unpredictability of the membership of such groups at the individual pub sessions that helps to build the atmosphere of anticipation and excitement, and to create the potential for what the participants would term "a great sing." Where enthusiasms are abundant and passions run high, consensus viewpoints do not always fit well.


A strand of advocacy has run throughout my work of researching and documenting local Christmas carolling traditions (Shelemay 1997, 194-5). Part of my objective in this context has been to enable the tradition, including repertoire, performance, occasion, rendition, and the participants, to be recognised as being significant. A priority, therefore, has been to give a sense of empowerment to the carollers, to enable them to feel that their tradition is valued and that they have control over its future. One way of achieving this has been through the organisation of festivals, which have provided platforms for fourteen different "village" groups to perform their carols. Feedback from the groups themselves, and the festival goers, has confirmed that the experience has been beneficial in promoting individual village carolling traditions.

The raising of public awareness of these traditions is seen by members of all the groups as a positive outcome of their feeling of empowerment. Examples of the higher profile they now enjoy include the regular support of two Members of Parliament (one a minister of state) for the singing events in one village; in another, the Mayor had formally launched the first carol singing outing in 1999; and in a third, the carollers were recognised as "official cultural ambassadors" by being invited to sing at the opening of the new Town Hall in December 1999.[17]

Another outcome of this sense of empowerment has been the effectiveness of some groups in attracting new members and thereby increasing their overall numbers: "Every year it was a real struggle to ring round and try to get people to turn up and sing ... I have no worries now." The success of some groups in this respect is, however, acknowledged as a cause for concern: "Some of the places (pubs) are packed solid and one has nearly to camp out to be guaranteed a place." There is, thus, a recognition of the connection between "wider knowledge" and "people now travelling a distance to attend"; and the cautionary conclusion from one correspondent was that "over publicity will have a detrimental effect on the tradition."

Although a request for advocacy in a legalistic context has fortunately not yet arisen, this situation may alter, however, as a result of recent changes to the Licensing Laws.[18]  In relation to folklorists, Steven Zeitlin has commented: "our advocacy often takes the form of ensuring that traditional culture and the artistic expression of ordinary people are not ignored" (Zeitlin 2000, 5). In this sense, advocacy is at the centre of all our interests and research activities as folklorists (Russell 1997, 88-9; 1999, 8; 2004), although I suggest that the late Alan Dundes in his controversial address referred to earlier would have had difficulty squaring this priority with that of faithful and accurate reporting (Dundes 2005).

Many formal music associations and authorities would, however, consider the phenomenon of local carolling traditions not only unworthy of study (Sharp 1907, 125), but virtually even invisible or non-existent (Routley 1958). In a small but significant way, the situation is changing, to the extent that fifteen of the three hundred settings in The New Oxford Book of Carols (Keyte and Parrott 1992) are from the "village" carols repertoires (Russell 1993), while the West Gallery Music Association, founded in 1990, has enthusiastically taken up the cause of this vernacular music through performance activities and publications (Ashman and Ashman 1998). Debora Kodish notes that her folklore teacher, the late Americo Paredes, promoted a social activist stance that helped to define the field of folklore (1993, 193)--"[it] documents, interprets, presents, and advocates for forms of cultural expression that are underacknowledged or undervalued by the academy and the mainstream media" (my italics) (Zeitlin 2000, 5).

As part of the methodology for my work, I have strived to promote mutuality, where researcher and caroller are on equal terms, share decision-making, and build trust in each other (Myers 1993, 12-13). Research is also shared and, as part of the writing-up process, proposed publications are shown to key participants to minimise inaccuracies, and for comment and feedback, in a process of validation. This is, in effect, a form of partnership. Such a partnership model is exemplified by the organising committee of the Festival of Village Carols, which is composed of fourteen experienced carollers. In a recent partnered research project, members of a carolling community at Bamford sought help on how to document their tradition, including advice on how best to seek funds from the Heritage Lottery Fund-Local Heritage Initiative, recording procedures, preparation of the material for publication, and the publication itself (Mackey and Mackey 2004).

Taking a Reflexive Stance

The publication of research findings on village carolling, undertaken with integrity and transparency, has, of necessity, involved the construction of a narrative (Jackson and Ives 1996, xi). The aim of the ethnographer is to create order from a gallimaufry of data, including archival information, recordings of performance events, and personal oral histories. This is done by a stringent process of analysis -- categorising, recognising relationships, building meaning, and hopefully providing insights -- and all of these activities and stages involve selection, presentation, interpretation, and mediation. When James Clifford and George E. Marcus brought out their seminal volume on the making of ethnographic texts, such an understanding was their starting point. We must create such texts if we are to communicate our material; the question is how well can this be done and does a self-conscious, reflexive stance contribute to its quality? (Clifford and Marcus 1986).

An example of my own mediations is the construct "village carols," chosen to distinguish such carols from the standard repertoire of nationally-known popular carols. I recall the other possible names that I also considered -- and discarded--including "local carols," "vernacular carols," "country carols," "pub carols," and so on. Certainly, "folk carols" was unacceptable as it had been appropriated by Sharp to describe a specific form of narrative songs of the Nativity performed by individuals in monody (Sharp 1911), perhaps more accurately categorised as "ballad carols." In any case, the term carries a great deal of unhelpful ideological baggage. Musicologists specialising in sacred music had coined the term "gallery carol" (Keyte and Parrott 1992, 669-76), by which they implied a rather rustic form or offshoot of psalmody performed by "quires" in the west galleries of country churches in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. This was hardly appropriate to a vibrant twentieth-century tradition that was more usually found in a pub or on the streets than in a place of worship. Of course, no terms are free of some connotation or other, or can necessarily be defended from some form of misunderstanding or misinterpretation -- not even, perhaps, the term "village carols."

Through the publication of my research, carol singers, especially those in relatively isolated communities, have become much more aware of the inter-connectedness of their local traditions. They have been able to compare repertoires, singing styles, accompaniments, and performance milieux. They have indulged in sightseeing visits to different carolling areas and established carolling relationships. Occasionally, they have even learned and performed each other's carols, when it has suited them.[19]  It thus appears that the adoption of a new (or partly new) repertoire has been at the behest of the core carollers in the various venues and not as a direct result of the influence of the publications and recordings, giving rise to a process of standardisation.

One of the most marked trends in recent years is that carol supporters travel considerably greater distances than was the norm thirty or more years ago in order to sing at their chosen session. Hence the constituencies of the carolling communities in several locations, such as the Royal Hotel at Dungworth, have become much wider and are not drawn exclusively from the catchment areas around singing venues. I would argue that this trend has not led to the standardisation of repertoire or style, but rather the reverse -- that the identities of the individual traditions have been reinforced. Carollers who travel from outside a district are generally very sensitive to local nuances and persuasions, and demonstrate an awareness of the distinctiveness of the individual traditions, the manner of performance, as well as showing respect for the leaders of the sessions and the choice of carols performed. Of course, respect for tradition and informed behaviour result from insight and knowledge, which may have stemmed indirectly from familiarity with Village Carols publications (see Appendix).

While some aspects of the carolling event are performed on a more consistent basis than was formerly the case, it is rarely possible to say why exactly that is the case. For example, several different carolling groups repeat the final section of a carol as a matter of course, something that did not happen to the same extent in the past. The overall tempo of the performance in some venues has increased, while pitch has become more amenable to the vocal range of participants -- part singing has become generally more prominent and undertaken with greater confidence. A few items of repertoire that were widely popular thirty years ago, such as the settings of "While Shepherds Watched" to the well-known hymn tunes "Amazing Grace" and "Crimond," are now less frequently performed (see Appendix 1988 [VC003]), whereas the popularity of other items, such as "Ho, Reapers in the Whitened Harvest" and "Song of the Swale," is in the ascendancy (see Appendix 1996 [VC009]).

I would suggest that leaving one's fieldwork partners in ignorance of one's research findings is not a realistic or ethical option. Moreover, access to the documented histories of the main carol traditions has helped to demythologise some of the more extravagant claims -- for example, that a village's or locale's repertoire of carols was composed entirely by local people and that the carols performed in that village or locale are unique to it. My experience has been that their decisions, conscious and unconscious, in the performance and interpretation of their respective traditions, are far more likely to be influenced by accepted conventions, local chauvinism, personal aesthetics, and a desire for innovation and variety, rather than by publications of the fieldworker.

Northrop Frye conceived of "modem pastoralism" as an "escape from society to the extent of ldealislng a simplified life in the country or on the frontier (Frye 1971, 43; Rosaldo 1986, 96-7). For Renato Rosaldo, the pastoral mode is a subtle form of domination emerging "in interactions between town and country, middle class and working class, and colonizer and colonized" (Rosaldo 1986, 96-7). He relates it to a civility that crosses social boundaries, characterised by courtesy, leading to respect, but ultimately condescending in its reverence for a simplicity that is lost. The narrators or fieldworkers metaphorically "go native" and don shepherds' clothing, as the distinction between Self and Other becomes a blur (Tedlock 1991, 69). The charge of "modem pastoralism," however, can only be sustained if it can be demonstrated that the fieldworker-associate relationship is imbalanced.

As a carol singer and participant in several village traditions, I appreciate that I have become a part of my associates' agenda. Lynwood Montell's comments on a similar situation demonstrate how this balance shifted for him: "What I didn't understand at the time was that the singers were gradually weaving a web around me and my research efforts, drawing me in closer and closer to the center of their activities" (Montell 1996, 123). Whereas the fieldworker may vehemently refute a charge of "modem pastoralism" laid against his or her own researches, no one can guard against the pastoralist (mis)appropriation of their work. Such was the case with the publication of a highly mediated selection from Gavin Greig's folk song collection, after his death, as Last Leaves of Traditional Ballads and Ballad Airs, under the editorship of Alexander Keith (Greig 1925; Thomson 2004, 206-8).

Balanced Reciprocity

It is my experience that recognising the importance of reciprocity enables the fieldworker to give back to his associates, to serve their purpose, follow their agendas, and support their aims, without compromising his or her research. Montell acknowledges this state of equilibrium and partnership in a moment of epiphany: "I stood there singing with the group I had come to document. There was no line drawn between me, the fieldworker, and them, the performers. I was one of them" (Montell 1996,127). In a self-reflexive exposition of his work on Navajo Coyote narratives, Barre Toelken concludes: "We already have plenty of 'things' to study; what we lack is a concerted effort to understand fieldwork itself as an interhuman dynamic event with its own meanings, texts, and contextual peculiarities. Otherwise we run the risk ... of believing ourselves to be the objective beneficiaries of other people's traditions which we are free to submit to our analysis. It is folly" (Toelken 1996,16). What Toelken has not identified for himself is that he achieved this understanding, after thirty years, as a result of an act of reciprocity. At the request of the Navajo themselves, he gave his paper on Navajo worldview as part of a programme of lectures on their culture, organised by the reservation. In response, their hatali or medicine man enlightened Toelken, by giving him the missing piece of his jigsaw: "What the Coyote stories are really about" (Toelken 1996, 7).

This account is reminiscent of Paul Berliner's transcendent fieldwork moment, in which an understanding of the tuning system of the mbira was suddenly revealed to him by one particular associate, with whom he had built up a special relationship based on mutual trust, after six years of field trips to Africa (Berliner 1978, 7).

Ethel Dawson's donation of the Mount-Dawson manuscripts, as a consequence of the fostering of good relationships during my fieldwork, enabled me to engage in reciprocation by editing them for publication (see Appendix). The manuscript books, formerly belonging to members of the "Big Set" carol party, provided the key to the instrumental parts created to accompany the carols. This information had not previously been known, as the available piano scores were merely redactions of the vocal parts. The knowledge the manuscripts unlocked was invaluable and helped to fuel the Festivals of Village Carols, as well as acting as a resource for other carol singing events. This was reflected in the weekly gatherings in Grenoside (at the Old Red Lion or Cow and Calf) convened by Ray Ellison, who leads a group of string accompanists. Moreover, the music contained in the manuscripts provided a unique insight into the performance style of village bands, such as the "Big Set." It does not simply provide an outline of the notes, as might be expected, but details the patterning and embellishments that distinguished and characterised the performance of such groups. This level of information had not previously been available to scholarship or to local carolling groups.

Thus, engaging in reciprocity not only makes for good practice on the part of the fieldworker, but can also help to provide the key to a greater understanding of the material collected.

Ethnography and Allegory

In Clifford's own contribution to Writing Culture (Clifford 1986, 98-121), he argues that ethnographies are allegorical at two levels of meaning -- the presentation of information about a culture, and the understanding and interpretation of that culture. In his usage, allegory denotes "a propensity to generate another story in the mind of its reader" (Clifford 1986, 100), a story or meaning, it should be added, beyond the control of the ethnographer. A review of the emerging Village Carols series of sound recordings that appeared in the Journal of American Folklore, in 1994, described them perceptively as, "a potentially valuable instructional resource," thereby identifying their importance in a pedagogic context, a usage which had not been envisaged at the time of their production (Ashton 1994, 418).

It came as a pleasant surprise to learn that in the Ottawa Valley in Canada, a group of singers led by the folklore scholar Shelley Posen had started their own carol singing tradition in a pub in 1990, using the South Yorkshire tradition as their paradigm. Posen's acknowledgement of this derivation is stated, and exemplifies the allegorical potential of the ethnographies (Posen 2001, vi). The Ottawa movement, with its several hundred followers, is not a reconstruction or a revival no more than it is an imitation or a clone. It can be understood in terms of its diasporic qualities as a cultural outport with an emerging identity of its own. Posen emphasises the organic nature of the movement by describing it as a 'transplant."[20]  How the Canadian phenomenon relates to its English counterparts is a source of fascination for the Yorkshire carollers, who regard it a tribute to the qualities of their carolling tradition that Canadians should want to emulate it. If the phenomenon is interpreted as an act of reciprocity, it is an unanticipated consequence of the action of producing ethnographies of the carolling traditions, thereby demonstrating in Clifford's terms allegorical meaning with unpredicted results. Thus the Canadians looked to the ethnographies as teaching tools to (re-)create a music, with which they found resonance and which helped them to express their identity.

The working model postulated here does not lend itself to neat theoretical abstractions, but depends on the fostering of good relations in fieldwork and the adoption of an ethical stance. Balanced reciprocity cannot be instantly achieved but develops over time in a form appropriate to each different relationship and set of circumstances. It does not happen by chance but has to be worked for, and here there is clearly a need for agency. The mutual benefits of such actions may appear to be intangible and incalculable, as with a strong friendship; but out of the engendered trust comes the potential for insight and enlightenment.


The fieldworker will almost certainly affect what he or she is engaged in researching. The notion of objective impartial research is largely a myth that is achieved by hiding a vital part of the evidence--oneself. Recognising the impact of the Self on the research enables a deeper understanding to be achieved, but we are not helpless; the shadow we cast is of our own making and our ethnographies should reflect it (Barz and Cooley 1997). Relationships built up during fieldwork can also be exploitative, and imbalanced reciprocity can exist. The process of reflexivity, which emerges from personal ethics and a reasoned consideration of what one is doing, can guard against this. We are privileged by being granted an insight into the life and culture of our associates--their gift to us. We can reciprocate this generosity in an active manner, both positively and ethically. We can manage our actions and our outcomes so that they may be mutually beneficial. Balanced relationships can grow into partnerships, built on trust and respect, which can give rise to fruitful outcomes. Such partnerships can create their own sense of energy, which can enhance experience, and even lead to happenstance, the transcendence of allegory.

Appendix: Village Carols Publications and Recordings Edited by Ian Russell

1987 A Song for the Time: Village Carols from the Black Bull, Ecclesfield. C60 audio cassette, VC001 with 48 pp. book. Unstone: Village Carols.

1988 Arise, Rejoice and Sing! Village Carols from the Blue Ball Inn, Worrall. C90 audio cassette, VC002, with 56 pp. book. Unstone: Village Carols.

1988 While Shepherds Watched: Village Carols from the Fountain, Ingbirchworth. C60 audio cassette, VC003, with 40 pp. book. Unstone: Village Carols.

1990 The Bells of Paradise: Village Carols from Castleton in the Derbyshire Peak. C60 audio cassette, VC004, with 48 pp. book. Unstone: Village Carols.

1992 Peace o'er the World: Village Carols from Hathersage in the Peak District. C60 audio cassette, VC005, with 48 pp. book. Unstone: Village Carols.

1993 To Celebrate Christmas: Village Carols from the Travellers Rest, Oughtibridge. C80 audio cassette, VC006, with 44 pp. book. Unstone: Village Carols.

1994 A Festival of Village Carols: Sixteen Carols from the Mount-Dawson Manuscripts, Worrall. Unstone: Village Carols.

1994 On This Delightful Morn: Village Carols from Foolow in the Peak District. C59 audio cassette, VC007, with 48 pp. book. Unstone: Village Carols.

1995 A Festival of Village Carols. CD and C74 audio cassette, VCF101. Unstone: Village Carols.

1995 Come Sing for the Season Village Carols from Coal Aston in Derbyshire. C36 audio cassette, VC008, with 48 pp. book. Unstone: Village Carols.

1996 Hark, Hark! What News: Village Carols from the Royal Hotel, Dungworth. CD and C79 audio cassette, VC009, with 52 pp. book. Unstone: Village Carols.

1996 A Festival of Village Carols: A Second Collection of Carols from the Mount-Dawson Manuscripts. Unstone: Village Carols.

1997 Brightest and Best: Village Carols from Beeston in Nottinghamshire. CD and C49 audio cassette, VC010, with 48 pp. book. Unstone: Village Carols.

1997 A Festival of Village Carols 1996. CD, VCF102, Unstone: Village Carols.

2000 A Festival of Village Carols: A Collection of Carols from the Derbyshire Peak District. Sheffield: Village Carols.


Earlier versions of this paper were given at the British Forum for Ethnomusicology Annual Conference, University of Sheffield, 14-16 April 2000, and at the 32nd International Conference of the Kommission fur Volksdichtung (Societe Internationale d'Ethnologie et de Folklore), University of Leuven, 22-28 July 2002. The author would like to thank Norma Russell, Vic Gammon, and Tim Ingold for their thoughtful and valued comments and advice.

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[1] Biographical Note: Ian Russell is Director of the Elphinstone Institute, University of Aberdeen, where his research is focused on the traditional culture of North-East Scotland, including sacred singing, flute bands, free reed instruments, verse recitation, and the role of individual singers. Prior to this, he conducted extensive fieldwork into the singing traditions (including Christmas carolling) of South Yorkshire and North Derbyshire. He has also researched traditional drama, dance, and humour. He was a former editor of the Folk Music Journal, 1980-1993, and, with David Atkinson, edited Folk Song: Tradition, Revival, and Re-Creation (Aberdeen: University of Aberdeen, 2004).   [Ian is now retired , and is Professor Emeritus at the Elphinstone Institute.]

[2] This fieldwork later formed part of my PhD dissertation (see Russell 1977, vol. 1, 117-40). The research was undertaken on a part-time basis, as I was employed full time as a primary teacher (1970-85) and as a headteacher (1986-99).

[3] My participation was not a conscious adoption of the classic participant-observer stance, but there are similarities with Mantle Hood's concept of bi-musicality (1960, 55; 1971, 230-41; Titon 1995), although I was unaware of this methodology at the time. I was, however, acutely aware of the importance of context in my fieldwork. Stoeltje et al. have described this realisation as: "the shift ... away from the collection of disembodied texts to an emphasis on the enactment, creation, use or performance of folklore by specific individuals in variable settings" (1999, 167). See also Finnegan (1992, 91-111) and Tedlock (1991).

[4] The decision to participate wholeheartedly is now considered good ethnomusicological practice: "Learning to sing, dance, play in the field is good fun and good method" (Myers 1992, 31).

[5] Lynwood Montell has described a similar experience with the gospel singing tradition in South Central Kentucky as "absorption" (1996, 118).

[6] The term "associate," "partner," or "consultant" is preferred to the pejorative "informant" or "subject" (Jansen 1983; Finnegan 1992, 221; Titon 1995, 289).

[7] See Dundes (2005) and the correspondence in American Folklore Society News, vol. 34, no. 1 (2005, 13-14).

[8] The survey was undertaken for the Survey of Language and Folklore, Department of English Language, University of Sheffield, directed by J. D. A. Widdowson (Russell 1970; 1973).

[9] See the Mount-Dawson Manuscripts, Sheffield Archives, LD 2440/1-4.

[10] Ethel Dawson, Worrall, 20 November 1983.

[11] This was not strictly true before 1960, as the main collection of local carols, published in Sheffield by Goddard's, was used to advertise their business--a music shop and piano tuning service, and later an electrical appliance shop (Goddard 1928; 1960).

[12] Quotations are from my fieldnotes, transcriptions of my field recordings, and correspondence.

[13] This interpretation seems to be at variance with the fact that members of the carol groups have made their own recordings and that locally published collections of carols are readily available. For recent examples of carol collections published locally, see Worrall Male Voice Choir ([1982] 2002), Birkby (1990), and Goodison (1992); and for recordings, see Worrall Male Voice Choir (1993) and Goodison (1993).

[14] I am grateful to Colin Milton for suggesting this.

[15] When Cecil Sharp carried out research on the morris dances of Winster in Derbyshire in 1908, his visits generated a full-scale revival of the dance -- something he did not mention in his fieldnotes or subsequent published studies. See in this connection Sharp and Macllwaine (1909, 43-6; 1910, 12-13 and 94-100; 1924, 76-82). Copies of Cecil Sharp's manuscripts are in the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, London. See Field Notebook 3, 17 April-27 June 1908; Folk Words 9, 1535-52; Folk Tunes 8, 1694-97 and 1715. Compare these accounts with "An Old English Revival: Morris Dancing at Winster" [no author cited] in The Derbyshire Times, Saturday 4 July 1908: "It is fifteen years ago since there was Morris dancing in this quaint Peakland village, and the performance gave evidence of careful training."

[16] One television crew, who filmed on 1 December 1996, were particularly insensitive. Their producer had arranged with the licensee to film at the Royal Hotel, Dungworth. Their intrusive manner, typified by their insistent requests to repeat carol performances, upset some of the carollers, one of whom threatened them with violence if they did not stop filming. The crew subsequently left.

[17] These are respectively the Black Bull Carollers, Ecclesfield; Beeston Methodist Carol Choir, Nottinghamshire; and Coal Aston Carollers at Dronfield, Derbyshire.

[18] Under the previous legislation in some parts of England (e.g. Bristol and Oxfordshire), public entertainment legislation (the Licensing Act 1964, section 182) was enforced with rigour by over-zealous local authorities. This legislation required pubs, where three or more musicians perform, to have a Public Entertainment License, the fee for which varied between 500 [pounds sterling] and in excess of 2000 [pounds sterling], depending on the local authority. Less than five per cent of pubs chose to take out a license. (Infringement could have led to a fine of £20,000 [pounds sterling] and a six-month prison sentence.) Some local authorities chose not to distinguish between professional musicians hired by the pub, amateur folk musicians having a "jam" session, and members of the public participating (e.g. singing along). In 2001 there were two reported instances of carol singing being forbidden by this law, in Westminster (Sunday Times, 30 December 2001, 16) and in Dorset (Sunday Telegraph, 23 December 2001). At the time of writing, the impact of the new legislation (Licensing Act 2003) has not been felt as full implementation is not due until November 2005, but one pub chain (Samuel Smith of Tadcaster) is reported to have banned all live music from its premises -- see Kirsty Rigg (2005).

[19] For example, in 1997 Hathersage carollers added "Merry, Merry Christmas" to their repertoire from the Eyam tradition, following a carol workshop held in Eyam on 8-9 November 1997, which some of them attended. They call it the "Eyam Carol."

[20] See handwritten dedication in a copy of the collection in author's possession.