First published in fRoots magazine, May 2017 (issue 407)


Doc Rowe has built up an astounding archive of photos, films, sound recordings and more from over fifty years collecting. Jo Breeze celebrates his achievements and outlines the problems!

Doc Rowe is a singer, musician, researcher and author, but above all else an unparalleled collector and archivist of British folklore and vernacular culture. His collection, at last count, comprises more than 400,000 photographs and transparencies, over 8,000 hours of audio, over 3,000 hours of video or film, along with transcripts, notes, written and printed material, ephemera, artefacts and more.

Described by the British Library as “arguably the largest and most significant archive in the world of audiovisual materials and artefacts documenting the cultural heritage of the United Kingdom and Ireland”, its existence and survival has depended on the enthusiasm and commitment of Doc himself.

Never created with some grand over­arching plan, the Doc Rowe Collection has instead arisen out of Doc’s own tireless and passionate fascination with British traditions. He marks his first visit to Padstow May Day in 1963 as a formative moment, and was so amazed by it, “I went back the following year because I couldn’t believe what I’d seen. It’s just remarkable; still is, 54 years on.” He’s been a regular ever since, trusted by the dancers and musicians who are understandably (and rightly) protective of their tradition.

Growing up in Torquay, “quite a loner” as he describes himself, Doc discovered the Third Programme, a hugely influential BBC radio channel featuring plays, poetry readings, talks, documentaries and of course music. Through this, he was introduced to Bert Lloyd’s programmes examining the survival of traditions of epic song and music in Europe, Africa and Asia – as well as music from closer to home.

At art school in the 1960s he connected with the burgeoning folk scene, and started performing regularly – but had also already begun his collecting work in the form of a research project with friends, spending lunchtimes taking it in turn to scour local newspapers for snippets of urban legends, song texts, or traditions.

When “singing for my supper”, as he puts it, Doc came to the attention of Charles Parker, producer and documentary maker responsible for the Radio Ballads along with Ewan MacColl. Doc was singing in a Birmingham club, and was approached after his performance: “This chap came up saying ‘I was interested in the way you did it, the guitar work was interesting but had you thought about…’ and then he came out with some kind of nicely veiled criticism. I was quite impressed because one of the things I really didn’t like – and still have problems with – is that there is no criticism on the folk scene. Art, if you’re going to class it as art, thrives on criticism; people comment on it, and you can reject that or build on it. And this never happened in folk clubs. So I thought that was great – then I took out the business card and it was Charles Parker.”

This meeting resulted in a lifelong friendship, as well as a working relationship, and Doc credits Charles as a tremendous influence. “I literally would sit at his feet. I mean Charles would sit at the feet of Ewan, and I could quite often hear Charles saying things you knew came from Ewan, and I can remember doing exactly the same thing. And in more recent years I remember a young lass interviewing me for a PhD project, and I thought my god, the world’s changed, because that was me years ago listening to Charles and accepting everything he said. Absolutely amazing man.”

Doc has photographed, filmed and documented seasonal events all over the country for over 50 years, “everything from ‘biggest onion growing’ to the really big rituals”, and he’s a familiar face at many events year-round like Padstow May Day, Haxey Hood, or the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance. His work (already far beyond what any reasonably ambitious person might consider a lifetime’s achievement) has relied on Doc himself being an unobtrusive but constant and trusted presence, and has won him many friends.

“This whole idea of being a Participant-Observer” he says, referencing the still-disputed anthropology/sociology practice, “years ago I would have said was utterly wrong – you need to be objective and stand back and all the rest of it. But actually I defy anyone to do that, if you’re doing it properly. The reason I go back over and over again is not scientific, it’s not academic, I just enjoy these people.”

He is also very clear about the necessity of not obstructing the very event in question. Whether officially or informally, observing and documenting a tradition runs the risk of also interfering with it, and – as a result of both his experience and his understanding of the events and people involved – he tries to stay as unnoticed as possible. He recalls one year, filming Padstow May Day for Channel 4, being approached by someone who asked when he was going to start filming. Doc replied they’d been filming for two hours already, saying “remember that; that’s what it should be like – there should be no intrusion at all.”

And it’s not just documentation of public events. He has often been able to record traditional singers and musicians, as a friend, in informal settings – meaning hours of unhurried audio and video recordings of performers as they run through their entire repertoire, share memories of growing up, swap stories, share a joke, or make endless cups of tea. He filmed Jane Turriff, legendary Scottish traditional singer, in her home in Mintlaw. “Just remarkable; 170 songs. I think the first song she sang was Tifty’s Annie while she started to make the tea, and she sang 136 verses. So the tea was undrinkable. And I think we were at somewhere about three in the afternoon before we finally did get a cup of tea, because that kept happening.”

Perhaps surprisingly, there is no natural ‘official’ home in the UK for this material that would allow it all to stay together. The British Library, the National Sound Archive, the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, university libraries; most options that spring to mind are limited in some way – whether in remit, in space and resources of their own, or in funding. Like many crucial archives that have gone before, Doc’s collection is a personal labour of love; it is regularly accessed by major broadcasters and publishers, academic institutions, writers and researchers, filmmakers, artists and performers, and of course the people and communities whose traditions are documented. But it is still only managed by one – very busy – man.

It can be challenging to maintain an archive without a steady stream of funding or a dedicated team; Doc has managed thus far without either, and indeed has, on occasion, ensured his collection is safe, dry, and housed when he was not. For a few years it was temporarily stored in a Sheffield museum, while Doc himself was hitchhiking around, recording and photographing, and occasionally sleeping in the same gallery as the collection – but, as he says, it became very cold in winter so he found a creative solution. 

“I moved into the English Linguistic department. There was a storage room that I had, and a camp bed that I kept in a cupboard. It was only on a Thursday I had to wake up before 5am because the cleaners came round. I used to sit at the typewriter and click away until they’d gone, and I always remember them telling me off; ‘You’ll never live ’til you’re old if you go on like that’. And I said ‘yes alright, but I’ve got to get this finished,’ and as soon as they’d gone I got the camp bed out and I went back to sleep. Did that for years.”

But even that dedication has occasionally been tested: when a flood nearly took out the whole collection; when a well-meaning landlord let him know just in time they were going to knock down one of the walls into the archive, “but don’t worry, we’ll put a tarpaulin over it”; when the rent to store it threatened to eat into most if not all of his pension. Friends and supporters from all over the globe now regularly contribute to the Doc Rowe Collection Support Group, which helps cover some of the rent. More recently, Stephanie West spearheaded a fundraising campaign via JustGiving to contribute towards storage costs.

Stephanie is also responsible for a current project reliant on Doc’s work, bringing together three artists from different disciplines to create new works inspired by the collection. The project and subsequent exhibition, says Stephanie, “will allow us to explore the role of the folklorist and collector in the present day, and how intangible traditional customs can be ‘preserved’ for future reflection and artistic contemplation.” Photographer Bryony Bainbridge, illustrator and printmaker Natalie Reid, and multimedia artist/historian/anthropologist Anna FC Smith are creating artworks which explore the meaning and content of the archive; their work alongside selected pieces from the collection will go on display in 2018. 

Perhaps the most important thing they may learn in exploring the archive is the significance of Doc’s repeated visits to annual events, and what that documentation can tell us about the evolution of vernacular traditions.

“There was a point,” he says, “where I thought I had to document every second of every minute of every hour of every day. But you suddenly realise that if you’re looking at the changes which are part of the work, then all I need to do is to document the changes. And the changes are the people; people not appearing, or changed teams or sides. It’s a private matter, but I know why it’s happened and it’s to do with relationships. Nothing to do with gods up there or down here, as folklorists would have you believe.”

It is, arguably, easy enough for a skilled photographer to show up and capture the best of a spectacle, the most weird and wonderful moments. But it takes a deeply personal connection to carefully document three new dancers joining the side that year, or two fewer singers than usual, or a subtle costume or prop change to allow for a new participant. And this marks one of the things that is so valuable about Doc’s collection. When folklorists can often fall into one of two camps – those who are primarily interested in the origins and the history of traditions, and those who are mainly interested in the traditions as they are practiced today – Doc’s work chronicles the changes from one to the other; the evolution and development of a custom, in ways big and small. It is documentary evidence of how and why and when a living tradition evolves. His collection proves the vitality of British cultures and traditions, and can tell us something too about how those traditions reached the 20th Century intact, if not unchanged – and how they will survive into the future.