First published in fRoots magazine, June 2012 (issue 348)

Malcolm Taylor

The EFDSS often has detractors, but never the man behind the Library door. Jo Breeze finds him motoring.

“One of the first things I did when I came here was I banged a hole in the library door,” says Malcolm Taylor, OBE, Director of the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library. “That horrible unsymmetrical window. If you read what Shirley Collins and Norma Waterson said about using the library, they both said they felt very intimidated when they first came here. You didn’t want to open those doors, you were frightened of intruding, so that’s why I banged a hole in them.”

Malcolm has worked at the VWML for over 30 years. Notoriously knowledgeable and passionate about the work, he recently received the Roots Award at the BBC Folk Awards in honour of his outstanding contribution.

“When I came in, in 1981, I coasted for a year, came in, opened doors, catalogued a few books, and thought ‘God, this is boring, I’ve got to start making things happen.’ I started organising lectures, conferences, put out cassettes, publications, and at every step someone said you couldn’t do it. There was no logical reason why, it was just always ‘no’, whereas now it’s the opposite. Somebody says ‘we want to do this’, EFDSS say ‘yes, what can we do?’ Of course, now I’m lumbered for another few years with The Full English.”

I spoke to Malcolm the day before EFDSS’s announcement: they have just been granted £585,400 funding for a vast nationwide archive and education project, The Full English.

“It’s going to be tough but it’s the next step. Then when we’ve done this, hopefully we can redevelop Cecil Sharp House. Take 6 [which put six collections online] originally came into being because we wanted to redevelop this building. We went to the Heritage Lottery Fund [HLF] and they said if you want that kind of money, you’ll have to prove you’re a national body with a national remit. So we invented Take 6, that led to The Full English, and now we can go back and say we’re a national body.”

The Full English will be the world’s biggest online portal of English folk manuscripts, using material from six archives. It brings together the collections of Harry Albino, Lucy Broadwood, Clive Carey, Percy Grainger, Maud Karpeles, Frank Kidson, Thomas Fairman Ordish, Cecil Sharp, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Alfred Williams.

“One of the great things is, we’re working with five other archives,” says Malcolm. “The HLF are interested in things at risk but the Vaughan Williams papers, for example, are at the British Library. They’re beautifully conserved, they’re safe, they’re stored properly – but the real risk for that collection is that it gets completely lost within a huge archive. We’re putting these collections into context and giving them value.”

The other participating archives are the British Library, Clare College (Cambridge), The Mitchell Library (Glasgow), The Folklore Society Library and Archive at UCL, and the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre. Putting these collections online is an extraordinarily generous project – so why should anyone bother visiting the library?

“They don’t have to; it’s a good question. A true researcher will always want to look at the originals, no question. At the same time, if you’ve got a thing locked away in your library then it’s only accessible to someone who can make the journey there. People are intimidated by institutions; some people just don’t do libraries. When I came here it was about exclusivity – we have that edition of Playford, we’re not going to let anybody have a copy – but what’s the point in having something that no-one’s going to look at?”

“All I want to do is to make this material available again to the places where it was collected. England is such a small country, yet there’s such variation in music and song; that should be celebrated. It’s important that people realise that it’s not about being ‘a folkie’, it’s about their inheritance. Folk’s not just music and dance, it’s cultural. That’s one of the difficulties of getting the money, because it’s intangible heritage; it evolves within people. You can’t point a stick at it but it is there.”

The current folk revival has led a new generation to the library, and many cite Malcolm as influence and mentor. “This revival has given me a shot in the arm – I’d had enough, to be honest. You can only bang your head against a brick wall so many times. All these young people, they’re like me walking through the door in 1977. There’s a whole generation coming through who it’s our responsibility to mentor. People you’d think might look for Nic Jones or Shirley Collins; they do to an extent, but actually they’re going back to source recordings. Someone once said that the library should be burnt to the ground because it was putting everything in aspic and preventing any development of the tradition. It was unfair because we don’t do that. We’re a repository of information; we would never say ‘you’re doing this wrong’. You can say ‘this is the way they did it’ and people can make their own mind up. I play devil’s advocate and say ‘what’s the relevance of songs about milkmaids and Jack Tar?’ And they say ‘no, it’s the themes. It’s all the same; love, sex, death, war; they don’t go away’.”

“I’m sure people will say, when I eventually go, what did he do for the first 25 years? They might have a point. But it felt like putting fires out, trying to give a bit of credibility to the organisation. Folk has never been media-friendly; they just take the piss. Billy Bragg once told me Johnny Marr was really influenced by Richard Thompson and Fairport Convention, but he’d rather be seen dead than admit it. It was waiting for that to change, that was key. I thought that if I waited long enough I’d get a little window of opportunity, and really it’s been remarkable.”