An interest in English folk songs emerged in England toward the end of the nineteenth century. By 1898 the Folk Song Society was founded, and rising composer Ralph Vaughan Williams joined the Society in 1904.1 The Society had been perfectly comfortable simply discussing folk music in the abstract until an influential folk tune advocate named Cecil Sharp challenged them to actually collect folk tunes and promote their use in the art music of the day.2 Vaughan Williams was strongly influenced by Sharp’s admonition and very soon joined him in his cataloguing and advocacy of the folk tunes of English heritage.
It is upon this foundation that Vaughan Williams’s career as a composer began, and his connection with English folk music soon became ingrained in the consciousness of musical and national society. As Simon Heffer notes, “The effects would be spectacularly far-reaching: folk-songs would not merely shape Vaughan Williams as a composer, they would, through him, shape a whole school of English music that would for years be indissolubly associated with the Royal College and what would come to be called the ‘English musical establishment.'”3
In an attempt to understand Vaughan Williams’s thoughts regarding folk music and specifically its difference from pop music, I will draw largely from one of his writings that deals specifically with this topic, National Music. Additionally, since Cecil Sharp had such a strong influence upon Vaughan Williams and his love for the English folk tune, I will also use his important work, English Folk-Song; Some Conclusions, in an attempt to uncover both Vaughan Williams’s and Sharp’s understandings and motivations behind their loyalty to folk music.