In 1976 Michael Pickering published a paper in Folk Music Journal entitled “Janet Blunt – Folk Song Collector and Lady of the Manor”. This biographical work was a part of the research for his doctoral thesis, which eventually led to the publication of Village Song and Culture (Croom Helm) in 1982, an attempt to characterise the “singing tradition” in the village of Adderbury.
The paper is an extremely interesting and valuable one, describing in some detail the phases of Janet Blunt’s long life (1859-1950), including her time in India as a child as well as at Le Halle Place in Manor Road, Adderbury, where she lived alone for fifty years after the death of her father and sister in 1900. Pickering, of course, pays particular attention to Miss Blunt’s activities as a collector of folk songs and Morris dances but also includes analyses of the social structure of Adderbury and Miss Blunt’s place in it. The views of villagers about Miss Blunt are recorded at length.
The problem is that Pickering’s views of Miss Blunt are almost wholly negative. He sees her song and dance collecting as the work of a rather slipshod amateur. He also characterises her attitude towards the villagers as being condescending and typical of the behaviour of someone of her class and social standing in a village like Adderbury.
This negativity contrasts strongly, of course, with the view of Miss Blunt current in the Adderbury of today. Here she is seen to have played her part assiduously in the life of the village across a range of activities and her interventions in meticulously recording the music, words and dance steps of the Adderbury Morris men are seen to have been so important in the revival of Morris dancing in the village in the twentieth century that Le Halle Place is distinguished with a blue plaque and is an obligatory stop on the itinerary of the annual Adderbury Day of Dance. See also the article “Female influence on Morris Dance in Adderbury” in the Historical Miscellany section of this website.
So, which view of Miss Blunt is the correct one?
Pickering is undoubtedly right that the Adderbury of Blunt’s time was a very stratified society and that Miss Blunt, as one of the “dozen or so” most influential people in the village played her part in this. He quotes Mrs Powell (nee Keyte) as saying in the 1970s:
“In the old days it was the gentry who used to run the village. They ran it round the church … And the gentry used to run the cultural life of the village as well, so what with one thing and another you couldn’t afford to offend them.”
But Pickering does not give enough weight to the evidence (some collected by himself) that hers was a light hand, and that it was her interest in the lives of villagers that gave her the entrée for collecting. Her servant of 34 years, Winnie Wyatt, whose evidence Pickering disregards throughout as “more or less uncritical”, claims that:
“As a person, everybody loved her, because, you see, she mixed with everybody, you know, chatted with them”.
Pickering is also right to point out that there was a sustained attempt by the gentry to make the singing of Adderbury men and women more respectable, and that the concerts that Miss Blunt organised would have been part of this. Yet Pickering does not acknowledge sufficiently the feeling, which motivated Janet Blunt and other collectors of both songs and dances at the time, that they were engaged in important rescue work. Janet Blunt wrote in a letter in 1926:
“We all should try to ‘gather up the fragments that remain’ that they should not be lost. Such a terrible deal of it is vanishing all the time.”
Nor does Pickering give credit for Miss Blunt’s place in the range of significant people engaged in this rescue work: she was a personal friend, after all, of Vaughan Williams, and arranged for Cecil Sharp himself to visit Adderbury to collect songs and dances. We also have to remember that Pickering’s interest is principally in the performance of songs rather than in the songs themselves and much more in songs than in dance, where perhaps Janet Blunt’s greatest importance has proved to be.
It must also be said that Pickering’s characterisation of Miss Blunt’s life and achievements is distinctly sexist in tone.
“A girl in her position could, if inclined, inform herself on other topics than embroidery or crochet. Janet Blunt’s range of interests was wide, but she was mistress of none. Comfort induced an inability to do anything but develop the art of cultivatedly passing away the days, weeks, months. Even her folksong and music collecting were among these prolific diversions … It was not a profession.”
Even though Pickering acknowledged that Janet Blunt felt that “public service and work for charity were part of her duty to the village, to society” and that “she did not shun them”, it is clear that the lack of a (male) “profession” is what sidelines her importance for Pickering.
Perhaps the most balanced summary of the affair comes from Steve Roud’s 2017 encyclopaedic survey, Folk Song in England (Faber & Faber) and it is a summary that very definitely restores Janet Blunt to the position we have been accustomed to give her:
“Janet Heatley Blunt … is an excellent example of the educated women who did some folk-song collecting as one of many hobbies, but can easily be dismissed as dilettantes of little importance. In fact, all such enthusiasts add their mite to the pile of evidence and, in some cases, their contribution turns out to be surprisingly significant. … her manuscripts enabled Michael Pickering to examine a song community to a depth which is not usually possible …. It has to be said, though, that these studies are marred by the writer’s evident disdain for Blunt and her class, and for folk-song collections in general, which is particularly ungracious as his work would have been impossible without hers.”
The story of how Janet Blunt’s papers recording her folk song and dance researches were rescued from the bonfire after her death is told in Adderbury: A Thousand Years of History (p.67). Her papers are now available to be studied online at the Vaughan Williams Library of the English Folk Song and Dance Society (URL https://www.vwml.org/record/JHB).