Roy Saer and folk song collecting at St Fagans
David Roy Saer took up his role as Research Assistant at the Welsh Folk Museum, as it was then known, on New Years Day, 1963. Thus began years of diligently collecting Welsh folk songs through recording individuals from across Wales, both singing the old verses and recalling how they originally came to hear them. Down the decades, he became a scholar on the history of the folk song, and in recognition of his contribution to the subject, he was elected President of the Welsh Folk Song Society in 2000. Today, Roy Saer is a highly respected specialist on folk music in Wales and is the author of numerous books and articles discussing the background and development of the instrumental and vocal traditions.
Folk song collecting began at the Museum through the work of Vincent Phillips, who was appointed to the staff in 1957. From the outset, he was responsible for collecting information relating to the oral tradition, and by 1960, his intention was to record all elements of Welsh folk life, be it through field interviews, commercially produced recordings, printed material or photographs. Vincent Phillips recorded some 300 songs before the appointment of Roy Saer, and in the first months of his post, Roy listened to these with great interest, and used them as a pattern for his own forthcoming field work. Vincent initially acted as a tutor to Roy, with the former training the latter on various recording aspects, such as the interview procedure and the use of equipment. At the beginning of the 1960s, undertaking field interviews was usually quite arduous, as the recording equipment was so heavy and cumbersome. The situation improved in 1964, when the Department of Oral Traditions and Dialects, as it was known, purchased two Nagra machines from Switzerland, which produced considerably better results than their predecessors.
The Welsh Folk Song Society was particularly influential to Roy from the outset, and he attended the annual conferences from 1963 onwards, learning a great deal from the members. When Roy joined the Society, very little song recording was taking place, so the Museums work in collecting and recording material at that time was extremely significant. As the songs were fast disappearing from folk memory, it was crucial that they were put down on paper. Roy set about studying the songs collected since the formation of the Society in 1906, before noting any changes and developments that had happened to them in the years following. Roy also examined the different genres of songs; for example, Christmas carols, Calennig, Mari Lwyd, pwnc chanting, and cerdd dant.
The main aim of the Museums folk song field project during the 1960s was to record elderly informants, as it was they who held the oldest and fullest testimony relating to their childhood songs. These interviewees were not necessarily public performers; indeed, many of them were passive tradition bearers. The interviews conducted were purposely informal, with the view to safeguarding peoples memories in the Museum sound archive. It was aimed to record individuals singing most naturally as possible. The Museum is greatly indebted to these singers, and their contribution to the process of sustaining folk song in Wales is priceless. They provided, free of charge, a huge favour to the Museum and to the nation.
The Museum was helped enormously in transcribing the collected songs by Dr Meredydd Evans and Dr Phyllis Kinney — both widely recognised authorities in folk song. Caneuon Llafar Gwlad (volume 1), was published in 1974, after many years of tireless commitment from the author and his colleagues.