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Doctor "Doc" Rowe: degree ceremony oration

The following is the full text of the speech made by the University Orator on the occasion of the presentation to "Doc" Rowe of an honorary doctorate in music at the University of Sheffield on 26th July 2002.

Doc Rowe and Doctor Jonathan Stock of the Music Dept. after the ceremony

The University of Sheffield Degree Congregation, 26 July 2002

David "Doc" Rowe


Thomas Hardy in his novels chronicled the shifting customs and folklore of his age, whether the famous skimmity ride in The Mayor of Casterbridge, the mumming play in The Return of the Native, or the May Day celebrations which end that novel: "The instincts of merry England", Hardy notes, "lingered on here with exceptional vitality, and the symbolic customs which tradition has attached to each season of the year were yet a reality on Egdon". The same desire to capture the vanishing folklore, music and seasonal customs of our country has driven David Rowe, who, following in the footsteps of the great Victorian collectors, has assembled perhaps the greatest twentieth-century collection of materials on English calendar customs.

Like Hardy, David Rowe was brought up in the South West, and his early interest in cultural tradition was stimulated by the Padstow May Day celebrations which have remained central to his work. Born in 1944, David Rowe, known throughout his professional career as "Doc", was trained in fine art at Hornsey College of Art, and has held a variety of teaching posts in the fields of film, drama, music and traditional culture. In 1963, a fortunate encounter with Charles Parker, the BBC producer of "Radio Ballads", led to a highly fruitful collaboration with Parker, Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger, on a variety of folksong and drama related projects, including the annual "Festival of Fools" and TV versions of "Radio Ballads".

For nearly forty years now, Doc Rowe has been building his collections of British vernacular culture, marrying his interest in tradition with the very latest technology. The collection currently contains around 9,000 audio recordings and 3,000 hours of film, not to mention innumerable transcripts and 80,000 photographs, all carefully documented and placed in a rich historical context. Between 1979 and 1985 he worked as a full-time volunteer at our own National Centre for Cultural Tradition, the only English centre for the academic study of this field, helping with the archives and the Traditional Heritage Museum, and conducting fieldwork for the Survey of Language and Folklore. With the twentieth conference of the International Society for Contemporary Legend Research taking place at the University this week, it seems fitting to remember Doc Rowe's work on the first conference in 1982. His wonderful poster, taking wing from a rather bizarre contemporary urban myth, shows an elephant, with the look of a rather guilty schoolboy, seated on the remains of a squashed Mini car.

As this example suggests, Doc Rowe is preoccupied with the dynamic development of the vernacular arts. He is not concerned simply to preserve the past, to place it in glass cases labelled heritage, but to record the ways in which the customs, myths and music of earlier times become a vital and shifting part of our contemporary culture. Age or antiquity, he reminds us in one of his excellent guides to folklore for classroom use, is not the only yardstick for assessing the importance and relevance of folk events to contemporary communities. Indeed, many of our cherished traditional practices were themselves only created in the nineteenth century, and many more are now being imported as cultural diversity increases.

Far from being a purist, concerned only with identifying original sources, Doc Rowe takes delight in the evolving forms of popular culture, and the comic incongruities that can sometimes be produced, as in the tradition of beating the bounds in Oxford. Shoppers in the lingerie department of Marks and Spencer, unfortunately but perhaps rather appropriately sited on the boundary of the parish of St Michael, are likely to be startled by an invasion of assorted choristers, academics and townsfolk, beating the carpet and crying out 'Mark! Mark! Mark! At a time when football mania has evoked renewed interest in the cultural symbolism of the flag of St George, it is perhaps worth noting Doc Rowe's work on the Haxey Hood Game, a medieval precursor of football, which involved teams of 200 per side, clearly a financial proposition that would daunt even Manchester United.

Doc Rowe possesses outstanding skills as a fieldworker; he has gained the trust of communities across the country, creating superb collections of oral history interviews, and serial recordings of traditional drama, dance and music. He has also been an indefatigable member of the national committee of the Folklore Society for many years, and is utterly unstinting in his help and advice to others. At times it has seemed as if his collections were doomed; they have been burgled and flooded, numerous times, but have always miraculously survived. I am delighted to report that they are moving to Sheffield this year, where they will form a valuable complement to the University collections.

Doc Rowe has worked hard, not only to create his collections, but also to make them available to the public. In addition to his pamphlets and excellent books for schools, he has worked on numerous television and radio programmes, and lectured far and wide, including the wonderfully named "Blood, Booze and Bedlam" talk and exhibition at the Tate Gallery in 2000. Most recently he contributed to the BBC documentary on our other honorary graduand, Martin Carthy. In the year when the University is introducing an undergraduate degree in Music and Folklore, it seems fitting that we honour two figures who have done so much to develop our understanding and appreciation of our vernacular culture.

Chancellor, I present David Rowe as eminently worthy to receive the degree of Doctor of Music honoris causa.

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