‘Sing a Song o’ Sussex’ was Timeline Choir’s warm and entertaining celebration of the Victorian folk song collector, writer, shoe-maker and bell ringer, Henry Burstow, who lived in Horsham, Sussex. Held in the beautiful Church Centre in Horsham’s historic Causeway, in March 2015, the concert combined Sussex and Surrey folk songs from the collections of Henry Burstow and other prominent locals Ralph Vaughan Williams and Lucy Broadwood with readings from Burstow’s book, Reminiscences of Horsham – a witty account of life in Victorian Sussex. The choir were joined by Sussex-born folk singer-songwriter Susannah Austin, who performed a selection of songs from Burstow’s collection, as well as her own setting of a Burstow lyric with no surviving melody.
Born in Horsham in 1826, Henry Burstow was best known for his vast repertoire of 420 folk songs, many of which were collected from him during the folksong revival of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He had a “tenacious memory” and could recite every one of these songs by heart! It was his collection of folk songs that bought him to the attention of Lucy Broadwood and Ralph Vaughan Williams, who recorded many of his songs on a phonograph. Henry Burstow wrote in his book
“In 1840 I was apprenticed to Jim Vaughan, who lived in the Causeway, to learn the boot and shoe-making trade. (…) So notorious were [my co-workers] as drinkers that when I went into the trade my mother’s friends said to her, “Ah! Harry’s done for now.”
Both performers and audience were inspired by Burstow’s vibrant character and entertaining anecdotes, as well as his amazing songs, which span the whole range of human emotion from light-hearted and funny, to poignant and tender.