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The Captain’s Apprentice

Biography of a Song

A hybrid of biography, narrative history, folklore and personal experience bringing a fresh perspectie on the lives of folk song collectors, singers and the subject of their songs.

Chatto & Windus
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Caroline Davison


In 1905 Ralph Vaughan Williams collected a folk song, ‘The Captain’s Apprentice’, from a fisherman in King’s Lynn. It was said hat the song told the true story of a poor local boy, Robert Eastick, who was killed at sea.

The Captain’s Apprentice: Biography of a Song is the story of how the brutal murder of the cabin-boy was transformed into a musical evocation of rural Norfolk by one of England’s most famous composers, Vaughan Williams. The strands of the book will grow out of this transformational moment in King’s Lynn, by telling the contrasting life stories of the two main protagonists – the well-to-do composer and he forgotten boy from the workhouse – and by exploring the impact of folk song collecting on musical culture in 20th century England. It will bring fresh perspectives on the lives of folk song collectors, singers and the subjects of their songs, how they were recorded, who was commemorated and who remained unrecognised, and will include the untold stories of a sadistic sea-captain, a campaigning Victorian feminist, the singing fishermen of King’s Lynn, and a man who rued the day he named a ship after himself.

Interwoven with this intriguing history will be the author’s own personal connection with folk song, through the story of a Hebridean ancestor whose mud cottage in the bog was visited by an eminent collector, and with a Scottish folk song taught to her as a child through the oral tradition. The author’s story will cast light on how Vaughan Williams, along with Cecil Sharp, succeeded in bringing folk song into every schoolchild’s life up until the 1970s, including hers.