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The Captain’s Apprentice

Biography of a Song

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A beautifully written exploration of the world of Edwardian folk music, and its influence on the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams

Chatto & Windus
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Caroline Davison


In January 1905 the young Vaughan Williams, not yet one of England’s most famous composers, visited King’s Lynn, Norfolk, to find folk songs ‘from the mouths of the singers’. He had started collecting in earnest little more than a year before but was now obsessed with saving these indigenous tunes before they were lost forever. An old fisherman, James ‘Duggie’ Carter, performed ‘The Captain’s Apprentice’, a brutal tale of torture sung to the most beautiful tune the young composer had ever heard.

The Captain’s Apprentice is the story of how this mysterious song ‘opened the door to an entirely new world of melody, harmony and feeling’ for Vaughan Williams. With this transformational moment at its heart, the book traces the contrasting lives of the well-to-do composer and a forgotten King’s Lynn cabin boy who died at sea, and brings fresh perspectives on Edwardian folk-song collectors, the singers and their songs.

While exploring her own connections to folk song, via a Hebridean ancestor, a Scottish ballad learnt as a child and memories of family sing-songs, the author makes the unexpected discovery that Vaughan Williams has been a hidden influence on her musical life from the beginning – an experience she shares with generations of twentieth-century British schoolchildren.


Long listed for Historical Writers Association award (2023)

‘Wandering wide, Davison’s book is rich with the sense of context that has so often ben stripped from the nation’s memory sites.’
The Literary Review

‘Davison’s animated, entertaining essay rambles… between personal memoir, topographical wandering, archival research, semi-fictional speculation and rigorous musicology… quietly sensitive to ironies and ambiguities without being pretentious, presenting a richly complex picture of a subject that can all too easily be shrouded in a sentimental haze.’
Daily Telegraph

‘The book makes for a quirky, fascinating read. Davison excels in evoking English landscapes, especially in Vaughan Williams’s beloved fen country’
Christopher Hart, The Sunday Times

‘The Captain’s Apprentice explores a more profound and complex seam of folk discovery, and concentrates on a single life-changing episode in Vaughan Williams’ life… [it is] well written and researched’
Ian Thomson, Financial Times

‘This is a hugely intriguing, sensitively woven and at times unexpectedly moving book. What begins as an investigation into one English folk song and one twentieth-century English composer’s interaction with it spirals outwards into a galaxy of related tales, discoveries, insights and surprises. It is written from the heart, an elegy to lost landscapes, to nearly forgotten communities and their cultural legacies, relived and newly honoured in the pages of this thoroughly absorbing book’
Howard Goodall, author of The Story of Music

‘A sadistic murder and the staggering words of a song drive Davison’s obsession to unravel this vivid story of lives, landscapes and musical inspiration. No stone is left unturned in the meticulous gathering. Her gift is a work of love and infinite care’
Keggie Carew, Costa Award-winning author of Dadland

‘I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and its weaving of biography, social history and folk song’
Steve Roud, author of Folk Song in England