Frank Kidson was born in Leeds in November 1855 into a modest existence. He was the youngest of nine children and the seventh son of Francis Prince Kidson and Mary Roberts. The family lived in a small house on Centenary Street, a street once near to the Leeds Town Hall, which was later demolished. Indeed, as a child he had watched the great Town Hall being built on what was at that time a field. During this time a young Frank Kidson was purportedly placed upon one of the stones and told to dance. He was then ever after able to say that he had danced on the topmost stone of the Town Hall! He first went to school, aged five, in the city but was deemed to be too delicate and was later moved to a country boarding school near Shadwell, Leeds. This move was further facilitated by the death of his Grandfather, Joseph Roberts, a wealthy nail manufacturer turned property developer. Upon his death he bequeathed a substantial inheritance to his daughter and only surviving child, Mary (Frank’s mother). This was, in fact, the turning point in Kidson’s life and as a consequence he was certainly afforded a much easier childhood than his siblings and it continued to open up opportunities for him throughout his life.
The young Frank Kidson developed an early interest and attachment to books and inherited a great collection from his Uncle John Roberts’ library including early works of Fenimore Cooper and Marryatt. It was said to be his greatest treasure as a boy. In 1872, when Kidson was only sixteen, his father Francis Prince Kidson, died. Francis Prince Kidson was a poet, fan of literature and an avid collector of books although his literary efforts barely saw the light of day until his sons took it upon themselves to issue a small book of their father’s poetry. Frank particularly took great delight in visiting the printers to obtain proofs of this work and would then discuss them at length with his father. It is clear that books, literature and the people with whom he shared the interest, greatly influenced his early life. They represented many happy memories and associations with beloved members of his family. Books seem to be more than mere objects to Frank Kidson; they appear to hold a genuine emotional significance that endures throughout his life.
After leaving school he went to work for his brother Joe who was a dealer in antique china in Albion Street, Leeds and it was here that he acquired a substantial knowledge of china and particularly of Leeds pottery. However, it is perhaps an early indication of his independent spirit and of the opportunity arising from his grandfather’s legacy, that Kidson soon left the employ of his brother in the early 1870’s to take up painting. He had his first lessons from George Alexander, a Leeds artist and watercolourist and later associated himself with another Yorkshire artist, George Camidge, who worked in oils. His painting ambitions saw him travelling around England, North Wales, the Scottish Borders and even to the continent. Kidson attained limited success as a landscape painter and he soon turned his talents to writing. His first published work appeared in “The Artist” in 1882 entitled “Sketching Ground in Yorkshire”. Kidson’s skills and hobbies were many and varied. His grandfather’s bequest supported a freedom in his life that meant he could indulge his many passions and follow his own individual instinctive path.
Frank Kidson never married but he did secure strong and enduring friendships with a number of female companions that inspired him throughout his life. Without doubt his first inspiration and companion was his mother, Mary. It was her singing that ignited his interest in old airs and songs from the oral tradition. The more manuscripts and published works of folk music that Kidson amassed, the more it appeared that the airs familiar to him from childhood did not appear anywhere in print. It became his mission to document this music from the oral tradition and to record it with antiquarian values and precision. “Traditional Tunes” was published in 1891, the year after his mother’s death, and contained within it were some of her songs; “The Summer’s Morning” and “The Grey Mare”. His niece Ethel Kidson writes “She died aged 94 and Uncle was left alone in great grief, for his mother had ever been his close companion, so the tie was closer than most mothers and sons.”
It was Ethel Kidson who became his next significant companion. After the death of his beloved mother, Kidson suggested to his late brother’s wife, a widow with four children, that he adopt his niece Ethel (real name Emma). This was agreed and, at age sixteen, Ethel came to live with her Uncle Frank at Burley Road. She writes “It was surely fortunate for both of us for I found in him the father I had lost, and in my youth he found a new interest in life. Never were two people more suited to each other and surely never was there a closer affection than that which grew up between us.” Ethel joined Kidson on many a collecting excursion often having to learn and then retain a song until such a time that they could find a piano to finally transcribe it. She received the many visitors to Kidson and his vast library and helped to compile and edit his various publications. They lived and worked together until his death in 1926. After Kidson died, Ethel ensured the publication of “Folk Songs of the North Countrie” in 1927 and compiled and edited “English Peasant Songs” with Alfred Moffat in 1929. She remained a tireless promoter of Kidson’s work and tried valiantly to protect his legacy and secure him the credit she felt he deserved.
Two other key figures in his life were the renowned folk song collectors Lucy Broadwood and Anne Gilchrist. Kidson corresponded with them extensively and regularly, often discussing the finer points of folk song collecting, both seeking advice and giving counsel. “I should think that Miss Broadwood and herself [Anne Gilchrist] know more of English folk song than anyone living. Uncle did not make the great mistake of underrating the ability of women. He said they could do anything they set their minds to and as antiquarians he had found them scrupulously accurate and with a flair, and instinct, for the hunt possessed by few men, and surely Miss Broadwood and Miss Gilchrist bear out his contention.”
Kidson built up longstanding friendships with many of his contributors. One particular acquaintance he made, through his “Notes on Old Tunes” series of articles in the Leeds Mercury, was Mr Charles Lolley: a man who was more collaborator than mere contributor and became his firm and trusted friend. Some of his other frequent informers were associates of the Leeds business class who came from a variety of backgrounds and hailing from various areas of Yorkshire. John Holmes, Washington Teasdale and Benjamin Holgate were the sources of many a fine song collected and published by Kidson. He also made firm friends with many of his other key contributors who were located throughout the Yorkshire region; Goathland, Flamborough, Redcar, Northallerton, Knaresborough and York. He visited and collected from Kate Thompson, a charwoman, in Knaresborough, Charley Dickenson, a sailor from Whitby and Alan Wardill, a railway pointsman from Goathland. Kidson was apparently a frequent and welcome visitor to Alan Wardill’s cottage in Goathland and it seems they struck up a genuine friendship. The social divide between Kidson and his contributors was much narrower than was the case with many collectors of the time and he appears to have treated them with respect and equality. He comments on one occasion that “people to whose name I prefix the title “Mr” he [Baring-Gould] would have spoken of as “Old John so and so, very illiterate”. It was common practice at the time to regard these contributors as simple folk and peasants. This, as is evident in his writing, did not sit comfortably with Kidson. Ethel Kidson later objected very strongly against the naming of the final Kidson publication “English Peasant Songs” as a contradiction of Kidson’s personal beliefs.
The vast library of books and manuscripts that Kidson amassed meant that his great collection became quite the attraction for a number of fellow folk song collectors and enthusiasts. He received many visits from well-known and influential figures of the folk movement; Baring-Gould, Barrett Sharp and Vaughan-Williams were amongst those who visited and consulted him. In 1898 he was invited to be a founder member of the brand new “Folk Song Society” along with Lucy Broadwood, Sabine Baring-Gould and others and he attended the very first meeting that year. It has been suggested that Kidson had no need to leave his little house in Leeds to travel to the great libraries of London as his collection boasted many items that could not be found in any library in England!
At the turn of the century Kidson seems to all but give up actively seeking out and collecting songs. However, he did acquire a few new songs in the early 1900’s whilst adjudicating at various folk song festivals. There were competitions for local performers who were judged solely on the quality of the song they were singing, not on the quality of the singing. Kidson adjudicated at the Westmorland Festival in Kendal 1902-04 and was also invited to judge the North Lincolnshire Musical Competition in Brigg 1905. It was at Brigg that Kidson awarded the first prize to Joseph Taylor who won with his version of “Creeping Jane”.
It is beyond doubt that “Traditional Tunes” remains Frank Kidson’s most prominent and enduring work but it is only one of a number of published works by Kidson. He wrote articles for newspapers and wrote many entries for the “Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians”. In all, Kidson contributed 365 articles to the dictionary and his entries feature in the very first edition of 1904. A number of publications were to follow “Traditional Tunes” and not all of them were on the subject of folk song. “Historical Notices of the Leeds Old Pottery” 1892 was a collaborative effort, co-authored with his brother Joseph, that drew on their extensive collective knowledge acquired whilst at work in Joseph’s antique business. “British Music Publishers, Printers and Engravers” 1900 and “The Beggar’s Opera: Its Predecessors and Successors” 1922 were both facilitated by his extensive library and the resulting books were well received and established Kidson as an authority on both subjects. The later collections of folk songs were collaborative efforts, with both Alfred Moffat and Ethel Kidson having input. “A Garland of English Folk Songs” 1926 was published in Kidson’s lifetime but the final two books “Folk Songs of the North Countrie” 1927 and “English Peasant Songs” 1929 were published after Kidson’s death and both appear to bear the hallmark of Ethel Kidson’s editing methods.
Order of publication:
- Sketching Ground in Yorkshire- The Artist 1882
- Notes on Old Tunes – 1886-87
- Old Airs and Songs: Melodies Once Popular in Yorkshire in 1890
- Leeds in the Making – Yorkshire Post
- Old English Country Dances – 1891
- Traditional Tunes – 1891
- Historical Notices of the Leeds Old Pottery – 1892 (co-authored with Joseph R. Kidson)
- British Music Publishers, Printers and Engravers – 1900
- The Beggar’s Opera: Its Predecessors and Successors – 1922
- A Garland of English Folk Songs – 1926
- Folk Songs of the North Countrie – 1927
- English Peasant Songs – 1929
Kidson’s 1922 book “The Beggar’s Opera: Its Predecessors and Successors” was to provide him with one of his major accolades. He gave a lecture on the subject to students at Leeds University and it was there that he met Sir Michael Sadler, the Chancellor of the University. They were introduced and talked at length. Upon hearing that Kidson possessed a first and many other editions of “The Beggar’s Opera” Sir Michael asked if he might visit the house and see them. Ethel Kidson writes “He came and seemed much astonished at the extent of Uncle’s collection, and his knowledge on many subjects. One day he sent a letter to Uncle to come and see him at the university, and he then told him, if possible he was going to get him the degree of Master of Arts conferred upon him for his services to the history of music.” And so, in 1923, Frank Kidson received his honorary M.A. degree from Leeds University.
“We had many jokes about the letters M.A. Uncle said it stood for “Musical Ass” because he was a poor musician; in regard to his piano playing he called himself “Five Finger Frank”. Ethel Kidson
In conclusion it seems hard to believe that a man such as Frank Kidson and his significant contribution to folk music could be as overlooked as it is today. He was deemed “a pioneer of the folk revival” and yet “He lived to be obscured where once he had been considered the foremost authority”. It is perhaps Frank Kidson’s very nature that influences this slide into obscurity. He comes across as a humble man whose motivations lie in his passion for acquiring knowledge and investigating musical heritage. He does not appear to seek to gain credit or prestige for his work nor does he seem to court reverence. Maybe his propensity to regard his work as “his task” indicates that it was an exercise in self improvement: a necessary duty in order to protect and preserve the legacy of the past for the benefit of future generations. Kidson’s perspective was that of an antiquarian and this heavily influenced his collecting style. His focus was to “rescue from oblivion” and to “retain the subtle points” of a tune and these aspirations very much dictated his methods. He writes that “…it is terribly easy to snip the corners off of an air.” implying that accuracy and attention to detail in his work was crucial. It appears that these antiquarian methods and interests were not in line with the burgeoning modern ways in which his peers were collecting and recording material. He was scathing of the new trend for collecting material by way of mechanical recording. Kidson writes that transcriptions “taken directly from phonograph records… are generally complex and confusing” and that “8 folk singers out of 10 asked to sing into that strange funnel above a moving cylinder will be nervous and not sing their best, either in time or tune.” He concludes “It is the business of a folk song collector not to make a hard and fast record of one rendering of a folk tune, with all its accidental inaccuracies, but to obtain what the singer obviously means.” It is possibly his reluctance to embrace new technologies and his inclination to look further and further back into the past to find the purest form of a song or tune that led others to deem his contributions questionable. He was also prone to revising his transcriptions of melodies to fit his notion of what the real melody was, often disregarding elements that could be attributed to the singer’s own stylistic embellishment. Roy Palmer suggests in his writing that “Laborious efforts of this kind to get a basic tune right preclude any attempt to note variations or decoration. Kidson seems to be suspicious of such things.” His implementation of this transcription process may also cloud opinion as to the integrity of his work and there seems to be genuine reason to call some of Kidson’s practises into question. However, this could easily be said of many a folk song collector…
In November 1926, Frank Kidson died leaving behind his precious book collection. Numerous attempts were made to interest the Leeds Library in housing the collection but for various reasons this was unsuccessful. In 1930, Kidson’s nine thousand book collection was finally purchased and moved to The Mitchell Library, Glasgow and between 1938-49, four hundred more printed volumes and 114 manuscripts followed. Some books and manuscripts were dispersed (Gilchrist bequeathed 3 of Kidson’s transcriptions of rare tune books to the National Library of Scotland and 20 of his tune books- transcriptions and originals to the Vaughan-Williams Memorial Library). Some were simply lost. His collection is still housed there today and is accessible by appointment. The recent launch of the “Full English Digital Archive” available online at www.vwml.org, featuring original manuscripts and broadsides from his collection, has also ensured that Frank Kidson’s work is finally made accessible to all.
On the 20th May 2003 a blue plaque was erected by Leeds Civic Trust at 5 Hamilton Avenue, Chapeltown, Leeds. Unveiled by Dr Vic Gammon, Chairman of the Frank Kidson Memorial Fund it reads:
Frank Kidson M.A.
Musical antiquarian and
The “The Search for Five Finger Frank” album and show is a celebration of Frank Kidson’s significant contributions to the rich tapestry that is English folk music, and aims to commemorate his life’s work and achievements.