Sounds of Our City, the wonderful, shiny new exhibition has just opened at Abbey House Museum, looking at music over the centuries in Leeds. And down near the bottom of one of the display cases is a copy of pretty obscure book of tunes called Old English Country Dances, edited by Frank Kidson and published in 1890.

Stop right there. What? Who?

The book, which was published in a very limited subscription edition, was a collection of old folk melodies (although not every one of them was great for dancing, whether in country or city) that Kidson had gathered in his travels around Yorkshire and Britain, and through correspondents.

It was a fertile period for Kidson. A year later he published Traditional Tunes, which, contrary to its name, consisted of songs. Quite a number of these came from Yorkshire, many from people Kidson knew in Leeds. The two books were among the very first devoted to English folk music. And they covered all types, from ballads to broadsides to ditties. Everything was grist to his mill, as long as it was good.

Together, they established his reputation. By doing what he loved, Frank Kidson became one of the Victorian pioneers of folk song collection, gathering material that was rapidly vanishing in a changing society. He was an accidental hero.

He was from Leeds, born in 1855 and living his entire life here. His first few years were spent at 7 Centenary Street (where Victoria Square is now) with the Town Hall literally being built in front of his young eyes. He was the youngest of nine children, and from a young age he loved books and the traditional airs his mother (a factory owner’s daughter) used to sing.

A black and white photograph of Frank Kidson.

Frank Kidson, c.1900.

Frank’s father died when he was 16, and his widowed mother (who had a decent bequest from her own father) moved to 128, Burley Road. Frank lived with her until her death. After, he remained in the house, and his 16-year-old niece Emma Mary Kidson – whom he called Ethel – came to live with him following the death of her father, Kidson’s brother.

The money he had was enough for Kidson to be able to travel and paint and collect songs and tunes. He put together a huge library of books, broadside balls and obscure musical collections. He was also passionate about Leeds Pottery; with his brother Joseph, he published a history of it in 1892 (examples of Leeds creamware can been seen in the Thomas Hollings collection in Collector’s Corner at Leeds City Museum). From the late 1880s, Kidson wrote a regular column called Notes on Old Tunes for the Leeds Mercury, and in 1889 began assembling the pieces for Old English Country Dances.

No great shakes as a pianist, he relied on Ethel to remember whatever had been sung to them and repeat it later precisely for him to transcribe (oral transmission of the pieces was all that existed; there was no means to record a performance).

Traditional Tunes made him into a leading figure among the few people interested in folk song. Learned visitors arrived and were amazed by his library, “housed in a small and rather commonplace house in Leeds.” His unique ability to ferret out the deep history of a tune give him a curious nickname. As Ethel noted in her biography of her uncle: “Dr. Wise of Manchester christened him the musical Sherlock Holmes, and many of his letters to Uncle began ‘My Dear Holmes.’”

1898 saw him elected to the executive committee of the new Folk Song Society. His peers understood just what a pioneer he was in folk song collection, ahead of better-known people like Cecil Sharp, Vaughan Williams or Percy Grainger.

Yet with the 20th century, Kidson stepped back, focussing instead on his book about British music publishers and also becoming one of the great contributors to Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians – work that could be done from home in Leeds. He and Ethel moved to a house on Hamilton Avenue in Chapeltown (now commemorated with a blue plaque), and he remained there until his death in 1926. Three years before, though, he received an honorary MA degree from Leeds University.

A photograph of a blue plaque, showing that Frank Kidson lived in that house.

The blue plaque outside Hamilton Avenue in Chapeltown, where Kidson lived until his death in 1926.

“We had many jokes about the letters M.A.,” Ethel wrote. “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 worked to keep his flame alive. But over the decades he was sidelined by those who were better at self-promotion. After his death, most of his papers ended up at the Mitchell Library in Glasgow. Some are Leeds Libraries, and remain in the Family and History Library (along with a number of Ethel Kidson’s papers, including her short biography of Frank), along with an annotated scrapbook of broadside ballads he collected over the years.

Frank Kidson’s reputation began to rise again, and it was a Yorkshire group that rekindled the flame. The Hull group the Watersons began to sing them. Slowly, word spread, and people began to appreciate his huge contribution to folk music.

“We were looking for our music,” said Norma Waterson. “We looked for people who’d collected songs in Yorkshire, and that’s why we became interested. The majority of the songs hadn’t been sung in years. The thing about songs in books is they’re shorthand, you have to look at how they’d been passed down.”

So Kidson finally received his due as one of the great pioneers of folk song collecting. A Leeds hero to sing about.

Sheet music for the The Kirkgate Hornpipe

Sheet music for The Kirkgate Hornpipe, on display in the Sounds of our City exhibition at Abbey House Museum.

In Sounds of Our City, Old English Country Dances is open to a tune that’s straight out of Leeds. The page shows two versions of The Kirkgate Hornpipe. The first one saw the light of day in 1818, the second a few years later. Kidson noted that in the 1840s, a musical society used to meet in Kirkgate (probably upstairs from a public house) and the tune was very popular with members.

The sounds of our city, indeed.

By Chris Nickson, Author and Writer-in-residence at Abbey House Museum.