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Radio recordings: world and traditional music

Music programming, live and recorded, has been a mainstay of British radio since its inception and constitutes a substantial proportion of the Library’s audio collections.

World music and indigenous British and Irish folk song were to be heard on British radio as early as the 1930s, when specially made field recordings were sometimes used in features as illustrative material, setting or atmosphere. Because little was then commercially available, the BBC initiated its own field recording programme in conjunction with ethnomusicologists and travelling folklorists in order to extend the range available to producers. By the late 1950s a large collection of unique material from around the globe had already been assembled. Many of these recordings, drawn upon for programme content to this day, are preserved among a large collection of BBC Archive discs for which special finding aids are available.

A number of externally sourced collections are strong in British and Irish folk music programming from the 1950s to 1970s, notably the Ewan MacColl/Peggy Seeger (catalogue no: C102), A. L. Lloyd (catalogue no: C200), Fred Hamer (catalogue no: C433), Russell Wortley (catalogue no: C777) and Reg Hall (catalogue no: C903) collections, while the Charles Parker Archive (catalogue no: C250) includes pre-production material for the innovative Birmingham-based producer's acclaimed 'radio ballads' of the 1950s and 60s.

The British folk revival of the 1950s and 60s was documented at its peak in BBC Radio's Folk Song Cellar (1966-). Recorded live in the basement of Cecil Sharp House, this key series juxtaposed the mature work of the first generation revivalists (Martin Carthy, Shirley Collins) with that of younger performers such as Sandy Denny during an important period of transition. Many of the BBC's Cambridge Folk Festival recordings since 1977 are also preserved on transcription disc, along with series such as A. L. Lloyd's Songs of the People and various one-off features/talks on world and traditional music, their cultural origins and exponents.

By the mid-1980s when popular interest in world music began to rapidly expand in the UK, the British Library had already begun recording off-air most national programming featuring concerts, sessions and documentaries. Non-western pop and traditional music increasingly featured in Radio 1's Andy Kershaw show (1985-) and in Charlie Gillett's World of Difference series for Capital Radio (catalogue no: C510). Many one-off features and occasional series were also recorded, such as Talking Drum (Radio 3, 1995), while the still-evolving British/Irish folk scene was closely traced in Folk on 2, all detailed in the online catalogue.

These British media collections are augmented by a less comprehensive, but equally interesting selection of overseas radio, much of which is detailed in the world and traditional music collection guides.

Accessing the collection

To access sound and moving image material:

  • Use the online Sound and Moving Image Catalogue to search for recordings.
  • The Listening and Viewing Service provides free public access to the Sound Archive's collections of recorded sound and video in St Pancras. Sound recordings can be accessed in Boston Spa also.
  • The Sound Archive Information Service is based in Humanities - floor 2 in St Pancras where books, discographies, periodicals and magazines are available on open access.
  • Many sound recordings have been digitised and are presented on the British Library Sounds website. A large number of the recordings are freely available for listening online though some are restricted to users in accredited Higher Education establishments.
  • The Transcription Service can provide copies of recordings once the appropriate copyright has been cleared.

Further information

Paul Wilson
Curator, Radio
The British Library
96 Euston Road
United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)20 7412 7446
Fax: +44 (0)20 7412 7441