The YHA Songbook was first published in 1952, and it remains a fondly remembered part of our past.
Picture the scene. It’s the 1950s, and you’ve arrived one autumn evening at a YHA hostel in the Lakes. The welcome is a warm one. The warden takes your details, someone wanders past with a pot of tea, while drifting from the common room comes the sound of thirty voices chorusing the words to… hang on… is that ‘Green Grow The Rushes-Ho’?
The first YHA Songbook was published back in 1952. Many of the songs it contains might now have passed from popular culture, but the communal sentiment behind the idea continues to be an uplifting one. This is how the book was prefaced:
“Many a common room sing-song has been marred because few of the hostellers know more than the first verses of the songs, and all too frequently the item that begins as a rousing chorus ends as a faltering solo. A few keen singers find a place in their rucksack or saddle-bag for a song book, but if as a result some half-dozen song books are available, it is usually found that they are all different and even the songs that are in common to several appear in differing versions. To overcome these hindrances to hostel harmony, this YHA Song Book is published.”
It was an era when common room sing-songs were by no means unusual. To give some idea of how popular the book became, its initial print run of 10,000 copies had to be repeated in full seven times during the following 12 years, before a further run of 20,000 copies in 1966.
Looking through a copy of the 1966 edition today (‘Price One Shilling’), it’s notable how much variety there is among the 94 songs in its pages. As well as ageless examples such as God Save The Queen, Auld Lang Syne and – well why not? – Old MacDonald Had A Farm, there’s also space for French tunes (‘Alouette, gentille alouette’), Australian folk songs (‘Waltzing Matilda’) and an eyebrow-raising assortment of now obscure shanties, ballads and campfire singalongs. The Saucy Sailor, anyone? The final 10 pages are given over to Welsh-language songs.
Only the lyrics were included, the thinking presumably being that there would always be someone on hand who knew the tunes. Copies of the songbooks are now coveted online (expect to pay more than a shilling!) and it’s entertaining to imagine the role they played in hostel life up and down the country. How many friendships and romances might have been formed over a rousing version of The Lincolnshire Poacher?
It’s also fun to speculate what sort of songs might be included in a modern version of the book. Certainly, some of the lyrics in the original editions are rooted in a different time, although if there’s a common theme throughout, it’s a celebration of nature, the countryside, the seasons and the outdoors – as seen in this excerpt from a song called The Oak & The Ash. Amen to that.
Where lads and young lasses
are making the hay
The merry bells ring
And the birds sweetly sing
And the maidens and meadows
are pleasant and gay.
Oh! The oak and the ash
And the bonny ivy tree
They flourish at home
In my own country.