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Leslie Alan Shepard (1917-2004).

On a bright May morning in 1997, I made the first of several visits to renew my acquaintance with an old friend, Leslie Shepard, with whom I had conversed and corresponded since the late 1960s, at his home in Stillorgan, Dublin. However, house Number One was not to be seen until my wife parted an overgrown leylandii hedge to reveal it hiding among the shadows. Even on a modern housing estate, Leslie managed to create an aura of mystery appropriate to the editor of The Dracula Book of Great Vampire Stories (1977) and How to Protect Yourself against Black Magic and Witchcraft (1978). In his adopted home in the Irish Republic he confessed himself to be both a recluse and an outsider. (1)

Leslie Shepard's other label for himself--'a bit of a back-room boy'--is perhaps more appropriate, for, in a quiet, unassuming way, he wrote himself into every folklorist's bibliography with his ground-breaking scholarship, which focused around vernacular and popular print culture and ephemera. His monograph on The Broadside Ballad, (2) his detailed case study of the printer John Pitts, (3) and his wide-ranging The History of Street Literature, (4) were volumes that on the one hand developed systematically the sleuthing of earlier folk song scholars and antiquarians, such as Frank Kidson, and on the other complemented the discourse of his Marxist contemporaries, such as A. L. Lloyd and Ewan MacColl. I was not surprised to find every wall of every room of his house and garage covered with shelves of books, some double-banked. Leslie was not just a prodigious collector, he was also extraordinarily well-read, and his scholarship and expertise were respected in several fields of study.

It would be easy to assume that he came from a privileged home background and had a distinguished education, but this would be well wide of the mark. His family in West Ham were very poor--though 'genteel poor', he emphasized--and his schooling at Harold Road, Upton Park, was basic. In fact, for several years he languished at the bottom of the class, until he discovered books, namely Charles Kingsley's collection of Greek myths and the legend of Finn MacCool, which led him to a lifelong interest in folklore.

On leaving school at fourteen he had aspired to become a library assistant, but, disappointed, he studied shorthand, typing, and book-keeping at a commercial school and took a job as an office boy. Ominously, his place of work was an asbestos factory, and by the time he was twenty he had developed asbestosis, which later led to his hospitalization in 1953. His chances of survival were considered low and he was sent by his trade union to a sanatorium in Switzerland, from which he was not expected to return. Through achieving an understanding of the power of the mind, Leslie confounded the doctors. He not only cheated death and made an excellent recovery, but went on to outlive most of his contemporaries. It was not the medical care or the Swiss air from which this remarkable recovery stemmed, but rather his discovery and practice of yoga, leading to a life-changing interest in Hindu metaphysics.

During the war he had been a conscientious objector assigned to civil defence and, wanting to get away from the factory, he took a post as a newsreel film-maker for the Ministry of Information with Paul Rotha, the leading figure of the documentary film movement. His career in films burgeoned as he worked on various educational and industrial films for the Central Office of Information (1945-58), the National Coal Board (1948-50), and Public Service Television (1960-62).

Through his work with the monthly news film, 'Mining Review', he met A. L. Lloyd and helped him publicize among the workforce his quest for mining songs, which was to lead to the collection Come All Ye Bold Miners. (5) His love of films and film-making never left him and in his final years he devoted himself to the rescue of over two hundred classic Continental films from the golden age of silent cinema, which he transferred to the Eumatic video format and lovingly restored, translating the captions into English. He saw in this artform a raw poetry and magic, which he equated to ballads and folk songs. That sunny afternoon we were treated to his latest achievement, Pengar's 1919 Swedish classic, Sir Arne's Treasure; or, The Three Who Were Doomed; and we shivered our way through this gripping sixteenth-century tale of three Scots mercenaries who plundered and pillaged their way across the frozen landscape of Denmark.

A slump in the film industry in 1958-59 prompted Leslie to make the journey of a lifetime and visit the Indian subcontinent to learn more about yoga and Hindu philosophy and religion. In the foothills of the Himalayas, on the banks of the Ganges, he became attached to a temple, and there for over six months he lived the life of a holy man. In this scorpion-infested hermitage he became entranced by traditional Indian music, and for several months he worked and travelled as the 'secretary' to a virtuoso performer, a wandering musician, Swami Parvatikar, whom he recorded for Moses Asch's Folkways label. (6) Despite this deeply spiritual Vedantist outlook, as an 'uncommitted humanitarian' he was never firmly wedded to one particular faith, remaining sympathetic to the basic truths of many religions in his quest for the meaning of life. In fact, in post-war London he had many Jewish friends and became their shabbas goy--a non-Jewish person who can attend to matters that are forbidden to Jews on the Sabbath. He also helped form a Europe-wide society for interfaith understanding called the Standing Committee of Jews, Christians and Moslems, which he addressed, nominally as a Hindu. One of the aims of the organization was to give Jewish exiles from Germany the confidence to return to their homeland.

His enlightened spirituality was deeply respected, and for a week in April 1977 he gave the BBC Radio 4 'Thought for the Day' address. These homilies led to a delightful series of thought-provoking modern chapbooks, which he described as 'keepsakes' and distributed to friends and family in lieu of Christmas cards from 1978 for the next twenty-four years.

Curiously this same quest for truth and meaning was the driving force behind his interest in folk song. He expressed this as a dilemma of civilization and culture--'the eternal clash between tradition and topicality'--on the one hand keeping tradition alive, on the other admitting topicality--'a nation that forgets its heritage is in a state of amnesia'. Sixty years on, he recounted with great fondness and excitement his discovery of the gramophone recordings of Harry Cox of Norfolk and Phil Tanner of the Gower peninsula, and his first visits to Cecil Sharp House and the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library. Through his contacts with jazz enthusiasts he came across an influential article by the American singer and song collector John Jacob Niles, about whom he made a BBC Radio Three documentary in 1963. Leslie was struck by the links between the texts of the broadsides, which he was avidly collecting, and the songs of contemporary country singers, such as Jimmie Rodgers, and he was determined to find out more.

It was through Bert Lloyd that Leslie was introduced to Harry Cox, and in the mid-1960s he borrowed a Nagra tape recorder, visited the singer, and made some excellent recordings. (7) He remained a family friend and, when Harry died, Leslie acquired his extensive collection of songs, comprising broadsides and chapbooks, newspaper cuttings, and manuscript notebooks. Apart from this single sortie into the field of song collecting, Leslie devoted most of his energies to the printed word, and this in turn led to a keen interest in the history of printing and the place of books in European civilization. He collected early examples, such as palm-leaf books and lacquered scriptural texts. He even had priceless pages from the Gutenberg Bible and Caxton's press, and he equated contact with those with the experience of hearing a folk song performed by a singer such as Harry Cox. That afternoon in May he lifted up his bed to reveal some of his exquisite incunabula, stored there for safe keeping. But dear as these items were to Leslie, it was, in fact, the ephemera of the people who could not afford to buy books that gave him the biggest thrill--not just broadsides and chapbooks of popular songs and ballads but also children's hornbooks and primers which had been used to help someone learn to read or write.

In the mid-1960s, his career took him away from film-making to publishing and he became the London editor for University Books of New York and the Gale Research Company of Detroit, as well as working with Folklore Associates and with John Foreman. Among his extraordinary legacy from this period are over seventy reprints--treasures such as Hyder E. Rollins's An Analytical Index to the Ballad Entries (1557-1709) in the Register of the Company of Stationers of London and Charles Hindley's Curiosities of Street Literature--for each of which Leslie wrote a scholarly preface. This achievement, however, is dwarfed by his editing of the first three editions of the Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology. (8)

Leslie was endlessly fascinated by the magical and paranormal side of his numerous interests, which he felt were all interconnected. He was a long-standing member of the Fairy Investigation Society, the College of Psychic Science, and the British Society of Dowsers. An interest in Celtic mysticism was one of his motives for moving to Ireland. Once there, and wearying of the endless panegyrics to Yeats and Joyce, he founded the Bram Stoker Society, motivated by the conviction that this Irish writer had not received his proper due. Recognizing Stoker's lowbrow appeal, which he compared with that of broadsides, he noted that the deathless thriller Dracula (1897) had nonetheless been read by millions and translated into many languages all over the world. However, Leslie was not interested simply in the author's notoriety as the creator of a Gothic horror story, but in the remarkable service he performed to Irish theatre as general manager of the Lyceum, where for twenty-seven years he promoted and championed the greatest actor of his generation, Sir Henry Irving.

As he disappeared upstairs to change for a prestigious meeting of the Bram Stoker Society, where the guest speaker was the Irish Minister of Culture, Leslie was again questioning and questing after truth: 'What interests me most is the development of the genre of the folk song itself, which took place in the nineteenth century almost unperceived ... We know that some folk songs are cut-down ballads, but there's a great corpus of folk song, lyrical songs, and nobody seems to be quite sure how it came about, because it has almost a uniform character.'

Leslie Shepard, a kind and gentle man and a scholar, died on 20 August 2004. He leaves a son, Rodney, and a daughter, Jill. His wife, Jeanne (nee Horn), died in 1969. His collection of folk song and folklore books has been donated to the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library.


Elphinstone Institute, University of Aberdeen

(1) All attributed statements and quotations are taken from a tape-recorded interview, 26 May 1997.

(2) Leslie Shepard, The Broadside Ballad: A Study in Origins and Meaning (London: Herbert Jenkins, 1962).

(3) Leslie Shepard, John Pitts, Ballad Printer of Seven Dials, London 1765-1844, with a Short Account of his Predecessors in the Ballad and Chapbook Trade (London: Private Libraries Association, 1969).

(4) Leslie Shepard, The History of Street Literature: The Story of Broadside Ballads, Chapbooks, Proclamations, News-Sheets, Election Bills, Tracts, Pamphlets, Cocks, Catchpennies and Other Ephemera (Newton Abbot: David & Charles, 1973).

(5) A. L. Lloyd, Come All Ye Bold Miners: Ballads and Songs of the Coalfields (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1952; rev. edn 1978).

(6) The Sounds of Yoga Vedanta: A Documentary of Life in an Indian Ashram, LP (Folkways FR8970, 1966).

(7) Ten of the songs are included in Harry Cox, The Bonny Labouring Boy: Traditional Songs & Tunes from a Norfolk Farm Worker, double CD (Topic TSCD512D, 2000).

(8) Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology, ed. by Leslie Shepard, 3rd edn, 2 vols (Detroit: Gale Research, 1991).
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Author:Russell, Ian
Publication:Folk Music Journal
Article Type:Obituary
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jan 1, 2006
Previous Article:Margaret Fay Shaw (1903-2004).
Next Article:Cyril Tawney (1930-2005).

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