Students Staff

27 April 2010

Essex history told in lyrical tones

Colchester Campus

Traditional stories of Essex life will come alive once again at the University’s Lakeside Theatre in May.

Potiphar’s Apprentices, an Essex-based trio, will be performing, and talking about, some of the traditional Essex folk songs which once inspired composer Ralph Vaughan Williams.

During a visit to Essex in 1903 Vaughan Williams had the chance to hear folk songs sung by farm labourer Charles Potiphar.

This encounter sparked a life-long interest in folk songs for Vaughan Williams and he went on to collect over 100 folk songs in Essex and 700 more in East Anglia and the southern counties. He was also greatly influenced by the songs in his own works.

Potiphar’s Apprentices will be performing a selection of the Essex folk songs collected by Vaughan Williams, including some that have never been heard in public.

The trio is made up of John and Sue Cubbin, and Dr Adrian May of the University’s Department of Literature, Film and Theatre Studies. All of them have a background in traditional folk music and were inspired by Charles Potiphar’s folk songs.
Dr May explained: ‘The songs deal with a variety of everyday issues. Some recount the pains and struggles of everyday life – from unrequited love and personal tragedies to whole life stories. They range from affecting and complex ballads to uplifting and powerful tunes but all of them have a resonance with modern ears.’

The songs are also an important part of Essex heritage. Dr May said: ‘The songs collected by Vaughan Williams had been passed down from generation to generation. They create a unique oral history of Essex life as told by ordinary Essex people. Vaughan Williams himself recognised the historical value of the songs and often spoke of how he, as a collector of them, had a responsibility to ensure they were returned to the Essex people.’

Potiphar’s Apprentices will be doing just that at their performance in the Lakeside Theatre on 4 May. Tickets are priced at £7(concessions £5) and are available from the Box Office, telephone: 01206 573948. More information about the trio can be found at

Notes to editors
For more information, to interview Dr Adrian May or for photographs of the Potiphar’s Apprentices, please contact the University of Essex Communications Office, telephone 01206 872807, e-mail
Dr Adrian May's background is as a songwriter, lyricist and performer on the English folk music circuit. In addition to songs, he has published poems, fiction and many articles on music and creative writing, as well as working as a composer/lyricist/musician in professional theatre.
John and Sue Cubbin have performed as a duo for some years. They have a background in traditional English song and dance music, American folk and oldtime, and morris dancing. Sue sings and plays fiddle, John plays guitar and banjo and is a morris dancer. Sue has worked at the Essex Record Office and wrote That Precious Legacy: Ralph Vaughan Williams and Essex Folksong (Essex Record Office 2006.)

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