The Captain's Apprentice

The Captain's Apprentice

Ralph Vaughan Williams and the Story of a Folk Song


A beautifully written exploration of the world of Edwardian folk music, and its influence on the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams

In January 1905 the young Vaughan Williams, not yet one of England's most famous composers, visited King's Lynn, Norfolk, to find folk songs 'from the mouths of the singers'. He had started collecting in earnest little more than a year before but was now obsessed with saving these indigenous tunes before they were lost forever. An old fisherman, James 'Duggie' Carter, performed 'The Captain's Apprentice', a brutal tale of torture sung to the most beautiful tune the young composer had ever heard.

The Captain's Apprentice is the story of how this mysterious song 'opened the door to an entirely new world of melody, harmony and feeling' for Vaughan Williams. With this transformational moment at its heart, the book traces the contrasting lives of the well-to-do composer and a forgotten King's Lynn cabin boy who died at sea, and brings fresh perspectives on Edwardian folk-song collectors, the singers and their songs.

While exploring her own connections to folk song, via a Hebridean ancestor, a Scottish ballad learnt as a child and memories of family sing-songs, the author makes the unexpected discovery that Vaughan Williams has been a hidden influence on her musical life from the beginning - an experience she shares with generations of twentieth-century British schoolchildren.

Published for Vaughan Williams's 150th birthday in August, this evocative, sensitive look at the great composer will also be read on BBC Radio 4.

'No stone is left unturned in the meticulous gathering. Her gift is a work of love and infinite care' - KEGGIE CAREW

'I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and its weaving of biography, social history and folk song.' - STEVE ROUD


  • This is a hugely intriguing, sensitively woven and at times unexpectedly moving book. What begins as an investigation into one English folk song and one twentieth-century English composer's interaction with it spirals outwards into a galaxy of related tales, discoveries, insights and surprises. It is written from the heart, an elegy to lost landscapes, to nearly forgotten communities and their cultural legacies, relived and newly honoured in the pages of this thoroughly absorbing book
    Howard Goodall, author of THE STORY OF MUSIC

About the author

Caroline Davison

Before becoming a writer, Caroline Davison worked as a conservationist in the heritage sector for thirty years. Her publications include a novel, The Pleasure Garden, and a number of non-fiction essays. Caroline also writes and performs music and has been a singer in various bands and choirs since the age of seventeen. She lives and works in Norfolk.
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