Thousands or more

In comments, Rob wrote:

I remember when I was at school there was much polemic in the pages of Folk Review from the likes of Dick Gaughan and Pete Bellamy about whether one could truly call singer-songwriters “folk” at all: specifically about the extent to which they were likely to be writing songs that would become the “traditional music” of the future. I suppose the exemplar there would be Ewan MacColl: when I listen to the old Radio Ballads I can’t always tell which songs are Trad. arr. MacColl and which are MacColl. Or this one which has been around for ages and has come pretty much detached from knowledge of its author (I’d certainly forgotten who wrote it). “Anon” being the larval form of “trad” I’d say it was on its way. And there are plenty of what you might call genre songs, like “Dorset Be Beautiful” and “Drink Up Thee Zyder” on the same journey.

I’m not sure. I’m a bit of a puritan – or possibly a pessimist – with regard to “traditional music of the future”: I don’t think there will be such a thing, unfortunately. Borrowing some stuff I wrote earlier (on Mudcat):

If recording technology were somehow abolished next week, a 22nd-century collector might well pick up local variants of Blowin’ in the Wind and Mr Tambourine Man. But we’ll never know: Dylan isn’t music of the people, Dylan’s a recording artist. Traditional and folk-transmitted music survives here and there – football chants, playground rhymes, some hymns and carols – but there’s really no music that’s “of the people” in the sense of living and developing among ordinary people in the course of their lives.

The ubiquity of broadcast and recorded music changed everything. Once a song’s recorded, there’s a single, readily-available answer to the question: “what should that sound like?” We know the right melody, the right chords and the right words, and if we want to know how it all fits together we can listen to the writer singing it. That’s a huge change from the conditions that existed as recently as a hundred years ago. Traditional music – folk music, as far as I’m concerned – is all about reaching back before that break and finding out what people used to do for music, before they could all listen to the same thing at the flick of a switch.

The problem is that the availability of broadcast music cuts away the ground from under the oral tradition. Do you sing while you work? Do your workmates? Do you sing at home to relax? When your friends or family want some music of an evening, do they suggest having a few songs? The oral tradition works in communities and societies where people can, by and large, answer Yes to all four. Those conditions may still obtain in some parts of the world, but they certainly don’t in Britain (or the US).

This isn’t something that’s happened overnight. The uniformity imposed by mechanical reproduction has been eroding the oral tradition for a long time, going back to pianolas and mass-produced parlour songbooks. Ironically, the oral tradition finally gave up the ghost (in this country at least) at around the same time the Revival was really getting going. Oral transmission among folkies does go on, but we aren’t so much a community as a network of hobbyists. Live music made by ordinary people without making a big deal of it – because it’s what you do, because it passes the time, because everyone’s got a song in them – has basically died out.

This isn’t an anti-folkie point – quite the opposite. (I think some of the anti-trad polemicists get this far and then take a wrong turning, writing off the music on the basis that (a) some people demonstrably claim too much for it (b) they don’t like those people and (c) they don’t actually like the music either. It’s easily done – ask me about opera some time, or rather don’t.) As far as I’m concerned, live music made by enthusiastic amateurs (and a few enthusiastic professionals) is great – it’s one of the brighter spots in my life at the moment. Live traditional music, in particular. The songs that have survived from the oral tradition – or survived long enough to be collected – are, by and large, really good songs: in performance, they work in a way that most new songs don’t. It’s true that there are new songs coming through in the style of the old songs – Shantyman, Bring us a barrel and so on – but they’re only ever likely to be heard by a tiny minority of the population. A bit of humility, and a bit of awareness of what’s gone, are in order. We’re not the folk, and any new music we make is never going to be folk music.

Which, apart from anything else, is what makes the folk music we do have so valuable. Counting variants, there are hundreds of songs out there from the traditions of England and Scotland alone. So much music, so little time! What’s more likely to sound good – a song that started life on a seventeenth-century broadside, passed through countless hands and voices before being collected in 1904, and has since been taken up and shaped and polished by three or four generations of revivalists, or “a song you won’t have heard, because I’ve only just finished writing it”?



  1. Posted 8 August 2008 at 12:33 | Permalink | Reply

    No mention of the whole, Dave Harker “Fakesong” assault on Cecil Sharp.

    Peter Bellamy is (or was) the man in my honest opinion. The Young Tradition “Galleries” is one my all time favourite records. I remember when I first heard it, I was fed up of all those sickly sweet harmonies doing the rounds, what I really liked was the slight discordance or dissonance of their harmonies, and Bellamies bleating vocal mannerisms. When he sings “A Shepherd of the Downs” you feel like you have stepped into the wholesome atmosphere of “A Pilgrims Progress”.

    One of the interesting phenomena in folk music, is the musical innovation around accompaniment of traditional songs.

    For example, guitar has never been a traditional instrument in English music, but we have Martin Carthy developing a distinctive style, and the whole folk-baroque thing that other guitar-players spearheaded. Shirley Collins is a case in point, she experimented with banjo accompaniment and the guitar of Davy Graham, but said it just didn’t quite gel, finally hit on the primitive organ that her sister played to accompany and experimented with Early musicians like David Munrow (another musical hero of mine). What is interesting is how, what is actually very modern and untraditional accompaniment, sounds so organic and appropriate.

    One weakness in the revival singers that many people have commented upon is that compared to singers like Harry Cox, Walter Pardon and that generation, the rhythms, meter variation within verses and beat tend to become more regular and the idiosyncracies ironed out.

  2. Posted 8 August 2008 at 14:54 | Permalink | Reply

    Adamski – it was Harker & Steve Higginson I was getting at in the reference to ‘anti-trad’ polemicists. I left it as an aside because I thought doing justice to those arguments would derail the post.

    I mostly agree with you about regularity – my bugbear is songs that have been stretched to fit over a 4:4 framework, sometimes with a backbeat (as with Shirley Collins’s work with the Albion Band). Having said that, I do think some of the melodies noted down by collectors like Cecil Sharp are virtually unsingable – I think there are times when a source singer’s 4:4-with-a-mumble or -with-a-pause-for-breath gets notated as a bar of 7:8 or 9:8. Not all idiosyncrasies are worth preserving.

  3. Posted 9 August 2008 at 03:31 | Permalink | Reply

    The problem is that the availability of broadcast music cuts away the ground from under the oral tradition. Do you sing while you work? Do your workmates? Do you sing at home to relax? When your friends or family want some music of an evening, do they suggest having a few songs?

    I can actually answer ‘Yes’ to all four. Though I accept that’s getting rarer and rarer, even here in Ireland where family get-togethers invariably turn into song sessions and many pubs still feature evening jams to which anyone is invited to contribute.

    There’s a chance, though, if you think that ‘peak oil’ / spiralling energy costs will become major issues that people will end up listening to less recorded music as they seek to ensure their energy budget covers essentials. In such cases, and assuming society hasn’t been atomised beyond repair, it’s possible that “making our own entertainment” (as my grandparents would have described it) will return.

    Of course, it’s questionable just how big a silver lining that’ll be to a society shivering in the dark ;)

  4. Posted 15 August 2008 at 13:48 | Permalink | Reply

    On the regularity thing, the notation issue is an interesting one. Yes, a puase or breath or whatever may have been notated as a bar of 17/8, but before the ready availability of recording equipment there was no other way of distinguishing between the way singer X of Accrington an singer Y or Widnes sang the same basic song. The point of the detailed notation wasn’t to make the song singable, it was to make the performance reproducible. One can look at the process from the other end, of course, and see a song which in its published form is neat and four-square being pulled around and ornamented, quite unconsciously and instinctively, by any decent singer. And that applies to Abba songs as much as it does to traditional ones.

  5. Posted 15 August 2008 at 14:17 | Permalink | Reply

    Thinking further about unimaginative rhythm, I’m conscious that in my lifetime we have, as a culture, become much more rhythm-savvy. The sleeve notes for Dave Brubeck’s “Time Out” album (from which “Take Five” comes) back in the early sixties comments that an alien listing to our poular music would be impressed by its harmonic complexity but would find it mostly in 2/4, 3/4, 4/4 or 6/8. And he was right, then. Even for jazz, except for the odd bebop solo that might lose the bar-lines altogether. “Classical” music, on the other hand (a major influence on Brubeck’s style) had no such inhibitions (heck, Tchaikovsky wrote a movement in 5/4, to say nothing of The Rite Of Spring). I’m not suggesting that the pop charts are full of pieces in exotic time-signatures, but we’re not scared of them any more . Zappa and Beefheart (also with classical influences) were influential there, and of course there have been a few big hits (“Money” in 7/8, “Tubular Bells” in 15/8) softening up the audience. Even Iron Maiden’s “The Number of the Beast” kicks off in 10/8 before settling down to 4/4 later on. I suspect the major factor has been increased exposure to world music of various kinds: that certainly was the case on the folk scene in the 70s as Balkan influences flooded in. I’ve never worked out (and never had the chance to ask him) whether Martin Carthy’s extreme rhythmic freedom in “Famous Flower of Serving Men” (the song that launched a thousand MC-alikes) was inspired by eastern European music or simply by a quirky un-rationalised traditional performance closer to home (as with Shirley Collins doing “Maria Marten” with the Albion Country Band). Anyway, we’re not scared of funny rhythms any more.

  6. Posted 20 August 2008 at 21:45 | Permalink | Reply

    Some most interesting thoughts about what is the essence of ‘folk’, ‘folk music’ and ‘folk singer-songwriters’ which are particularly relevant to our activities at the moment in building and developing the Wessex Folk Festival in Weymouth.

    As an organisation we are primarily dedicated to showcasing local bands and singers but very much within a community context. If we are to reach out into the general Weymouth and Dorset community and involve them, we need to build all sorts of links with singers, dancers and musicians who couldn’t possibly be regarded as being traditional folk singers, dancers or musicians.

    Yet these people are part of the local musical and artistic community. They are involved in live performance and local culture. They are local folk in the widest of senses.

    I understand that I have moved the focus to talk about the community of people who are involved in the performance rather than the actual song itself but wasn’t inclusion the essence of ‘folk traditions’?

    Rob Hopcott

  7. Posted 20 August 2008 at 22:36 | Permalink | Reply

    Rob H – I have a lot of sympathy with what you’re saying. I do sometimes use the word ‘folk’ much more loosely and reserve the word ‘traditional’ for what I’m describing here.

    But I think there’s something special about traditional music. When you combine listening with singing or playing together, at a singaround or a session, *something happens* – something really magical and energising, quite unlike being an audience for a performer. And I think that for that magic to happen you need to have a body of songs or tunes that at least half the people in the room know inside out and feel they can do justice to – which in practice means traditional material, mostly.

    When it comes to performer-with-audience music, it’s another matter. There are a lot of acoustic musicians out there, hardly any of whom are specialising in traditional music – and definitions have changed accordingly. (I don’t think there *is* a definition of ‘folk’ at the moment, but that’s another issue.) Most audiences for ‘folk’ are basically expecting singer-songwriters with acoustic guitars, and would probably be driven away by a programme of what I’d consider folk music. So it goes. My main concern is that spaces for those people who do want to keep traditional music going are kept open – my attempts to challenge the redefinition of ‘folk’ are a way of raising that issue.

  8. Posted 20 August 2008 at 22:46 | Permalink | Reply

    Incidentally, I don’t think any contemporary performer should claim to be contributing to the tradition or participating in the folk process; I believe the folk process is basically over, killed by broadcast and recorded entertainment (not only music – buy a TV and songs around the piano start to seem a bit like hard work). Damn shame, but that’s history for you – and it’s left us with a fine body of songs and tunes, a lot of which still work as well as they always did.

    Back on the definition point – ‘folk’ can’t just mean ‘people’, or ‘folk music’ would just mean ‘music made by people’. Or is that all you want it to mean? Does ‘folk’ just mean ‘(mostly) live, (mostly) acoustic, (mostly) made by amateurs’?

  9. Posted 8 September 2008 at 20:55 | Permalink | Reply

    Well, we could start by whittling away at what folk isn’t. “Classical” music (itself a much-abused term with a strict meaning of roughly J C Bach-to-Beethoven, but these days stretched even further beyond reasonable bounds than “folk” by such bodies as Classic FM) – classical music is, shall we agree, generally notated, and likely to require some kind of formal traaining to perform. Jazz and blues can be defined by their black American roots: OK, if you’re a black American then blues is your folk music, but I’m not and neither is Phil. Similarly for other world musics: they’re other people’s folk musics, not mine.

    Beyond that, it gets a bit blurry. I remember seeing a traditional singer (I am shamefully unable to remember which one, but it was a real old trad guy, none of yer revivalists) at a festival doing “Paper Roses”. I bet there are far more singers of the “John Maclean March” (though all too few these days….) than could name its author. (I have a head start there as I shared a degree ceremony with him at Edinburgh: his honorary D Litt, my MBA.) And what about Robert Burns? Is there anyone alive who considers “Auld Lang Syne” to be non-traditional? Hell’s teeth, how many of the millions who sing it each year, with the wrong words wrongly pronounced, have any idea that it’s by Burns? Maybe “My Love Is Like A Red Red Rose” and “Ae Fond Kiss” are still identified with their author (maybe) but Auld Lang Syne – no chance. And if we accept that ALS has made the jump into the tradition, why not other songs? Not hundreds of them, maybe not even dozens, but some. The best, the most widely distributed, and the most frequently performed in contexts divorced from any connection with their authors. (Comparatively rare in these copyright-obsessed times.) If the author of “Pastime With Good Company” had been slightly less famous I think that one might have made the jump by now; surely it’s only the irresistible gimmick of a king who could actually do something useful that has kept Henry’s name attached to it for all these years. Or what about rugby songs? By their nature they can’t have been around very long, though they slot right into a tradition of filthy lyrics. They’ve made the jump, perhaps because nobody wanted to own up to writing “The Good Ship Venus”. (Incidentally, I have never managed to disprove the thesis that the “I ‘ad ‘er, I ‘ad ‘er, I ‘ad ‘er, I-ay” chorus of “The Threshing Machine” was adopted from Peter Sellers’ “Suddenly It’s Folk Song”, which would be magnificent if true. (The Sellers version just has four “I ‘ad ‘er”s and no “I-ay”.) I wasn’t just trying to be witty when I described “Anon” as the larval form of “Trad”. I suspect there will come a time when “Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport” will do it; “Waltzing Matilda” did it some years back. Easily the strongest current candidate for trad-hood is “Flower of Scotland”. I could go on. It’s neither a good thing nor a bad thing, it’s simply how the tradition stays alive. The industrial folk songs of Northern England have all entered the tradition in the last couple of centuries. A final example: I knew that “Rawtenstall Annual Fair” must have an identifiable author as being twentieth century at least, but I had no idea who it was, and it was several Google hits before I found “Weston & Lee” credited. Bet they don’t get much publicity from it now.

    It you;re right in that the singer can’t claim to be contributing to the tradition: that’s for posterity to decide.

  10. Posted 8 September 2008 at 22:06 | Permalink | Reply

    Well, maybe I was a bit too pessimistic in saying that oral transmission is dead, but I don’t think I was far off. My position is that if a song’s being learnt, sung and passed along by ordinary people – people who don’t devote a statistically unusual amount of their time to live music – then you can say there’s some kind of oral tradition developing or continuing; songs folkies learn from other folkies don’t really qualify. Flower of Scotland is a great example of a song ‘going oral’ – yes, it does still happen, to some extent (that’s where I was too pessimistic). But look at where it happens: football grounds, rugby clubs, New Year’s Eve celebrations, and not many other places. Almost all the niches for music in everyday life are occupied by recorded and broadcast music.

  11. Posted 1 October 2008 at 02:36 | Permalink | Reply

    You make a good point about the vanishing niches, though on my own life I can look back on dozens of coach trips with the school or the church youth club in which songs were sung without recorded prompting. And while recordings do push their way into every facet of life, people still do sing to their children, whether it’s to get them to sleep or to while away car journeys.

  12. E.Van Johnson
    Posted 22 January 2014 at 16:43 | Permalink | Reply

    As a real old folkie, I started singing in the gang shows in 1949. My eldest brother Theo Johnson started one of the earliest folk clubs Bunjies in London and used to sing there when home on leave from sea.
    I began singing as full time folkie in 1958 along with Terry Masterson. For about eight months I worked with Alex Campbell who taught me so much about how to present my songs and handle an audience.
    The old problem of putting titles to music is that you will always find someone with a different opinion. I once sang a sea shanty at the Bridge in Newcastle and Ewan Macoll, said it wasn’t traditional and I should only songs from my area.
    When I pointed out that he had just sung the shoals of herring which he wrote, he was less than amused.
    Don’t try to put labels on songs, just sing them and let your audience decide.

    I have sung folk songs from all over the UK and run clubs in London, Aberdeen, Barnard Castle, MIri in Borneo, Bahia in Brazil, Marsa Brega in Libya and Port o Spain in Trinidad. I now sing in Mallorca Spain, so even though you wont have heard of me, many of the folkies around the world have.

    Van Johnson. (Proud to be an old Folkie and still singing and playing at 73.).

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