Folk Song in England by Steve Roud
From milkmaids’ ditties to ploughboys’ tunes – how a tradition was saved from extinction
When is a folk song not a folk song? When it’s accompanied by someone on the piano? When its origins lie not in a ploughed field but on a music hall stage? When it’s written not by “anon” but by a person with a proper name? When Vaughan Williams decides to riff on it using the full resources of a military band? When it could equally accurately be described as a madrigal, a ballad or a nursery rhyme?
These are the questions over which clergymen, antiquarians and ladies of a liberal bent fretted at the end of the 19th century as they set out to recover the precious remnants of England’s vernacular musical culture. Armed with notepad, pencil and even the occasional phonograph, they cycled out into the shrinking countryside, determined to catch the tail end of a song culture that they feared was about to go for good. What they were after were the ditties trilled by milkmaids at dawn and the choruses shouted out by tired ploughboys in the village pub. If there was a maypole in there somewhere, then so much the better.
What mostly drove this first generation of folk song collectors was horror at the way that the urban working classes had taken to humming vulgar trash picked up from music halls and penny gaffs. If only these men and women could be persuaded to return to the music of their “rustic” grandparents, then an atmosphere of sunny calm and breezy purpose would prevail in the darkest and most sullen corners of the city sprawl. Factory hands on their way to work on a sleety midwinter morning would be able to cheer themselves up by whistling a song about wassailing. Shop girls could greet the warmer months with a snatch of “Sumer Is Icumen In”.
The problem, Steve Roud explains in this monumental history of the English folk song, is that the material harvested from the late-Victorian fields turned out not to be so very old after all. In fact, you were lucky if you could trace a song’s pedigree back further than 100 years. What’s more, far from being as unadulterated as the water from a Yorkshire beck, these “folksongs” (a term barely used before 1891) turned out to be a mishmash of codes and styles. A song such as “Villikins and his
Dinah”, which sounded like it had come into the world chewing straw, was actually written by the journalist Henry Mayhew for a forgettable stage farce called The Wandering Minstrel in 1834. The same was true of “The Jug of Punch” which started off as a music hall “Oirish” song and then slipped into the canon as the real deal.
Even if a song did turn out to be properly old – “Three Blind Mice” and “The Barley Mow” go back to at least the time of Queen Anne – then chances were that it had lasted so long because at some point someone had written it down. By the early 17th century chapbooks and broadsides containing both the words and music to popular ballads, catches and glees were circulating the countryside courtesy of a busy network of pedlars. This isn’t to deny that oral transmission was key in disseminating folk songs around a community in which few people could read, but the fact remains that the material was just as likely to have first slipped into the village on a piece of paper rather than on the tip of someone’s tongue. The oral tradition, which for the late Victorian collectors was a kind of assay of a song’s authenticity, was actually a much inkier, print-smeared practice than anyone could quite bear to admit.
Whether or not an individual song was accepted into the folk canon or got thrown back into the sea of “other music” depended on the criteria of the person doing the collecting. And no one had more decided criteria than Cecil Sharp, a man who never met a folk song he didn’t like nor a folk collector he could get along with. Ironically many of Sharp’s quarrels with his colleagues at the Folk-Song Society were over questions of origins. Although he was a johnny-come-lately to the folk scene, not publishing his first set of songs until 1902, Sharp liked to give the impression that it had been his idea to recover England’s lost music. According to one of his female colleagues, Sharp “puffed and boomed and shoved and ousted” to make sure that he and only he was seen as Mr Folksong. This peacocking, according to the same witness, was down to Sharp “not being a gentleman”. To understand the music of the common people it helped if you were posh.
Sharp has long been an easy figure to mock, and historians in the 1970s and 80s, especially of the Marxist persuasion, had a high old time suggesting that his efforts to conjure a Merrie England of perpetual song and dance were really an attempt to reconcile the urban working classes to the injustices and disparities of mature capitalism. To the familiar accusations of Sharp’s fakery, appropriation and profiteering, Roud mounts a compelling yet proportionate defence. In particular he points out that it was thanks to Sharp’s strenuous efforts in publishing song books for use in schools that generations of children grew up experiencing a popular musical culture that was not exclusively shaped by commercial interests. Anyone who has ever been a Brownie will probably still be able to mouth along to “John Peel”, “Bobby Shaftoe” and “The Lincolnshire Poacher” should the need arise. These catchy tunes with their satisfyingly repeating choruses – the correct term is “strophic” – are part of a landscape that is recognisably communal without being nationalistic. And as for the fact that many of them turn out to be as arriviste as Sharp himself, it’s not clear why it should really matter.
Catchy songs … Sandy Denny and Richard Thompson of Fairport Convention
784pp, Faber, £25
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