Folk Song in Eng­land by Steve Roud

From milk­maids’ dit­ties to plough­boys’ tunes – how a tra­di­tion was saved from ex­tinc­tion

The Guardian - Review - - Non-fiction - Kathryn Hughes

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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