Radical Balladry, and Songs of Protest, Folk and Punk

Ballad Seller pic

I posted a few pieces this week on Rob Young’s Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music (London: Faber & Faber 2010) and radical and Socialist British folk song and verse, including examples from the 19th century. This started an interesting debate between Untynewear and Jess over the nature of radical folk song, its influence and its appeal today compared to other genres.

Untynewear commented that the folk music he tried after reading Young’s book was largely too twee for his tastes, and was too middle class, ‘nice music for nice people’, for which he blamed the very middle class folk music collectors like Cecil Sharp. It’s a fair point, as after the raw energy and nihilistic rage of punk, some British folk music can indeed seem safe and twee, celebrating an idealised bucolic idyll that never existed except in the minds of Conservative Romantics and urban city dwellers. You consider all the jokes about Morris dancing. The new masses of the rapidly expanding Victorian towns reacted against the horrors of the new mass industrial society while unaware of the grinding poverty and squalor that also existed in the countryside, and which forced their parents and grandparents to move to the city to find work in the first place.

In response, Jess pointed out that some of the folk bands and artists did recover and perform the angry, radical songs of the past. She recommended in particular Ashley Hutchings’ Albion Band, who had ‘recorded ‘Battle of the Field’ a couple of years before punk, but inspired many later bands such as the Levellers and The Men……”

And his ‘Kicking Up the Sawdust’, 1977, with Bob Cann, though not overtly political, can hold its own in any musical company.’

She also points out that there was a considerable difference at the time between the point of view of the collectors of the songs and dances, with some being far more radical in their beliefs and the material they collected. She writes:

As Gergina Boyes points out, there was quite an ideological battle went on within the ;’collectors’ (one that paralleled the arguments between the Jacobin John Ritson and tory Walter Scott in the 1790′s) . If you look at the work of Frank Kidson you will find an entirely different attitude to the music and the people who made it than the one held by Sharp and his cohorts.

She also pointed out that the people composing and performing the music were largely ignored by the middle classes and the music industry:

Despite the polite interest from above, the people who made the music, just carried on doing so. Fortunately some of it was recorded (try Veteran CD’s) , though not much made it onto the airwaves, let alone the jukeboxes.
Try http://www.veteran.co.uk/Veteran%20Catalogue.htm

She also traces the influence that this radical music has had on modern pop through Lonnie Donegan, whose interest in music was inspired by an American folk artist.

Donegan, she writes, started off as an aficionado of Josh White an American folk singer whose music reached this country through the airwaves of the BBC, courtesy of a slightly left wing (Labour) presenter called Charles Chilton.(we will meet Charles in another context, another time)

Unable to find the records he heard over the airwaves, he found them at Collets Book shop in Charing Cross Road (Formerly Hendersons, a syndicalist bookshop). The end result, as someone once said was ‘the Beatles’

Untynewear championed punk as the modern music of protest that appealed to him, as well as the music of the British West Indian community that emerged at the same time, like Steel Pulse and Linton Kwesi Johnson. He particularly recommended Johnson’s ‘Inglan’ is a Bitch’ and ‘Wat About Di Workin Class?’ Johnson has a sizable following, including many writers and bloggers for his left-wing music attacking racism and capitalism. Colin Firth and Anthony Arnove include ‘Inglan is a Bitch’ in their anthology of radical, democratic and socialist texts, The People Speak: Democracy Is Not A Spectator Sport. Untynewear gives the lyrics to ‘Wat About Di Workin Class’, which goes

‘From Inglan to Poland Every step across di ocean
The ruling class is dem in a mess, oh yes
Di capitalist system are regress
But di Sovjet system nah progress
So wich one of dem yuh think is best
When di two of dem work as a contest
When crisis is di order of di day
When so much people cryin’ out for change nowadays
So what about di workin’ claas? ??
What about di workin’ claas?
Dem pay the cost, dem carry the cross
An’ dem nah go forget dem ??
Dem nah go forget dem plans’

While this seems very dated after the Collapse of Communism, in the 1950s and ’60s, it should be remembered, the Western ruling class was very definitely in a mess because it looked like the Communist bloc would overtake the West in affluence and material prosperity. See the book Red Plenty for a partly novelised account of this period from the point of the view of the Soviets. Buddyhell over Guy Debord’s Cat has also included Johnson’s ‘Reggae fi Peach’, protesting against the murder of Blair Peach by a member of the SPD at an anti-racism demonstration.

This isn’t an either/ or situation. The idea that folk music is somehow a unique expression of a nation’s essential nature, somehow isolated and different from the music of other nations and cultures, as viewed by some of the 19th century Romantic folklorists, has been rejected. Writers and researchers on folk music have pointed out that folk music has always drawn on international influences since at least the 16th and 17th century. A German writer then described how musicians from all over Europe, including England, toured the Continent and the fairs of Germany to pick up the latest tunes, which they then took back with them to their own countries. Sea Shanties are a particularly mixed genre. One book I read said it was impossible to work out from which country’s musical tradition the genre as a whole developed from, while noting that there was a distinct African element to the music. Which is pretty much what you’d expect from an industry, whose very nature was international trade and the transport of goods and people. And the influence of other nation’s culture and the adoption of their musical forms continued in the 19th century. One type of music that entered British folk music in the 19th century was the Polka, which originally came from Poland.

And far from being the anonymous expression of a nation’s collective soul, some folk music was written or composed by distinct individuals, whose identities are known, or entered the tradition from Broadside Ballads. With this in mind, it’s entirely fair to regard modern radical pop artists, like Johnson and the politically engaged Punk bands, as forms of modern folk, even though some of the artists themselves may have reacted against being lumped in with the genre. Jess herself agreed with Untynewear about the quality of Johnson’s music. Colin Firth and Anthony Arnove, in The People Speak apart from Johnson, also include songs by The Clash, ‘Know Your Rights’ and Elvis Costello, ‘Shipbuilding’, along with folk songs like Hamish Henderson’s ‘The John Maclean March’ and ‘Freedom Come-All-Ye’, Frank Higgins’ ‘The Testimony of Patience Kershaw’ as well as anonymous 19th century ballads like ‘Hunting A Loaf’. They’re all songs of popular protest and attacks on social injustice, with the same roots in the experience of the poor, the working and lower middle classes, and the marginalised and oppressed, like many ethnic minorities.

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2 Responses to “Radical Balladry, and Songs of Protest, Folk and Punk”

  1. untynewear Says:

    “Untynewear commented that the folk music he tried after reading Young’s book was largely too twee for his tastes, and was too middle class, ‘nice music for nice people’”

    Sorry, I probably wasn’t very clear, but I actually formed those general views long before I read Electric Eden, as a result of attending folk clubs and gigs. Checking out the artists as I read EE only tended to confirm by predjudices.

    But I did give the genre a fair crack of the whip, and its not a universal loathing – one of the best gigs I ever went to was the Albion Dance Band (featuring Ashley Hutchings). Maybe because they were electric and had a proper drumkit – sort of gave them the bollocks so many others in the genre seem to lack (subjective opinon, of course).

    That – the electric bit – recalls the mindset that saw Bob Dylan getting called Judas in (I think) Manchester for going electric (and similar hassle in the States prior to that) which seems to suggest that by the mid 1960s there were very definite “rules” about what Folk music could and couldn’t be.

    Having said that, much the same thing happened to Punk and probably happens to just about every genre.

    Pre-Cecil Sharp & co, I suspect a lot of “folk” music was bawled out by tuneless drunks in the pub – which kind of reminds me of Shane McGowan ! Perhaps some of the Pogues/Popes output (which I do like) is the nearest modern equivalent ?

    And a nice example of “borrowing” – the accordion solo on the above is lifted bodily from Johnnie Allen’s Louisiana swamp pop classic “Promised Land” !

  2. beastrabban Says:

    Thanks for the reply, Untynewear, and for clearing up my comment about your trying some folk music after reading ‘Electric Eden’. Sorry for the misunderstanding. I have to say, my own taste in folk music largely runs to the folk-rock groups like Steeleye Span.

    I’ve heard about the massive controversy Dylan caused when he dared to play it electric. Robin Williamson of the Incredible String Band in the introduction to his collection of ‘English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish Fiddle Tunes’ said that when he started off, the Folk scene was not only ‘ a bit communist’, but was also ‘highly segregated into “purist”, “international”, “blues”, etc., so that he couldn’t see where he fitted in. Apparently there was a similar controversy back in the 1990s in the world of Scots bagpipe music. The Scottish bagpipe scene is very, very traditional, from what I heard, and they were outraged when the Canadian participants in a world festival of Scots bagpipes broke some of the traditional rules and were a bit too modern. I don’t know much about Punk, but you’re right in that the ‘purist’ mentality that insists on a very strict adherence to what they believe constitutions the essence of the genre exists in every form of music. You can certainly hear it in people arguing over whether such and such a performer murdered a perfectly good song, or just gave it their own, perfectly good twist, depending on whether or not they’re fans of the performer.

    Thanks for the post of the Pogues/ Popes. I think you’re right in that they do possess a ‘folk’ quality. They did, after all, do an album with Ewan MacColl’s daughter, and I think they covered MacColl’s own ‘Dirty Old Town’. As for much folk music being bawled out in pubs, pre-Cecil Sharp, again, I think you’re right. On the various programmes on folk music I’ve listened to, they’ve mentioned a particular pub in the north of England, where they still sing the area’s traditional songs, as an example of the type of music and performance that was traditional all over the country before the appearance of modern, commercial, recorded music. And I did find a quote in one of the books I read years ago by a 19th century village farm worker, who said, ‘I used to be accounted the best singer in the village, until these here new tunes came in’, referring to the way his own singing skill lost its respect with the appearance of cheap printed music.

    As for Shane McGowan, I’m surprised he’s still walking. Life’s certainly taken it’s toll on him, although I think it’s less ‘life’ in general, and more far too much booze by half.

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