Posts Tagged ‘Cecil Sharp’

Radical Balladry, and Songs of Protest, Folk and Punk

May 17, 2014

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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Romanticism, Mysticism and Utopianism in the Modern British Folk Revival

May 13, 2014

Electric Eden Pic

Electric Eden by Rob Young (London: Faber and Faber 2010) is a detailed examination of modern British folk music, going from the 19th century collectors like Cecil Sharp and Vaughn Williams to modern folk-rockers like Steeleye Span, Fairport Convention and non-folkies, like Julian Cope and Kate Bush, who nevertheless express the strange, esoteric spirit of much of British folk music in their strange, esoteric mysticism and utopian yearning for a Britain of myth and legend. The blurb states:

In this groundbreaking survey of more than a century of music-making in the British Isles, Rob Young investigates how the idea of folk has been handed down and transformed by successive generations – song collectors, composers, Marxist revivalists, folk-rockers, psychedelic voyagers, free-festival-goers, experimental pop stars and electronic innovators. In a sweeping panorama of Albion’s soundscape that takes in the pioneer spirit of Cecil sharp; the pastoral classicism of Ralph Vaughan Williams and Peter Warlock; the industrial folk revival of Ewan MacColl and A.L. Lloyd; the folk-rock of Fairport Convention, Sandy Denny, Nick Drake, Shirley Collins, John Martyn and Pentangle; the bucolic psychedelia of The Incredible String Band, the Beatles and Pink Floyd; the acid-folk of Comus, Forest, Mr Fox and Trees; The Wicker Man and occult folklore; the early Glastonbury and Stonehenge festivals; and the visionary pop of Kate Bush, Julian Cope and Talk Talk, Electric Eden maps out a native British musical voice that reflects the complex relationship between town and country, progress and nostalgia, radicalism and conservatism. A wild combination of pagan echoes, spiritual quest, imaginative time-travel, pastoral innocence and electrified creativity, Electric Eden presents and passionate and intelligent landscape reading of this island’s music, and the spirit that informs it.

I’ve posted this up as a partial antidote to the pseudo-folksiness of the English Democrats’ election video, which I’ve reblogged from Tom Pride’s site. The good Mr Pride had put it up with the question of whether it was the worst party political broadcast ever. It isn’t, but offhand I can’t think of one. The video relies on a very few stereotypical images of England – White Cliffs of Dover, Churchill, St George, Spitfires and a monument to the war dead. It’s a very narrow, very Conservative view of English national identity. And also extremely modern – most of the imagery is that of the Second World War. English, and British folk identity is far broader and richer than that, as Electric Eden shows. Sharp, I believe, was actually a Socialist trying to recover the songs of the British working people. The folkies of the 1950s were similarly inspired by Left-wing political views. Many of them were Marxists, inspired by American folk musicians and were aficionados of Black American Blues music. This was the music of poor, Black America, and the British revivalists turned to exploring their own folk music as Blues’ British counterpart. Furthermore, many of the British folk-rockers in the 1960s were fans and pioneers of what is now World Music, and a few converted to the mystical religions of these extra-European cultures. The book mentions a couple, for example, who converted to Sufism, Islamic mysticism.

The book is a bit contentious in its claim that the British folk revival, or the folk genre, is now over. It isn’t, as you can hear by listening the folk bands that are still very much a part of the music scene, particularly in Bristol. It has to be said that it’s nowhere near as big as it was in the 1960s-70s, when Pentangle, Fairport Convention, and Steeleye Span were at their height. It has also passed on elements and attitudes to other pop genres. There was, for example, a definite folk element in the music of the Goth rock band, All About Eve in the 80s and 90s. Electric Eden demonstrates how rich, varied and esoteric British folk, folk-rock and folk-influenced pop is, far richer than the limited, trite and reactionary images presented by the parties of the populist far Right.