Posts Tagged ‘Vaughn Williams’

Radical Balladry: A Dream of Napoleon

May 16, 2014

Napoleon Pic

The Napoleonic Wars are one of the quintessential episodes of the British patriotic interpretation of history, when Britain and her allies faced down and defeated Napoleon. And long before Hitler, Napoleon was – and to a certain extent, still remains – the archetypal foreign dictator intent on world domination. Yet in his early days Napoleon was a hero to many British radicals, the champion of democracy and freedom against a corrupt, aristocratic order. It can come as a surprise that there were ballads written in Britain celebrating ‘Boney’ and his exploits. One of them, A Dream of Napoleon, was collected by Vaughn Williams. It appears to have been first printed in the late 1830s, though it may have been composed perhaps thirty years earlier, as the only battle it mentions is that of Marengo in Italy in 1800. It runs

One night sad and languid I went to my bed, but I
Scarce had reclined on my pillow, when a vision surprising came
into my head; methought I was traversing the
Billow, one night as my vessel dashed over the deep I
beheld a rude rock that was craggy and steep, The rock [where]
the willows now seemed to weep o’er the grave of the once famed Napoleon.

Methought that my vessel drew near to the land, I beheld clad in green this
bod figure.
With the trumpet of fame clasped firm in his hand, on his brow there was
Valour and vigour.
‘O stranger’, he cried, has thou ventured to me from the land of thy fathers
who boast they are free?
If so a tale I’ll tell unto thee concerning the once famed Napoleon.

‘Remember that year so immortal’, he cried, ‘when I crossed the rude Alps
famed in story
With the legions of France, for her sons were my pride, and I led them to
honour and glory.
On the plains of Marengo I tyranny hurled and wherever my banner the eagle
unfurled,
‘Twas the standard of freedom all over the world and the signal for fame’,
cried Napoleon.

‘Like a soldier I’ve been in the heat and the cold, as I marched to the trumpet
and cymbal,
But by dark deeds of treachery I have been sold, while monarchs before me
have trembled.
Now rules and princes their station demean, and like scorpions spit forth
their venom and spleen,
But liberty soon o’er the world shall be seen’, as I woke from dream, cried
Napoleon.

Source: Roy Palmer, ed., Bushes and Briars: Folk Songs Collected by Ralph Vaughan Williams (Llanerch 1999) 100-1.

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.