Seeds of grief

A new song (to an old tune)

I sowed the seed of grief
My mother gave to me
For I well knew that in time my seed
Would grow into a tree

I sowed my seed in spring
I watched while it grew strong
I tended it through summer’s heat
And winter’s nights so long

The tree of grief grew tall
And its branches spread wide above
As I stood within its black and bitter shade
I fed my tree with love

In spring the tree grew leaf
In summer flowers so small
And as the skies of autumn grew cold
I watched the dry leaves fall

My tree had grown one fruit
On a branch so slender and fine
I reached up and I plucked it off
And then that fruit was mine

So bitter was its skin
Bitter juices did it bleed
I freely ate its bitter, bitter flesh
But I did not eat the seed

I sowed the seeds of grief
I sowed them all around
And now its branches are high overhead
The roots deep in the ground

The thorns of grief are sharp
Sweet are the flowers that grow
And I still taste its bitter, bitter fruit
And down the salt tears flow

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Filed under all my own unaided, folk song, not a folk song

Lessongs

I started going to Chorlton Folk Club in February 2003, a few months after it had opened. On my second venture there I got up and sang a song (Sally Free and Easy, very much after Bert Jansch); it went down OK, and that was it – from that day forward I was A Folkie.

I don’t know if Les Jones was there that night, but I suspect he was; he was a regular from very early on. He used to stand in occasionally for Jozeph, the MC, and take advantage of his position by opening each half with a tune or two on his beloved mandola. I remember Jozeph encouraging him to give us a song on more than one occasion, but to no avail. I also remember Les – as MC – responding to one of my more far-flung song choices, after I’d come off, by announcing to the room “I know an excellent song by Joni Mitchell. [Pause] Which I do not intend to sing.” (He always had a way with a pause.)

It probably wasn’t very long – a couple of months? – before Les did start singing at Chorlton. At this point a typical night would involve seven or eight performers, who’d get two songs in the first half and one in the second half – luxury, eh? Only a couple of the regulars sang unaccompanied, though. I like to think that my example gave Les a bit of a nudge – I’d showed that it was possible for a complete unknown to stand up and deliver a song unaccompanied, with minimal musical or social skills, and get applause for it. What was to stop someone like him, who had actually done this stuff for real? In any case, he soon became a regular singer, sneaking in a song (rather than a tune) when he was MCing and joining the roster of performers when he wasn’t. He was defiantly un-stagey, though – literally so: the room where Chorlton FC meets had a low stage at that time, and Les invariably performed standing in front of it, not wanting to elevate himself above the crowd even by six inches.

I think it’s fair to say that tunes loomed larger in Les’s folk universe than they do in mine. Put it this way: I remember the first time I heard the Grand and Sportsman’s Hornpipes (courtesy of Steve Saxton); I also remember the first time I heard Sue van Gaalen sing Wild roving no more. One of them made me think “that’s really nice, I should probably learn that”; the other made me think “my God, where has that been all my life?”.  For a tunes person it would probably be the other way round. Back in the early 00s, anyway, Les was quietly trying to build up a tune-playing circle, and within a couple of years I’d become part of it. I forget how this happened, but I suspect that it involved persistent questioning on Les’s part and vague expressions of interest on mine (“Excellent. How are you fixed for next Tuesday?”). I spent hours with a music stand in the kitchen, in the winter of 2005, learning tunes from Les’s stock of “tunes in pairs” (printed in colour-coded collections with a map of the Fallowfield Loop on the cover). We even played ‘out’, in a variety of combinations and locations.

Then, in December 2007, Les started the Beech singaround, an overwhelming experience of traditional song which quite literally changed my life; if I’d known I was a folkie before, now I knew why. The Beech tunes session got going a year or so later; I rapidly felt outclassed by the intimidating levels of sheer, unadulterated musical competence that everyone else seemed to have, dropped out, then changed instruments, spent another few years working through the Beech tune book, then another year working through the revised Beech tune book… and, to cut a long story short, haven’t yet dropped back in. (One of these days, though. It will happen.) In recent years I’d even drifted away from the Dulcimer singaround – seduced by the rival traddie attractions of the Gas Lamp, the Belvedere and the rival Tuesday evening attraction of copland’s pub quiz – although I’m aiming to rectify that now. Bit late, but there it is.

In any case, I heard Les sing – at Chorlton FC, at the Beech, at the Dulcimer and in various other places – many, many times, from mid-2003 to late 2016. What he invariably referred to as “daft songs” predominated, especially at first. There was his own parody of The Wild Rover (no nay never, no more… will I sing ‘The Wild Rover’…). I hope somebody recorded this while we had the chance; it had some brilliant lines.

So I pulled from my repertoire a song brand spanking new –
No religion or politics, it wasn’t even blue –

It was only a folk song in heavy disguise

Once, after a South American holiday during which he’d sung at a trova, he adapted the Wild Rover to be a song about – well, singing at a trova. (According to Les at the time a trova was a bar where they had song sessions. The dictionary says it means ‘ballad’, but who knows.)

He did kids’ songs and counting songs – Old John Braddelum and Him and His Good Companions. I remember him investing Old John Braddelum with a defiant, almost aggressive meaninglessness:

Number four! Number four!
Some likes a gate but I likes a door!

Number eight! Number eight!
Some likes a door but I likes a gate!

I’ve known him start a session with a quick round of Whose pigs are these?, and liven up the back end of the evening with a never-ending round of Nelson’s Blood (A big mucky blonde wouldn’t do us any harm… Yes, that was Les.) I don’t think I’ll ever forget his updated All for me grog:

Where is me wife?
Me hobbin’ nobbin’ wife
[ALL GONE FOR BEER AND TOBACCO!]
For a feminist is she
And that’s all right by me
Or I’d be hanging out for better weather

He liked getting a good loud chorus going – I think he much preferred being at the centre of what was going on than being the centre of attention in his own right. Beer and drinking songs were a bit of a theme. He did Oh good ale – admitting once that he’d been singing it for years under the impression it was a celebration of beer – and a terrific The Old Dun Cow (“Macintyre!”). And he did Keith Marsden’s Bring us a barrel for years, although more recently Jack Parker’s made it his own.

But he didn’t just do daft songs. He did the Lincolnshire Poacher, slightly modified (A health to every poacher that lives in Man-ches-ter!); he did Oak, ash and thorn (which I think was the only Bellamy I ever heard him do). The Whitby Lad was a real fixture – I remember hearing him do that at Chorlton, early on. He did Thame Fair, which is a pretty daft song – at least, it was the way Les sang it – but also hellishly fiddly; he was more skilled as a singer than he liked to let on. He did The Manchester rambler, of course, and he did Graeme Miles’s Drift from the Land. His voice was strong but not very expressive, and the plainness of his delivery worked perfectly with that song, just as it did with the Whitby Lad. It was one of the most moving things I’ve heard in a singaround.

All the young fellows have gone to the city,
All the young fellows have gone to the town,
Soon they’ll be earning near double the money
Ever they earned at the harrow and plough.

I don’t remember him doing much in the way of shanties, although the tipping-point for me – the moment when traditional song really caught hold of me – was Les leading off Ranzo; I’m eternally grateful for that. I heard him do Hal an Tow (at the appropriate time of year) at least once, and Cob-a-coaling made regular appearances around Bonfire NeetNight. What else? Did I hear him do The Rawtenstall Annual Fair? Hanging Johnny? On a Monday Morning? John Ball? I know he knew all of the above, of course and they’ve all got good big joiny-in bits (to use the technical term), so they certainly would have appealed to Les. Whether I can actually remember him doing them, though – not sure.

So here’s my provisional list of Lessongs. Updates and additions welcome.

Parody (Les’s own)

The Wild Rover

Contemporary songs

Bring us a barrel
The Manchester rambler
Drift from the land
Oak, ash and thorn

Traditional songs (daft)

Old John Braddelum
Him and his good companions
Whose pigs are these?
Nelson’s Blood
All for me grog
The Old Dun Cow
Cob-a-coaling
Twankydillo [added 27/6/17]
Hullabaloo belay [added 16/11/17; Les loved the relentless daftness of this song, as well as its rather mixed back story]

Traditional songs (straight)

Oh good ale
The Lincolnshire Poacher
The Whitby Lad
Thame Fair
Ranzo
Hal an Tow

Update 27/6/17 Just remembered Twankydillo, another one for the ‘Traditional (daft)’ list. Les used to add the odd verse, notably

Here’s a health to the Secretary and also the Chair
And all party members, except Tony Blair!

Les was a stalwart of the Labour Party, who (unlike me) had remained loyal – to the party – through the Blair years. He didn’t support the current leadership, but largely on pragmatic grounds; he often argued that radicalism needed to be accompanied by electability if the party was going to do anyone any good. I don’t know what he’d make of the current situation – with Corbyn’s party polling 45% and above – but I’d have loved to argue with him about it.

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Filed under Ewan MacColl, Les Jones, O my name is, Rudyard Kipling

One evening in Autumn – for Peter Bellamy

As I walked out one evening in autumn
To view the green hills and to take the fresh air
I seemed to see another evening that I never saw truly
And I thought what I might say if I could be there.

O why do you sit up here, Bellamy, Bellamy,
In the cool of the day, in the sun’s dying light?
“To look out upon the country, to look out on the land,
To look down on the people and bid them goodnight.”

And what do you have with you, Bellamy, Bellamy,
What have you brought for your comfort and good?
“Cold ground beneath my head will be my only pillow,
Strong drink and strong poison are my only food.”

“For there’s no pillow for a head full of comfortless memories
And there is no food for a hunger so deep.
And when I’ve had my fill of strong drink and strong poison
It’s then I’ll lie down and I’ll take a long sleep.”

O why would you leave us so, Bellamy, Bellamy,
When you’re such a fine singer of many’s the fine song?
“A song is not a fine song when there’s none will stay to listen
And the singer best knows when he’s gone on too long.

“O, once I sang the old songs, the old and forgotten songs,
And then I sang songs half a century old,
Then, blast me, I sang new songs, never sung, newly written –
The ink was scarce dry before my welcome was cold.

“The people, the people, I was good enough for them,
I sang to the people the people’s own song.
But the people, Lord, the people, they have turned their backs on me.
Out of me and the people, one of us has gone wrong.

“‘Make us laugh, Mr Folksinger! Tell us your anecdotes!
Or sing of your girlfriends with their eyes of blue or brown,
Or sing the glorious victories of the workers united –
Just don’t sing us a folk song and bring us all down.’

“Let the campaigners campaign, let the comics have their comedy
In rock opera heaven or hit parade hell,
At the Wheeltappers’ and Shunters’ or the London Palladium –
Let ’em all forget folk song and forget me as well.”

But they will remember you, Bellamy, Bellamy,
Though your life is cut short, your name will live long
Half a century from now, you shall not be forgotten:
Fifty thousand young voices will bellow your song.

“O don’t take this moment for your comfortless memory,
And don’t think this evening has struck the final note
Perhaps some other fires may burn where these embers smoulder
Just don’t let the grey ashes catch in your throat.”

As I walked out one evening in autumn
To take the fresh air with the green hills around
I saw another evening that I never saw truly
And I thought of what’s lost and what can yet be found.

Read on for my notes on the song – Phil

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One evening in Autumn – notes

Peter Bellamy’s death in 1991 has preyed on my mind ever since I learned of it. I believe Bellamy was, by a head and a neck, the most important folk performer of his time; to lose somebody of his stature in the prime of life would always be painful, but the knowledge that he died by his own hand is particularly hard to bear. There’s the additional regret, for me, that I never saw or even heard Bellamy while he was alive, despite having had opportunities to do so: I’m quite old enough to remember Lark Rise and “Gaudete”, but the Young Tradition only crossed my folk radar once back then, and Bellamy solo not at all. I never heard any mention of The Transports when it was out – I was into punk at the time – and didn’t think about folk again until the mid-2000s. So I discovered Bellamy and his entire 25-year career retrospectively, despite having been of record-buying age for most of that time. It’s a small thing, but it bothers me; knowing what those albums mean to me now, it seems wrong that I didn’t buy them at the time. I regret never being the fan I could have been.

About six weeks ago I started thinking about writing a song that would express some of what I felt – a sense of sorrow but also anger at living in a world without Peter Bellamy, and frustration at being unable to do anything about it now. A first draft, working title “Wish You’d Stayed Around”, was sweetly sentimental and sententious; it would probably have gone over OK at a folk club, but I hated it before I’d even finished writing the lyrics. Apart from anything else it seemed a pretty poor tribute to the man who sang “Two Pretty Boys” and wrote “The Leaves in the Woodland”; it wasn’t anywhere near harsh enough. I put it aside and left the idea to work at the back of my mind. About a week later I woke up with the tune, the verse form and the first couple of verses ready-written in my head; I had four and a half verses by the time I’d got dressed. Later in the day I looked at the calendar and realised that it was the 24th of September.

I don’t flatter myself that I have any idea why Peter Bellamy killed himself – as someone who never knew him, it would be ludicrously presumptuous for me to make that claim. I do think that Bellamy’s view of the British folk scene was something like the view I’m attributing to him here – I’ve based that part of the song on several interviews he did over the years. But I don’t believe – and I hope the song doesn’t suggest – that Bellamy’s experience of rejection by the British folk scene was why he did what he did. The most I would want to say is that, at a time when a lot of things in his life looked hopeless, this was perhaps the way in which British folk looked hopeless.

The tune, and the shape of the song, is based on Bellamy’s version of “The shooting of his dear”, with a tweak to the first line making it different from the second. One of the things I most admire about Bellamy’s singing is the way he mixed equal and dotted rhythms to replicate the rhythms of speech while also adding tension to a song, as it were stretching the melody over the angles of the language. I try to do something like this here.

Verse 1 sets the song up as a new song using traditional tropes. (It’s not true – I did do some walking while composing the song, but most of it was in my back garden and none was in the country. I considered rewriting it to be more truthful – or else taking myself off for a walk in the country – but decided to leave it as it was.) This wasn’t the first verse to start with; I added it later, thinking that going straight in with the ‘Bellamy, Bellamy’ verse seemed a bit brash and confrontational. I may drop it again, for the same reason (Bellamy’s own work isn’t marked by fear of being brash and confrontational).

Verse 2 is deeply presumptuous – taking a real person and writing him into an “Edward”-style question-and-answer ballad is risky, to say the least. (I think the rest of the song carries it off, but I’m probably not the best judge.) As well as the direct reference to “Edward”, there’s a fleeting reference to “The Land”.

Verse 3 The phrase “comfort and good” is straight out of “Big Steamers”, the tune for which isn’t entirely unlike this one.

Verse 4 The phrase “take a long sleep” evokes “The week before Easter”. (This is another verse which could perhaps be dropped.)

Verse 6 References here to “The old songs” (Copper/Bellamy) and “On board a 98”. “Half a century” is a slight understatement, but many of Bellamy’s Kipling poems were only 60 years old when he first sang them. Bellamy was sometimes criticised for not writing his own material; cue The Transports, which (despite its own success) failed to get Bellamy’s career back on track. A couple of people have recalled Bellamy telling them that the bookings had dried up after The Transports. However, I’ve seen an interview conducted just after the recording of The Transports, in which Bellamy says that he’d had hardly any bookings in the previous eighteen months. The Transports didn’t solve the problem, but it didn’t cause it either.

Verse 7 This rather heavily references “A pilgrim’s way”. “Out of me and the people, one of us has gone wrong” expresses the despair I think Bellamy felt about ever attracting an audience again, and suggests the deep self-doubt which sometimes afflicted him. That said, in the next verse it emerges that he’s not the one who’s gone wrong. There’s a bleak irony in somebody singing for ‘the people’ (I think Bellamy’s endorsement of the sentiments of “A pilgrim’s way” was genuine) but denouncing the people for not listening. But I think Bellamy felt that he was, still, on the right track – it’s just that nobody else seemed to think so.

Verses 8 and 9 Judging again from interviews, I think Bellamy felt the folk scene had filled up with wouldbe Jasper Carrotts, wouldbe Richard Thompsons and wouldbe Leon Rosselsons, none of whom was doing anything even slightly rooted in tradition or in the people’s own popular song. (We could argue about how fair or accurate this criticism was, but I think it is how Bellamy saw things.) The last line of verse 8 sometimes raises a laugh, which is also pretty ironic.

Verse 10 This verse could perhaps be dropped; it’s a bit soft-edged and well-meaning, two things I don’t much like in a folk song. It’s not half a century from 1991, of course, although it is nearly a quarter of one. The last line of the verse crams in another reference to “The Old Songs” and namechecks for Bellowhead and the Young ‘Uns.

Verse 11 The song doesn’t state who’s speaking at this point. We’re getting right away from anything Bellamy actually said, so I wanted to stress that this is an imagined reply. I also wanted to use this verse to get away from myth-making, and from any idea that the state of the British folk scene was what Bellamy’s death was about; I’m imagining him saying, in effect, “my story’s ending here, but that’s just my story – other people’s don’t have to”. The last line gets humour out of painful self-deprecation.

Verse 12 “What can yet be found” – I for one live in hope of some day finding a copy of Mr Kipling Made Exceedingly Good Songs. More importantly, although there were problematic elements to what Bellamy did, I think his project was worthwhile and important, and deserves to be picked up and carried forward.

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Filed under all my own unaided, not a folk song, Peter Bellamy

Fakesong (Dave Harker, 1985)

Hallo again (if you’ve been here before). I’m reviving this blog as a place for occasional thoughts about folk – and, to begin with, a book review.

I’m not a true believer in ‘folk’; I don’t believe there’s an identifiable thing called ‘traditional song’, and I certainly don’t think there’s anything inherently radical about traditional songs. When I was Culture Editor for Red Pepper, one of my proudest achievements was running an article by Steve Higginson challenging the myth (as he saw it) of radical folk. Higginson pointed out that a lot of radical folk songs had only been discovered because members of the Communist Party had gone looking for them, motivated by opposition to US cultural imperialism more than by commitment to Britain’s heritage. On the other side of the Atlantic, the radical credentials of country music were very thin – much thinner than those of, say, the young Frank Sinatra, whose music was also considerably more popular among actual working people, in Britain as well as the US. Higginson’s conclusion was that we were welcome to write radical songs if we wanted, but we shouldn’t fool ourselves that we were connecting with the history of working class struggle, let alone with the present. I particularly liked that part, as contemporary radical folk songs were a bit of a bugbear of mine. (Still are, in fact; I’ve never believed that cartoonish simplifications help radical causes, or that trying to be Flanders and Swann with street cred has much to do with folk.)

Anyway, I agreed with most of the points Higginson was making – although truth to tell it was a slightly disjointed article, with a bit of lashing out in all directions – and thought that it represented an interesting viewpoint, which ought to be heard. Not everyone agreed. In all the time I was Culture Editor I never got a bigger Letters Page response – all of it negative. The partisans of radical folk were not pleased, and they made their feelings known in numbers. Happy days, eh?

So the idea of a book, written from a left-wing perspective, debunking illusions about English folk song wasn’t anathema to me when I picked up Dave Harker’s 1985 book Fakesong: The manufacture of British ‘folksong’, 1700 to the present day. Admittedly, by the time I read it I’d already read a couple of detailed and hostile reviews (by C. J. Bearman and David Gregory), which identified inaccuracies and unexplained omissions in several areas. But I wasn’t inclined to take everything Gregory and Bearman said as gospel; in particular, I thought (and think) that Bearman’s argument that Harker’s views on Cecil Sharp were necessarily untrustworthy, given his “Trotskyite” politics, was ridiculous. (I’m a Marxist myself, as it goes. Carlus amicus sed major amicus Veritas; Rosa is my aunt but Truth is my sister.) All in all, I think I went in with a reasonably open mind.

Reading the book wasn’t a particularly happy experience. Getting through it has taken me about six months; I didn’t find it un-put-down-able, to put it mildly. One chapter (on Francis J. Child) I disliked so much that I put the book down after reading it and left it untouched for several weeks. (My enjoyment of the book picked up after that, happily.) All in all it was a difficult book to get through, and I can’t really say I’m glad to have read it – except in the sense of being glad no longer to be in the position of not having read it yet. (I remember feeling something similar when I finished The Faerie Queene.)

So what was the problem? There were a number of things…

Hostility
The title should perhaps have warned me: it’s no part of Harker’s brief to celebrate folksong as we know it. Rather, Harker’s argument is that folksong is a myth – an ideological fiction – and always has been. This is a story of two and a half centuries of ‘mediators’, all of whom (Harker argues) share similar assumptions about their material and its authors. With rare and partial exceptions, this is the story of people who

  • ‘mediated’ working-class culture to an aristocratic or bourgeois audience, often for personal gain of some sort
  • believed that ‘folk’ song was the authentic product of pre-industrial vernacular English and Scottish culture; but
  • believed that ‘folk’ song had ceased to exist in the wild, or at best had ceased to flourish, when they came along to celebrate and preserve it; and consequently
  • believed that a line could (and should) be drawn between good and bad products of contemporary working-class culture, the former being ‘folk’ or its relics; and
  • believed that they were capable of drawing that line, without generally being able to describe how they did it

Harker is opposed to working-class culture being mediated by anyone to anyone (point 1), and does not believe in ‘folk’ song as an identifiable thing (point 2 and by extension points 3-5); his presentation of the ‘mediators’ and their world-view effectively sets them up as enemies. The book, as he acknowledges in the Conclusion, is more or less a ground-clearing exercise: a study of concepts that would be better abandoned.

This kind of destructive critique isn’t necessarily a bad idea, but if I was going to do that, I wouldn’t write this book. It’s not organised conceptually but chronologically: as a study of (at a quick count) 36 ‘mediators’, from D’Urfey to Bert Lloyd. Four – Child, Sharp, Alfred Williams and Lloyd – get a chapter to themselves; the rest are dealt with more or less briefly, in chronologically-arranged groupings. The problem with this is twofold. On one hand, the mediators’ approach (or approaches) to folk song never really comes into focus; we are left in little doubt that Thomas Percy got it wrong, Peter Buchan got it wrong and Frank Kidson got it wrong as well, but the chronological sweep of the book never gives Harker much time to stop and discuss who got what wrong in what way. On the other hand, Harker’s more or less biographical approach, combined with his hostility to what the mediators did, tends to result in hostility towards the mediators themselves. A debased version of materialism runs through a lot of the life stories, highlighting a profit turned on a collection or a donation from an aristocratic friend as if these details were damning in and of themselves. (We make our own history but not in circumstances of our own choosing – and that goes for bourgeois mediators in search of a patron as well as working people in search of a job.) The spirit of the narrative is more one of debunking than of critique, and – since it’s the mediators rather than their work which is being discredited – Harker often seems to use any ammunition available: anything that looks like class condescension is highlighted, along with anything that looks like nationalism, anything that looks like sexism, anything that looks like prudery. A fuller sub-title would have been The manufacture of British ‘folksong’, 1700 to the present day, seen through the lives of the ignorant bourgeois reactionaries who manufactured it.

Inconsistency
What stopped me in my tracks when I read the chapter on Child was Harker’s handling of the issue of definition. The early collectors did not theorise what they were collecting; when Child was writing, the definition of terms like ‘folk song’ and ‘ballad’  was still a live issue. Child’s monumental collection The English and Scottish Popular Ballads could be seen as a case study in grounded theorising, developing theoretical constructs from the properties of the material being studied rather than imposing them on it. And if Child himself did not theorise the ‘ballad’ even to this extent, the collection itself gives us all the materials to do so: to go by Child, is a ‘ballad’ metrically regular? does it rhyme? is it narrative in content? is it typically found in multiple variations? And so on. Harker does none of this; instead, he derides Child’s failure to formulate any precise definition of how he was proceeding, and accuses him of taking his theoretical apparatus wholesale from the Danish scholar Grundtvig. Harker’s mockery of Child as a person and his scant attention to the actual content of TESPB represent a huge missed opportunity, suggesting that Harker’s hostility to the ‘mediators’ was strong enough to outweigh any real engagement with their material.

The question of definition recurs much later, when Lloyd is criticised for endorsing the famous (or notorious) ‘1954 Definition’ of folk music:

Folk music is the product of a musical tradition that has been evolved through the process of oral transmission. The factors that shape the tradition are: (i) continuity which links the present with the past; (ii) variation which springs from the creative impulse of the individual or the group; and (iii) selection by the community, which determines the form or forms in which the music survives.

The term can be applied to music that has been evolved from rudimentary beginnings by a community uninfluenced by popular and art music and it can likewise be applied to music which has originated with an individual composer and has subsequently been absorbed into the unwritten living tradition of a community.

The term does not cover composed popular music that has been taken over ready-made by a community and remains unchanged, for it is the re-fashioning and re-creation of the music by the community that gives it its folk-character.

Whatever else can be said of this formulation, it is a definition; it fairly clearly rules some songs in (Let No Man Steal Your Thyme, The London Waterman, Swing Low Sweet Chariot) and others out (Angels, Streets of London, the Grand Conversation on Napoleon). On that basis Harker might have been expected to welcome it. Actually he rejects it, first for being too narrow (“this is not an analysis but a prescription“) and then for being so broad as to be meaningless (“Why do not continuity, variation and selection represent the conditioning factors for all artistic production, amateur or professional?”). The weakness of Harker’s argument here is striking. The first criticism is meaningless – to say that a definition is ‘prescriptive’ is simply to say that not everything in the world is defined by it. The second is irrelevant; the definition refers specifically to a musical tradition evolved through oral transmission, within which those ‘conditioning factors’ operate. The two are inconsistent with each other – a definition that applied to ‘all artistic production’ could hardly be called narrow (or prescriptive). More importantly, they’re also hard to square with Harker’s earlier criticism of Child (and others) for not having a definition. Harker attempts to connects the two – “As with Child, we are told what is not folksong, not what is” – but this is a very strained reading of a formulation which was designed precisely to define folk music in positive, inclusive terms.

What’s at work here, I think, is Harker’s underlying conviction that anyone writing about ‘folksong’ is writing about something which does not exist as a topic in its own right: there are societies, there are class relations and class conflict, there are cultural forms including songs and tunes, but nowhere can anything identifiable as folk song be found. If we start from this assumption, Harker’s approach makes sense: after all, it would be quite reasonable to mock one writer for imagining he could detect the healing effects of crystals without being able to define how they worked, then mock another for imagining that he could define how they worked. Describing the Emperor’s new clothes in detail is just as absurd as saying they’re ineffably gorgeous. The trouble with this underlying conviction is that, although it runs through the entire book – and although Harker periodically scores points in its favour – it’s never argued properly. It’s certainly never confronted with any evidence that might challenge it – such as, perhaps, the existence of a body of songs, collected in multiple forms and from multiple locations, and suggesting the workings of continuity, variation and selection within a process of oral transmission.

Superficiality
This brings me to my other main criticism of the book, which is that it doesn’t tell me very much about folk songs. As it happens, I’m really interested in the question of where traditional songs come from. Were some of them created in oral culture as well as being preserved and modified that way? Or are they all almost all of them ultimately broadside balladsderived from some form of commercial publishing, as Steve Gardham has argued? (Thanks for the clarification, Steve.) In the early 19th century Robert Chambers identified Young Waters and (horrors) Sir Patrick Spens as entirely spurious ‘folksongs’, composed (in about 1725) in what was then believed to be the style of a ‘ballad’: was he right? How many other ‘traditional’ ‘ballads’ could be disqualified – or rather, re-qualified – in the same way? Or take a song like The Grand Conversation on Napoleon – if a folksong originates in a broadside and has never been collected in a form differing from the broadside text, is it still ‘traditional’? How about songs with known authors, like Sally Wheatley or the Trimdon Grange Explosion?

I think this would be an interesting discussion. It’s not one that Harker’s interested in having, though. In the earlier chapters of the book, describing eighteenth- and nineteenth-century collectors, there are several references to collectors drawing on printed sources, as well as passing references to individual songs either being contemporary compositions or having been rewritten by their collectors. The impression is that some (many? most?) purported folk songs were not in fact taken from oral tradition, but an impression is all it is. This approach would in any case hit difficulties in the twentieth century; whatever else we can say of Sharp and those who came after him, nobody has ever suggested that they didn’t collect songs. (Harker does allege rewriting by Sharp in some cases, but several of these have been disputed.)

The underlying problem is, I think, that Harker is committed to erasing the line that song collectors have always drawn between ‘folk’ and ‘not folk’, and hence to denying the relevance of any criteria that make it possible to draw that line. Oral transmission – qualified by continuity, selection and variation – offers a metric by which one group of songs can fairly reliably be distinguished from all others. (Not everything that people call ‘folk’ would fall on the ‘right’ side of the line, admittedly, but that’s an inevitable side-effect of applying a definition to a term that’s used less formally.) Harker cannot reasonably deny that some songs came down to the twentieth century through oral transmission, so he takes a more oblique approach: as well as identifying songs with printed and/or contemporary roots, he suggests that ‘oral transmission’ is indefinable or meaningless (a discovery which would make the entire discipline of folklore studies redundant) or else that it is irrelevant.

At this, final, point the closed loop of Harker’s argument comes into focus. For oral transmission is irrelevant to the study of working-class culture in a given time and setting; it’s only important if you’re studying folklore, including folk song. But Harker starts from the assumption that ‘folk’ song cannot be distinguished from non-folk forms, making it a non-subject. If you don’t share this starting-point, however – if you’re positively interested in studying folklore and folk song – then there are ways and means of defining it, the role of oral transmission among them; from that starting-point, broadening the focus to the whole of contemporary working-class culture would be the distraction.

Dave Harker set out to show that folk song did not exist. In the end, all he demonstrated was that he didn’t want to study it.

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Filed under folk song, not a folk song

Lord Allenwater

I’m still re-recording the odd number from the 52 Folk Songs roster, and here’s the latest. Have a listen to this; I think it’s rather good.

My original Lord Allenwater was unaccompanied; I always felt it didn’t really do justice to a song that I’m particularly fond of. Hopefully I’ve set things straight now. This version features concertina (chords and a heavily processed drone) as well as flute and recorder. The accompaniment is based on Shirley and Dolly Collins’s arrangement – or rather, on my memory of it; I’ve deliberately not listened to it while I was working on this. Folk process innit. Thanks also to the late Malcolm Douglas for persuading me not to change the tune, and to Sean for turning me on to drone.

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Little Musgrave

Been a bit quiet round here recently. Here’s a re-recording to keep things ticking over:

The sounds on this one are rather heavily processed – nothing is as it was originally recorded. (The E/D bass line, for example, was originally a repeated C, on ukulele.) Nothing, that is, apart from the vocal, which was sung straight through in one take and has not been edited in any way.

Influences on the arrangement include Jo Freya’s work with loops, Cornelius, the Earlies (“The Enemy Chorus”), the Chemical Brothers (“The Private Psychedelic Reel”), Barry Black (“Staticus Von Carrborrus”), probably others. See what you think.

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Filed under Albums, Blue