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…
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.
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.
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.