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Thousands or more

At a traditional singing event I attended recently, there was a discussion of how to “pass on the baton” – i.e. how to recruit enough younger people to keep what we do going beyond the next ten years or so. It’s a real issue, at least if the attendance at that event was anything to go by; there were people there without any grey in their hair, but not very many. At one point someone even addressed me as “young man”; I’m 62 (although, to be fair, I do have a full head of hair, and the light was quite bad).

But what is “what we do” – what is it that we want to keep going, and to share with younger people? A singaround I go to may provide some pointers. In a three-hour afternoon session, in a room above a pub, anywhere from 10 to 20 people sing at least two songs each (usually three), mostly unaccompanied but a few with guitar. Songs often have a chorus or a refrain – and people will join in anywhere that seems appropriate – but an unaccompanied solo will also be warmly received. Judging from the last couple of sessions, around half the songs are traditional, with most of the rest dating back to the Folk Revival of the 1960s and 70s, and between half and two-thirds are songs I know (which says a bit about how much of the repertoire is shared with other singarounds), although often in an unfamiliar version (which says a bit about how much work singers are willing to do to keep it interesting).

Let’s say that’s “what we do”; that’s what we want to preserve. What’s good about it? Is there something valuable that singarounds like this one do, or preserve, or enact – and if there is, do we need singarounds to do it? If singarounds are doing X, can we imagine X carrying on without singarounds – and would it be as good? Alternatively, we could start from the position that singarounds are the good thing that should be kept going, and then ask what it is about them that makes them good. In other words, if singarounds are doing X, can we imagine singarounds carrying on without X – and would they be as good?

The singaround repertoire

The repertoire itself is the most obvious candidate for X. How does it shape up?

Traditional songs without singarounds? In terms of literal survival – in terms of not actually being lost to future generations – traditional songs certainly don’t need singarounds; in fact they don’t need any help from anyone, with the possible exception of a few conscientious librarians and database administrators. As someone pointed out in the discussion the other weekend, before the Revival began a lot of them had been lying around unperformed and unrecorded – or else performed only in social settings somewhere down an unnumbered road – for half a century or more. If organised sessions and concerts where you can hear traditional songs stopped tomorrow, the researchers of a future Revival wouldn’t need to do the rounds of the inns and sheep sheds; they wouldn’t even need to go down to the stacks and blow the dust off volumes of Sharp and Child and Bronson. They’d just need to find Walter Pardon and Sheila Stewart and Sam Larner on YouTube and press Play.

Revival singer-songwriter material without singarounds? There are plenty of non-traditional songs that I’ve heard at singarounds but never heard anywhere else – “Icarus”, “Queen of Waters”, “Dust to Dust”, “Rolling Home”… In fact there are songwriters whose songs I’ve only ever heard at singarounds – Graeme Miles, Keith Marsden, Roger Watson, Bill Caddick… I think it’s undeniable that singarounds are keeping some of this material in circulation – but the job could be done just as well by concert performances, YouTube uploads and artist Websites like this one and this one (creaky as that second one is).

So both halves of the singaround repertoire (as I know it) could manage without singarounds. In another sense, though, singarounds are a way of keeping the repertoire alive – at least, if by ‘alive’ we mean something stronger than ‘not extinct yet’. Something about a song is lost if it’s only heard in recordings and concert performances, especially if those recordings and performances are a long way from the sound of an unaccompanied singer. When you take a song and layer on rock guitar, or grime beats, or even a wholly-acoustic Bellowhead-style knees-up, to some extent the song stops being a song in its own right and becomes material, a contributory element of an overall sound. And that in turn means that keeping the song alive becomes a job for the professionals – there’s no way for you, the listener, to be part of the process, except perhaps by forming a band. To really play a part, you’d need to strip the song back to its essentials – the words, the tune, the voice – and keep the song alive by, well, singing it.

Singarounds without traditional songs – or Revival songs? I don’t see why not. Really, there’s no reason why singarounds couldn’t do what they do just as well with – and for – a completely different repertoire. I had a curious illustration of this once in Cornwall. I’d gone to a singaround on the Monday night (there was a lovely “Curraghs of Kildare”, I remember), and assumed the singing part of the holiday was over. In a pub on the Wednesday lunchtime, I noticed a group of men of advancing years in a side room, and realised that they were having a bit of a sing; I think they were celebrating one of the group’s retirement. I drifted over and joined in the odd chorus. After a while I got chatting with one of the singers, who showed me their song list – which was very long and included quite a few songs I knew to listen to (“Wooden Heart”, “My Grandfather’s Clock”, “The Three Bells”), but very few I could sing along to, and none that I could have led. Some things were familiar but different: they did “Lamorna” in stage-Cornish (“‘Er said, I know ‘ee now”) and without any percussion on the “wet”s. (I’d come from Manchester (home of Albert Square and indeed Pomona) but kept my trap shut.) They even sang one song that I’d heard at the Monday night singaround – “Goodnight Irene” – with the same tune and chorus but without any of the same verses.

Conclusion: any singaround needs a repertoire – and once it’s got one, it keeps that repertoire alive in a way that nothing else can do. But there’s no rule that says that the repertoire has to be mostly traditional, or even partly traditional. And it’s possible that, as time goes on, some singarounds will fall silent, taking their specific repertoires with them; I can only really speak about (and for) the singarounds I know as a singer.

The singing (solo)

High-quality singing without singarounds? Not a problem, obviously – although it should be said that there aren’t that many other ways to hear a really good singer sitting in the same room and on the same level as you.

Singarounds without high-quality singing? Would singarounds still be singarounds – would they be worth keeping on with – if there were no really good singers? It all depends what you mean by ‘really good’. A performance can be technically perfect and soulless, sounding more like an audition than a contribution to a social occasion. Equally, there are performances with great communicative power – songs that come across as moving, gripping, horrifying or hilarious; songs where the singer is transported and so are you – despite the odd missed high note or fumbled lyric.

Conclusion: singarounds and ‘good singing’ in a Cardiff Singer Of The World sense don’t necessarily go together. But ‘good singing’ in that second sense – singing seriously, with commitment and passion – is one of the things that singarounds are all about, because they’re all about investment in the repertoire – and that’s how you sing if you’re personally invested in what you’re singing.

The singing (together)

One way of identifying a really good singaround is from the quality of the choruses and harmonies. Not that everyone involved needs to be musically trained; some of the best harmonising comes from people just listening to one another and finding a note that nobody else is singing. What is essential is that people know the songs – or rather, that they know some of the songs and that they’re willing to pick up the ones they don’t know.

Chorus and harmony singing without singarounds? Not really a problem – there are choirs, there are shape note classes – although in those, more structured, settings the material is less likely to be familiar, and I imagine that the “find a gap and jump in” approach will often be frowned on.

Singarounds without choruses and harmonies? Obviously they exist; the online song sessions we’ve all been going to for the last three years are almost all harmony-deprived. Even in person, a session may not feature much or any joining in; low numbers and poor acoustics may militate against it. But a singaround where joining in on choruses and refrains was actually discouraged – as a matter of policy, not practicality – would be a strange thing.

Conclusion: chorus singing is a natural part of a singaround, where by ‘chorus singing’ I mean

  1. knowing what to sing to songs you know
  2. working out what to sing to songs you don’t know, and
  3. doing both of these on the basis of a judgment of what sounds right at the time, rather than having a preconceived melody or harmony line

Again, it’s a way of singing that goes with investment in the repertoire – the kind of investment that makes you want to lend your voice to the collective effort of singing it; and that goes for the parts of the repertoire you don’t know as well as the parts you do.

The singing (by everybody)

At all the singarounds I know, anyone who doesn’t have a song will be welcome to stay and listen. But, at all the singarounds I know, everyone who’s there will be asked if they do have a song – and anyone who sings will be asked to sing again when their turn comes round.

Singing in turn without singarounds?

Now you’re asking. I can’t think of another social setting where everyone present is given the opportunity to sing a song or lead a chorus – perhaps the kind of party where people are literally asked to give their ‘party piece’, but when did you last go to one of those?

Singarounds without singing in turn?

Again, this is hard to imagine. True, there are ‘jump in’ singarounds – where you get the next song by, in effect, taking it – but I haven’t been to one in a long time. Besides, even there the assumption is that everyone will get a chance to sing, or at least that everyone will have the chance to take a chance to sing. A singaround where you know in advance that only some of those present will be singing would be a very different proposition – more like a concert, with performers and an audience.

What makes a singaround?

The essentials seem to be

  • an opportunity for everyone to sing (and be listened to)
  • a repertoire with a familiar core and an open boundary
  • singers who are invested in the repertoire and interested in learning more of it
  • …and (at least) some of whom sing well, (at least) in terms of passion and intensity

So a singaround is an informal social gathering of people who like hearing singing done well and want to do it well; who enjoy listening to one another and singing together; and who like hearing familiar songs and learning new ones. It’s a social grouping which embodies a practice: a practice of singing based on commitment to the songs you’re singing and their delivery, a commitment which in turn is grounded in a substantial but finite repertoire. What the singaround’s repertoire is will vary from one to another, but it will be broadly definable in each case – which is to say, anyone who visits a singaround more than once will be able to tell more or less what they can expect, whether it’s “Sweet Lemany” or “Buddy, Can You Spare A Dime”, “Young Waters” or “A Mon Like Thee”. Each singaround’s repertoire is perpetuated through practice, song by song and session by session – and lines are drawn informally, over time, dictating the kind of thing ‘we’ do and don’t sing.

What do you do? Why do you do it?

Singarounds, then, are a social practice which have a symbiotic relationship with their repertoire, mediated by individual singers’ investment in that repertoire. If you want to keep a repertoire of songs alive – keep the songs in people’s throats and minds – there’s nothing like them.

In terms of the questions I started with –

Is there something valuable that singarounds like this one do, and if so, do we need singarounds to do it? If singarounds are doing X, can we imagine X carrying on without singarounds – and would it be as good?

If singarounds are the good thing that should be kept going, what it is about them that makes them good? If singarounds are doing X, can we imagine singarounds carrying on without X – and would they be as good?

this isn’t a very satisfactory conclusion, although it has the merit of simplicity: not only is the valuable X that singarounds are doing not being done anywhere else, it’s the same X as the X that makes singarounds what they are. From “how do we get new people interested in singarounds?” I’ve gone all the way to “how do we get new people interested in a particular kind of social practice, based on equal participation among a group of people committed to a particular repertoire, and currently found mainly in singarounds?”.

But that formulation does at least suggest a possible answer:

  1. The singarounds themselves are what we want to keep going – not ‘social singing’ generally, not ‘folk clubs’ (or ‘folk’ anything, necessarily), not even the traditional-centred repertoire itself, but singarounds as a social practice.
  2. Singarounds have a basic, undeniable value as a meeting-place for people who know and care about their repertoire and as a shared practice ensuring that repertoire stays alive and keeps being sung.
  3. Off nights apart, that value is obvious to anyone who goes to a singaround and already cares about – or is mildly interested in – that singaround’s repertoire.

So what we need is:

  1. Singarounds that are working well and welcoming newcomers
  2. A continuing supply of newcomers, i.e. people who are at least mildly interested in the repertoire[s] of our singarounds and have a chance to experience them

I was a young man…

A lot of people, especially people who got into folk when they were young themselves, tend to assume that the challenge we face is attracting young people. That’s part of the challenge, but only part of it, and probably the most intractable part – how can we get young people to spend time with a lot of old people? how can we get young people to prefer folksong to whatever it is they’re into now? Since it’s rare for anyone to succeed in doing either of those things, answers tend to be speculative; the discussion is liable to drift off into talking about “Wellerman” and TikTok and social media and socialising online and do we all have to be in the same place, maybe that’s just what we’re used to

But actually we don’t need – wait, let me be careful how I phrase this – we don’t necessarily need young people rather than older people. What we need is (point 2 above) a continuing supply of newcomers. To take a slightly absurd worst-case scenario, if everyone stopped going to singarounds when they turned 75, singarounds could still remain viable indefinitely by recruiting enough people who had just turned 70. The age distribution in singarounds does tend to skew old, of course – that’s where we started; indeed, the fact that the singaround I referred to at the beginning happens on a weekday afternoon tells its own story. There are good reasons for people to be worried about whether the baton is going to get passed; numbers are going to start depleting fairly steeply at the upper end of the age range before too long. But that doesn’t mean that we’ve got to start appealing to young people specifically – it’s a long way down from 70-75 to 18-24; it just means that we should appeal to as wide an age range as possible. I was recently at a singaround where about one in three of the singers were in their twenties (and a really good sing it was too – I was hoarse by halfway through) so I know it’s not impossible to get younger people interested, but it may well not be the easiest age range to pitch to; it may be that, at least in periods when folk isn’t in fashion, there’s an affinity between folk and middle age. (There’s an awful lot of death in those old songs; I lost my parents in my forties, and let’s just say that Lemony Snicket was right.) Perhaps it’s  40-somethings we should be worrying about rather than under-25s. Better, in any case, to keep the door as wide open as we can and not focus on – but also not exclude – any age group, as far as possible. Which certainly means not holding all our singarounds on weekday afternoons, and probably means not holding all of them in pubs. (I don’t think I’ve ever been to a singaround and been stone cold sober at the end of it, but it might be worth a try.)

Whether we need to do any work on the repertoire to avoid repelling newcomers is another question. I tend to think that what’s come down to us is ours to learn and sing, not to edit (at least, not deliberately), and that if we’re offended by elements of a song’s lyrics we should just not sing it. Admittedly sometimes it’s offensive to hear a song, let alone to be surrounded by people happily joining in with it; I sympathise, but rather than draw up a list of Songs To Walk Out On I’d advise patience and not judging singers, or singarounds, too hastily. (I vividly remember the look on a friend of mine’s face when he came into a singaround midway through an enthusiastic performance of The Chinee Bum Boat Man (about which all I’ll say is that it’s not quite as bad as it sounds). But he stayed, and he came back the next time. It was a good session.)

I also think that when it comes to traditional songs potentially offensive material is very hard to avoid. Rape, for example, is treated as a routine plot element in songs as varied as The Bonny Hind (tragedy), Knight William (romantic comedy) and Tam Lin (supernatural weirdness); in John Blunt the prospect of rape is played for laughs. People do draw lines, in point of fact, even with traditional songs. (I was once at a singaround where a singer who usually did the same three or four songs branched out by singing Bonnie Susie Cleland. We clapped, and then someone asked him, Why on earth did you learn that? Harsh but fair.) But even if you confine yourself to learning songs where all the sex is consensual and nobody gets burned at the stake, in most singarounds you’re going to hear songs about people (mainly men) behaving very badly indeed; songs like that are part of the repertoire, and often they’re really good songs. You have to come to your own accommodation: appreciate songs like that as horror stories, or failing that just enjoy the singing – or else take deep breaths and wait till the song’s over. (That was certainly the reaction at one Zoom singaround where I did Andrew Rose. I swallowed spit at one point and had to cough, and somebody said afterwards they’d thought the song was making me gag… too. Sorry about that.) In the nature of the singaround, there’ll be something completely different along in a minute or two.

As for point 2. up there, and the work of ensuring that there is a continuing supply of people (of all age ranges) with at least a vague interest in and awareness of English traditional songs, I guess we should all do what we can – although I’m aware that most of us can’t do a lot. The only thing I’d say is that we should reverse the order of the terms “English traditional songs”: we should focus on the qualities of the songs themselves rather than promoting them on the basis of being traditional, and not focus on the ‘English’ part at all if we can help it (beyond the fact that most of the songs we’re talking about are in English). There’s a way of thinking – expressed forcefully here – to the effect that “the English” have lost something that Celtic and migrant nationalities have hung on to, and that we need to make English folk music popular again in order to get it back (or possibly that we need to get it back again in order to make English folk music popular). I agree that it’s a damn shame that more people aren’t singing the old songs, and that traditional music gets more high-level backing in Ireland (and even in Scotland) than it does in England, but I don’t think we should be tempted to go any further than that. At the end of the day English nationalism is, to all intents and purposes, impossible to disentangle from British nationalism and the British Empire. A ground-up, subaltern English nationalism would have its own cultural forms – and might well embrace a lot of what we do in singarounds – but we’ve no idea what a subaltern English nationalism would look like, and we certainly can’t just make one up. Little bit of politics, my name’s Benedict Anderson, goodnight.

In conclusion, while folkies do a lot of different things (attending concerts, buying albums…), I think singarounds are a particularly pure and focused form of that thing we do; and the best way to hand it on to future generations in good order is to keep doing that thing we do, attracting people who are likely to be attracted and as far as possible not shutting anyone out. Let’s keep the singarounds going and keep them as open to newcomers as possible – and let’s keep the songs out there, pinging the cultural radar from time to time. Good luck to everyone who’s doing anything to extend the reach of traditional songs in English, with all their strangeness and beauty and horror, whether the songs are from England, Scotland, Ireland, America or Australia; whether they’re performing the songs with kids, teaching them to students or just finding some way to put them in front of adults born since the 1970s.

(Most of them won’t like it, of course. Most people never do. Fortunately, we don’t need most people, just enough.)

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