Folk music and folk song
When I was younger (much younger), New Year in Britain was usually heralded on the TV with a programme known as The White Heather Club, which had a lot of people in kilts singing and dancing up to midnight, when they would sing a song called Auld Lang Syne to mark the New Year then carry on. The White Heather Club has long passed into history but Scotland’s strong connection with New Year (Hogmanay, as it is called in Scotland) still has thousands of people from around the world coming to a street party in Edinburgh and singing Auld Lang Syne (in whatever language they speak).
Just before New Year, my brother-in-law told me about a recent CD by the singer Sting, which is about his growing up in the shipyard area of Tyneside. This led to me spending a few days in the cellar practicing some Geordie songs which, along with some Shanties, Irish and Scottish songs, I performed in a little concert at a local coffee shop.
As New Year also meant that it was time to write a new article for The Teacher I recalled that folk music was an area I had not written about. To be honest, I had meant to do it ages ago but in 2012 (issue 12) Marzena Ambroży-Fulczyk wrote a superb article about using Irish songs in class and I felt I had better wait a while… well, I did… and Colin Ellis and Magda Fijałkowska slipped an interesting little piece in before me in their “Understanding The UK” series. So, before someone else decides to… here’s my folk song article.
Folk music in the British Isles
Folk music, or simply folk, is a very wide-ranging field. It can include solo singing without accompaniment, through choirs and close harmonies, to acoustic instrumental music and electric rock-style tunes. The songs are often (but not always) old and talk of subjects as far reaching as ordinary life, great battles, criminals and even the supernatural.
Definitions of “Folk music”
One of the interesting things about folk in the British Isles is that many people can tell you when they hear it but can’t always explain what it is. The word “folk” means “people”, so many people say, “It is the music of the people” (whoever THE people are!). For some people it is music connected to the countryside, to others it is more to do with economic class (the workers) or ethnicity. In some places it is connected to regional identity. Some people identify folk by the kinds of instruments used (usually acoustic) or the type of lyrics and songs used. In other cases, it may be connected to the culture of the singers and how the songs have been transmitted, passed down orally, and sung by everyday people (not just performers); but this gets complicated. Some definitions state that the song must be old and with no known author; however, many songs which people sing are old and do have a known author; the singers may just not know who it is. Let’s take the example of Auld Lang Syne. Many people know at least the chorus and tune of this Scottish song but how many know who wrote it? It was written by the Scottish national poet, Robert Burns, over 200 years ago (although he claimed to have collected some lyrics from an old singer) and has been popular ever since. “People” have been singing it since, so is it a folk song? Most of us would think so. Likewise, if we consider the Geordie song The Blaydon Races (about a bus trip, and crash, to a horse racing event) we could ask if this is a folk song. Some would say it isn’t as we know the author, a music hall singer called (possibly to advertise his own concerts) Geordie Ridley in 1862. However, it is still a solid favourite in Tyneside. It is sung by the supporters of Newcastle United football club and has long been an anthem of local military regiments, yet it breaks several of the “rules” of folk music; it is a commercial venture and it is traceable to a particular author. There is some discussion amongst folk musicians and academics in Britain as to whether music hall songs are “folk”. Many people are not really bothered by the debate and easily mix Beatles tunes with ancient ballads. As a noted Blues singer Leadbelly commented, all songs were folk songs in his opinion, as he’d never heard a horse singing them. It is also interesting to note that some people do not use the term folk at all but rather Traditional (particularly in Ireland, in my experience), as they feel folk is something codified and removed from everyday life: Traditional suggests it is still alive and evolving whilst having a direct link to the past. This may allow new developments, lyrics, etc.
Old Styles, New Songs
Following the folk revival of the 1950’s and 1960’s, a number of performers have written entirely new songs in the style of older songs, which have become popular with audiences and performers. Singer-songwriters like Ewan MacColl (father of Kirsty MacColl) presented radio programmes about old jobs (railway workers, miners, etc.) in the form of documentaries with songs (these were known as radio ballads: http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio2/ radioballads/original/orig_history.shtml). Many of these songs became standards amongst singers of folk songs, yet are new compositions. A number of songs which are firmly “in the tradition” are not always as old as people think. The song The Fields of Athenry appeared as a bagpipe tune in the film The Dead Poets Society. The problem was that this film was set in 1950’s America, whereas the song (about the 1840’s potato famine in Ireland) wasn’t written until the 1970’s. Similarly, the famous Mingulay Boat Song, which many people think is a traditional song of the fishermen of the island Mingulay in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, was actually composed by the famous composer and chorister Hugh S. Roberton, the founder of the famous Glasgow Orpheus Choir, over 25 years after the island had been abandoned.
Many other singers and writers have produced songs which have quickly become popular and are now standards amongst performers of folk, both professional and amateur. It is not hard to walk into a folk club or music pub and hear a singer doing songs by Pete St. John (Fields of Athenry, Dublin in the Rare Auld Times), Ewan MacColl (Dirty Old Town) or Eric Bogle (The Bands Played Waltzing Matilda, Green Fields of France) alongside ancient ballads.
What is interesting about ownership and authorship where folk is concerned is that, particularly since WW2, copyright has been extended to a number of tunes. However, this may have less to do with the melody and lyrics than the technical arrangement. So, if you hear a recording of a singer doing a song and you decide to record the song identically, you may have a problem as the style in which they do it may be copyrighted. They may also have a copyright on altered lyrics.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ Francis_James_Child). He was followed by the likes of Cecil Sharp, who also founded the English Folk Dance Society (later to become the English Folk Dance and Song Society) leading to renewed interest (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cecil_Sharp).
In one case, the collector was a police chief in USA, Francis O’Neill. Chief O’Neill was born in Ireland and immigrated to America where he rose to become chief of the Chicago Police Force. An enthusiastic collector of tunes and songs, it was said that if you knew a song or melody he didn’t, you could get a job on the force. After his retirement, Chief O’Neill published books and recordings of Irish music. This is considered one of the most important collections of Irish music because the mass migration from Ireland had seriously depleted the number of musicians to carry on the tradition. Two other factors were view of traditional music as being uncultured and backward. Educated middle-class people were more likely to listen to genteel arrangements of old songs, played on piano rather than to a smelly, old fiddler from the country-side. In the US, the Irish tradition was still strong amongst immigrant families and this later helped in a revival in the mid-20th Century, when Irish-American musicians brought back tunes to Ireland.
The works of such collectors certainly saved many songs, tunes and dances from extinction. However, it sometimes had different effects. It is important to note that before they were collected, some songs may actually have had several versions, or variants. Many tunes may have travelled with migration or work (such as seashanties, soldier’s songs, etc.).
In Scotland, farm labourers often moved around the country to find work, learning new songs and taking them with them (these became known as Bothy Ballads after the communal houses the workers lived in). Because of the academic theories of the time, and partly because the printed texts were more accessible, many songs became “standardized”, in that there was the only version people sang. Also, the area where some songs were recorded was often classified as the area they came from. Verses added by the singer might be excluded because they were “new” and, therefore, not “traditional” (but the other verses might have also been added recently without the singer knowing). Another major change in the songs, partly because many were used in schoolbooks or community songbooks, was that they were cleaned up. Many old songs had strong allusions to sexual matters, particularly some shanties and bothy ballads; but for school use they have been toned down. An example of such “cleaning up” may be seen in the Robert Burns collection The Merry Muses of Caledonia, which was only published after his death (whilst alive, he kept it in a locked draw). It is a collection of X-rated lyrics of some of his most famous works. Seriously, this would make the average rapper blush! Do not read if easily offended (http://www.robertburns. org.uk/merrymuses.htm).
The 1950’s and 60’s saw renewed interest in folk in Britain and Ireland. Part of the driving force was an interest in American styles of music (possibly from increased contact with Americans during WW2) and greater availability of records. Irish ballad groups, such as the Clancy Brothers and later The Dubliners brought many songs to the fore, while English musicians like The Ian Campbell Folk Group and Ewan MacColl created Folk Clubs and played English folk tunes (many of which were found in Child’s and Sharp’s collections). Folk clubs became popular, as did American Folk (often strongly connected to earlier British traditions), which led to some leaders of the British Folk scene laying down guidelines about which songs people should sing (only from your own tradition/ country) and, to a point, which instruments they could use. It was not unknown for someone to walk into a folk club with a guitar and get hissed! Some of these folk clubs were to be the breeding ground for well-known bands, such as Steeleye Span and, later, to comedians such as Jasper Carrot and Billy Connelly, who started as singers but extended their acts by telling jokes and stories.
Scotland was still represented by the tartan-clad cabarets of The White Heather Club, with artists like the operatically trained Kenneth McKellar and Andy Stewart who was sometimes in the style of a music hall singer. While they were fine performers, they didn’t always connect with younger audiences who were interested in a more “genuine” folk sound. Eventually acts like Robin Hall and Jimmie MacGregor and The Corries rose to the fore, along with acts like The Battlefield Band, Silly Wizard and Dick Gaughan.
Some of the younger musicians in all countries were not afraid to experiment with other forms of music and integrate their sounds, so the rise of folk rock and progressive folk came about. Perhaps the most recent addition is the genre of folk punk (or punk folk), which is often associated with groups like The Pogues. This kind of development did not always sit well with the traditionalists, or “folk purists”, who often criticized such bands loudly. Even a few years ago I was wearing a Pogues T-shirt in an Irish club in England when someone asked, pointedly, “Is that The Pogues rock group… cos they’re not an Irish folk group!”
In the second of these articles I shall examine different styles of folksong and how they may be of use to teachers and students.
Geordie: a person from the Northumbria/Tyneside area of North-East England. It is also the name of their strong accent and dialect. X-rated: For adults only. Certificate X was a film rating for 18-year-olds and older.