What English Folk Music?

By John Kirkpatrick

From "Direct Roots". the new folk directory and guide published by Mrs Casey Music, 2001

Anyone who loves English folk music has had to accept that they are part of a minority. The most traditional thing about traditional English music is that most people in England, in the British Isles, and in the world at large neither know nor care what it is. Well, in case anyone out there is wondering how to findo out, here's how you do it, and it's dead easy.

In any region of the world it is the local dancing that gives the music its character - the steps, the rhythm, the tempo, the ebb and flow of the movements, the amount of energy expended - all these things affect the style of the music in that place. The more closely the accompaniment matches the pulse of the dance, the more distinctive a voice it will have, and the more exotic and mysterious it will appear to foreign ears. If you ignore the needs of the dance, you just end up with a spineless blancmange of bland fusion styles with no roots in anything.

England can easily match any other country for the richness and diversity of its traditional dances. You can dance with sticks, handkerchiefs, swords that bend, swords that don't bend, poles, brooms, cotton slings, wooden coconuts, garlands, tobacco pipes, and antlers that are a thousand years old. You can dance in couples, on your own, in sets of three or four, or six, or eight, or in townfuls. You can dance in shoes, or boots, or clogs; in your ordinary clothes, in the garb of a hero, in rags, in uniform, all in white, with a disguised face; or dressed as a horse or as Robin Hood, or as someone of the opposite sex. You can dance in a straight line, in a circle, in a square, in a hey, round a tree, back and forth, up and down, and you can tie yourself in knots. And all these dances have their own precise requirements that must be matched by the music.

So, if there's all this wonderful stuff lying around, why aren't we more aware of it as an everyday part of our national culture? Why aren't we all doing it, and valuing it, and treasuring it? Well, of course some of us are, but it is, or was, mostly done, and valued, and treasured in the country. And folk music in all its forms has been preserved most tenaciously by the least privileged layers of society - that's part of the definition - because even if there's little in the way of material wealth or worldly possessions, at least you know who you are, and where you come from, and your place in your local community, because you re-affirm all these connections every time you do your local dance, or song, or custom, at the right time of the year, in the right way, to the right music. And the begging verses that so often occur aren't something quaint or curious stuck on to spoil things - they are a vital part of the survival of the custom and of those doing it - a chance to gather a few much-needed extra pennies.

As people moved more and more into towns, as well as leaving behind the physical setting of these customs, they also left behind the reason for keeping them up. If you work in town, indoors, you don't even need to be aware of the weather, let alone what time of year it is. Every day is the same. And the number of people around you all the time lessens the feeling of community, lessens the strong identification with the place where you live. And that in turn leads to the happy acceptance of any form of cultural stimulation, whatever its source, especially if your new-found urban wealth and sophistication makes you feel ashamed of what you got up to in the days of your poverty.

The Royal Family haven't helped. Historically they've always been more inclined to look for spouses for their offspring from other royal families in Europe rather than from native English stock (We might never have had Christmas trees or maypole dancing in this country if Queen Victoria hadn't married a German.) Even though the current royals are better about this than their forebears, their birthday bashes are still stuffed with all their foreign cousins, and you can bet your life that they don't get up to any step dancing, or belt out 'Pleasant and Delightful', or do a morris jig - not even 'Princess Royal'. And although Princess Margaret is the President of the English Folk Dance & Song Society, and does attend a function once in a blue moon, you only ever see the rest of the family doing Scottish dancing, never English. A fine example!

The Glorious British Empire probably did as much to stamp out ethnic culture in England as it did everywhere else it crunched its mighty boots. Rule Britannia, Land of Hope and Glory, and Jerusalem are brilliantly designed to whip up fervent patriotism and nationalist feelings, but do so by smothering more local and parochial loyalties, in much the same way as Hymns Ancient & Modern and the church organ combined to smother and drive underground the old style and repertoire of the church bands. You can easily understand how the Scots, the Irish, and the Welsh have had cause to feel resentment against their London-based ruling classes, but so too have the English.

Cecil Sharp probably did the cause no good by getting the folk music he had been collecting (from adults) into the school curriculum in the early twentieth century. How many grown-ups do you see playing hopscotch, or conkers, or doing a nativity play, or maypole dancing? It's OK to do these things at school, but you leave all that behind as an adult, don't you? I know I hated having to do country dancing at primary school myself, and I only changed my mind when the hormones kicked in, and holding hands with girls stopped being utterly embarrassing and actually became something rather desirable. But not everyone gets the chance to make that connection, and many would dismiss it all as kids' stuff.

If the story so far explains why we English are so reticent and unsure about our Englishness, then the final nail in the coffin must be the onslaught of American culture. We're swamped by it. Records, films, radio, television - it's everywhere.
All the forms of popular music come from there - ragtime, jazz, blues, big bands, gospel, musicals, rock & roll, country music, pop music, rap - they all sing with an American voice. Pop music sounds ridiculous in an ordinary English accent, and the singers in all these styles know it doesn't work because,wherever they come from, they always sing in American. It's so pervasive that you don't even notice it, and the sad result is that when you do hear singing in a straightforward English voice - in classical music, say - it sounds fabulously square and old-fashioned. At least punk bands tried to sing in English, but that's largely lost now.

But the worst contamination was yet to come, because America also had folk singers. They were people with guitars who wrote their own songs. This was obviously the real thing, not those old fogeys singing songs they'd learned from their grandparents in the pub. I mean, they didn't even play anything! They didn't even think to use a microphone For the cool and sophisticated, the way forward was to put our deepest thoughts into bland melodies over a bland guitar pattern and work through our angst in a sleepy American drawl.

But traditional music isn't cool and sophisticated, it isn't easy listening, it isn't quiet and introspective. It's simple and straightforward, it's full of life and lust, it's dark and dangerous, it's exotic and mysterious. It addresses the uncivilised part of human nature, it deals with epic themes in a way we can cope with, it channels our excess energy, it makes us feel we belong somewhere.

One aspect of English culture we'd all agree about is that we're bad at complaining, but let's start making our voices heard. Next time you see a singer-songwriter in a folk venue whispering away in a mid-Atlantic twang, ask them what's wrong with singing out in their own voice and accent. Next time you see parents putting in a pop video to keep their kids quiet, ask them if they know that singing them nursery rhymes would do far more good to the kids and themselves - it's the best possible introduction to live music, to learning speech patterns, and rhythm., how to match words and a tune. Next time you see a pub session that is non-stop reels at the speed of light, ask if they think anyone could ever dance at that speed, and ask them to play a nice steady jig - it's much harder! Next time you see a slovenly team of morris dancers shuffling half-heartedly or half drunk through their routines, ask them if they think they are justifying their position as guardians of our shared national heritage.

The raw material of English traditional folk music is sensational. Let's do it justice, let's be proud of it, let's cherish it. Let's listen to all those field recordings of singers and musicians and wonder at their strangeness. Let's use our brains and our hearts, and get out there and build up something unique to where we live, like they do in Allendale or Abbots Bromley, or Bampton or Abingdon, or Handsworth or Grenoside, or Helston or Haxey. And if these names mean nothing to you, then join the English Folk Dance and Song Society and support the work of The Vaughan Williams Memorial Library - one of the best folk music libraries in the world - and go there and find out.

John Kirkpatrick - Morris dancer, singer, musician and Englishman.