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The rich world of English folk music

Traditional music in England is rarely taken seriously. But it gives us a view into history that the textbooks cannot.

Violinist and singer Eliza Carthy, one of a younger generation of folk musicians

‘Try everything once,’ goes the oft-quoted one-liner usually attributed to the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham, ‘except incest and Morris dancing.’

Humorous, perhaps, and certainly an old standby in the national repository of sarcastic wit. But this almost legendary quote speaks volumes about the English attitude towards folk culture. It is an attitude that can be summarised in a single word: disdain.

Unlike in Scotland or Ireland, where it is a source of cultural pride, traditional music in England simply does not have a place in the national consciousness. It has long suffered from bad associations and negative stereotyping, and folk musicians, when they are not ignored, are scorned.

‘You could say that folk traditions have been disregarded,’ says the award-winning folk singer, songwriter and violinist, Chris Wood, ‘but you could go further. You could say they’ve been ridiculed.’

Unsurprisingly, the world of traditional English folk music is infinitely richer than the clichés would have us believe. There is more to it than Greensleeves, Scarborough Fair and Somerset guitar-strummers in sandals and Aran sweaters. From the heavyweights of the 1960s folk revival like Norma Waterson and Martin Carthy, to younger musicians like their daughter, Eliza Carthy, fiddle and squeezebox duo Spiers and Boden and 11-piece band Bellowhead, folk musicians are keeping alive a colossal body of work. The English folk repertoire is a rich and diverse collection of dance tunes, ballads, shanties, hymns, drinking songs, work songs and seasonal songs, many of them centuries-old. Most of them are wrought with emotions that still ring true today, generations after they were first sung.

Indeed, it is partly thanks to its timeless relevance that folk music endures. For even when the words are archaic, the essence of a folk song is frequently as pertinent to its modern performers and listeners as it was to its original ones.

‘The themes of life never change,’ says Malcolm Taylor, director of the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library at the English Folk Dance and Song Society. ‘Love, sex, death, war, trickery, deception … People are still suffering the same emotions – people are still jilting each other, killing each other, beating each other. It’s all in the songs. They have a resonance down the ages.’

Take ‘Hard Times of Old England’, penned by an anonymous songwriter sometime during the Napoleonic wars. Come all brother tradesmen that travel along, it goes, can anyone tell me where the trade has all gone? Long time I have travelled and cannot find none, and it’s oh, the hard times of old England. It is a line that would resonate with any victim of economic hardship – not just from the era of the song, but from any era. It might resonate with a victim of the credit crunch.

The decks were all spattered with blood, laments another song, and so loudly the cannons did roar; and thousands of times have I wished myself at home, and all along with my Polly on the shore. It is a striking reminder that the pain of war was as deeply felt two hundred years ago as it is today – replace ‘decks’ with ‘roadside’ and ‘cannons’ with ‘bombs’, and it might have been written by a soldier in Afghanistan. And in case proof were needed that libido has long been a source of musical inspiration, ‘Bonny Black Hare’ confirms that sex was always high on our list of priorities. Lock your legs round me and dig in with your heels, it goes, for the closer we get, oh, the better it feels.

It is easy to think of our ancestors as being somehow different from us, but these songs are a poignant reminder that they were, in fact, just the same. Their social and political circumstances may have been different to ours; they may have spoken differently, worn different clothes and eaten different food. But they still felt the same things we feel and wanted the same things we want. They were every bit as human as we are.

When the top-down, establishment-approved version of history holds that the extraordinary alone is worthy of remembrance, it is unsurprising that we know more about the treaties, battles and monarchs of yesteryear than we do about the real people. But folk music redresses this balance. It shows us, says Wood, ‘how beautiful, how dark and miraculous is the ordinary.’

More than this, it offers an insight into the past in a way the textbooks do not. As the only outlet through which the often-illiterate lower classes could make their voices heard, folk songs offer a different telling of history – one that starts at the bottom. This, says Wood, is one of the reasons they are so important – because they tell us ‘the bits of history Churchill didn’t bother with.’

‘They have our real story,’ he continues. ‘The people who made folk songs weren’t doing it for a living – they didn’t have an agenda, there was no reason for them to tell anything other than what they perceived as the truth. Whereas for historians and archivists, it’s a lot harder for them to do that. I would argue that folk songs contain the bits of history that we need to know.’

Folk music, he says emphatically, needs to be sung. ‘It needs to be sung because it is understood as being beautiful, because it’s rich, and it’s layered, and it’s complex. It needs to be sung because it will teach us who we are.’

The novelist Kazuo Ishiguro has described the English folk repertoire as a treasure chest waiting to be delved into. It is up to us to open it. We are the people, after all. We are the folk, and this is our music. The songs are there in abundance, waiting to be sung and listened to and learned and passed on. They just need us to appreciate their worth.

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