Englishness and folk music

As a follow-up to the last post, I came across an intriguing article on the possibilities of Englishness written by someone called Mike Sutton, who is obviously an enthusiast for English folk music, as well as a cultural historian. His argument is essentially that unlike in other countries the English political and cultural/intellectual elite have not supported the indigenous culture of the country. He sees this as due to the precocious development of consumerism of England and argues that a combination of more government support (both for funding indigenous groups and via educational priorities) and a more inclusive attitude by the folk song/dance community (he mentions one English folk-group with contains Rastafarians) might lead to a broad-based revival of English (musical) culture.

He has some interesting views (as well as some useful historical background on the early twentieth century folk revival and the issues of class and gender it raised), but I don’t think he really tackles what seems to me one of the factors that make a mainstream folk revival most difficult: the urban/rural divide. One of the reasons that folk music, morris dancing etc are seen as quaint is that they’re largely about rural life and for that reason don’t have much resonance with city dwellers today. (And those that aren’t about the country are about work in heavy industries which are now almost as obsolete as being a plough-boy.) Where folk traditions have been preserved in urbanised regions (e.g. modern lowland Scotland, New York Irish), it’s largely been because the traditional songs became a vital part of cultural identity at the time of urbanisation (often via nostalgic ruralites who had gone to the city or been forced to it). So Irish emigrants to the US/Canada in the nineteenth century take a living tradition with them, and then embed it so will it have potency even to the Irish-American descendants who will never see Galway Bay. Similarly, the great ‘invention of tradition’ in Scotland, which creates the blueprint for tartan culture comes midway through a period of massive urbanisation of Scotland (1760-1850), so the songs of Burns speak initially to an audience who could often still remember such a culture. In contrast, I don’t think there was much intellectual interest in inventing tradition for a popular audience during the eighteenth and nineteenth century urbanisation of England (with perhaps the exception of Charles Dickens). (My impression is that the Romantic poets, who did create a mythology of rural England, appealed more to the middle classes than the urban poor).

I don’t see where a widespread folk revival will come from now, that is built upon the obsolete images of the lark in the morning and hauling the boats in on the Tyne. If it comes it will need folk singers who can write modern songs, reinterpret the old ones and get widespread media coverage, and I’m not sure whether the fragmentation of the music scene means this is still possible. If someone knows better, who is the new Ewan McColl and what kind of impact has he/she had so far beyond the ‘world music/folk’ charts?

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One thought on “Englishness and folk music

  1. One artist I can think of who has made some efforts to update the folk idiom is Nick Saloman, who trades as (The) Bevis Frond. He’s mainly a Hendrix wannabe but he writes songs like Nick Drake so has to find a path between his two muses, and often these involve writing new songs about damaged hippy girls, urban so-called renewal and so forth. Exactly how much more modern this is than, as he has put it, “writing a song about going off to fight in the Napoleonic Wars” is maybe questionable, but the answer is at least `some’ I think. Lots of his stuff is badly out of print but some is recently reissued, and I would certainly recommend either of New River Head or North Circular to anyone who can stand amplified electric guitar.

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