Hipsters, Flipsters and Finger Poppin’ Daddies!

by C. P. Lee

‘Folk’ is an artificially constructed myth, formulated in the 19th century by pan-Germanic scholars desperately trying to create an ‘authentic’ bloodline for their own spurious, pseudo-visionary idea of a nationalistic cultural identity. Before 1880, Germany didn’t exist as a nation state. It was cobbled together from various principalities. A variety of myths and concepts were pulled together, drawing heavily on perceived ‘ancient’ practices and customs in order to fuel this nationalistic zeit or ‘spirit’. From it came the idea of Ein Volk, meaning – ‘One People, as in the later rather well known phrase – ‘Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Kaiser - ’One People, One Country, One Leader’. The ideology of Romantic Nationalism was abroad in Europe at the time and consequently attention was focused on ‘the Peasant’ as the transmitter of ‘purity’. The answer my friend, literally lay in the soil. The closer to the dirt, the more ‘authentic’ something becomes – dig more deeply and we can argue that we’ve entered the realms of alchemy where base metal is transformed into gold.

beer is best - c.p.lee

At approximately the same time intellectuals in England were grappling with the realities of the modern, industrialised world that had sprung up during the 19th century. Blakes’ vision of ‘dark, Satanic mills’ had come to horrific life in a Dystopian present that they felt was eradicating the more simpler lifestyle of a time gone by. Critics and theorists from the Right, such as Matthew Arnold, but also from the Left, like William Morris, sought salvation in an artificially constructed world of nostalgia for a past that had never existed in the first place, but now seemed highly attractive, a form of pseudo-reality that has become better known as ‘the rural idyll’. Later, their ideology would be expanded and built upon by Frank and Queenie Leavis, leaving a legacy within contemporary education that lingers with us to this very day in the ongoing debates around ‘High’ and ‘Popular’ culture, exemplified by the ‘Dylan versus Keats’ argument that still rages on the internet as I’m writing this piece. 

Sabine Baring Gould was both a squire and a vicar. He wrote the hymn Onward Christian Soldiers, and preached sermons with his pet bat perched on his shoulder. He sired fifteen children and lived a comfortable life in his parish of Lewtrenchard in West Devon. In 1888 he published Songs of the West, a volume of songs he’d collected in the field. All the tunes came from agricultural sources, labourers, farm-hands, milk-maids and the like. You might note that the tunes weren’t called ‘folk songs’ yet. 

There had been collections compiled before, of course. Sir Walter Scott, amongst others, had done it in the early 19th century, but Baring Gould signals the beginning of what has become known as ‘the first folk revival’. What’s also significant about Baring Gould was his tendency to alter the melody or the lyrics whenever he felt they weren’t sufficiently ‘sophisticated’, or were too ‘vulgar’. The next major figure in the revival was, of course, Cecil Sharp. 

Born in 1854, Sharp first became captivated by what we should possibly call ‘traditional’ music, on Boxing Day 1899, when the Headington Quarry Morris Men stepped onto the driveway of the house he was staying in and gave an impromptu performance. The dancers were building labourers who’d been laid off because of the cold weather and their leader William Kimber had persuaded them to go out busking as a way of raising some cash. Sharp gave them half a sovereign and immediately began pumping Kimber for more information about ‘this delightful art’. Soon he began notating tunes that Kimber played for him. These transcriptions became the nucleus around which he began his studies into English music. His growing excitement enthused others like the composers Vaughan Williams and Percy Grainger. He modified some of Kimbers harmonies and passed the notes to Grainger who used them for what was to become a massive classical ‘hit’ – Country Gardens. I must point out here that Sharp always paid Kimber for his time if not his tunes. Granger had no such grace and paid neither Sharp nor Kimber for the melodies that made him a very rich man. 

In no time at all Sharp became an enthusiastic scholar in pursuit of the ‘tradition’. He met Baring Gould and the two men recognised in each other the zealotory of the convert and the purity of their chase. In 1909 (shortly after a falling out with Baring Gould – Perhaps this fragment of a letter from BG’s associate F Bussell explains why – “We had a very pleasant time together, collecting songs from all over Devon and Cornwall, the credit of which was annexed by a Mr Cecil Sharp who rearranged them to very tame settings indeed”)) Sharp founded the English Folk Dance & Song Society. All the labels were now in place. The term ‘Folk’ was adapted to describe a particular genre. The Romantic Nationalism of the pan-Germanic scholars had been successfully transposed to England and blended with Ruskinesque concepts of socialism. We now had our revival and a veneer of nostalgic whimsy with which to coat it. 

How Traditional Is Traditional? 

Sharp was a remarkable collector and archivist. His work is of inestimable value and laid the foundations for nearly a century of study. He preserved literally hundreds if not thousands of songs from obscurity and extinction… and yet… and yet… 

Like Baring Gould, Sharp interfered with the originals. We know this because many of the transcripts and even cylinder recording still exist at Cecil Sharp House, headquarters of the EFDSS. He too felt the need to alter, amend and bowdlerise when he felt that the originals were too crude or primitive. It has been argued that one of his main reasons for this was because he was trying to build a canon of work that would be used in schools to educate English children in their musical heritage. This is a theme that would recur in the 1950s after the publication of the CPGB’s pamphlet The American Threat To British Culture which I’ve written about before. So much for the purity of traditional songs! There is another problem with their methodology however, one that again raises questions about the legitimacy of traditional texts. 

Both Baring Gould and Sharp commented on the amount of times that they sat down to listen to traditional singers and were saddened when they would be presented with a variety of ‘popular songs’! That meant music hall and broadside ballads. What time wasting it must have seemed to them, but presumably not for the yokel or peasant they were listening to! Broadside ballads had been the pop songs of their day since the sixteenth century. Mass produced songs hawked in the streets by ballad sellers, the tunes were a mainstay of English (and Scottish) entertainment. But for Sharp and his colleagues they were anathema. They did not come from the oral tradition. They were not passed through in ‘the blood’, as it were. As for music hall, ‘cheap’, ‘common’ and ‘vulgar’ were the words most bandied about in much the same way that we now talk about mass-produced pop and boy bands. Above all else Sharp and co wanted ‘authenticity’. 

To recap the position we find ourselves in – What was cemented into place during the first revival was a construct that deliberately ignored a mass of music because it didn’t fit the criteria laid down by the revival’s leading lights. I am going to ignore Sharp’s comments on the Black music he came across on his song collecting expeditions to America as it is loathsome and racist garbage. Basically he didn’t think they possessed musical talent and therefore went out of his way to ignore them. In a sense, his dismissal of branches of popular English music is grounded in much the same kind of elitist psychopomp and calls into question, as far as I’m concerned, the legitimacy of his legacy. It is an elitism that propagates class differences and leads us into an area that we might now dub ‘cultural-cleansing’. By this I mean that the revivalists, whilst admiring and praising certain aspects of working class culture, felt that large portions of it were of no value whatsoever, and that its practitioners were, at best, misguided, at worst, stupid. 

By the time of Sharp’s death in 1924 he would have been aware of how his crusade to give ‘the music’ back to the people was gradually happening. ‘Folklore’ studies, encouraged in no small way by the success of Sir James Frazer’s massive study of myth and magick, The Golden Bough, were gaining in popularity in the post-war period, and helped encourage people to look at other aspects of English traditions such as music and dance. Schools across the country began to place traditional dance classes on their agendas and Sharp’s dream of it becoming part of the national curriculum was not far off. Song books were produced specifically for schools and competitions and concerts were held across the country. A public subscription fund was set up in his memory and the money from it used to establish Cecil Sharp House in Hampstead. This became the centre of activities for the EFDSS. Maypoles sprang up across the land and young children, garlanded in flowers and ribbons begrudgingly welcomed in the summer. Folk music and Morris dancing became firmly established in the totemic signifiers that went into constituting ‘Englishness’.
But the premise was false. 

On the internet site At The Edge (see details below), Bob Trubshaw makes some fascinating comments taken from an article written for the EFDSS journal in 1957 by Barbara Lowe. In it Lowe argues quite convincingly that Morris dancing originated around 1450 as a ‘courtly pursuit’. It became fashionable at Christmas time for the young men of the court, to tie bells round their legs and dance for their ladies’ pleasure and amusement. Over time, this form of dancing filtered down to the ‘common people’, who shifted the date of the dance to May Day. The music for dancing was usually whatever was popular at the time. There is, according to Lowe, very strong evidence that the ‘Horned Men’ dances also originated during the same time scale. The Padstow Horse rituals in Devon used a real man on a real horse up until the early nineteenth century when the now familiar hobby-horse was substituted for one reason or another. As the century progressed and the romantic, nation building concepts of the rural idyll took hold, and Frazer’s theories about Folk lore and myth became more popular, so the re-invention of these pursuits became more and more grounded within a pseudo-pagan vision of Anglo-Folk. And so it was, with the songs that the collectors sought out. 

As mentioned above, not just one seam of music, but many, were being neglected by these middle-class collectors – the music of the towns, particularly the newly industrialised cities of Britain, which had thrown up a rich vein of songs that were concerned with the industrial process and the life that went on around them. We’ve seen how broadside ballads and music-hall were cast aside as ‘spurious’ and, I almost hesitate to use the word because it almost became debased in the 1960s – ‘commercial’. It’s worth noting here, Harry Smith’s criterion for a song’s inclusion on The Anthology of American Folk Music – they had to have been commercially successful within their genre, whether it was ‘Hillbilly’, ‘Mountain’, or ‘Race’, Etc. By the 1940s and 50s, ‘successful’ had become anathema to the second wave of the Folk revivalists, though it must be pointed out, people like MacColl and Lloyd had a much broader idea of what constituted ‘Folk’. In particular, they actively encouraged the creation of new songs. So much so, that Pete Seeger was inspired after visiting them in England and seeing what they were doing, to return to America and set up Broadside magazine as a vehicle for new song-writing talent (most notable of these being the young Bob Dylan). 

The problem was, and still is, that all the songs, both old and new, were ghettoised, that is, sectioned off, within the Folk genre, and for better or for worse, the Folk genre is usually perceived by the general public as a joke, best exemplified by Kenneth William’s send up Folk singer, Rambling Syd Rumpo, or genteel ladies in Greek tunics wafting across lawns to the strains of In An English Country Garden

Dylan’s visit to England in the winter of 1963/4 coincided with the peak of the second revival and it’s to his credit that he took what he learned from here, added it to his own creativity and transmuted it into songs that transcended labelling even though critics and commentators continued to do so for years. What he left behind here was a scene that was confused and fragmentary in its nature. A scene that has never coalesced into anything other than a novelty, or a specialist pastime. 

There are still Folk clubs in this country that won’t allow amplification, even for singers with acoustic instruments. There are still debates raging within Folk circles about the use of instrumentation at all! Thankfully, on the whole the scene is now a broader church, but I feel we’ve lost sight of achieving the same kind of synthesis that has happened in American music. We often overlook the fact the contemporary American music is a fusion of all sorts of different genres, our contemporary music scene is too insular and backward looking, and I’m talking about Pop Music here as much as Folk. As Big Bill Broonzy put it – “It’s all Folk Music – Hell! I ain’t never heard no mule singin’ it!” 

I’d like to finish off here with an interesting digression into how history repeats itself with a quick examination of the use of ‘Folk’ music for nationalistic ends in the former Yugoslavia, and how this has now spread across Europe in the guise of ‘Neo-Folk’. 

Strangely for a communist country, Yugoslavia actively encouraged Rock music. President Tito recognised its attraction to the youth of his country and instead of banning it and thereby driving it underground, equipment, venues and recording deals were doled out to would be Rock musicians. Of course there was a catch. The music, lyrically at least, had to be apolitical (much like it is here!). As a result, Yugoslavia was much more forward looking musically. When Yugoslavia fragmented in the early 1990s, Milosevitch in Serbia was quick to follow Tito’s  lead and a committee of ‘experts’ designed, if that’s the right word, a new form of contemporary music which was called ‘Turbo-Folk’. This took Western House Music and fused it with Serbian Folk. Inevitably, this featured strongly nationalistic lyrics. One of the top performers of Turbo-Folk is a young woman called Svetlana Razenatovitch, better known as Ceca. She married Serbian War Lord, Arkan, who was assassinated a few years ago. Over the last ten years she’s sold hundreds of thousands of records. She was also arrested on March 17th this year in connection with the assassination of the Serbian Prime Minister. A large number of weapons and explosives were seized from her mansion in Belgrade. 

One of her biggest fanbases outside of Serbia is Germany where Turbo-Folk has amalgamated with Goth Music and is known as ‘Neo-Folk’. Look it up on Google and you’ll come across dozens of websites that are dedicated to extreme Right Wing, Aryan groups. They hold regular festivals of Neo-Folk across Europe. Folk music and torch light processions – the taking of blood oaths – Symphonies of the damned marching in ordnung across the plains of Westphalia, Poland, Russia, Norway, Denmark – The blighted vision of pan-Germanic scholars has come to fruition once more. 

Further information –

The Imagined Village – Georgina Boyce, Manchester University Press, 1993 (now out of print, and if anybody can point me in the direction of a copy I'd be very happy).

Fakesong – Dave Harker, Oxford University Press, 1985 (Also out of print).

The Edge Website appears to be missing, but the following link covers the same areas -

Ceca Homepage -