Hipsters, Flipsters... Bacup, Lancashire 2003
Bacup, Lancashire 2003

Hipsters, Flipsters and
Finger Poppin’ Daddies!


by C. P. Lee

‘Folk’ Is A Myth! (Part 2) 

‘Proud To Be A Part Of The Heritage Industry!’ 

To briefly recap the points made in the first part of this article – ‘Folk’ was invented in the 19th century to further the aims of nationalism. This was done by appropriating and mediating certain forms of music (and dance), and excluding others that didn’t fit the criteria of the ‘heritage’  manufacturers. By the second Folk Revival in the 1950s, despite the broader range of material now being accepted as ‘legitimate’, and the laudable efforts of MacColl and Lloyd to invigorate  contemporary song writing, the dictats of the ‘Traditionalists’ still suffocated innovation. Sussex singer Shirley Collins recalls being told by MacColl to stop wearing nail varnish as this was against the Tradition! For nearly a decade the Aran sweater and ‘finger-in-the-ear’ image of Folk predominated, and alienated large portions of the potential audience. Bob Dylan went a long way towards beating down these walls and demonstrating how things could be done, but still in the UK, a large and influential percentage of the Folk ‘elite’ shunned all signs of modernisation. 

Then, in 1967, a band emerged which had the potential to cross over all the boundaries and forge a new, hybrid form of popular music. They were Fairport Convention. Formed during the cultural explosion that was happening at the time the original Fairports were described as ‘The English Jefferson Airplane’ by DJ, Tommy Vance. This was more likely because they had a female lead singer (Judy Dyble) rather than their musical style. Heavily influenced by Dylan and The Byrds, they saw themselves quite unashamedly as ‘Folk Rock’, including in their instrumentation, autoharp, dulcimer and recorder, as well as bass, drums and lead guitar. They established their reputation on the ‘Underground’ circuit, at clubs like Middle Earth, UFO and Happening 44. It was there they were seen by the man who would become their manager, Joe Boyd. Joe was the very same man who had stage-managed the 1965 Newport Festival when Dylan had ‘gone electric’. 

An indication of the direction they were coming from musically can be found by looking at an early set – They opened with Dino Valente’s Let’s Get Together, and ended with Richard Farina’s Reno Nevada, and then an extended jam on the Paul Butterfield Band’s East West. In between they performed numbers by Phil Ochs, Eric Anderson, Dylan and Donovan! (Season Of The Witch). In these early days they also sang numbers by Tim Buckley, Emmitt Rhodes and Leonard Cohen. They also began to discover their own song-writing strengths, emanating principally from guitarist Richard Thompson. In 1968 Judy Dyble left after the release of their first album and was replaced by Sandy Denny. 

Denny’s background in traditional singing was to have a massive influence on the band and bassist Ashley Hutchings in particular. Their second album, What We Did On Our Holidays, featured two traditional tunes, Nottamun Town and She Moved Through The Fair, alongside compositions from Thompson and Hutchings, et al. Backstage at a gig one night, Sandy picked up an acoustic guitar and began singing A Sailor’s Life, a song she’d been taught by Bert Lloyd. Hutchings (and the rest of the band) was mesmerised. He and Thompson began working out the tune there and then and within an hour were on stage playing it! This is definitively the point where Hutchings began his education in traditional music. As soon as they were back in London he went to Cecil Sharp House, home of the EFDSS and began researching into a music that played little part in the band’s repertoire up till now. 

All the Fairports had been captivated by the Bands first two albums, in particular by the image of the Band – a group of musicians who lived communally and who appeared to have stepped back in time, not just in their ‘fusion’ music, but in their fashion sense as well, their publicity photos making them look like a bunch of American Civil War veterans. Soon the Fairports were living together in a house in the country, Farley Chamberlayne, and the wife of newly joined fiddle player Dave Swarbrick, was outfitting them (the men anyway!) in collarless shirts, waistcoats and old-style trousers. They were, in effect, developing a corporate identity, whether they knew it or not. When the band weren’t rehearsing Hutchings was spending more and more time in the EFDSS archives. Sandy Denny told the music press – “The next album is going to be completely different. It will be based around traditional British folk music…” “We’ve really been getting into traditional English music.” Ashley Hutchings told journalist Pamela Winters – “I became absolutely addicted to traditional music… You’ve got me researching whenever I’ve got a second: going to Cecil Sharp House, looking in books, finding songs.” 

The resulting album Liege & Lief, is quite extraordinary, and did open up a whole new world of possibilities. It was arguably responsible for kick-starting the Celtic music revival, inspiring the likes of Sweeny’s Men and Horslips to re-examine their Irish heritage and integrate it within a contemporary setting. In the main Liege & Lief received positive reviews, but interestingly one of the band’s earliest champions, John Peel, had strong reservations about it, feeling that they were getting too deeply into areas that would alienate sections of their fan-base. The only way forward it seemed, was to go deeper, but after their next album, Full House, Hutchings left to pursue his EFDSS inspired route, and founded Steeleye Span. One reason given was that Fairport’s music wasn’t English enough, that the jigs and reels that Thompson and Swarbrick and Nichols enjoyed playing together so much, was straying too far into the Celtic fringe. Bob Pegg and Simon Nichol argued this point too. Strange then that the first incarnation of Steeleye featured two Irish musicians, Johnny Moynhan and Andy Irvine, then, after they left two more, Gay and Terry Woods! Another country retreat, this one at Winterbourne Stoke, became the centre for operations. Another album and then another regime change, the Woods leaving and Maddy Prior and Martin Carthy coming in, the one constant being Hutching’s zealotry in pursuing ‘an English music’. Karl Dallas wrote at the time that he was worried Steeleye were confining themselves to Folk, “not because they like it, but because they feel it’s intrinsically superior to Pop. This way leads to cultural elitism of the most sterile sort.” The band all wore clogs. Ewan MacColl gave Ashley total access to his library of traditional songs, an almost unbelievable act for the ‘keeper of the flame’, but Ashley was being perceived by the old-garde as the saviour of English traditional music. Next it was invitations for the band to play an EFDSS concert at the Festival Hall. In 1971 Ashley announced that “As far as traditional music goes, the first traditional English group is still to come”. 

Later that year he quit the band he’d formed. One of the reasons he gave was that he was now into the music of William Kimber (see previous article). He also told the band that there was “too much Irish stuff.” – “Round about 1971/72, I hear a recording of William Kimber playing concertina for the Headington Morris, on an album of Morris Dance music which was a limited edition EFDSS record. And I flip, and I think this is the most wonderful stuff. It’s so English. I’ve never heard anything like it. It’s not like what we did on Liege & Lief, it’s not like these Irish tunes that Pete Knight’s playing.” That same year Ashley married Shirley Collins, the doyen of English traditional music. In a sense, the circle was now complete and he was ready to record an album of purely traditional Morris songs called – Morris On

I have to pause for a second here and say that I think it’s a great record. I really enjoyed it when it came out and I think it was a brilliant concept, and I still enjoy it now. However, with the benefit of hindsight, I can point to it and say that it is fake – it is plastic – it is a simulacra – This is not Ashley’s fault. He is a victim in the same way that I’ve been. Basically, we’ve been sold a bum steer. Morris Dancing and Morris tunes are highly unlikely to be older than 150 years at the most. Indeed, most Morris outfits that ply their trade nowadays are very young indeed by traditional standards. A brief search of the web demonstrates this very clearly. There were, it is undeniable, a handful of Morris troupes when Sharp began his researches, most of the ones that exist now came later, much later. Hammersmith Morris – 1959 (this is the one that a young John Kirkpatrick joined), Durham Rams Sword – 1963, Ashdown Mummers – 1973, Bedford Morris – 1935, all the way through the alphabet to – Wakefield Morris – 1980, Yorkshire West Morris – 1979. As I have just said, there were dance troupes that go back a lot further – Abingdon Morris predates 1556, and the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance (which actually isn’t Morris, I suppose), even further than that – but – and it’s a big but – what kind of music would they have originally played bearing in mind all the mediation and pruning that we know went on under the auspices of the arbiters of taste? 

In 1976, Christina Hole wrote about the music played at the Abbots Bromley ritual in A Dictionary of British Folk Customs, “… and the musician plays the music of the dance on his accordion. The tunes he plays, like the clothes the dancers wear, are not old. One lovely old tune is known, but it is never played now. Two or three customary melodies exist, but are of no great age, and unfortunately, there is a growing tendency to replace them with popular modern dance tunes.” An attendee in the 1960s told me that he was really surprised to hear the musicians playing a medley of Beatles tunes when he was there. On the Topic CD You Lazy Lot of Bone-Shakers, a live recording of the Wrenboys of Listowel made in 1958, can be heard playing the old standard By The Light Of The Silvery Moon. We have to ask ourselves about the elitism of pundits who would criticise this choice of music. These people were going to play what they liked to dance to, which, more often than not, happened to be music that was popular at the time. To expect them to conform to the traditionalist pattern simply to suit some rigid idea about what constitutes the ‘appropriate’ music is appalling and demonstrates the trap that Hutchings was falling into. Any sign of musical ‘impropriety’ (ie the playing of ‘popular’ songs) in the Morris canon would have been removed immediately by Sharp and his cohorts, so as not to taint the purity of the blood line. 

Hutchings continued throughout the 1970s and beyond in his quest for ‘an English music’, leading to the formation of The Albion Band – again, a remarkable musical achievement, but one that for me is bogged down in the ideological maze of nationalism. For a fuller description of these tautological routes see The Guv’nor & The Rise Of Folk Rock, by Brian Hinton and Geoff Wall. My argument is that Hutchings missed a remarkable opportunity to attack popular music in this country by his continued navel gazing into a mythical and manufactured past. Richard Thompson on the other hand, in much the same way as Dylan, took what he needed from tradition and melded it with the present, creating a genre that belongs in what I now wish to call - ‘Poplore’. 

This isn’t an original phrase. It was coined by American academic Gene Bluestein in his 1994 book – Poplore: Folk & Pop In American Culture. Bluestein argued that we have to revise our ideas about the meaning of ‘folklore’, beginning with our definition of what is ‘Folk’ and what is not. He argued that the notion of ‘Poplore’ more accurately reflects the popular and commercial roots of culture. Here’s a very short definition of Poplore –

“The tradition developed very early in our history in which creative individuals integrated sources similar to those appealing in older, more traditional cultures, with popular and commercial elements… within a framework that instead of developing over long periods, changes very quickly.” 

Abandon all labels! Forget all genres! While Ashley Hutchings was looking for an ‘English music’ within the specimen boxes of ‘the Tradition’ it was already out there and howling at his window in the shape of Itchycoo Park, Lazy Sunday Afternoon, Waterloo Sunset and For The Benefit of Mr Kite, and many more. OK, these were English Rock records of the 60s, but what unites them is their quintessential ‘Englishness’, the fact that musically they have left behind the Blues and R n’ B roots of the Pop musician’s early years and returned to a vernacular of the city and the streets; a homegrown, rambunctious celebration of being alive. In the mid 1970s when he was working on various incarnations of The Albion Band and The Etchingham Steam Band, arguably the greatest and most English Rock records ever made were smashing their way up the charts – Anarchy In The UK and God Save The Queen by the Sex Pistols. From their measured rhythm to their Cockney inflections they were nothing less than a full-scale, heavy metal music hall assault on the sensibilities of a comatose and zomboid society. They were, in effect – Poplore – combining old and new, and changing so quickly that they had imploded within a year. 

Abandon all labels! Forget all genres! In future think – Poplore!

In between writing these two pieces I found myself in Bacup on a sunny Sunday afternoon. In the forecourt of a pub called The Crown, a large crowd had gathered to watch the Britannia Coco-nut Dancers and assorted guests. I was confronted by my own theories about ‘Folk’ and ‘Fakery’. The dancers, known cheerily as the ‘Nutters’ have been around for a hundred and fifty years. Every Easter (pagan Goddess of fertility and rebirth, Oestre, whose symbol is the hare, or rabbit, to whom you offer eggs) the Nutters take over Bacup and basically create mayhem as they dance the town’s boundaries, hurtling around in formation smashing their ‘nuts’ together in unison. It’s when you start trying to find out about their origins that facts become hard to find. On their official website the Nutters themselves are engagingly disingenuous. It might be that Cornish tin miners moved there in the 19th century bringing their customs with them. This might explain the blackened faces (from working down the mines), and the ‘nuts’, which are discs of polished wood fastened to the knees, elbows and hands (for protection when working down the mines). Legend (important word that) has it that the origins of the dancing come from the influence of Moroccan miners who had emigrated to Cornwall in days gone by and these were then duly transposed to the North West of England. This is offered as a possible explanation for the hats and skirts worn by the Nutters. Be that as it may, the dances performed by the Nutters bear no relation whatsoever to any of the Al Guedra, or Gnawa dancers I’ve watched in North Africa, nor does the accompanying music resemble in any shape or form something that might be played by the Master Musicians of Joujouka, or the Nag Hamadi. The point is, the Nutters don’t care what their origins are. They’ve got a tradition, and even if it doesn’t really go back that far, it’s a tradition that is well and truly their own and their community loves it too. 

And that community had turned out in force and consisted of both young and old, all having an equally good time. There were plenty of teenagers in the crowd (see photo at top), none of whom looked like they were being forced at gun-point to watch the performers who were there. The highlight for me was the Bradshaw Mummers (see photo below) an outfit who work not just within the confines of the traditional Mumming play but manage to go way beyond it by making it a part of our contemporary culture. So, for instance, when the King of Egypt character went on about how rich he was, the Bradshaw’s backing musicians played Money Makes The World Go Round from the musical Cabaret, not a second hand version of There Was A Rich Farmer From Sheffield (circa 1840). With a cast including a dancing bear, King George, Satan, a drunken doctor and a man dressed as a woman, the Mummers represent the world turned upside down, and offer us a glimpse of the Lords of Misrule dining greedily at the Feast of Lupercal. 

Only one thing got my goat that afternoon and it was the guest Morris dancers. I’m not averse to a spot of Morris. It was the lead dancer’s assertion that what we were about to witness was “The oldest dance in the world”, that annoyed me. How does he know it’s the oldest dance in the world? Anthropologists might care to point in the direction of the Kalahari Bush People who’ve been dancing in their own inimitable manner since whenever. As I wrote in the previous article all the available evidence about Morris (the name by the way is supposedly a corruption of ‘Moorish’ as in Moroccan… hmmm, North Africa again) is that it originated around 1450 as a courtly dance performed by the aristocracy. Little things like that though don’t get in the way of the ‘Fakelorists’ as they continue to assert their bogus purity around Albion. 

I will conclude my polemic in the next article.

C. P. Lee


Hipsters, Flipsters... Bacup, Lancashire 2003
Bacup, Lancashire 2003