Folk Is A Myth  

Hipsters, Flipsters and
Finger Poppin’ Daddies!


by C. P. Lee


‘Folk’ Is A Myth! (Part 3)

 Who The Feck Are The ‘Folk’?!?!


In this final part of my polemic I want to begin by looking at the position of music and the musician within culture and society from the viewpoint of what has become known as ‘Folk’. 

For argument’s sake and taking as a starting point the Middle Ages, we can say that there have always been ‘professional’ musicians, be they Bards, bagpipers or balladeers, who made their living through performing music. In order to earn a livelihood they would have to be attached to a patron (The Church, the Royal Court), or, itinerant, that is to say – Buskers. Alongside such ‘professionals’ we will also find the ‘amateurs’, that is people with (or without!) some degree of musical talent who performed within their local community on specific occasions, be they ceremonial or social. Again, for the sake of argument, let’s say that it was around this time that we can begin to clearly see the emergence of class divisions in the forms of music being played – As musical notation began to emerge as a unified entity, less reliance was placed on ‘memory’ and the handing down of tunes by rote disappeared from the Court musician’s repertoire to be replaced by a more formulated and strictly structured set of pieces. This also enabled the ‘composition’ of musical pieces to be played by the ‘orchestra’ and we see the first musical manuscripts with composers’ names on. Class divisions also developed in the choice of instrumentation. For instance the pipe and tabor (a three holed pipe played with one hand and a small drum (tabor) fastened round the waist and played with the other was relegated to the non-courtly musician. The shawm and bombarde (reed instruments) mutated into clarinet and oboe. The rebec gave way to the violin (first sighted officially in 1523) and the bagpipes (of which there are many regional variations, Lancashire long-pipes, Northumbrian, etc) were no longer deemed appropriate for courtly music. This jockeying for position amongst the instruments, the end result of which we can see in the formation of what we might begin to recognise as a modern orchestra, was an organic as well as a social process that took place over several centuries. 

To summarise – By the middle of the 16th century, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth 1st, there co-existed in this country, two (I’m ignoring Ecclesiastical music in this piece) forms of music – Court music, and what I will call Popular music instead of the usually used soubriquet ‘Folk’. Court music, at this point, still interacted with Popular music to a degree, but the Tudors were about to introduce legislation that changed all that and made the demarcation between ‘High’ and ‘Low’ culture a potentially painful one (especially for musicians!). Before I go further into that area I need to insert the following bit of information – The Elizabethan era saw a remarkable rise in literacy. This was presumably because it was undergoing a remarkable rise in the numbers of its middle-class. Due to this it was a period in British history that witnessed an explosion in educational standards. The children of the bourgeoisie needed to be taught how to run the enterprises and infrastructures that were springing up and the empire that was being founded. Although grammar school education was confined to boys only, girls benefited from home tuition and EP Thompson in The Making of the English Working Classes claimed that there were, per capita, more literate people in 1590 than there were in 1800. 

The Elizabethan age was one of paranoia and eternal struggle against internal and external forces. Elizabeth was involved in military campaigns against Spain, and France was always on the horizon as a potential threat. Mary Queen of Scots was plotting furiously. Catholics and Protestants, each had their own agenda. The head of Elizabeth’s intelligence services was Lord Walsingham. Together, he and the Queen came up with a number of devises for maintaining control of the country. One of Walsingham’s secret agents was Royal astrologer and magician, Dr John Dee. His number in the secret service was 007. During the Second World War, Ian Fleming was in the secret service. He was given the job of interrogating Rudolph Hess. His report to Churchill said that only one man in the country was capable of getting any sense from Hess and that man was Aleister Crowley, the so-called ‘Great Beast 666’. Crowley practised ‘Enochian Magick’. This was the form of Necromancy used by Dee in the 1590s. Churchill refused to let Crowley anywhere near Hess, and Fleming went on to write the ‘007’ James Bond books. His code name during the War? – John Dee. 

The rise in literacy went hand in hand with the popularisation of a musical/literary form known as ‘The Broadside Ballad’. And when Walsingham saw how popular they were becoming the first official state censorship apparatus was put into place to control their dissemination. Broadsides were usually a single sheet of paper with the words of a song printed on it. Occasionally there would be an illustration with a scene from the ballad. The broadside texts dealt with all sorts of happenings and events such as, celebrations of victories, the exploits of notorious criminals, and bizarre creatures like the Lampton Worm. Because the broadsides consisted of words and words were potentially dangerous in terms of fomenting dissent the authorities passed legislation making it illegal to publish them without a licence. The official body governing the publication of ballads, plays and books was the London Stationers Company. Between 1557 and 1709, we know that 3000 ballads were registered there. Taking into account the two decade long hiatus of the Cromwellian Commonwealth when entertainment of any kind was virtually forbidden, the figures represent a thriving ballad industry. And not all ballads were licensed, some publishers took a gamble and released material that hadn’t been cleared by the authorities, usually what are known as ‘Bawdy Ballads’, earthy songs about coupling and bodily functions, though occasionally political ballads emerged as well. If prosecuted (and indeed, some were) these publishers faced not just a fine, but the severing of a hand that was then burnt in front of the miscreant, followed by a spell in the pillory. 

At the same time draconian measures were introduced to curb itinerant musicians. Getting busted for busking in 1580 wasn’t like it is nowadays. Instead of a “Move along now, or you’re nicked”, from a police officer, and the possibility of a small fine if you don’t, the Elizabethans had a whole string of punishments designed to curb musical enterprise of a private nature. These ranged from being whipped through town tied to the back of a cart, to having a hole bored through your earlobe with a red hot poker, and when all else failed, cutting off your nose. When out shopping in Manchester city centre on a Saturday afternoon and I find myself being aurally assaulted by some of the huskers around today, I freely admit to looking back at these practices wistfully, but I guess we have to move with the times. 

Not just musicians were threatened by this law, unaccompanied singing and ballad selling was also illegal, but widely practised. The barbarous Tudor punishments gave way to imprisonment or fines – Here’s an edict from Birmingham in 1794 – 

“The officers of this town give this Public notice, that they are come to a determined resolution to apprehend all strolling beggars, Ballad singers, and other vagrants within this parish” 

But the popularity of the ballad as (one aspect of) ‘The People’s Music’ grew and grew. They were sold at fairs, in the streets of most towns, in public houses and market places, until eventually the edicts and restrictions placed upon the balladeers and their mongers fell into disuse. By the early 19th century there were hundreds of thousands of titles available. Ballad writers were paid a shilling a song by the publishers, other company’s titles were bootlegged as fast as they could be printed. Undoubtedly, songs from the oral tradition were impressed into service as broadsides, muddying the waters of ‘authenticity’ for contemporary academics. Compared with the sales figures for CD singles in the present day (it is now possible to have a number one hit in the UK with sales of less than 25,000!) broadside ballads were huge hits. Catnach of London, a broadside publisher, sold over two and a half million copies each of two ballads in 1848 and 1849. Both were about convicted murderers. The broadsides were the Pop music of their day. 

We’ve already seen how music evolved along the lines of Class demarcation. By reading the works of Victorian proto-sociologists like Mayhew’s London Labour & The London Poor, or modern historians such as EP Thompson, we can observe how the musician operated within his, or her, social and cultural milieu. By the mid 19th century the mass migration of people from the countryside to the towns meant that the majority of the population now lived in the cities. They undoubtedly took their cultural practices with them – The Irish immigrants brought set dancing. This mixed with English country dancing. Hybrids were born, flourished or died. Two examples will serve to demonstrate cross-fertilisation – The waltz originated in the Austrian Royal court towards the end of the 18th century and by the mid 19th century was the most popular dance form of Europe and America, its aristocratic origins being largely forgotten. The reverse is true of the Tango. It came from the slums of Argentina in the early 20th century and eventually developed in to a specialist art form. Strangely it’s now the most popular dance in Finland. 

Broadside ballads were produced at the rate of a dozen or so a week. Most were abandoned in favour of newer material in the affections of most people. This is an immutable Law of Pop. Some of the songs became classic standards and are still around to the present day. Instrumental dance music consisted of material known to, and by, the dancers and musicians. Some of it was traditional and some of it was contemporary. Just because people moved to the cities for work doesn’t mean that they ‘lost’ their ‘traditional’ tunes. You only have to look at the experience of Jimmy Miller (Ewan MacColl), Salford born and raised, but with parents who sang him their Scottish songs, to see how the tradition was still maintained even within an urban environment. The one thing that unifies all of this music is that it was/is ‘popular’. 

When the Revivalists began collecting in the late 19th century, Harker and Trubshaw (see bibliography) have both pointed out how Sharp and Co pointedly ignored urban conurbations that might be classified as ‘towns’ or ‘cities’. Their romantic nationalism, or vision of a pastoral idyll made hunting trips for tunes in areas like that ideologically unsound. It did not fit their theories. It was the same with their choice of recordable material. Anything popular was unsound and therefore discarded. Consequently the concept of ‘The Folk’ that was filtered through their distorted lenses was carried through to the second revival mid-way through the 20th century. 

And it wasn’t just the revivalists who were part of the delusional tactics. Performers too were prepared to play their part in ‘La Grande Illusione’. Fred Jordan, born 1922, was a farm labourer from Ludlow in Shropshire. At the weekends he sang in local pubs like The Feathers and The Bull. In 1952 Alan Lomax arrived in town and after recording him for posterity, passed his name on to the EFDSS. They invited him to London to sing for them. Karl Dallas, in his 2002 obituary of Fred noted – 

“He turned up at his first public engagement in dark suit and stiff collar and tie (exactly the clothes he would wear for performing in Ludlow), but, after observing the al fresco dishabille of your average young folkie, he then turned up in his working clothes, a cloth cap perched precariously on the back of his head, great boots upon his feet, cords tied around the bottom of his trousers.” 

He then went on to add –

“He claimed to have obtained most of his songs from his mother, though he was quite prepared to supplement his lyrics from print, most notably The Dark Eyed Sailor, some of the words of which he copied out from the Farmer & Stockbreeder Magazine”. 

And, if you want my opinion, who could blame him? If that’s what the punters expected, that’s what the punters would get. He was only fulfilling their fantasies. Throw into the mix the fact that he also sang songs from the music hall, which in the second revival were becoming ‘acceptable’, and the circle is completed. 

Let’s go back now to the pre-article for this series. The one about my first ever visit to a ‘Folk Club’ in 1964. I was actually lucky in that the Ladybarn club was dubbed ‘contemporary’. I went to other ones in Manchester city centre that were ‘traditional’ though I wasn’t really aware of the differences in those days. There was one discernible theme that ran through all the different clubs though and it was one of nostalgia. A nostalgia for an imagined past that we viewed through rose-tinted spectacles. The prevailing air was one of clogs and shawls, and gas-light and ‘knockers up’, we were a city club after all. But there was an overriding atmosphere of ‘the countryside’ at many of the gigs I attended, a feeling that somehow, singing songs about farming and gathering in the harvest was more ‘right’. This was reflected in the appalling impositions of MacColl such as telling Shirley Collins not to wear nail varnish, or the preponderance of Aran sweaters at gigs. 

All the music I heard in there (and in later years) was called ‘Folk’. There was an unwritten understanding of what that meant. Up until 1965 that also included Bob Dylan, though by strict standards of definition, only his first album meets the criteria of the traditionalists. The concept of the singer/songwriter was only encouraged during the revival if the new material was ‘political’ in nature, hence Dylan’s acceptance up to Times, then the downward spiral into ‘betrayal’ via the dreaded ‘commercialisation’ of the post ‘Protest’ albums. ‘Folk’ had become a restrictive phrase, trapping what had been a vibrant cultural tapestry in a mess of musical blind-alleys, and the band of iron that wrapped it so tightly was that word – ‘Folk’ – Cecil Sharp’s definition of what he thought of as politically correct. 

The result of this ‘genrefication’, the side-lining of so much potential talent, the pseudo-musicological ramblings of Ashley Hutchings, the pathetic demands for ‘authenticity’, the curt dismissal of ‘Pop’, has left our cultural practitioners trapped in the ghettos of ‘Folk On Four’, or the dark little bit of HMV’s basement next to ‘Soundtrack Albums’ and ‘Novelty Recordings’. The state of play at the moment is that there appears to be hope for the future, that not all is lost. A significant number of young people are looking around for music that is against the grain of the mass-manufactured Pap that the music industry is trying to foist onto the public. Two examples –

Our 22 year old lad nearly gave me a heart attack the other week. His musical tastes have always been his own, his favourite form for a long time now has been Hip Hop and Rap. Over on a visit for Sunday dinner, he casually stunned me by asking if I had any bag-pipe music, or ‘anything Irish?’ – After they’d picked me up from the floor he explained that he wanted to hear something which was ‘real’, something ‘where you know that the musicians are enjoying playing it’. He went on to add that he’d been listening to Badly Drawn Boy and David Gray and that he liked the fact that they wrote their own music and played it too. I’ve seen both those musicians described as ‘Folk’ artists, which is absurd because they’re patently not. They’re just simply – musicians, but because they write and perform their own stuff the press are reduced to describing them in such archaic terms. 

The second example came from a chance visit to a local bar. Turned out it was ‘Acoustic Night’. The place was packed, and so many musicians had turned up they were literally queuing out of the door. Eventually the organiser gave everybody a two number limit and I sat back and watched as, in ones and twos, a succession of young performers got up and played. Some were shite, some were really good, all of them, and the audience too, were thoroughly enjoying themselves. Every single number I saw performed that night was original. Not one cover, not one ‘Folk’ song. I got talking to one of the musicians and told him I didn’t know ‘Folk’ was so popular in Manchester. He looked at me in a slightly puzzled way and said – “This isn’t folk. This is acoustic.” And he was right. If it had been billed as ‘Folk’ I doubt whether any of the musicians or audience would have turned up because that dreaded word has so many negative connotations. 

So it does look like the tradition carries on. Certainly not in the conventionally perceived way that the Olde-Garde would want it, but in a new and potentially exciting way where the performers and audience are interchangeable, and where the music is a celebration of community and culture. Welcome to the world of ‘Poplore’. 

folk is a myth