Last year I edited The Folk Handbook as well as contributing various pieces, including this essay on Folk And The English.
Anyone who has travelled will have encountered the folk cultures of other nations. Even in western Europe, it is not uncommon for young people to set aside their skateboards, baseball caps and mp3 players to don traditional costume and perform the songs and dances of their region. That they do this without either self-consciousness or coercion is astonishing to visitors from England, where traditional music is often the subject of amused condescension or scorn.
The low level of interest in folk music in England — temporary media-driven revivals excepted — would have dismayed Cecil Sharp, but it would not have been unfamiliar to him. At the start of his collecting career, in 1903, the existence of English folk song was largely unknown to educated people of his social class. Those who sang for the collectors were likely to be elderly people working in the countryside. The society recommended its members seek out "gardeners, artizans, gamekeepers, shepherds, rustic labourers, gipsies, sailors, fishermen, workers at old-fashioned trades, such as weaving, lace-making, and the like, as well as domestic servants of the old school, especially nurses". These people were asked for songs they remembered hearing sung, but nothing they had learned at school or at a concert. They were invited to recall a time, in their own youth, when most people sang.
To the city-dweller, all this was remote and irrelevant. English culture has been dominated by the life of the city since the time of Shakespeare. Every Frenchman is a countryman at heart, longing to return to his home village, but in England the rural life is often a matter for disdain. As early as Shakespeare and his contemporaries, country people are already the butt of humour. Partly this was due to the rise of a class of professional comic actors, whose performances parodied the speech, mannerisms, and clothing of country people. The greatest Elizabethan comic, Richard Tarlton, dressed as a stereotype countryman and muddled his words for humorous effect.
It is no coincidence that the word "clown" originally meant a country-dweller or peasant, before becoming associated with stage buffoonery. Samuel Pepys, writing in the second half of the 17th century, appreciated the humour in seeing rustics represented on stage. The bumpkin was a standard character in restoration drama. What's more, ballads purporting to be written by love-struck country folk began to appear, representing them as ignorant and uncouth. This was not all caricature: education, literacy, and the ownership of books, were all phenomena of the towns rather than the countryside. Singing, though, was a popular entertainment for all classes. Pepys was an enthusiastic singer of songs in all traditions: Italian, French, Elizabethan, ballads, and the bawdy. The collectors who formed the Folk-Song Society were, on the contrary, interested only in songs they considered to be old and genuinely rural in origin, believing the illiterate peasantry to have inherited the musical riches of an earlier pre-industrial age. They scorned the new, believing that true folk song had been destroyed by commercial music in the form of the music hall, but also by railway travel, the growth of the towns and even by education itself.
Thomas Hardy, writing just before song collection began, set his novels in the early part of the 19th century, when the elderly singers lionised by Sharp and his colleagues would have been children and when they considered the singing tradition still to be healthy. But Hardy's singers are old men, and their efforts are mocked by younger villagers. At the shearing-supper in Far From The Madding Crowd, a farm-worker called Joseph Poorgrass sings 'The Seeds Of Love' — he claims it as his own composition, although it would be the first song Cecil Sharp collected, only eight years after publication of the novel — and is mocked.
This, coupled perhaps with the diffidence that has long been associated with the English character, meant that the singers made no effort to present their songs to a wider world. Singing was just a fact of rural life: everyone did it, at school, at work, on the way to work, while doing their domestic chores, in the fields and in the pub. When the collectors came knocking, the singers were happy to oblige them, but the transaction did not, in most cases, change their lives. For the collectors, on the other hand, the act of collection seems to have been filled with significance. They felt it would put them in touch with an older England, reviving not just the nation's music but its national spirit.
That reverence, and the weight of expectations, immediately placed the collectors at a distance from the singers and the material. That they were all representatives of the highest strata of middle-class society served also to make them first alien and then faintly ridiculous both to their rural sources and the urban population. In any case, a love of tradition was more common among observers than those living the rural life. When they got the chance, country people enjoyed mass entertainment, including the music-hall songs and popular dances that the intelligentsia despised on their behalf.
Nevertheless, Sharp and his associates were extremely influential in education. They ensured that the songs they had collected were sung in English schools well into the second half of the 20th century. But official culture is ripe for satire in a less reverent age. Kingsley Amis's hugely popular first novel, Lucky Jim (1954), is a comedy of academic life in the provinces. It includes a sustained and very funny attack on a professor with an interest in madrigals, recorder playing, and folk culture. Aside from being a wicked lampoon of Amis's own father-in-law, a retired civil servant and morris-dancer called Leonard Bardwell, it reflected a genuine tension in English life. The arrival of Queen Elizabeth II, coupled with state culture's tendency to romanticise the past, had led to the short-lived and self-aggrandising fantasy that modern Britons were "New Elizabethans". The result was a heady cocktail of nonsense, destined to be ridiculed.
Satire of a broader kind came in 1965, when the writers Barry Took and Marty Feldman invented a character called Rambling Sid Rumpo for the BBC radio series Round The Horne. Portrayed by Kenneth Williams, Rumpo sang cod folk songs in which parodies of the formulae of folk song ("Fare thee well, my apple-cheeked Betty-o") were mixed with outrageous double-entendres. Clearly, something was in the air. The character's debut just preceded the earnest attempt by Fairport Convention and others to create a synthesis of traditional music and rock'n'roll and make it popular. In retrospect, that was doomed. Folk song still had a whiff of the schoolroom about it, and for good reason: as late as the 1970s school music largely consisted of listening to classical music and singing traditional songs.
That is not the case in English schools today. The national curriculum for music calls only for children to be taught "knowledge, skills and understanding" through "a range of live and recorded music from different times and cultures including music from the British Isles, the 'Western classical' tradition, folk, jazz and popular genres, and by well-known composers and performers". This ragbag of styles is an uneasy compromise intended to mollify everyone from the dedicated multi-culturalist to the upholder of the Western classical canon: traditional English song will be extremely lucky to get any sort of hearing.
There is an instructive contrast to be made with the music curriculum for Wales, which is openly nationalistic: chlidren are required to know "the music of Wales", something that can be fostered by "singing traditional Welsh folk songs". The language factor has, of course, helped Welsh music retain its identity in a way that has not been possible for English-language popular music in a century. But in some ways, the Welsh are re-running the history of English traditional song in the Sharp era. Whether such an approach will lead to appreciation — or apathy — remains to be seen.