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The Strange Death and Life of English Folk Song

April 5, 2013 | by Faber Social

Tags: Folk, Vinyl

If video killed the radio star, then shellac was implicated in the long lingering death of folk song. But, in a bizarre twist of fate, just as folk song finally gave up the ghost around the middle of the 20th century, shellac’s lively young offspring, ‘vinyl’, presented to the world a new folk-song movement, brighter and shinier than the old one and better equipped to face the trials of modern life. This is how it happened.

When the great folk-song collectors of Victorian and Edwardian England – Cecil Sharp, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Percy Grainger, and others – went out into the villages seeking the age-old song and music of the people, they found the folk tradition in poor health. Its natural defences had already been weakened by universal education, urbanisation, city-bred music hall songs, and the fledgling commercial music industry which had been quietly infiltrating rural areas and infecting young people for some time. Given the choice, many now preferred modern comic songs and sentimental parlour ballads to old ditties about shepherds, milkmaids, Napoleon and Robin Hood.

In the past, upstart new songs would have caused no problem. A healthy tradition simply adopts the best new songs which are worthy of preservation, adds them to the repertoire, and lets the more ephemeral items die their natural death. The survival of the fittest. But the new century had two secret weapons – recorded sound and broadcast media – which changed the whole musical landscape and threw out the old patterns entirely.

Up to about 1900, if you wanted to hear a song, you had to be in the presence of the singer, and this face-to-face transmission kept most music local and personal. Admittedly, in the city you could be in an audience of several hundred at a music hall, but in the villages the biggest gathering was likely to be a concert party in the village hall, Saturday night in the pub, or Sunday morning in church. And you knew all the people – the singers were the blacksmith, the shopkeeper, the ploughman, Granny Smith, the servant girl from the big house. People like us, from around here, not professionals from outside. The new-fangled gramophone, closely followed by the wireless, brought performances from another world into our homes and workplaces, and from then on everybody could be listening to the same songs and performers. They widened everyone’s musical horizons, but turned performers into passive listeners, brought a new commercial urgency to musical fashions, and broke the local ties on which folk traditions rely.

By the 1950s, folk singing in the old style was not quite dead, but was definitely on its last legs, lingering only in isolated pockets which were increasingly conscious of their last-ditch survival status, and in close-knit groups such as Traveller communities. But, at the last moment, the very people who had rejected folk song in the first place – the young people – suddenly discovered it again, and the Folk Revival movement was born. Meeting in folk clubs and, later, concerts and festivals, young people all over Britain (and America) got the folk bug and sought to re-invent the music of the people, in their own image and for their own purposes.

They changed things, of course – some would say beyond recognition. They introduced guitars, groups, harmony-singing, modern protest songs, professional ‘folk-singers’, folk-rock, and of course they were bank clerks, teachers and secretaries rather than ploughboys and farm servants, but no matter. Quite naturally, they used the relatively new technology of vinyl records to spread the word, and it is unlikely the Revival could have succeeded without it. For a brief while in the 1960s, the pop music industry took an interest; ‘folk’ records climbed the charts and groups like the Dubliners and the Spinners became household names. Specialist labels like Topic Records provided outlets, and modest incomes, for Revival performers and allowed fans to enjoy the music in the comfort of their own homes, and to learn the latest ‘old’ songs as sung by their favourite artists. But these record labels also issued field-recordings of genuine traditional singers, allowing some revivalists to hear the real thing and to model their styles and repertoires more closely on past generations.

And another wonderful thing about recorded sound became apparent – we can hear dead people sing. Since humans started to speak, countless voices have come and gone, but now they can live forever, and at any given time, the ‘folk-singers’ of the future will be able to return to these archive recordings to hear how it was done in the old days – folk song has a life after death after all.