Where have all the Folk songs gone?

A combination of the article on Peter Bellamy by the "re-invented" Fred/Karl Dallas and the "Is Folk Dying" debate in your letter pages, has brought on an uncontrollable attack of deja vu in us. Having long given up attending folk clubs regularly, we couldn't say if what now passes for "folk" is dying, all we can tell you is why we stopped going to clubs.

In this present bout of soul-searching, as in earlier ones, we feel the real issues are being missed. In the past, (remember the "Crap Begets Crap" debate in the pages of Folk Review?) the problems that clubs were having were put down to bad organisers and noisy audiences; now, it seems, passive smoking is the culprit (LivingTradition, Opinion, Sept/Oct).

Thirty odd years ago, inspired by Ewan MacColl, such radio programmes as the still unsurpassed "Song Carriers", and the Caedmon "Folk Songs of Britain" records, we, like many other enthusiasts at that time, developed our interest in song by listening to Joe Heaney, John Strachan, Elizabeth Cronin, Harry Cox and all the other fine traditional singers captured by the BBC's mopping-up campaign of the Fifties. It was to these singers that the best of the revivalists were going, both for the songs and their styles. It was possible then to go out at least once a week and hear good traditional songs well sung.

Things were by no means perfect. You had (and still have) the "near enough for folk" brigade, the singing pullovers and, of course, a proliferation of mid-Atlantic accents, but there was enough good singing around to make it an exciting time. The rot really started to set in with the mini-choirs: The Young Tradition, The Watersons and their clones who specialised in reducing the songs to doleful dirges, ironing out the subtleties of the melodies to fit tedious harmonies, while relegating the words to a poor second.

There were also the aspiring Segovias with their tricksy accompaniments and peculiar phrasing, turning the songs into elaborate pieces of music, again pushing the words into the background. A low point was reached with the coming of the electric squad with their barrages of sound equipment turning the songs into an unmusical soup. Then it became almost impossible to follow the words.

It is true that those dedicated to traditional song continued to plough the furrow but, following the inescapable scientific law that crap tends to float, the genetically modified product began to take over. This downward spiral can be charted through the pages of the folk magazines, a number of them edited by Karl Dallas. Entertaining and informative ones like Dallas's Folk Music (first issue November 1963), carried good, interesting, wide-ranging articles by MacColl, Lloyd, Charles Parker, Stephen Sedley, etc. (oh, and the mysterious Jack Speedwell). Alongside this were: Sing, Spin, Garland, Ballads & Songs, the sadly short-lived Tradition, and a host of others, all adding to a healthy, lively debate.

These publications continued in various guises, each one not quite so good as its forerunner, until the appearance of what was probably the longest running of them all, Folk Review, a somewhat show-biz production with the occasional interesting piece. The least said of one of Dallas's later efforts, Folk News, the better; (Punk v. Folk - come off it, Karl!)

A few clubs resisted what they saw to be the downward slide. Some did this with strict, somewhat antiquarian attitudes: no contemporary songs and no instruments. Others, recognising the need for new songs and the advantages of accompaniment so long as it did not interfere with the narrative nature of the tradition, attempted to set standards with selective guest and resident policies and tightly controlled floor singer spots; (this latter aimed at avoiding the mistakes of some of the dreadful, anything goes, singaround clubs that were to be found all over the place). Foremost of the policy clubs, was Ewan MacColl's Singers Club in London.

It has become extremely difficult to discuss rationally the work of MacColl and his attempts to promote traditional song through the Singers Club; the opening up of the industrial, London and ballad repertoires; the feature evenings; his study sessions with The Critics Group; the numerous seminars; the hundreds of traditional songs and ballads he made available through his records and books, not to mention his vast output as a songwriter. His failure to commit any of his ideas to print has left the field open for the knockers and snideswipers (Dallas, Harker, et all) to distort and misrepresent his theories, sometimes through genuine ignorance, a commodity to be found in abundance in the revival.

More often than not, however, these attacks have been carried out in a spirit of sheer vindictiveness, made in retaliation to MacColl's political and artistic stance. These distortions are amply represented in Dave Harker's "One For The Money", where The Critics Group is portrayed as some sort of secret society from which it was necessary to smuggle out "surreptitious" recordings, even though virtually all Group meetings were recorded and were available to anybody genuinely interested in the work. (Incidentally, if Dallas did attend any Critics Group meetings, he kept remarkably quiet, as there is no trace of him on the recordings. And he must have fallen asleep during the discussion on the effect of Lloyd's smile on his singing. In fact, the position of the mouth, as in a smile, alters the tone produced. Try it.) Writers like Harker have managed to reduce any potential debate on MacColl's work to the "Jimmy Miller" level; (shades of Monty Python's Arthur "Two Sheds" Jackson sketch where an artist is prevented from discussing his art by an interviewer who is more interested in his nickname than his painting).

Included in the anti-MacColl camp was a fundamentalist fringe specialising in rumours that he didn't write his songs but stole them from traditional singers, despite lack of any evidence to support such a theory. It was, of course a compliment to MacColl's songwriting skills. In the magazine, Folk Scene, December l965 issue, Ian Campbell wrote:

"If the folk song revival were to consist merely of the reverent re-exhibition of songs hallowed by time, it would be a futile and sterile exercise. To make sense, the revival must produce new songs and, presumably, to be valid, they must show the influence, in form at least, of the tradition. MacColl demonstrated years ago that it is possible to create vital, contemporary songs within the traditional frameworks."

Unfortunately, most of the contemporary songwriters who find favour among the folk club audiences, show little interest in, or concern for, traditional song forms. The idiom in which they most commonly compose is that of the pop songs, no matter how un-pop their lyrics. This is a pity because, with contemporary "folk songs" continually growing in popularity, the eventual result will be that the folk song revival, and the clubs, will lose all contact with folk songs. (Very far sighted, 34 years ago!)

Briefly, MacColl's argument was a simple one: folk song is an art form and, like any other artistic endeavour, it is necessary to master certain skills in order to do the songs justice. To this end, he devised a series of voice and relaxation exercises, based largely on his theatre work, so that a singer was equipped to handle the whole spectrum of the traditional repertoire from big ballads to street songs. (MacColl was co-founder, not, as Dallas puts it, "graduate of Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop" also a playwright long before he was known as a singer, earning tributes from George Bernard Shaw and Sean O'Casey - well documented facts, Karl.) He also devised methods of helping singers to analyse, understand and interpret the songs.

These ideas went down like lead balloons with most folkies to whom taking singing seriously and enjoying it, was a contradiction in terms. They appeared to believe that singers like Sheila McGregor, Jeannie Robertson and Joe Heaney took in their singing abilities with their mother's milk and never found it necessary to work on them.

The term "finger-in-the-ear" became one of abuse, even though cupping the hand over the ear in order to stay in tune without the guidance of an instrument, is an age-old device used by singers from Bucharest to Belfast and found in woodcut illustrations of street ballad-sellers throughout the ages.

The ascendancy of the "anything goes", non-policy club not only affected performance of traditional song but led to a situation where it was, and is, possible to spend an evening at a folk club without hearing a folk song. The traditional repertoire: the ballads, sea songs, cornkisters, bawdry, songs of working life and love, were replaced by Victorian tear-jerkers, music hall ditties, pop songs of the past and those dreary, all-round-the-year carols.

We should say that our experiences have been largely confined to English clubs (mainly around London) and festivals. However, if the pages of Living Tradition are anything to go by, we have no reason to think that the situation is very different elsewhere. We know from the excellent Folk Songs of North-East Scotland CD that there are still good singers around but, oh dear, when we received our freebie CD Celtic Connections with our subscription, we nearly demanded our money back.

Since we moved out of England last year, we have noticed that Ireland does not have a strong club scene. There are a large number of extremely skillful singers who are to be found at sessions and at the numerous singing festivals but, even here, the cracks are beginning to show.

Collectors like Tom Munnelly have unearthed a treasure-trove of songs and ballads in both English and Irish from a relatively large number of traditional singers who were still to be found until fairly recently. Unfortunately, many of the younger singers have chosen to ignore the narrative repertoire in preference to the long, slow, highly ornamented, lyrical pieces, very beautiful but, taken in bulk, the listener is often left with a feeling of having waded through a field of syrup. Many singers seem unwilling to ring the changes with a mixture of light and heavy, slow or fast, serious or comic songs, as did, say, Colm Keane or Elizabeth Cronin. Even with these reservations, there is a higher standard of performance of music and song in Ireland and, interestingly, debate than we found in England. (Can you imagine a TV programme in the UK based on the question: "Has the Tradition Sold Out?" as was recently presented by RTE?)

So, how do things stand at present? In England, at least, we appear to have the remnants of a folk song revival where folk songs are relegated to second place, traditional material having been jettisoned in favour of a mish-mash of mediocrity. Singers who previously confined their repertoires to the tradition, have moved away, some to the more lucrative pastures of "Over the Rainbow" and "Blue Suede Shoes".

It appears to us that perhaps it is time to take a hard look back to where we started out to see how far away from the tradition we have moved and if the direction taken is a worthwhile one. Does what is performed now in folk clubs have anything in common with the singing of, for instance, Harry Cox, Walter Pardon, Jessie Murray or Phil Tanner? We would suggest it has not. Experimentation has replaced commitment and understanding and so many compromises have been made that you no longer know what to expect at a folk club.

We feel that the least we should ask of traditional song performers is that they fully understand the songs and their function; perform them ably and sympathetically; enjoy them and communicate that understanding, enthusiasm and love to the listener. Anything less is selling the tradition even shorter than it has already been sold.

Perhaps the worst that can be said about Ewan MacColl is that, by his failure to commit to print his ideas and methods, he was unable to communicate these to a wider public. Karl Dallas's failure to fulfil his early printed commitment to standards, meant he was able to play his part in the "dumbing down" process.

Crap begets crap wasn't a bad phrase, after all!

Jim Carroll & Pat Mackenzie, Miltown Malbay, County Clare

Living Tradition Homepage