Re: Where have all the folksongs gone

Dear Editor

Jim Carroll and Pat Mackenzie spoil what might have been an interesting, and not uncontroversial contribution on "Where have all the Folk songs gone?" (Living Tradition, Jan-Feb 2000), by littering their article with sideswipes at me. Since I have spent much of the past two decades at home listening to my records of Harry Cox and Charlie Parker (the "Yardbird" of that ilk, not the Radio Ballads producer), not a few of your readers might wonder who the hell I am, whether I call myself Karl (my first name, after Marx, which Ewan MacColl always used in addressing me), Fred (my second, after Engels, which I used as a communist activist, to avoid confusing readers of my newspaper reporting), or indeed Frank Davies, the name under which I first leapt into print as a schoolboy contributor to Challenge, the Young Communist League paper in the late Forties. But be warned, in my seventieth year I am planning to go back on the road, with a one-person reflection over 50 years of music writing, littered with songs original, traditional and otherwise, which I am thinking of calling Memoirs of a Rock'n'Folk Survivor.

The problem with this concentration upon the failings of one ageing hippy is that Ewan himself said it much more wittily, savagely, though (if I may say so) unfairly in one of the Festival of Fools shows when he satirised me 30 years ago or so as "the guy who's always into the latest trends", because I had urged singers to get down into the market place. He was unaware that in the article complained of, I was actually quoting (but without attribution) Bertolt Brecht, who told the poet:

It is good to go out in the morning
With your newly written pages
To the waiting printer, across the buzzing market
Where they sell meat and sets of workmen's tools!
What you are selling is sentences.
(Michael Hamburger's translation)

Jim and Pat write from Ireland, which when I visited it in the time of the "singing pullovers" (presumably they mean by this clever but arcane term, the Aran-clad Clancy Brothers, though I'm only guessing), was home to much good music if you really searched for it, as long as you avoided the pub-based, Clancy-influenced, misnamed "ballad groups". But when I visited Dublin last year, though there was a great deal more music, it was well-nigh impossible to hear a sean nós singer, or a fiddle player who would player slower than at supersonic speed (oh to hear the "long , slow, highly ornamented, lyrical pieces" which they complain of from the younger singers!).

They say they rarely go to a folk club, and to be honest nor did I until quite recently, when I was astounded to find the wealth of wonderful new singers and performers, in this neck of the Yorkshire woods at least, who display a love of tradition as a truly contemporary craft, together with vocal and instrumental skills we'd have given our eye-teeth for when I had a list of less than a dozen to choose from when I was running the six-nights-a-week London Folk Music in sunny Goodge Street.

I'm glad I've climbed down out of my ivory tower, and urge Pat and Jim to do likewise, lest (in Brecht's words) we qualify for the following description:

There speaks he to whom no one is listening:
He speaks too loud
He repeats himself.
He says things that are wrong:
No one corrects him.

Ewan was a valuable corrective force while he was alive. We all miss the old bugger now he's dead. But let's avoid elevating him to saintly status, may we please?

Karl Dallas

Where has all the tolerance gone?

After reading your "Opinion" (Issue 36) from two new English residents of Ireland, here's a view from a former Irish resident and occasional folk club visitor of a certain age!

We were all fortunate enough to hear the likes of Joe Heaney and Willie Scott all those years ago, and it's thanks to those clubs that it happened, but it's now 2000 - maybe time for an assessment? All those songs and styles are now assimilated by those of us who listened and learned, and like it or not, this generation is now the model for younger people. Patience with the shortcomings of new performers has always been a folk club hallmark and no bad thing, maybe? Certainly, this trait does not does not warrant their denigration as "dreadful, anything-goes singaround clubs." Tolerant folk clubs taught many of us that, given the opportunity, most singers improve with time and experience, and that this serves the tradition much better than the quality control exercised at Ewan MacColl's Singers Club. MacColl was a wonderful songwriter and promoter of the tradition as he saw it, but as a man of the theatre - with little time for imperfection - his ideas for improving the quality of singing were applied via technical advice and analysis rather than absorption by exposure to the perceived inadequacies of unbelievers. No less a singer than old Jack Elliott of Birtley was once castigated by this crowd - after a return visit to the Singer's Club, disappointment was expressed that his singing hadn't "improved" since his last visit - What a damn cheek!

Ian Campbell was dead right in 1965 to promote the view that contemporary songwriters should stick to the traditional frameworks but that was when we all knew what traditional meant. Since then, we've had 35 years of exposure to recorded music of all kinds so a broader view of the music by younger people is hardly surprising? To sing like Phil Tanner or Phoebe Smith in the 21st century is, of course, an anachronism - we can learn a lot from their singing and "Barbara Ellen" remains a classic song; but to write songs in the 1990's about jolly plough-boys and the raging main strikes me as completely barmy! And as for "Blue Suede Shoes" as a cameo of 1950's life, it was very perceptive and to the point. I'd like to hear it more often, maybe accompanied by an old Hohner melodeon?

It would be good to hear more of the old songs, but such songwriters as Ed Pickford, Graeme Miles and Johnny Handle (from my own area) have written thoughtful and observant modern songs of humour and sadness, mostly well within the tradition; while in Ireland, some great stuff has come from Colum Sands, Christy Moore and Mickey McConnell, to name a few. Some will be accepted, some rejected, but that's the way it is; a few of their gems will be remembered alongside the older classics.

I spent ten years in Ireland but sadly don't think we can look for the missing folk songs there - Irish culture is quite distinctive and any comparisons of singing standards is invidious. It's certainly true that the Irish are much more appreciative of the impromptu singing than in Britain where it hardly exists outside folk festivals.

Another contrast is that "Irish Culture" has been well protected by the Irish establishment for good political and historical reasons, but consequently a certain rigidity of attitude has resulted. I recall a commemorative lecture on the 1840s potato famine in Cork, where the speaker attempted to set the scene by charting the arrival of the blight in England, where it was much less virulent. He was quite sharply advised that it was an Irish Famine! In the same district, a well-respected local fiddler told me that the local session (mostly English musicians) was thriving because newer participants were learning "THE TUNES". Implicit in that remark was a view of "THE TRADITION" as some kind of monolith, where tune sequences are fixed and "foreign" tunes are viewed with a suspicion! This view may be culturally admirable, in a similar way to the French truck drivers' blockade, but hardly healthy in the long term? On the subject of the potato famine, it has to be noted that despite Tony Blair's belated apology for the events of the 1840s, no apology has yet been issued by the Irish Taoiseach for "River Dance".

Outside of some festivals, singing in an Irish pub (In Ireland!) can be very unrewarding to the singer, even when the lasting impression is of "great crack!" The average pub in Ireland is not an ideal venue for any kind of unamplified music or song, although an amazing respect for the solo human voice does still survive, even if limited attention spans have reduced. (And if you think passive smoking is a problem in Britain, don't forget your gas mask when you visit that cosy little music pub!) Noise levels are similarly very high, and it's hardly surprising that the range of songs you'll hear in impromptu settings may be very limited. Few visitors believe that the "Fields of Athenry" is anything but ancient, and it'd be a rare pub sing-song that excluded this, with "Danny Boy", "Willie McBride" (or some of it) and West Cork's favourite pub song "Summertime (and the living is easy)".

Folk clubs as understood in Britain hardly exist in Ireland, but Pete and Pat Elliott of Birtley, Co. Durham, founders of maybe the original "singaround" club were 1999 guests of George Henderson at the Nenagh Singers Circle in Co. Tipperary. They loved it, and said it was like the old days at Birtley, providing a platform and a yardstick for solo singers who form the basis of the ongoing tradition. It's a fact that such groups are thriving in the Irish midlands and this can only be good news for Irish traditional song. George Henderson was, incidentally, a regular at Birtley in the 1960's. (Very interestingly, the Circle was set up quite recently by like-minded people frustrated by the nature of 1990s pubs and their unsuitability for anything but very restricted singing.)

Don't get me wrong - there's wonderful music in Ireland, but don't be misled by Bord Failte's portrayals of a fiddler in every pub; there's no "LOST WORLD" of music out there, and RTE's contribution is much over-rated, especially outside Ireland, so don't let's get too despondent about the alleged decline of the British Folk Club. There has certainly been a shift to presenting the music in a concert setting and a tacit acceptance of a star system that didn't exist in the 1960s when we were all learning from Joe Heaney and his ilk .

Maybe there are now two folk music strands, one Premier "Art/Performance" division, the other an informal (but informed) scene where singers and musicians can relate to each other and put the music back into its social context? The financial incentives of "promotion" are quite powerful, and that’s maybe life in the 21st century, but there's a lot of fun to be had in jogging along in the Nation-wide league.

Jim Bainbridge

Folk Police alive and well

What a comfort to know that the Folk Police are alive and active in County Clare. I presume that their strong principles also prevent them from enjoying other recent developments such as CD players and flush toilets as well as the Folk Music which has been written since the 18th century.

In our Folk Club here in Gainsborough we are proud to help preserve our rich heritage of traditional Lincolnshire songs, but also to celebrate our wealth of talented contemporary singers and songwriters. If that makes our club "crap", your correspondants are entitled to their opinion, and it’s a good job that they won't want to join one of our sessions, because it's unlikely that we could squeeze them in.

 Sue Dewsbury - Gainsborough Folk Club

 

Dear Editor

Hardly ever stung into writing to magazines, Jim Carroll and Pat Mackenzie¹s OPINION (Living Tradition 36) has stirred me into action to bring a personal response to a personal article.

Do they really believe that the death or otherwise of folk clubs is the main thing we should be worrying about? The statistics of how many hundreds of clubs mushroomed into existence from early fifties onwards is well known. The tradition carried on developing or dying in a linked but separate way with matters of taste, style, repertoire and skill decided by the audiences on a different curve to the clubs. I now regard the boom in folk clubs as a time-limited phenomenon, often helpful in prosyletising the music, but ultimately expendable. This has propelled me forward in creating new situations for the music to happen - linking with the Community Arts movement in establishing new contexts as we move through other stages of understanding about the nature of performance, function of ceremony, telling of stories.

Can we proceed safely assuming that our tradition is melodic and unaccompanied? With the addition of 'world' to 'folk' music as the outsider's term we should have become more aware in the last decade or so of the choral, harmonic and social nature of many traditional musics. Recordings of Corsican/Georgian and other choirs being easily available in the shops should have led us to a renewed valuation of choral traditions nearer home - Yorkshire and Cornwall for example.

How do they arrive at such a view of contemporary songwriting - that it¹s mostly pop-derived? Along with many, many others, we have been writing songs - inspired by MacColl examples in many cases - getting close to communities in Devon and Cornwall and expressing the fantasies, aspirations and concerns of working people using folk forms. While few of these appear in music industry circles, the pieces crop up in many places - adding to available repertoire and developing confidence amongst those for, with and by whom they were written. Even on the folk scene proper I would cite John Kirkpatrick's 'Old King Cole', Mike Waterson's 'Stitch in Time' and Sandra Kerr's 'Mrs. Joan Lias' as examples of song writing whose form, music and symbolism can be described as folk.

My contact with traditional singers, full-time folk performing and study of traditional music in many guises, led me to co-found Wren Trust with Marilyn Tucker in 1983. This is an organisation dedicated to taking the folk 'revival' beyond and outside the clubs. I count Ewan among my most significant teachers, and consider Wren Trust to be running forward with many of his ideas in Devon. We promote performances, undertake education projects, collect songs and oral testimony, create songs archive projects such as the Baring Gould Heritage Project and constantly look to create new venues and events at which traditional music can be heard. The most recent of these - The Baring Gould Folk Festival happens this October in West Devon.

If the Folk Revival is dead it has to re-invent itself. Long lives its successor.

Paul Wilson
Wren Trust, 1 St James Street, Okehampton, EX20 1DW

 

Dear Living Tradition

I know the British postal service is unreliable, but the letter from Jim & Pat in Co. Clare (Issue 36) seems to have taken 30 years to reach you. The editor has clearly added a couple of contemporary comments to make it Y2K compliant, but the overall tone is the sort of elitist rubbish that I thought had disappeared ages ago.

Many people like me came to folk music in the early days via such as Bob Dylan and the ‘mini choirs’, ‘aspiring Segovias’ and the ‘electric squad’ actually helped to lock us in for life. Ok, so it may have been only ‘near enough for folk’, but I loved it then and still do now. To be honest, I’ve never heard Joe Heaney sing, I’ve never even heard of John Strachan (or was he a footballer too?). Does that mean I’m an imposter?

And as for Martin Carthy. I thought he was a massive influence for good, but he is painted here as the anti-Christ : He sang with the Watersons mini-choir; He created a unique guitar style and was obviously a budding Segovia; He played with the Steeleye Span electric squad; He recorded ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ and other modern songs - more lucrative pastures than traditional material.

In the ‘Is folk dying?’ debate, we have to distinguish between the scene overall and the folk clubs. In my area at least, few folk clubs survive. Too many clubs were run badly, uncomfortable, and generally locked in a time-warp. But folk and roots music is now much stronger. As one example, Scotland's Celtic Connections festival appears to thrive with large audiences and increasing media coverage. How many people would be attracted to this festival if it consisted largely of ‘proper’ folk songs?

The academic art-form described in the letter may be very worthy, but it's dull, dull, dull. If folk music was constrained in this way, it would be dead to all but a handful of individuals. Magazines like Living Tradition would not exist – the economics wouldn’t work because of the limited audience – and all the really interesting things currently happening would be beyond the pale. Harry Cox and Walter Pardon were great singers, but most of all they were natural. I’m sure they sang what they wanted and if that included ‘music hall ditties’ or ’pop songs from the past’ then so be it. To see them as part of this contrived art-form was always a joke. The folk police are claiming high ground that really never existed. They’re not far from restricting the singing of folk songs to those who have actually worked as labourers. Ewan MacColl was undoubtedly a unique figure – singer, songwriter and zealot. He too had a very narrow view of what was acceptable and turned it into a form of musical apartheid. He was also intent on keeping folk song as art, not as enjoyment, and a night watching MacColl, waiting for a tirade when a pin dropped, was not a folk club high point.

In summary, I see the sheer variety within the current folk and roots scene as part of its great strength. Perhaps the use of ‘roots’ drags things further from folk purity, but it does not weaken the essential point. A return to basics would be an unmitigated disaster for all but a small audience of narrow-minded zealots.

Ian Croft, Leicester

Dear Editor,
Re: "Where have all the Folk songs gone?" printed in your esteemed organ's Opinion and Letters column Jan - Feb 2000.
My, how the long winter evenings must fly by in Miltown Malby, County Clare.

Yours,
Coope, Boyes & Simpson

Dear Editor

I suspect that Jim Carroll and Pat Mackenzie would agree with me on quite a few things, not least in our admiration for great traditional singers like Joe Heaney, Jeannie Robertson and Phil Tanner. Their paragraph of advice to the performer of traditional song is exemplary and should be framed on every such performer’s wall. But why your magazine chose to devote the leading opinion piece in its millennial issue to their splenetic and doom-laden musings on a folk scene from which they are, on their own admission, almost completely divorced, is a mystery to me.

Hey folks, it’s 2000, and the settling of old scores dating back to the sixties - a supposed golden age since when everything has apparently gone relentlessly downhill - just isn’t interesting any more. Who cares how many Critics’ Group meetings Karl Dallas attended? Or whether putting your finger in your ear is really a good idea after all? Though if the latter became a pernicious stereotype, perhaps we should blame those who elevated it into a theatrical and ludicrous bit of posturing.

For those of us who love the tradition and are actually involved in things now, the portents are good. Kids in increasing numbers are playing traditional music and - at last - beginning to sing the old songs, festivals promoting the real thing are thriving, and more archive material than ever is available, thanks to collections like "Voice of the People" (ignored by your writers presumably because nothing good could possibly have happened since 1965). Several of the best revival performers of the 70s have rediscovered their roots with new vigour and, yes, there are people writing good new songs with an ear to older styles. We still have to keep an eye on the Militant Modernisers and the Relevance Police, but we’re winning the battle. Folk clubs, aside from a few specialised ones, have never been the exclusive fiefdom of traditional song, and I’d have said that if "you no longer know what to expect at a folk club" as Carroll and Mackenzie complain, this is no bad thing. Traditional songs have to fight their corner and win, not be stuck in reservations like protected species. There is crap about (including crap renditions of traditional songs), but there’s great music about too.

Respect for the past comes with the territory in the traditional arts field, but harking back to the allegedly good old days when there was one right way to do things and you bloody well did it or got shouted at,
is no way to greet the new century. Please can we start looking forward now?

Brian Peters

 

Editor: Brian asks "why we chose to devote the leading opinion piece in its millennial issue to their splenetic and doom-laden musings on a folk scene from which they are, on their own admission, almost completely divorced, is a
mystery to me." A few issues ago we moved the readers letters from the back to the front of the magazine. This was a conscious effort to give our readers views a better platform. I thought that there was a danger that the views in my Editorial could dominate this section. Since then I have written less in the 'Editorial' space. Our readers can now make up their own minds. If there are other opinions that need to be aired - get your pen out.

 

I was very interested to read the comments of Jim Carroll and Pat McKenzie in their long letter entitled "Where have all the folk-songs gone?"

I was also fortunate to be around "30 odd years ago" to experience a booming folk club scene, and the many excellent singers and musicians performing at that time. I was lucky to hear Paddy Tunney, Belle Stewart, Seamus Ennis, Walter Pardon, Margaret Barry and many other fine performers in London Folk Clubs. I agree fully with their praise for Ewan MacColl and the enormous beneficial influence he had on "the revival". Some of my most memorable visits to see traditional and revival singers were at the "Singers Club".

I disagree, however, with their comments about the effect of other forms of music (and the approach of some singers) had on the "downward spiral" of traditional song. The singing of "mini-choirs", Watersons and Young Tradition, was to my ears the very opposite of "doleful" with "tedious harmonies." (I recently went to see Coope, Boyes and Simpson perform their "Passchendale Suite" and experience again the excitement of great harmony singing with meaningless words).

Similarly their opinion about the affect of "music hall ditties, Victorian tear-jerkers and pop-songs of the past" on the decline of folk-song was rather unfair. Many excellent traditional singers at that time included music-hall and "popular" in their repertoire to great effect. I always remember John Foreman performing marvellous music-hall songs to packed folk-clubs. Tommy Armstrong, and more recently Bob Davenport were influenced by music-hall songs and tunes. Folk music will change. The folklorist Dr Charles Seeger said "Rather than say "Folk is Dead" and attempt to keep folk song alive as something quaint, antique and precious, let us say "The folk is changing - and its song with it" and help what it is changing into…".

It makes sense to refer back to the great traditional performers of the past, to renew commitment and understanding, but changes will recur and they need not have a "dumbing down" effect. Folk song is not so "precious" that it cannot exist alongside, and be influenced by music-hall, the "best" of popular music or any other types of music and still continue to grow in a meaningful and exciting way.

Ray Spendley

 

In Defence of the Woolly Jumper

I'm really fed-up of reading snide comments about knitwear in every magazine I pick up! "Swinging Pullovers", "not a woolly jumper in sight", "Sandals and Arran sweaters", "pipes, beards and woolly pullies" and Aran with 2 "r"s ? - one is quite enough thank you! So finally, the Aran sweater bites back.

Would you mock Asian or African musicians wearing their fantastic ethnic garments or a Scottish Piper's Kilt? Certainly not, or a country singer's Stetson and cowboy boots - well, anyway what I'm trying to say is that hand-knitted jerseys, shawls and bonnets are the ethnic garments of the British Isles. Don't you think that the people who made and wore these garments would have made the music - shepherds, spinners, knitters, weavers, fishermen and farm-workers? They are traditional and beautiful garments - if you use the correct materials and methods! We should wear our heritage with pride - forget Mulligan and O'Hare! Forget the nasty machine-knit chain-store things and badly knitted efforts using awful commercial patterns and synthetic yarns. Take some natural, non-dyed wool from historic, rare native breeds of sheep - hand-spun is good - or some soft Lancashire spun cotton and a pair of knitting needles and create an heirloom or get somebody else to knit it for you! That's another thing too, nobody knits today do they?

Finally, (bet you're glad about that) just as it's possible to have your folk music totally traditional or updated, so it is with knitwear. I can knit a traditional garment from any region of the islands, using wool from local sheep or I can "modernise" the design and knit in unbleached cotton or even recycled fibres (i.e. from denim to plastic bottles!). Either way, your garment will last you a lifetime. Think of the environmental benefits - conserving rare species, no bleach, no dyes, no machines, no pollution, the use of recycled fibres and clothing that doesn't wear out!

So please, stop mocking knitwear! There's no need to be frightened of the real thing - get yourselves a proper woolly jumper and see the difference!

Kate Schofield