Karl dallas adds another tuppenceworth...

I’d like to respond to Jerry Epstein’s long comment on Peggy Seeger’s "Opinion" piece in July-August 2000, before the way I inspired the controversy becomes enshrined in the folklore of the revival.

Jerry says: "I seem to have missed the article, or letter, to which she was responding, but it seems clear that it was a criticism of Ewan MacColl directly, and by indirection the Singers’ Club and the Critics’ Group, as being overly stuffy or pedantic or restrictive".

I can enlighten him, and any other readers who have come in halfway through (or nodded off at some time during what has been a sometimes boring exercise in non-communication between many whose views are not truly so far apart as the occasionally intemperate language may lead others to believe). Mea culpa. It was all started by one word, when I said in my notes to the Peter Bellamy compilation 4-CD set reprinted in Living Tradition, that "fortunately" he was never asked to join the Critics Group. I admit I was being slightly provocative, but I had in my mind the explosive mixture such a union would have produced, and did not intend any slight of either the Group or the Singers (though neither do I believe that either are/were beyond criticism). Just for the record, I admired greatly Ewan’s brilliant idea of applying the Stanislavskian "method" to problems of song repertory and performance, and on the sole occasion I was invited to sit in on one of their sessions, I found the experience stimulating and instructive. I have said this several times, in various media, and I am happy to repeat it. Nor did I disagree in principle fundamentally with the Singers’ injunction that we sing songs from one’s own tradition. The problem, as the bulk of Jerry’s contribution demonstrates, is defining exactly what that means.

My mother was a Geordie, my father born in Glasgow of Irish parents. I was born in Acton, west London, but brought up in Whitley Bay, just outside Newcastle. My mother’s family all sang Geordie songs round the piano, especially those my mother had learned from the collector, W. Gilles Whittaker, who was her music teacher at school. The first "big ballad" I learned in my life was "Ma Bonny Lad", which the girls at school sang for some sort of a playground game when I was four. However, my first music was jazz, and I could sing improvised scat to the changes of "How High the Moon" (and still can - I did a guest spot at a jazz club in Hull just the other day) before Ewan’s singing of "Thomas the Rhymer" in a Radio 3 play turned my attention back to folk music. Oh, and I was singing Bertolt Brecht’s Einheitsfrontlied (in English, of course) on anti-fascist demonstrations before the war - about the time Ewan was singing in the Red Megaphones, I’d guess.

So what is my tradition? Any or all of these? Or whatever I have cobbled together over the subsequent half-century of singing and listening to everyone from Karl-Heinz Stockhausen (thank you, Sandie & Jeanie Darlington) to Sam Larner?

But perhaps we are approaching this subject from the wrong direction, because of our stubborn persistence in viewing tradition as a thing rather than a process. It is, I think, a reflection of the low level of understanding of the Marxist dialectical method in England that while most of the people active in the revival in the early days were of the left they never seem to have applied this method to the subject in hand. It is only by understanding and applying dialectics that we can resolve the otherwise puzzling fact that singers like Walter Pardon and musicians like Scan Tester performed popular tunes without in any way changing their traditional status; while singers like Martin Carthy (and, indeed, Ewan and Bert) continue to be, in effect, performers in the popular idiom even when at their most "traditional".

Now, before I spark off another futile barrage of hatemail with that last statement, let me point out that describing Martin, Ewan and Bert as "popular" singers (or even "pop", which is how Zoltan Kodaly referred to them in conversation with me, shortly before his death) is not to denigrate their considerable status as artists: I am applying a category judgement, not a value judgement. Apples are not better than oranges, or vice versa; but they are certainly distinct from one another. It was Ewan himself who pointed out to me that popular music, as a distinct genre, had emerged during the break-up of feudalism when the banquet-hall bards fled into the local taverns to make a living for themselves, and that ever since then they have been parasitical upon both the folk and art music traditions. (Again, I am not using the word "parasitical" necessarily in a pejorative sense, though there have been many times - for instance, when Paul Simon pillaged African township traditions to vitalise the otherwise undistinguished "Graceland" album - when it has amounted to a form of cultural imperialism.) It is just that popular music feeds upon folk and classical music, and gives very little back in return. You will, for instance, search in vain for any traditional analogues for "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face", I suggest, though Ewan always used to claim that Irish tinkers were claiming his "Thirty-Foot Trailer" as traditional, regardless of the fact that the only travellers who can afford trailers of such a size are prosperous showmen, like my old boss, Billy Smart.

Now, disregarding my scepticism on this point, if we accept that tinkers have indeed adopted "Thirty-Foot Trailer" into their repertoire, then according to the definition proposed by the International Folk Music Council half a century ago, this won’t make it traditional unless variation has taken place. If, as usually happens with any learnt song, they are sticking to the words as learnt, then according to the IFMC, it cannot be "folk". But a Marxist approach would be to focus, not upon the lyric and melody (which change all the time, even when performed by trained performers) but upon the role the song plays in the tradition. Thus you avoid the nonsense of somehow seeing Scan or Walter change his status according to what he happens to be performing at any one time, but you will be forced to the conclusion that Walter did indeed lose his traditional status when he performed to an audience of Washington, D.C. bigwigs during the bicentennial celebrations, though only for the short time when he had stepped outside the environment that had created, nurtured and developed him.

Alan Dundes has defined folk as referring to "any group of people whatsoever who share at least one common factor. It does not matter what the linking factor is - it could be a common occupation, language, or religion - but what is important is that a group formed for whatever reason will have some traditions which it calls its own." (Alan Dundes: The Study of Folklore, Prentice-Hall, 1965, p.2)

On the other hand, the rock critic, Jon Landau, drew an analogy between rock in the Sixties and folk music: "Rock, the music of the sixties, was a music of spontaneity. It was a folk music - it was listened to and made by the same group of people. It did not come out of a New York Office building where people sit and write what they think other people want to hear. It came from the life experience of the artists and their interaction with an audience that was roughly the same age". (It’s Too Late to Stop Now, p.40). I would argue that the same thing happened with punk, and with reggae in Jamaica, before Bob Marley became a superstar. The question is: does the folk revival function in any way as a "community" in this sense? In some ways, I think it does.

Let us look at the question of style. It has often been observed that many so-called "traditional"-style singers so proud of their folk credentials actually sing in a style removed from anything you will hear in the mouth of any English country singer. (I will confine myself to the situation in English folk clubs, since I know that things are quite different in Scotland, and indeed in Ireland - though the macho style of most Irish pub groups has little to do with the sound of sean nos).

This is particularly noticeable with male singers, who tend to force the notes from the upper chest, rather than the diaphragm, and to use an accent not identifiable with any English region (often the long "oo" sound from the north seems to coexist with west country vowels, probably learned from Cyril Tawney!)

Interestingly, there is more community of style between club singers on opposite sides of the country, than there ever was between neighbouring singers, like Walter Pardon, Harry Cox, and Sam Larner, who lived ten or twenty miles from each other. This may partly reflect the poorer communications between Catfield, Winterton, and Knapton.

There is also a community of interest. While the days are long past when folk clubs were hotbeds of subversion and CND activism, the young man who comes to the Topic in Bradford to sing songs in favour of foxhunting - contemporary ones, not Dido, Bendigo! - is definitely in a minority. And while few folkies share the concerns of rural people, as far as I can see, they do tend to have common attitudes to things like real ale, GM foods and nuclear power (no thanks).

One thing that has been observed frequently is that the English folk club movement is primarily a white phenomenon. This does not mean that all folkies are racists, as I have seen suggested, but that black people have such a vibrant indigenous culture they can see little for themselves in the clubs. (Despite the fact that sea shanteys, so popular in virtually every club, are actually derived from west African worksongs.) I remarked many years ago that it was notable that Ian Campbell’s kids chose to make music, not in the Aberdeenshire style of their dad, but in white analogues of ska and reggae. There was indeed, a closeness between their music and that of their granddad, as if Ian’s folk concerns were an aberration, that caused the popular idiom of Campbell grandpère to skip a generation.

Hamish Henderson once said to me (I hope I am not misquoting him) that the tradition was merely the sum total of all previous revivals, and it may well be that future folklorists will be collecting songs that started as composed lyrics from the floor of a folk club. By then, they may well qualify by the standards of the IFMC, but this will not make them "folk". The IFMC criteria will apply because the clubs have indeed acted as a community, permitting the folk process to work its way through the generations.

This will only happen, I believe, if the clubs continue to see themselves as a community, something quite distinct from commercial popular music. To most club audiences, and indeed to most club performers, the music business is supremely irrelevant to what is happening in these first floor and back rooms. Mike Harding may hate to hear it, but it doesn’t really matter how many "traditional" tunes he plays on his wretched programme. In the heyday of the revival, it was even harder to find good music on the radio, because we didn’t care. We were doing our own thing.

Long may the folk clubs continue to do so.

Karl Dallas

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