When I dragged out the transcript of my 44-year old interview with A L 'Bert' Lloyd from its long hibernation, I experienced a strong feeling of returning to a lost era. As I re-read it, I realised that so much of the period of my life in which it took place had been pushed to the back of my mind and buried beneath ever-increasing layers of subsequent experiences and events. And yet, so much did seem startling familiar, if I could manage to drag it back into my immediate consciousness!
Then I thought: if I am unfamiliar with the events that I actually lived through, how much more so will be the readers who were not around at the time? Would the controversies of the nineteen-fifties, sixties and seventies have any resonance with today's readers? And how familiar would they be with the people who were around at the time? So, I decided to write this introduction, sketching the way that the interview came about and to try to give some idea of the 'folk scene' in England at that time. And, if readers will forgive me for a little self-indulgence, I'm going to give my opinion, on reflection, of some of the issues that seemed so important but may (or may not?) have faded now into complete obscurity!
Why the interview: by 1974, Jim Carroll and I had been involved with folk music for around fifteen years and closely connected with the Singers' Club since the late 'sixties. We were both members of Singers' Workshop, the 'beginner's group' that was closely allied to the Critics Group, of which Jim was also a member. We thought that it would be a good idea to have a magazine that would run parallel with the Club, featuring articles on the regular singers, as well as the guests, plus any other topics that we thought germane. After some thought, we decided that our choice for the main article in the first edition would be an interview with Bert Lloyd.
Forty-four years on, I can't remember exactly why we thought that an interview with Lloyd would be most appropriate for our first edition but, of course, with Ewan MacColl, Peggy Singer and others, he had been a founder of 'The Ballad and Blues Club', which was transformed into the Singers' Club in 1961. However, unlike MacColl, Lloyd had tended to avoid controversy and, certainly by the nineteen-seventies, rarely entered public debate over the rights and wrongs of the direction of the revival, the direction of folk clubs and the performance standards of singers. I think that we saw the interview as an opportunity to try to ascertain his views on these subjects - and anything else that he cared to speak about. I don't recall whether, at that stage, we had any firm views on the rest of the magazine's contents and/or follow-up interviews.
Although Lloyd had been involved with the Singers' Club from the start, by the time that we had become involved, my memory is that he sang there fairly infrequently. So, by 1974, Lloyd had become a rather peripheral figure for us but I believe that we still admired his work. Earlier, we had been proud possessors of his collaborative work with Ralph Vaughan Williams, The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs and had learned a number of songs from it - it was a slim volume of only 128 pages, and very handy to slip into the jacket pocket when heading off to a folk club! My own copy, the 1961 reprint, sits on the desk in front of me, much battered and worn; it still contains my listed repertoire from the 1970s! We had, of course, heard and admired him on numerous occasions in folk clubs and we possessed his book Folk Song in England, which was part of our introduction to the study of folk song and, therefore, highly influential on our thoughts.
I can't remember in how much detail Jim and I had discussed the topics for the interview prior to the event. I have no documentation that suggests that we had previously agreed an agenda but I can hardly believe that we did not discuss at least the major areas that we would try to cover. Nor can I recall why it was me that carried out the interview; certainly, at that time, I had little experience of interviewing or recording anyone, so it was a totally new venture.
My visit to Bert, at his home in Greenwich, took place on the Saturday afternoon of the 2nd February, 1974. He was remarkably hospitable, which helped put a rather nervous interviewer more at ease. I did not realise until Rod Stradling pointed out recently that Mark Gregory had previously conducted an interview with Bert in 1970, also at his home. You can find this in Musical Traditions, article MT223. It makes an interesting comparison with my interview!
So, what were the matters that I (or we, because this was a joint venture) thought important to discuss with Bert Lloyd in 1974? I didn't know much - really, hardly anything - about Lloyd's background, so that seemed a good place to start. Quite early in the interview, he talked about his work in Eastern Europe and then went on to industrial songs: an area that interested us. The records of Lloyd and Ewan MacColl had been our road into this rich seam of the tradition and, while we were pretty conversant with MacColl's background in working class Salford, we knew nothing of Lloyd's. Given that he was a Londoner, how did his interest and familiarity with the songs of the industrial heartlands of the north of England come about?
Knowing that Lloyd had been an active singer in folk clubs for two decades, their current state was worth discussing. This discussion led into the field of song writing and his opinion of the songs being sung in folk clubs at that time. Further, I was interested in the potential scope for writing contemporary songs based on traditional forms.
Lloyd had never been particularly vocal on the way that folk songs should be performed and I was anxious to discover his own approach to singing or to choosing material.
I thought, correctly, that Lloyd would have a view on the EFDSS, having been intimately connected with the organisation for many years. I was anxious to explore the organisation's present role and to ascertain ways in which their material resources, particularly, the book and record library - might be more extensively utilised in the future. This led on to questions about the possibility of a national archive and the role of the BBC, again, both in the past and possibly in the future. We discussed programmes that the BBC had broadcast, both on radio and television and, here, I demonstrated my ignorance of Lloyd's broadcast output, which had been considerable. When discussing the BBC, we touched on the questions of their attitude to folk song and the level of their broadcast output.
I had been heavily influenced by the work of Ewan MacColl almost from the start of my interest in traditional music, so, I was keen to ascertain Lloyd's views on his work, particularly on the radio programmes, The Song Carriers, which had had a relatively limited distribution via the BBC's Midland service and the 'radio ballads', which had received international acclaim, and on some of which, Lloyd had featured.
A hot topic at the time was 'folk-rock' or 'electric-folk' and I was really surprised with Lloyd's approval of this treatment of traditional music but I did not realise just how involved Lloyd had been with Fairport Convention.
Knowing something of Lloyd's political convictions, I asked him what he thought of contemporary political song (which was, essentially, not a lot!) and about whether he had ever considered writing songs. Although the answer was in the negative, an exploration of the way that he handled traditional texts - particularly those that were incomplete - was more fruitful. Of great interest was his attitude to selecting songs for his own performance.
A book that was stirring up a lot of interest at the time was David Buchan's The Ballad and the Folk, which drew heavily on Milman Parry and Albert Lord's work on Serbo-Croatian epic ballads. Given Lloyd's familiarity with the song traditions of Eastern Europe, it seemed to promise fertile ground for discussion. And so it did, with Lloyd expanding on topics such as the difference between the Balkan epic ballad and the North West European lyrical ballad and the whole question of textual and musical improvisation. He strongly emphasised the advantages of studying flourishing traditions in Eastern Europe for the light that they threw on the 'debris' of British folk culture. Perhaps not surprisingly, our final discussion focussed on the lack of academic standards in folk song study in the UK. This discussion may have helped whet my appetite for a forthcoming project that I was considering.
Reading the interview after a gap of forty-four years, I wish that it had been more focussed and that I had pursued some of the subjects in more detail. But, I put of this down to my own inexperience as an interviewer and my relative lack of knowledge of the various topics. Certainly, Lloyd did not hesitate to answer any of my questions and was generally willing to state his views on the various topics. It was a fascinating afternoon and I hope that you will find the interview of interest and that some of my hazy recollections will shine some much needed light on Bert's ideas and provide a further insight into his work.
Barry Taylor - 10.5.18
AL: Well, I suppose it began as these things do more or less imperceptibly. When I was a young fella in my teens or earlier, I went to work in Australia on a sheep station, sheep-cattle station. And the - my fellow station hands and shearers come into the station and drovers too, because most of the stations I worked on were a long way from the railway. They had songs - certain number of songs - that interested me - amused me - and, just as a youngster, I fancied taking them into my head, as it were. So I used to try to memorise the tunes and write down the words in exercise books. It makes, in fact, a sizeable collection taken directly from oral sources of Australian song. But of course, I wasn't doing this as a collecting exercise at all, I didn't know that there were such queer animals as folksong collectors. I didn't think of these materials as folksong material, they were just songs that were there to sing and to listen to.
Then, when I came back to Europe in the 1930s, the tail end of the slump was still on and it was difficult to get work and I used to spend quite a bit of my time keeping warm in the British Museum reading room. And, as I got interested in the songs and being in the reading room, I thought I'd better read something. I began, as it were, a study in a very amateurish sense of folksong on the resources that the BM had to offer and then later, a year or two later, I worked at sea and, later still, in journalism on jobs that took me abroad. So that both as a seaman and as a journalist, I was able to acquaint myself, to some extent, with a certain number of other musics than British, other musics and European also. Then during the 1950s, I resigned in a huff from journalism because I felt it was no business for me.1
Then, I was going to say to my family's distress - it wasn't to their distress, but they nearly starved in the process - I began to devote myself more and more to studying folkmusic scientifically. Being short of money that rather took me out of this country because collecting folklore from strictly folklore sources is a slow business in England. That means it is a relatively expense business whereas in Eastern Europe, for example, where the traditions are in full flower, it is very easy to descend on a group of villages and in a very short time to have recorded several hours of artistically valuable, sociologically valuable, music.2
So it happened, as it were, for economic reasons more than anything else that much of my study of folklore has been done outside this country and particularly in south-east Europe, where the stuff is so much more abundant. And, where incidentally, of course, one can work scientifically on more - what's the word - on more reliable, on firmer foundations because the folklore material is less altered, less affected by conventional music, by town music and such. And so one can have a clearer notion of the character of folklore, a clearer notion even of the character of traditional folklore in one's own country, often because here one's dealing to such a great extent with the debris of a tradition. And, sometimes, you are faced with mysteries because the material is crumbled as it were that you are faced with mysteries that experience with folklore that's more vital can help to help to elucidate.
BT: To a degree actually, you've jumped on to another area, which I wanted to raise later anyway. So, this is the stage to which you have now reached, does this bring us up to now?
AL: In a sense, yes, however, one particular field of British folksong that I have concerned myself with almost accidentally originally, is worth touching on - since it's a field that has remained to this day only superficially explored and indeed when I began exploring it, it was virtually unknown, when I began exploring it, a bit more than 20 years ago, 23 years ago to be precise - it was little known, that's the field of industrial folksong. Which I have concerned myself with very considerably in this country and other countries over the last nearly quarter of a century. It's the most - as far as musical folklore is concerned in Britain - it's the most vital, the most creative aspect of our folklore that we have left because the country folklore is no longer - in the rural scene - is no longer in a creative condition. The repertory is still used by a few traditional singers up and down the country - I'm talking of England now, not of Scotland or Ireland. The repertory dwindles on but new material is not added, whereas new material is likely to be added at any time to these funds of industrial folksongs.
BT: Just really a question out of place but in relation to that, I saw your programme, Rap 'er to Bank, on television and I actually listened to a recording of it a few weeks ago. On that, you dealt quite extensively with the North-East [of England], Glasgow, Birmingham and I think you even went into Manchester
AL: Lancashire anyway
BT: Lancashire anyway, but you didn't deal with London at all, or the south of England. Was there a reason for that?
AL: Yes, the reason for it is a very simple one that the southern industries don't produce anything like the songs that the Midlands, North and the southern part of Scotland produce. Light industry, for example, never seems to produce the same kind of songs that heavy industry produces, partly perhaps because the circumstances aren't so dramatic but there are other reasons too, I think. Coal mining is certainly the most productive industry as far as song creation is concerned and the reasons, I suppose, are that it's a dramatic occupation, at once dangerous, full of tensions, industrial tensions of various kinds, as we see very clearly at the moment,3 the community sense is very strong, which means that an awful lot of things, social things, happen collectively - mining communities are not communities of isolated individuals, as happens in some parts of industrial England. Also, the traditions of song making at a folklore level have been continuous, so there's no rupture in the mining areas. In the old days, pre-industrial revolution for most of England, although one has to remember that the industrial revolution happened as far as colliers are concerned, the industrial revolution happened long before it happened to anybody else.
In the old days of the early eighteenth century and before, colliers had already a considerable repertory of songs closely connected with their trades and with their daily cares and comedies - a repertory that in character was very similar to the classic folksong repertory of the agricultural villages. And, as the pits gradually got deeper and the work got more intense, at the same time, the character of mining communities and the character of the work didn't alter, the quality of it, as it were, altered because it was getting more, becoming more and more, in the nature of a heavy industry. But, at the same time, it was a continuous process.
Whereas, for many industries, it was violent rupture - the former agricultural communities, with an agricultural repertory of songs suddenly found themselves pitchforked out of the fields and into the factories, where their old songs hardly matched and indeed, often, they were so confused by their new kinds of life, so demoralised also in many instances, that their old songs faltered on their lips and their new songs very slow or scanty to come - new songs that matched their new conditions. Some things rather similar happened in the textile industries of the North-West [of England], although there the continuity wasn't quite so strong as with miners and, accordingly the repertory isn't quite so vigorous as the miners folk song repertory, but still it's pretty considerable.
Whereas, in the South, with such of profusion of light industry, and with such mobile communities, they hardly had the opportunity to form that kind of collective intensely sociable, intensely solidarity inclined, things that one found in pit villages or in smaller textile towns, since they hardly hard an opportunity to form in the south. Some production of what one might call a folkloric kind was very much scantier. One got in the factories of the south, for instance, at strike times, a fair profusion of songs relating to the strike, nearly always based on parody of commercial songs, commercial hit songs of the time, and with words of local ephemeral application, that didn't last simply because they were made for the moment. They were seldom of any particularly interesting quality, musically or poetically.
So, the situation, generally speaking, for southern industry, doesn't resemble the situation in Midlands, the north, or the south of Scotland. Of course, in the far West, among the lead miners or the tin miners, and such, one has a certain number of songs too. They're not easy to come by now because the industry has long shrunk almost out of sight. So, it's just [that] most of the tin miners songs survive in the memories of a very few, very old colliers, but it's not a vital part of tradition - it's a pity that so much of it has been lost.
BT: Can I go back to the point, I don't know what the exact date was, say 20 years ago, would that be reasonable for the start of what we have of the revival today ...
AL: Yes, a bit before, actually, that would be 23 years ago, about 1951, nearly would be as far as I remember, '51 or '52, that the revival really began to take shape in the early skiffle cellars - the very earliest of them.
BT: Were you involved in the revival at that sort of
AL: Oh yes, I suppose [that] it's not too much to say that Ewan and myself, in a sense, were the architects of it.
BT: Yes. I don't know whether this an ambitious question - would it be possible to give a short summary of how the revival, 20 years past - a brief outline of you think it developed, particularly in relationship to the folk clubs?
AL: When, it began, I said that Ewan and I, in a sense, were the architects of it - let's say, the principal architects, there were a number of other people concerned with it, some of whom dropped out quite early on, like John Hasted, who ran a worker's choir, which was interested in performing a near folk music repertory and had some influence in London - but Ewan and myself and Isla Cameron used to sing quite a lot of folksongs in skiffle clubs.
And people coming down from Scotland, like Nancy Whisky and others, with Scottish songs in their heads, since the revival in Scotland was a different thing in Scotland than it was in England. Since most Scots, working class Scots, particularly, had in their heads a lot of songs, which had persisted at least as near folk songs, for, in some instances, centuries. The repertory of the near folk song in Scotland is enormous and great social use has been made of it, you know, sort of at parties or informal music dynastic musical occasions. So, a number of Scots came down and allied themselves with a handful of English folk singers, most of whom had learned their material rather from print than having survived domestic circumstance. And, although, as far as I remember, the Irish were a bit slow off the mark, ultimately, a number of Irish singers, very valuable ones and instrumentalists came and added their weight to the scene [took part in the revival in England].
I say added their weight because the prevailing climate at that time in the beginning of the 1950s was for American songs and especially for a particular kind of American song - the skiffle clubs and such were not interested in commercial songs, pop songs, but they were intensely interested in a particular repertory of American songs, that had only really come to the attention of American audiences in the period shortly before the war in the later 1930s in more or less political auspices. That is, the kind of protest songs, prison songs, songs of distressed American farmers and such, the repertory of Woody Guthrie and Josh White and Burl Ives and such, of Leadbelly too. And Leadbelly was a sort of link between those skifflers proper and the blues boys who were their close allies, except that the blues boys were usually a bit more musical and could do more with their guitars than the skifflers could.
But, anyway, there it was - between skiffle and blues - there was a rash of clubs starting up, run mainly by youngsters, who found to their astonishment that they were able to make music for themselves, however, rudimentary. And that the guitar in its elementary stages was a rather easy instrument to handle and that the kind of songs that were interesting them, the chain gang, come American country repertory was very easy to harmonise. You could manage with a very simple set of chords - at the most three - and three chords was what most of the skiffle players could manage. So, these kids found that they had songs that were easily memorable, with words that were often rather picturesque, sometimes dramatic, that they could accompany on guitars and over and over, the enthusiasm was enormous. So, they began running these clubs and getting big audiences, say audiences, at least of the size of solid folk song club audiences now - a few audiences, 50 to 100, 150 to 200. And the audiences were not at all passive, the audiences were turning up to learn these rather simple songs, and simple chord progressions, and so on.
Well, particularly Ewan and I felt that it was rather a shame that this simple exotic [amended to 'foreign grown'] American material was hugging the scene and that it would be nice if we could introduce onto the musical scene more and more traditional stuff from our own islands. A few showed up who worked really because British material is much more difficult to handle adequately than that simplified American material. America has a stratum of folkmusic that is a complex as, say, English folksong but this kind of repertory [that] the kids were going for was one that was already simplified in the States.
It was folksong with its face turned very firmly towards conventional music, folksong that had been worked over by country professional players, who simplified it, when they came to play it to strange audiences rather than their community own audiences. They couldn't afford to be tricky with it, so they simplified it, so it was already a form of folk music, which had been processed, as it were, easier to handle than the British material, which hadn't undergone that processing.
So, at first, what we did - I was going to say, were obliged to do - but we partly did it because we liked doing it that way - performers like Ewan and myself, and Isla and others. We'd appear at skiffle clubs with a mixed repertory that was part American and part British and, gradually, shed more and more of the American material and concentrated more and more on the British. And then, I suppose around 1954, we got the chance, after a lot of nagging, to do series of programmes with Humphrey Lyttlteton's Band, which was the most respected jazz band proper in the country, and a very good band it was too. And we did a series of six programmes with them called, Ballads and Blues, where, by and large, we British sang British things and Humprey's Band played American things and bluesy things and so on.
But, also we performed, [that is] both sides, both the ballads lot and the blues lot - performed a certain amount of material, which came rather close together. You know, things like, for example, an English version of St James' Hospital and Humprey's Band would do a jazzed up version of Streets of Laredo [added: or St James' Infirmary], that kind of thing. And this had a considerable impact because the Lyttleton Band had prestige, and it had a big audience. And the audience - the jazz audience and skiffle audience throughout the country - became aware of the fact that, even English folk song, that awful thing that they had been bashed over the head with in school in the most nimmeny-pimmeny fashion had a validity that was at least equal to prestigious popular musics like jazz and blues.
And I suppose that it was really something of a landmark in the early days of the revival and did a great deal to encourage the formation of an audience. And so that, ultimately, the spread of clubs all over the place, devoted many of them, sometimes in a very sectarian fashion - many of them devoted to performance of traditional music to the virtual exclusion of popular commercial musics.
As far as developments now are concerned, well, I don't sing in all that many clubs. The situation seems to me not at all unhealthy in that there are a lot of clubs on the go, some die and others take their place, some are long-lasting clubs, performing a very wide spectrum of music. Some clubs are still doggedly 'trad', other clubs seems predominately what Tin Pan Alley calls folksong - that rather introspective kind of personalised, semi-cabaret song, you know, the sort of - from Dylan to Ralph McTell repertory, which is a perfectly respectable repertory. It hasn't much to do with folksong in the folklorist's sense - it has a great deal to do with folksong in the Tin Pan Alley sense and Tin Pan Alley has rather annexed the term. Perhaps the folklorists in retreat ought to find a new term for what they occupy themselves with, because so much bashing goes on about what is folkmusic and what isn't.
The term was never a satisfactory one because 'folk' seems to imply a whole nation, or at least of a large chunk of a nation - I don't know what the word means. The individual items of the folksong repertory often were in the heads of very, very few people, frequently only having a most tiny circulation. You've got your Barbara Allens that crop in hundreds of variants but, on the other hand, you have your Brigg Fairs that were only in the head of one singer and he couldn't remember all the song.
BT: Perhaps just to take a few, couple of individual, individual aspects of the revival, say people that have been involved or organisations. One of the things that has struck me, since first coming into the revival, and particularly outside London, was the role of the EFDSS. On the one hand, you seem to have the folksong revival - with the clubs, etc., developing - on the other side, you seems to have the EFDSS, which had been there for a considerable length of time but which seems - totally - to have no connection with the revival. What do think of that?
AL: Well, over the years, the EFDSS had come to concentrate more and more on social dance, partly because the classic repertory of folk singers was dwindling and the collectors were finding it more and more difficult to come across material that was in any sense new - or even valuable variants of what had been collected before. And so, as study of surviving country folklore in the mouths of country singers, that was becoming a very restricted activity. And the EFDSS found that they were perfectly willing to leave the performance of the songs that had already been collected and piano arranged to concert artists who wanted to perform the songs.
But they felt that their value as an organisation lay in an extensive programme of social dance. So, the branches of the EFDSS all over the country came to concentrate on dance and, once established, it went on and on, mostly with the same dancers, who were getting more and more middle-aged and, indeed, the organisation was, to some extent, beginning to suffer from hardening arteries, I think.
The quantity of dance - the number of organisations, or branches and so on, who were arranging dances was enormous but the number of the people actually and actively concerned in it were relatively - were not very numerous. The folksong revival began, as I've described, partly, first of all in the skiffle cellars and such and the more and more it developed as an opportunity for the performance of the traditional repertory - folksong repertory - the more and more politically radical it seemed. And this, the vulgarity cum 'reds under the beds' aspect of it, in the eyes of many of the respectable members of the EFDSS, rather made them extremely wary of the folksong revival for many years. Gradually, of course, the revival established itself very strongly and gradually too, the EFDSS itself, organisationally, began to alter. And people became aware that folksong clubs were flourishing and the EFDSS were doing nothing about it but they really ought to but they came rather late on to that wagon. They jumped on it eventually with aplomb but a certain amount of damage had been done - damage in respect of their own standing among the people who were participating in the revival because so many youngsters had the idea that the EFDSS was irrevocably a fuddy-duddy organisation - an organisation of middle-class people sold on establishment principles.
And, indeed, many still feel that. It's not entirely just now and the EFDSS itself run - has - now a number of very valuable clubs operating under its auspices. But, they were slow because, first of all, they were geared to dance and, secondly, they were very suspicious of the revival when it began because they felt it was too indiscriminate - that didn't discriminate between [added: what they conceived as its] commercial products and traditional products - and also because, politically, it seemed a dubious venture.
BT: Do you think that their participation in things will increase, do you think that they have a real role to play in the future?
AL: Yes, I don't see why not! Yes, for example, they have the most valuable library for people who are interested in participating in the revival to replenish their repertory from, for a start, and it's very much used now. Much, much more used than in the old days when the Society had this middle-class and painfully bourgeois character. It's much more adult now.
BT: Are you referring to the library in respect of the books and the recordings?
AL: Yes, I am.
BT: Just on that subject, do you not think that the somewhat restrictive set of policies, the library, particularly the sound library, or the way it operates, in the sense that it's impossible to record materials from it for the ordinary person - do you think that's a restrictive thing?
AL: It's a legal matter really. Strictly speaking, it is illegal to duplicate material deposited in archives and such, except under special circumstances. Although it's irritating, it is proper. Actually, they are a bit more generous than the law permits them to be. But, the duplication of copyright work is a complex matter. As far as traditional folkmusic material is concerned, the copyright situation is extremely unclear but many people, collectors and others, are anxious for a bit of protection. So, although it's irritating, I don't think it's improper. As far as the book library is concerned, my view is that, far from being restrictive, they are reckless. And, in consequence, have lost such an enormous quantity of irreplaceable material, especially manuscript material - it's criminal what has happened to the manuscripts deposited in the library.
BT: Yes, I was more concerned with the sound aspects of it. I understand that there was - I mean with the recent events of this week - I believe there was a committee looking into the question of copyright?
AL: Yes, it's just been established. It's so far only had one meeting but it's due for another very shortly. It's a small committee, on which a lawyer sits and three other people.
BT: Who are the people on the committee?
AL: Stephen Sedley as the lawyer, Bob Thompson, myself and a chap, whose name for the moment I've forgotten, as secretary.
BT: And this has been set up by a government department to look into this question?
AL: No, not by any government department at all. What happened was that some three years ago, partly as a result of Topic Records wanting some legal clarification about responsibility for rights on traditional material because so many people were claiming copyright fees on traditional material. Partly as a result of that, Stephen Sedley and myself began to look into the matter and to see if we could sort out some sort of code, as it were, on which the thing might operate. And we thought it might be a good idea if, indeed, musical folklore, words and melodies, were subject to copyright control but that the fees accruing from that control - or at least the greater proportion of the fees - should go into a common fund - into a national fund if you like - for research and such.
And, at an annual general meeting of the EFDSS, Stephen and I both put this to the meeting quite formally. A number of people spoke against it, especially Maud Karpeles, as Sharp's executor - Sharp's principal executor, because she felt that it was too dangerous to go out of the hands of executors and such. And she felt that the law as it stood, vague as it was, did give protection to the people who had already devoted time and money to folkmusic collecting. She spoke against it - the thing ended in stalemate then, but has constantly nagged at some people on the executive of the EFDSS.
And so, the executive asked for this matter to be revived and for a committee to be formed who can make recommendations, which can then be presented to parliament to see whether it can't become statutory. And that is what we are working towards. And we intend ultimately to draw up a document, which can go to parliament.
BT: Would you think it would be possible or even advisable to set up a national archive of recorded music? And, if so, who would be the best person to do that, if not EFDSS, or do you think that the EFDSS should be the ?
AL: A national archive would require, I imagine, to be found within the structure of an institution of some sort. An enormous archive of recorded musical folklore exists in the BBC, of course, as part of their recorded programmes library. And the BBC have been relatively generous in allowing the EFDSS to have copies of a small proportion of that archive, particularly of British Isles material, but British Isles material, of course, is only a tiny part of it. There's something of an archive, but much more difficult to use because the cataloguing is not clear, in the British Institute of Recorded Sound and the EFDSS have a little archive, based mainly on BBC recordings, of its own. The institution of a national archive that would be more ambitious than the BBC one would be vastly costly, of course, [and] would necessitate, too, a permanent staff - a fairly sizeable one because the cataloguing alone of such material is tremendous. And the difficulties of cataloguing, too, because cataloguing needs to be done under the guidance of expert people, would rule it out unless you've got plenty of money at your disposal.
I'm never sure to what extent the BBC archive is available to students. Outsiders in certain circumstances may use it very freely, although, there again, the copying of material is another matter. You have to have very elaborate licences to copy any of that stuff for the good reason that the BBC have only ever bought broadcasting rights on it and the BBC feels that it has the responsibility to informants alone that the stuff isn't just for widespread use, for widespread free use.
They have in most instances paid the informants for the broadcasting rights, but that's all. This consideration, of course, is what applies to the EFDSS, as far as the copying of material is concerned. You can't really allow indiscriminate copying of material, which has been contributed by others on another understanding.
So, I don't know - I would be delighted if it would be possible to form anything like a national archive but I simply don't see it as a likely thing to have an archive proper, small collections are another matter. In this connection, however, there is something that's worth remarking on. As far as I know, within the framework of the Department of Education, some enterprising schoolteachers are circularising other teachers, up and down the country, to record children's game songs and such, all to be deposited in a central archive. This kind of activity can be very valuable and very fruitful. You send the circulars out to people who are already interested and you may send out ten thousand circulars and it only hits a hundred people with tape recorders who are interested in the possibility of recording the kids. But, already a hundred field workers is more than the - is far beyond the dreams of ordinary institutions. It's fairly easy to establish a central archive of that kind of material, which, incidentally, is material very much neglected by conventional folklorists. Most conventional folklorists have very little notion of what happens as far as children's song is concerned. Except, of course, there are all these books of texts of children's songs but that's like something in the 19th century, when they were all texts.
So, that's an aspect of national archiving, which is of some interest. But an archive of British folksong, let alone foreign folksong, I don't quite see it happening outside of institutions like the BBC.
BT: Just the last thing on that. I have heard that some of the BBC's material, which were originally recorded on acetate or on the old style tapes, is not in too good condition.
AL: Oh no, it's quite true that much of it is on 78 disk and 78 disk is not the most durable - it gets scratchy and so on. Some of it was not well recorded to start with. It was unfortunate that, early on, the decision was taken to tape record but then press a number of disks for each item, I think something like five disks for each item, and wipe the tapes. Of course, originally the BBC material had been cut directly on to disk, so the very earliest folkmusic recordings in the BBC are direct disk cuts. But, by the late 1940s and early 1950s, and the early 1950s was the time when the BBC showed most energy in hiring fulltime collectors to do nothing else but record folksong.
They were coming back with perfectly good tape recordings of the material and, as I say, each item that was passable was put on to disk in something like quintriplicate and the disks stowed away on shelves and the tape wiped and used again. And so it wasn't until some years later that the BBC began using LP disk of much higher fidelity and much more durable quality that the danger of the material - the earlier material - deteriorating became clear. It would have been better if they had hung onto the tapes and reprocessed them onto disks, perhaps periodically. It is a fact that a great many of the disks are in pretty poor shape.
BT: While we're on the BBC, what do think of the BBC, as probably the most influential part of the media, of their influence on folksong, on the folksong revival?
AL: Well, the BBC is the only institution that presents, first of all, serious musical folklore to the nation - it does it very, very rarely really, generally on Radio Three. Sometimes quite generously as far as time is concerned - they will allow an hour for serious programmes of folkmusic accompanied by commentary. And, in that respect, of course, a vast number of people have become acquainted with folkmusics that they would never have heard otherwise, both within these islands and from other continents. Our tolerance of - and to go beyond tolerance - our appreciation of the musics from other continents, for example, and of the deeper forms of folkmusic in our islands is enormous now compared with what is was ten or fifteen years ago and the BBC has played a considerable role in that. At the level of popular entertainment - as I say, however, such programmes are relatively few, compared with the enormous output of programmes dealing with fine art musics, particularly.
But, at the level of popular entertainment, that's another matter. I think [that] they persistently underestimate the size and enthusiasm of an audience for revival folkmusic. It is, of course, a minority audience but it's a sizeable minority - it's not a secret society of 'quacks', as the BBC seems to think. So, more often than not, if the BBC does present a programme of folkmusic as popular entertainment, it's done by the light music department, with all the prejudices of the light music department. Which means that, generally speaking, the kind of performers and the sort of repertory that is preferred is precisely the kind is closest to conventional pop music anyway, because that's felt to be safer than something which is a bit less conventional. And so, the implication is likely to make for baffled listening.
As I say, I think it's a serious underestimation of the possibilities of audiences. But, for that matter, their policy towards pop is not much better - serious pop music doesn't get much an airing. You get the Jimmy Young thing or these beastly loutish outfits like Slade or so, but serious pop doesn't get much of an airing - serious jazz is usually relegated to some very late night listening. Folkmusic suffers from the timidity of programme planners without doubt but folkmusic is the not only kind of entertainment music that misses out - not only kind of entertainment music so to suffer.
BT: Over the last ten years, the two major efforts that the radio has put on are the Song Carriers and your own Songs of the People. I think these two are the two major series that the BBC has staged, apart from the present one the BBC is doing now.
AL: Well, no - I've done two or three such series, nationally, the Song Carriers was on the Midlands, so had a very restricted audience. But, I have done rather a lot of programmes, but all the serious programmes that I've done, as far as I can remember, have been of international character rather than national. I did a series of thirteen programmes called Music of the Celtic World, which dealt with the Welsh, Irish and Scots Gaelic music and to a small extent, as a sort of little parallel, Breton music. That was done for Radio Three but I've done several series of a dozen or thirteen.
BT: When were the Celtic ones?
AL: I suppose - about three years ago? Long after the Song Carriers, yes, I think it'd be about three years ago - about 1971.
BT: Are you familiar with the Song Carriers? What do you think of them as a series?
AL: They were very interesting indeed. They were patchy, in a way. I didn't so much like the introductory ones and I didn't so much like the final ones - but the middle ones, which were dealing with strictly traditional singers, gave a very good panorama of our traditional music.
I admire them very much. The ones that dealt with the revival, I didn't like so very much. Perhaps the revival didn't stand up to such an extensive treatment as it got. The series seemed to me much more valuable for the traditional performers who got an airing, than on the whole, than the revival performers. It seemed to me that revival would have been excellent for one programme but not so good for something like three or maybe even four - I'm not sure.
BT: I think it was four, yes. Do you think the revival would stand up to that sort of scrutiny now?
AL: Better, better. For one thing, of course, we have many more instrumentalists - good instrumentalists on the go, than we had. And there are many more outfits, duos, trios, quartets, groups of the style of, say, Boys of the Lough, to show, who are very brilliant, you know. They are not ra-ra-ra Irish clowns, like the Dubliners or so. They perform serious music but they perform it in a way that is immensely appealing to non-specialist audiences, as well as specialists.
Yes, I think that, now, the revival is much better off than it was when the Song Carriers was done. I can't remember how long ago the Song Carriers is but it seems an awful long time now?
BT: I think it was 1964.
AL: Ten years - yes, we've gone a long way in those ten years.
BT: I think maybe the other major contribution in that sense on the radio could be the Radio Ballads.
AL: That's another matter! That's quite a different thing. The strict folklore content of the Radio Ballads was relatively restricted. They were ingenious exploitations of a folkmusic repertory and a jazz repertory and so, and so on. And every now and then, especially in the early ones, they had very brilliant traditional singers alongside singers singing what you might call an altered kind of music. You know, especially the fishing programme was very strong on traditional singers - you not only have old Sam, but it had very good girls from Scotland and so on. And gradually that content came to be less and less and they were, as it were, exploitations of a traditional repertory. When I say 'exploitations, I don't mean at all in any derogatory sense. They were very brilliant uses of a traditional repertory but, of course, very much altered. And Ewan, you know, one always knew that he was a very good composer of folksong pastiche and songs like Shoals of Herring, for example, do bear comparison with good traditional melodies and poems.
But, it's particularly, a very handsome melody. But, that's a different matter - I don't consider the Radio Ballads to fall into any firmly folkloric category at all. Not at all. Which is nothing - I never use the word 'folk song' as necessary of the quality of the thing, because I'm too interested in different kinds of music, as well, to do that. I can't think that a song has any special virtue because it's a folk song - in fact, many folk songs are bloody boring!
BT: Would you think that it was a valid use of folk song or folk song technique?
AL: Valid, perfectly valid, because what it took from musical folklore, it didn't impoverish. Valid, of course!
BT: Mainly, we talked about the radio but what the television?
AL: Television has been very poor for folkmusic, hasn't it? Very, very poor, indeed. Very little hard folkmusic has had any airing at all on television. A few revival performers of quality have appeared on 'telly' but, generally, in circumstances that belittles them rather, you know. Watersons, for example, their appearance on telly was a shame because they never had much of a chance. Bob Davenport again, you know, he was made to dress up in cloth cap and things like that - didn't suit him. Telly has given considerable airing to the lighter kind of folkmusic performing groups, such as the Spinners, they are very much used and they make an amiable social occasion, not an artistic occasion, not a musical or a poetic occasion but a sort of mild, friendly thing. And there's no risk in presenting the Spinners ever on telly because they're dead easy. On the other hand, with harder performers, then the telly people incline to be nervous because a television programme presenting folksong has either to be the business of [the] light music department or [the] light entertainment department, or of [the] music department. And both light entertainment department and music department have a conventional prejudice, I think it's safe to say, against folkmusic in general. But entertainment people - light entertainment people - feel that it's not commercial enough, and the music department feel that it's not artistic enough and, in consequence, [it's] difficult to sell Tele programmes to them, unless they're a bit special.
I've done three programmes of just on an hour each presenting folkmusic - one of industrial songs and one which was a panorama of calendar custom, involving music, and a third one which was on the musical life of a chain of Romanian villages in north-west Romania. I think that the Tele would be prepared to take more programmes from me because they're in the nature of feature films or essays, as it were, television essays. But straight entertainment programmes presenting folkmusic, there is a lot of prejudice to be got over before they would be accepted. Unless, as I say, it's harmless, amiable things like the Spinners.
BT: Do you know anything of the BBC's plans for the future on radio or television?
AL: I have a programme, an hour long, which would be, I suppose, coming up in something like a month or six weeks time, it's already recorded. But it's dealing with the dilemma of contemporary composers and the tendency to try to extract from the deeper forms of folkmusic a sort of mythology that's valid for them. No longer the old use of just taking of folk melody and harmonising it and away, you know, that nonsensical way of using folk music. That's trying to use folkmusic and primitive musics for their ritual content as much as their artistic content and to infuse something of that mythology into their composition. To my mind, it's a vain endeavour. Because, to take ritual musics from primitive or peasant community, where their whole collective is deeply involved in that particular kind of mythology that the ritual represents, and to re-score that kind of thing for a concert use, present it to an audience - to a modern western city audience - with the kind of alienations that they have - the lack of any of collective mythology, which they have - seems to me in vain. But the best of modern composers seem to be trying it now. Whether it's Messian [BT: Olivier, 1908 - 1992], on the one hand, trying it mystically, which would probably fascinate Parker; or Nono [BT: Luigi, 1924 - 1990] on the other hand, trying to annexe a proletarian mythology for a new audience of alienated factory workers, I don't think either has very much chance. But this programme of mine is concerned with the kind of folkmusics, which both would-be mythologisers deploy and try to annexe into their compositions. It's called 'The Savage in the Concert Hall'.
BT: Anything else that you
AL: I don't know their plans. They have, as you know, been running a series for a long time, it seems to be an endless series, of programmes in which people concerned with folkmusic or people concerned with music even, simply go through the archive of British material - the BBC's archive of British material - and present their views of aspects of tradition. Martin Carthy did one last Saturday - I've done one, I did the first one. Mellors, the Prof. in York, did, I think, the second one, I think Ewan and Peggy have done one, I'm sure, or they will do one. That's a rather interesting series because quite a number of the people concerned with it or are only marginally concerned with folkmusic but, nevertheless, have things to say, which come a bit fresh because they're outside the business. There's too many people inside the business have been saying the same things over and over - it gets a bit wearisome.
Just at present, not BBC, but - all right, I'll deal with that later. What I was going to say was, apropos the spread of interest in this kind of thing, I don't know whether you know, it's now possible to take a degree, a masters degree in the music department of London University, in folkmusic and musical ethnography. And there was some trepidation among the faculty of the music department because none of them was a specialist in folkmusics or in what's called 'ethnomusicology', which is a hideous term. So it meant going outside for people to set papers and also to examine. Also, of course, to tutor. You had to take your B.Mus. in fine art music but then you could take your M.Mus. in musical ethnography or musical folklore and this seems to be spreading now.
I'm just doing a course for them at the moment on aspects of folkmusic, it's a rather heavy course but, of course, [they are] degree students, so they can take advanced stuff. And it looks as if that may well grow, which is valuable. First of all, because it means at last, at last, at long last, there is a prospect - a possibility - of putting folkmusic studies on to a scientific basis instead of that thrashing around in the thickets that's being going on among amateurs. And also it means that we may even have seen the beginning of a formation of a group of proper collectors and commentators on the material.
BT: That is certainly interesting. I was going to talk about a couple of other things in relation to the revival; I think we've really dealt with folk clubs, because you mentioned them originally. Don't know if there's anything particularly, other feelings you got about folk clubs as they stand at the present?
AL: Don't think so - I would have said that the situation is rather healthy - there are an awful lot of folk clubs that run rather mechanically and present a rather mechanical repertory, week after week, but they're not necessarily characteristic. I don't sing around all that much, but the clubs that I do seem to visit, I have a nice time in.
And I must say [that] the audiences, the attentiveness of audiences, I rather - I feel to be rather better than it was, say, five years ago. I think that people know much more about the thing than they used to.
BT: What do you think of this fairly recent development: the electronic folk-rock phenomenon?
AL: Well, it was an exploitation of the traditional repertory, just as the treatments in the Radio Ballads were. Any such exploitation can bring down a good melody or it can enrich it. I certainly wouldn't - don't - feel any horror at the thought of electronic treatment of folk music melodies. On the contrary, I find such treatments usually interesting, not always successful, goodness knows. But, quite a lot that 'Fairport' did in the past, that 'Steeleye' have been doing recently, that the 'Albion Country Band' have produced, have seemed to me are certainly not impoverishments of the material. And there is something too - you know, properly handled electronic sound can be enormously expressive, but enormously - four musicians can envelope an audience of, say, two thousand or more in a web of sound, that, if properly handled, can give them a very acute artistic experience. And this I've noticed, working sometimes, with the use of traditional music, in quite interesting ways. For example, in the old days when Sandy Denny was with 'Fairport', they used to do a performance of Tam Lin. And I didn't so much like the truncated text that Sandy used and I didn't so much like that rather off-centre kind of ballad in which they fitted the words. But, on the other hand, the story was told sketchily. And, then, at the end, the group would have an enormous long purely instrumental coda, that would be an extension of the magical atmosphere of the ballad but done in a way that really raised that atmosphere to a considerable pitch of - at once, a mixture of terror and triumph, which the ballad itself has. It's a ballad full of anxieties, that ends in triumph and well handled electronic sound can give an impression of elation or of tragedy in a way that takes enormous resources to achieve acoustically.
And that kind of coda thing can apply to a folkmusic repertory - can give that repertory, not a new aspect but a very heightened aspect. It's seldom done effectively because, quite often, the taste of pop music performers is not of the firmest and the musical ability is not always all that great, although 'Fairport' had very competent musicians and so, for that matter, on a slightly more modest scale, did 'Steeleye'. But electronic treatments can cheapen a thing beyond recall but they also have the possibility of raising it to a pitch that it's not really used to - to an artistic pitch, even.
BT: You particularly mentioned the melody and you've mainly dealt with the melody
AL: The performances of traditional texts - sometimes in full, it depends on the length of the song, sometimes truncated. But, you know, if it's a traditional song that's being used, the text is being sung traditionally but it's the melody that's having the treatment. The text is not very heavily processed as a rule.
BT: No, only it would seem that the text often does seem to get lost among the
AL: Acoustically, that may happen - that's simply a matter of balance, isn't it? That can happen - it doesn't always. Again, Sandy was lucky, you could usually hear pretty well all Sandy's words, although it always meant a lot of manipulation of the controls. Some singers can sing clearly, some can't - it's the same in the world of concert singers. The majority of concert singers - virtuoso singers - are not very easily decodable, you know. It's very hard to hear what they're singing often. It's one of the reasons why so many pop songs, particularly in the repertory of groups like the Stones, for example, consist of simple repeated phrases, over again. Because the message is not really a verbal message - the message is conveyed in the atmosphere and texture of the music, in a sense, what I've just being saying now about this coda is the same thing.
BT: It seems to me that in the late fifties, early sixties, in the very thriving days of the CND movement, the peace movement, that the folkmusic revival, and this particular aspect of our political life seem to go very much hand in hand and one seemed to be influencing the other. One, do you think that this is true and do you see any sort of relationship between political developments, as they stand now and the revival, how do think the revival is apropos the political position now?
AL: In many ways, the CND movement didn't produce a large number of directly political songs of a relatively folkloric character, a very restricted lot. More in Scotland, particularly over things like Polaris and so, because [there] most songs were made by workers, whereas the CND songs were mostly made rather by middleclass people, by the intelligentsia. The revival began as I suggested earlier, under a fairly strong political influence, in this respect that people like Ewan, myself, so on, wanted common man's culture to have a bit of an innings instead of, on the one hand, the bourgeois culture for the bourgeoisie of fine arts music and, on the other hand, the anti-culture of the entertainment corporations. So, we were interested in folkmusic as a product from below, not imposed from above. And also we were interested in British folksong as a counter to the American cultural take-over, which, in the period shortly after the world war, was operating very vigorously to the virtual exclusion of native products, of homemade products. Gradually, over the years, those considerations have ceased to be, in a way, important, because the product from below now has much more prestige than it used to have and one doesn't need to brandish a banner on its behalf. The circumstances may arise when once again banner brandishing and slogan shouting is required but, at present, they're not. And American cultural prestige doesn't stand nearly as high as it did twenty years ago or so, so one doesn't need to be so sectarian about that either as to order out of the room English boys who happen to mumble a Walthamstow version of a chain-gang song.
Now, as to the provision of directly political songs, that's, in a way, marginal to the folkmusic revival, in the same way as the Sidney Carter's Christian songs are marginal to the folksong revival are generally. They're likely to be adaptations of folksongs and folk poems, or to employ some of the melodic terms and poetic terms of traditional poetry and tunes. But, of course, they are not - it's marginal to folklore, strictly speaking. It's a valuable exercise and I'm sorry that there isn't more of it - but really, in England, particularly, we've not been very strong in the provision of political songs that really circulate vigorously among the kind of people that we'd like them to circulate amongst. CND songs, on the whole, only touch middleclass liberals often rather than anybody else but working class, especially working class radicals didn't sing them. They did the Polaris songs in Glasgow but not the CND songs in England, very much.
BT: Moving away from that again - you've partially dwelled with the question of contemporary songs and their relationships - I think I've only on one occasion heard you sing a song that you've written yourself
AL: I am not songwriter
BT: Do you ever consider writing songs?
AL: No, not seriously, no.
BT: What do you think of the songs that are being written? In your passage around the folk clubs, you must hear songs?
AL: I find them very humdrum in words, they're often rather good in melody but the words are often too literal, never really quite take off. They're like bits of journalism rather than the sort of thing that shakes the heart. They're frequently too full of message, I think, and the message is a directly expressed one, which one automatically agrees with, and nods one's head in agreement, but not, perhaps, is not deeply taken by - not so deeply taken as by many a traditional song or traditional ballad may take one.
It's a complicated matter this writing song words because it's very hard to establish what it is about a song that really impresses. You have songs that have vitalised nations and it's bloody hard to see why. How does it happen that the Internationale means so much to so many - dreadful set of words, tragi-melody and, yet, to many people, to Spanish workers, for example, it's a Clarion. The Marseilles, to take a song that appeals to a rather broader but less intense audience; again, it's hard to see what it is about the Marseilles. Certainly, it's not the direct message, which is so badly expressed.
So, I find there were contemporary songs - there's an awful lot contemporary songs sung in clubs - which are just - oh - mumbled bits of personal misery, you know, hang ups, that's boring, of course. And I think you see people listening to them, they're listening to the guitar chords or something like that, while that's going on.
Agitational songs are relatively few and, as I've said, they could with an infusion of a bit more poetry, as a rule, than they get, although, there again, the melodies are often better. I felt, with the Radio Ballads, that the melodies were often very, very superior to the words. Some smashing melodies, but the words often too directly factual, not enough lift to them. A personal view, but I'm often puzzled by what makes a song a song.
BT: Do you think that within the scope of study of traditional music, there is the scope for utilising for writing contemporary material, based on a study of traditional forms?
AL: Some of the contemporary songs seem to me, generally, to have more the character of cabaret songs than folksongs. I don't - it's relatively rare that one hears a contemporary song that makes really fertile use of either musical folklore, or folk poetry, particularly folk poetry. Perhaps, it's easier to imitate the folk melody than it is the folk poem - often a very delicate matter. I must confess [that] I seldom encounter what are called contemporary songs that really excite me - very seldom. And its relation to folklore is very vague. As vague, for example, as much rock 'n roll music is. It had a connection but it's pretty remote. With rock pieces, the more they remind one of folkmusic, often the better they seem to be - the solider based they seem to be and perhaps with contemporary songs, the same applies. If they do remind you of folklore, well, you know, it's like meeting at least a relative of an old friend, but a pretty distant relative more often than not.
By and large, as I say, it's not a field that I find as interesting as I would like it to be.
BT: There's a sort of associated topic, just moving slightly away from that. You've one or two or a number, I don't really know an exact amount, I can think of an example like Jack Orion - there's one or two songs that that, shall we say, you've rescued almost from oblivion, in the sense that scraps of songs which you've rewritten, put together, utilised. What do you see the value of this type of ...?
AL: First of all, I sing very few songs as I receive them - very few. I like to alter them around a bit, according to my fancy. Old Vaughan Williams once said to me, the practice of altering folksong is an obnoxious one and I trust nobody to do it, except myself [laughs]. I feel like that. But I do like to alter and remake songs. And, as for songs, which have remained in oblivion, partly because sometimes there doesn't exist, among all the variants, there doesn't exist a single complete one, it seems to me. If a songs going to be nicer if you splice three or four variants of it together and make the story more or less complete, so much the better. It's better than having it hang around as a ruin - a set of ruins. So, that's it, I don't feel that, in popular performance, the existing traditional model is sacrosanct. For study purposes, that's quite another matter, of course. If one's dealing with a thing on any plane of scholarship, then it's necessary to be as precise as one can. In the past, I've certainly not been precise enough. I'm in the process of trying to make more precise some of my earlier publications, like Come All Ye bold Miners, but for scholarly purposes, for study purposes, one must be precise. But, for the purposes of popular entertainment, then one makes the thing as entertaining as it can be, without trying all the time, not to belittle it, not bring it down, not to make it clownish, where it wasn't clownish before, and so on - nor to infuse false pathos into it.
But, I would be bored on the whole to reproduce songs exactly as I received them, I think, unless I felt that I was receiving them in a totally satisfactory way and there was no way in which it could be made better for me.
BT: Can I ask you how you are fixed timewise?
AL: It doesn't matter.
BT: Glad you are not too restricted, because there are quite a number of things that I'd to ask you but I wouldn't like to get too involved and cut them too short, associated with a point you were saying before about your attitude the way you come across songs - how do you say, your personal approach to the songs, what motivates you to sing particular songs. What your motivations are now, now you've sung for how many years, has your attitude changed, what is your approach to it?
AL: No, I don't think my attitude has changed towards the songs - in a way, perhaps it's become a bit more conscious - I'm not sure of that. Songs that I like to sing are songs that, however obliquely, have something to do towards the formation of people's opinions. That may be very oblique - it may be, for example, a song in which a girl is subjected to male superiority but manages to extricate herself, with aplomb or even with triumph. Or it may be a song that, to some extent, undermines the mystifications - conventional mystifications - of Christianity or not necessarily Christianity, of bourgeois illusion, generally.
Songs that tend towards a collective or communal feeling, away from an entirely personal, navel gazing one - that kind of thing. Songs expressing an attitude, either of social responsibility or of irony towards the more illusionistic kinds of institution that our masters try to fob us off with. I suppose that roughly is likely to be in my mind, when I'm finding a song that I fancy. That's from a textual point, of course, I have my melody preferences, naturally, very strongly. I detest singing songs with a humdrum melody, just as I detest singing songs with a humdrum text. A humdrum text - that means, however unexceptionable the sentiments may be, there's plenty of songs that, from a logical point of view, are entirely praiseworthy but they're presented in such a dull and doggerel fashion that they don't strike any depth in a very philosophical an audience but don't give them anything really to carry away. I like to feel my audience isn't quite the same after I've finished with them than when I began, which may sound a bit high-flown but well I like to feel it.
BT: What would you consider the standards that we now have, as regards the folk revival singers? Do you think that the standards have been raised in recent years - the technical standards?
AL: Technical standards - oh, I will let's put it this way: there are many, many more competent performers going round the clubs now, than was the case ten years ago, many more. 'Competent performers' that doesn't necessarily mean accurate imitators of old time country singers - not at all. And perhaps, no harm in that. People find their own forms of competent expression, without having to imitate 'old Bob' or 'young Sam'. Indeed, often the imitators produce a kind of museum atmosphere, which is distasteful. But, competence, up to the level of good performers are much more abundant now than they formerly were. You know, a singer like Martin Wyndham-Reid or Roy Harris - neither of them sing like old time country singers but they can express a song in a very gripping and powerful way - if that is what you had in mind.
BT: Yes, basically - you talked about Martin Wyndham-Reid and Roy Harris - who else of the present revival singers do you also consider to be ...?
AL: Oh, I don't know - those were two names that floated into my head and I'm not much of a one for naming names, because the thing becomes a sort of personality thing, you know. But, there are many more performers whom I find pleasure in listening to now, than was the case, say, ten years ago, many more. But the personality thing I don't much like to involve myself in to - that was the downfall of the Melody Maker folk review and this and that.
BT: One of the things, I think, going back to a statement you made before, and also mentioned at the recent thing you did at Cecil Sharp House on the kid's songs. You earlier said of the difficulties of collecting within England, personally, because of the now state of the tradition. Have you done any collecting in England or are you doing any collecting in England?
AL: I'm just about starting off on a fairly extensive lot of field work but not on songs, on industrial tales, anecdotes, oral history, proverbs and such, particularly miners. But, I'm not contemplating song collecting.
BT: Have you done any in the past - have you been involved in field research in England?
AL: Yes, a great deal, after all, a high proportion of the industrial stuff that's on the go - a high proportion of it - became public as a result of my collecting and publicising. So, it certainly is the case that, compared with the fieldwork that I've done outside England, the fieldwork that I've done inside England has been restricted.
BT: I've been reading Folksong in England recently and, particularly, in the early part of the book, where you talk about the foundations of folk music, you draw great analogies with the tradition in Eastern Europe, particularly. How far do you think one can go utilising these analogies?
AL: Well, as I said earlier on, traditions in full flower can often throw light on traditions that are in a state of dilapidation. And so it happens often that things in their come-down state that would be mysterious become clarified in the light of what happens elsewhere in a flourishing form. We understand, for example, much more about the nature of mummer's plays and the meaning of mummery through comparison with continental models than we would if we hadn't those continental models. For instance, this comparative thing, as a clarification, applies particularly to the under stratum of our folklore, that is ceremonial, ritual musics and so on. But, also it applies to such considerations as how folksongs are made up and how they are spread and so on. Because, I'm talking of classic folklore, because, say in Bulgarian villages, where new songs are appearing every week and immediately going into the general repertory, one has then the opportunity really to study the mechanics of the creation of the stuff and of its diffusion also, right under your nose instead of speculating on the basis of bits of information from the relatively remote past, which happen to come your way.
BT: It seems to me very relative this type of thing to the book by David Buchan, The Ballad and the Folk, where, I think he tries to draw the parallels between the work done by people like Lord and Parry on the north-eastern areas of the tradition. He relies very much for his information in relation to the north eastern tradition on what you might say scraps of information. Do you think that is a valid process that he's utilising there?
AL: Yes, although another field of investigation would have suited him better. There is such a gulf between that big old recitative epic - hero epic - stuff that is still practised - still performed - in south-east Europe and the lyrical ballads, which we know. There's an enormous gap between those and it would have suited Buchan better if he had studied or attempted to study lyrical balladry rather than hero epic and native lyrical balladry in traditions that are flourishing. Because the hero epic, that is something else. It's like trying to establish a connection between Sir Patrick Spens and Beowulf, you know. Whereas, in the same territories that the hero epic is performed, the lyrical ballad is also performed to song-like melodies like ours, ballads, and divided up into neat strophes, four line strophes, verses and so on.
So, if it'd been me, I would not have devoted so much attention to that kind of epic balladry, which in Western Europe relates to the song - on the whole - of the Middle Ages, rather than anything later. After all, our lyrical ballads are relatively modern in so far as the oldest of them has barely four or five hundred years of life - probably four hundred. Most of them have, not much more than two, two hundred and fifty years of life. So, we're dealing with a different phenomenon really, formally different, I mean different in form too as well as different in function.
On the other hand, yes, the formation of a lyrical ballad in countries where folklore is rich, that provides one with very good ground for study. Because one sees, for example, communities in south-east Europe, who in the nineteen-thirties were more or less isolated, were cut off, had very little contact with neighbouring villages, let alone with the music and poetry of the towns, and lived off a tiny restricted repertory themselves. In the ensuing years, since the nineteen-thirties to now, have, of course, established much broader contact and communication with other sources of music and poetry. The peasant who brings his own - the collective farm lorry driver bringing produce into a provincial town and going to, say, a club or a theatre even and hearing town musics, becoming acquainted with town poetry, goes back to his village - is likely to go back to his village - with an amplified notion of melody and an extended notion too of poetic expression. So that, for example, kids whose parents notion of melody have been restricted to the lower five notes of a minor scale, with a phrygian cadence, want to sing melodies that range over an octave and have a variety of cadences, not only phrygian.
And so, their village repertory becomes expanded and becomes probably more lyrical than it was, more exuberant than it was. Many villages in Eastern Europe in the nineteen-thirties only had a tiny repertory of really very depressed and tragic songs and now have vast repertories of songs with a great deal of flourish and power to them. Such processes happening under one's nose, give one often a very clear notion of how the lyrical ballads developed in the West, with the collapse of feudalism, and the beginnings of small holding, of private small holdings, of the marketing of produce that one's grown oneself. In towns, contact with the arts of towns and, not only with the arts of the towns, but also with the horizon, as it were, the general human and social horizon of town and neighbouring villages, so that the whole perspective expands and one no longer has to deal with such restricted lyrical expressions, as one had before. That kind of process was certainly very important in the formation of lyrical balladry at the end of feudalism and the beginning of the capitalist era and our ballads developed only slowly from their beginning until now. Well, now the process has long been since in high decline and has been replaced with other forms of musical expression. But that sort of parallel is more valuable, I think, than the parallel with hero epic, which is a reflection of a different - of a former, an anterior - form of society, really, than that of the peasant with an expanded lyrical horizon.
BT: The important in making that kind of comparative study is to get the parallel correct - to investigate the nature of the thing first.
AL: Yes, of course, the insights that one gets from dealing with flourishing traditions - the insights that one gets that enable you to unravel certain mysteries of one's own tradition come quite accidentally. I don't study Eastern European musics in order to be able to understand my own but it's a nice plus, a nice bonus that, here and there, one is able to do so.
BT: One of the things [that] I was going to say is this relationship - the question of the improvisation factor - one can see, for example, to take the statement: the creators (or whatever) of the music that he's talking about in Northeast Scotland were able to improvise at the same sort of ability of the epic ballad singers to improvise on texts. Whereas you say that your feeling is the texts are more solidified in fact than the tunes, in terms of improvisation, because is it the question of retentive memory affected them more?
AL: Well, there again, the person singing a lyrical ballad is faced with totally different problems from a person singing a hero epic because, in the hero epic, the material is likely to be far too vast to be memorised, to be memorised at all. The good epic singer is likely to recreate the thing - to see it differently every time, but really differently, to follow a slightly different story every time. If he's feeling good and the audience is really with him and he's settling down to sing a ballad that may be going to take him ten hours to get through and he'll do it in instalments, night after night. He, of course, his skill consists in being able to tell a story in metrical form but to tell the story and, just as a good narrator telling a fairly elaborate story doesn't tell it in the same words every time. But, as I say, if he's feeling good and the audience is with him, in the course of telling a story [he] will explore all sorts of avenues that he never ventured into before. So too would the epic singer, he does that, and he doesn't remember what he's done at the end because the process of narration has been too complex for him. You know, he can't remember exactly how the hell he ever got onto to the business of the hero chasing a wolf across an icy river but it occurred to him in the course of his ballad, so he splices those bits in.
The singer of a North-west European lyrical ballad is dealing with material, which is much more manageable - it probably hasn't more than - at the outside - thirty verses or so and its very easy to memorise and to have it off pat in your head. You will, of course, be likely again not to sing it as you first heard it because phrases occur to you which you think improve the ballad - both melody phrases and text phrases - so you quite consciously vary. But, the level of extemporisation is quite different; the quality of extemporisation is quite different, from what happens with an epic singer - totally different.
The epic singer, for example, is not in the least concerned with a musical performance, he's concerned with a story telling performance and often his music is bloody dreary but the story is fascinating and always new.
BT: So, it would be more accurate to compare an epic singer with a storyteller?
AL: A storyteller, absolutely, yes, not with a ballad singer - not with a lyrical ballad singer.
BT: You mention that [a lyrical ballad singer] may be able to memorise more accurately a thing of a manageable length of thirty verses. Would this be equally a valid point for someone who was literate as well as someone who learned it in purely an oral manner?
AL: Literate people come to rely a bit on note taking of one kind or another - you know, 'give me your address' means 'I'll write it down' not 'I'll take it into my head'. People in societies that don't use writing much, of course, have more highly developed memories simply because they have to have. They're not using a crutch - we use writing as a crutch to memory, as an aid to memory. Even so, from a written text, some people learn very fast, they only need to read it through three times, four times, unless it's very long and they have it. However, people who at all [are] used to using writing as an aid to memory very seldom have anything like the instantaneous, snapshot memory of oral societies.
You know, we've been walking with an aid all the time, then find it find it difficult to walk any distance without that aid.
BT: Last summer, I came across a gypsy by name of Johnny Connors, who I don't know whether you've heard of, who was featured in the Jeremy Sandford book - quite a remarkable chap. He talked about, in fact, that his grandfather or his uncle, I can't remember which, was able to sing for an hour - he mentioned an hour but a considerable length of time - purely and simply improvising all the time.
AL: Well, it's possible. It depends on the artistic quality of the improvisation would depend on his artistic skill, wouldn't it? But it's always possible to improvise endlessly unless you set yourself an artistic level to achieve, in which case your improvisation would probably be for a shorter time and probably more halting.
On the other hand, performers of epic balladry do frequently show a fabulous fluency in improvisation. After all, Romanian epic singers improvise in rhyme as well as in metre and in very short lines, six syllable or eight syllable lines. Whereas Yugoslav, such as Lord was studying, have a much longer line, usually a ten metre line - four plus six - and no rhyme and so it's a little bit easier. Improvisation in metre isn't hard - actors who learn in Shakespeare plays, sometimes experience a blank. They know the sense of what they should say; they don't always find it very difficult to lapse into a Shakespearean metre, to improvise a passage. But, by and large, of course, our folksingers don't rely on improvisation for the good reason that the material they handle is usually short and easily memorable.
That is text improvisation - melody improvisation is another matter, of course. If you have a melodic gift at all, its always on tap, you can improvise melodies endlessly but anybody can do that. While you're waiting for a bus, you can pick up tunes.
BT: It seems that with melodic improvisation - I haven't really studied it to any depth, but it seems among Irish traditional musicians, who you can watch with relative ease, it seems very much to be a question of knowing certain codes, almost certain phrases, certain particular methods of playing a line and then being able to put those together, maybe in a slightly different form, but always around the structure - this basic structure, which they have - with improvisation around. Would you think this is a thing you could compare textually - do you think you could have a textual equivalent to this?
AL: No, I think it's a different matter because, for example, with Irish musicians, especially during the nineteenth century, melodies, which formerly were very complex, became very simplified and had their contour very much eroded and they became very formulaic. You know, the running of the melodies became so much a matter of formula that the creation of new melodies was dead easy - the profusion of, the thousands of Irish jig and reel tunes that sound very much like each other, were not variants of each other, they're simply tunes made along the same formula. They're very easy to join in with and they're very easy to extemporise on, with any little bounds to vary, just slightly within restricted bounds. But text is another matter because there you're dealing - as a rule - with a logical message, which you want to convey, and you have to find a form for your messages - not always easy to find a fluent lyrical form for a message. If you're in the position of a storyteller, like an epic performer, you have a certain advantage there. For one thing, you're not, for example, improvising in strophes, in stanzas, the story is coming out in a solid block. Our songs demand a certain amount of architecture in the poetry, which involves some reflection, as a rule.
So, text improvisation proper is a difficult matter in our tradition - text variation is optional, whether a small variation or large, but that's a different thing.
For example, just today, I've been speculating on whether I should reproduce certain songs in Come all Ye Bold Miners in the form that they are in the book. Or, whether for this new edition, whether I shouldn't make new versions taken directly from tape recordings, such those in those boxes, of miners singing songs that they have learned from Come all Ye Bold Miners but, in the course of the years, have just slightly altered them - sometimes, consciously, sometimes entirely unconsciously. And the differences are small differences but they occur in practically every line of the song. So, that sort of improvisation is not only easy but inevitable. I, myself, for example, every now and then, I come across the copy of a song that I've perhaps been singing for twenty years or more - the original copy of a song and I'm astonished to find to what extent it's altered, quite involuntarily in the course of repeated performance, where, obviously, I've either forgotten bits or I've fancied bits, turns of phrase or so on.
BT: Really, in essence, that is more or less all the things that I had. Just as a final thing on that - I was going to ask you what you thought of the present state of academic studies in England, or in Britain on folk song?
AL: Well, for song, academic study is nearly null and void isn't it? That is, one or two universities have departments dealing with folklife, which material folklore, which means thatch patterns or the shape of tools, or such, and dragged in by the scruff of the neck out of the cold just occasionally comes some consideration of songs. But we have no institution that's scientifically concerned with the study of folklore, with musical folklore, at all. Scotland has the School of Scottish Studies and Ireland has the Irish Folklore Commission but we have nothing at all. And, by and large, although we were very early in the field of serious folklore collecting, we are practically unique in the Western world, by which I mean Europe and the Americas. We're practically unique in that our folklore studies, our musical folklore studies, are practically entirely in the hands of amateurs, who just do it as a hobby but not as a study.
No, academically, we have no standards. We don't even know, as a rule, what the scientific scholars of musical folklore are up to and, in fact, especially now, that the study of musical folklore is expanding so - racing ahead - especially in Eastern Europe, where a lot of money is at the disposal of scholars, we find it almost impossible to understand the terms that they are using even because they are breaking ground that we never thought to tread on and using analytical methods that we've never dreamed of.
Of course, it's a reflection of what has been happening in anthropology - by and large, English anthropology too has been a long way behind modern European anthropology. Modern European anthropology may be a bit trendy now and then. With the intoxication of structuralism and the acceptance of Levi-Strauss as a god, and so on, well, that's just intellectual fireworks more or less, but it does affect folklorists in America. The American folklorists are in a curious condition as a result of what's happening in Europe but English folklore doesn't even exist - people who are interested in folklore in England, [no one] has never heard of them. The thing is [that] actually folklore studies are in a tremendous state of effervescence and uproar at present but it doesn't disturb us. We're just plodding along in our old amateurish nineteenth century way.
BT: Well, that's about it save to say, I don't know whether you have any feelings that you haven't expressed during this on the future of the revival - as it is at the present time, how it's likely to develop, how you think it may develop, or any things, apart from the things that you have mentioned, that are likely to be a good development?
AL: No, I don't really - the term 'folk song revival' seems to imply a revival of interesting repertories, doesn't it, otherwise it's not revival and the additions to that repertory, in the form of contemporary song, generally don't have a very valid passport as far as entry into the world of folklore is concerned. They're really at home in another world than the world of folklore as far as the folklore establishment is concerned. It's possible that the folklore establishment has too restrictive a view of what its field of study should be. On the other hand, it's got to restrict its field of studies somewhere, otherwise, it gets out of proportion, you know, there's no containing it.
But, as far as I can see, in its extremely mixed and heterogeneous form, what we call the folksong revival is very vigorous. It means an enormous lot of different sorts of musics and particularly a great multiplicity of forms of performance, of performance styles and so on, so much the better. Some improve the material, some diminish it, but, as to the future, well, I haven't the faintest idea. I don't know what function a traditional repertory is likely to serve in the future. It may be, for example, maybe, as politically and economically, things get more critical, then large sections of people of, for example, the working class, become involved emotionally in movements that demand the provision of songs. And, it may well be, because the conventions is already well established, that industries may well throw up quite a lot of newly created political material of a much more firm traditional basis than the sort of pastiche of folksong that is likely to be produced by intellectuals writing on behalf of the working class in a 'folksongish' fashion. It's always a possibility, but I wouldn't necessarily say that's a prophecy.
What small amount of creation on more or less traditional lines, on more or less folkloric lines, that has gone on over the last hundred years has been in the realm of industrial song, without a doubt. And the creation of new industrial songs on quite an identifiably folkloric level took quite a lively new lease of life in the nineteen-fifties and sixties partly by contagion from the folksong revival because people who weren't necessarily part of the revival came to feel that the sort of things they had in mind as valuable songs had a certain prestige and so they created songs of that sort. I was looking at a letter - I think it's in my file now - that I had from George Purdom who wrote Farewell to Cotia, for example. It was a letter he wrote to me and [ ] and he happened to mention that he had never had anything to do with the folksong revival - he worked with Jack Elliot, and he knew what Jack was up to, and he knew Jack's sort of songs. And he knew several songs from his family - from his father, grandfather, so on, of that sort. But, with young colliers taking to that sort of song as well as to the pop repertory, he had been interested to make one or two songs of that sort and he sent me actually one or two other of his songs, which he'd done to traditional tunes, which are very good - every bit as good as Farewell to Cotia.
Well, as I say, that's a sort of a rather curious re-emergence of a creative spring - a spring that was able to emerge partly because the ground had already been prepared by the folksong revival. He probably - if it'd been in the thirties, he'd probably never would have produced his songs because they had no sort of a prestige - you know, the precedent for them had disappeared.
BT: I think we'll call it a day on that.
2. Interestingly, Dave Arthur quotes Bert using more or less the same words regarding his activities in eastern Europe (see DA: 153).
3. From 1 January until 7 March 1974, Britain was on a government imposed three-day week. From 5 February until 21st February, miners were on a strike, called by the National Union of Miners. The interview took place on 2nd February, 1974.
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