My music has at its centre the most prolific of all composers: Anon.
I have been asked for a personal view of what is happening on the English folk music scene at present, and personal is what it shall be. Some of what I have written is, I feel, specific to England - some of the issues are not. It will contain generalisations to which there are numerous exceptions.
Here is the first. The English folk music scene exists in a ghetto largely of its own making. It does not encourage work which challenges its thinking, and at the other end of the continuum, nor is it in a position to insist on strict adherence to traditional style bearing.
Perhaps my writing and recording work have cloistered me away more than is good for me, for indifferent to my misgivings, the English folk scene is thriving. Festivals are as well attended as ever and, I am told, by a younger average age group each year. BBC 4 Television has just recently broadcast a three-part series entitled Folk Britania, which celebrates the 'second folk revival'. The haemorrhaging of the folk clubs seems to have abated with occasional new promoters chancing their arm. We now have our first Folk Music Degree graduates released into the community and stirring things up for us old lags. I could go on.
So what is my problem? I'm impatient. The English have deep-rooted cultural issues which I feel our folk music could go a long way towards resolving. Putting it as simply as I can manage: a chequered, bellicose, imperialist past has left us lurching from Land of Hope and Glory to banning black bin-bags (because somebody associated 'black' with rubbish) in the space of only a couple of decades. I am among those who believe that England's highly developed adherence to political correctness stems from a sense of guilt, that it is a sign of cultural disarray, and that the time is approaching when we must move towards something more meaningful.
Moving forward in a positive way from this state of affairs is no small matter. Firstly, England's establishment would rather attempt any degree of legislative and cultural gymnastics before acknowledging the real issue. Secondly, the effect of this cultural confusion is that it attracts those who peddle a bureaucratic, commercial panacea. The heightened stratification, streamlining and compartmentalisation of commercial structure has crept into our media, our arts administration and practice, our politics and schools, our social and community organisations and inevitably, the individual's perception of just about everything. Only managers can manage, only painters can paint, only teachers can teach, only writers can write, only composers can compose. But where does that leave Anon.?
But when we 'English' look at the legacy left us by Anon., what do we find? Not icons but jewels. Songs, tunes, dances, ceremony, custom, lore, vocabulary, craft, magic and most crucially, an instinctive understanding of the pedagogical power of narrative. Nothing short of ancestral attempts to unriddle the universe. Offerings so perfect in their conception, so apposite, so full of wisdom, so spot-on, so timeless - so 'English' - that no 'cultural initiative' comes close.
Please understand these are the observations of a musician, not a history professor, but to paraphrase my dictionary, the common model for diaspora is the movement of a people away from the place where their culture was most concentrated. Putting the dictionary aside, my perception is that there is more often than not a bogey-man involved, real or otherwise, who will eventually play an important role. Upon arrival in new lands, the refugees congregate to reaffirm and reinvent their identity, and it seems to me that the oppressor plays a major role in this reunification and the cultural outpourings that follow. In many such cases diaspora becomes the catalyst to a great deal of positive cultural activity.
If, however, a people are not taken from their land and their way of life, but their land and their way of life are taken from them, we see the negatives of diaspora with few, if any, of the positives. Writing in the Journal of Music in Ireland I need hardly go into the details of enclosure and clearance, except perhaps to point out that these things took place in England too. The subtle but substantial difference is that we here in England are our own bogey-man.
Hugh Brody, writer, anthropologist and filmmaker, writes in The Other Side Of Eden on the enforced teaching of English as a replacement, not addition to, the native languages of North America.
Where clearances were carried out in, for example, Scotland and Ireland, those atrocities have entered the cultural fabric of those countries. They are eloquently mourned in song, story, poetry, painting and dance, and carried in the heart of Anon. from generation to generation. But when your oppressor is writing your history for you, there will be a great many glaring omissions, and I do not believe it is an overstatement to say that 'the English' have not been allowed to mourn the loss of that which defined them.
Rather than focus further on the enclosures I would like to give an example of how subtle the paradox is by looking at the vast body of song on the subject of Napoleon.
'Official' history focuses pretty much on battles and dates, for example, this line from the BBC's website: '... along with the help of Prussian general von Bluecher he [the Duke of Wellington] defeated Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815, bringing Napoleon's reign to an end.' But Anon. is captivated by the emperor's exploits, by the Prussian act of betrayal which leads to the downfall at Waterloo, and by the romanticism of the exile to Saint Helena, and an outpouring of song ensues. It is in between the lines of these songs that you can hear an unspoken hope, a yearning for Napoleon to cross the channel and overthrow the system which oppresses them - but for the English singer to sing in outright praise of Napoleon was not just unpatriotic it was treasonable. The closest to crossing the line I have ever heard is in the song Our Captain Calls All-hands; the young man is leaving for war and the girl asks "How can you go abroad fighting for strangers?" It is that use of the word 'for' which lays bare the plight of England's Anon.. It always has and it does still.
Recent sabbaticals have produced work for BBC Radio 3. Listening to The River was a demonstration of a relationship England's indigenous music has always had with regional speech and landscape. Christmas Champions was a collaboration with writer and storyteller Hugh Lupton and was a piece which delved into the mysteries of England's Mummers' Play. Far from a documentary on the subject it became a dreamlike journey along linear time (days, months, years) and circular time (seasons, ceremony, ancestral evocation). Traditional music has never adhered to the constructed boundaries of a governing class. Nor should our sense of ourselves. From Peterloo to Hinderskelf, to the suicide in my local park, it is the singer who will teach 'the English' how to love themselves. It is the singer who will encourage the 'English' to place their official history to one side for a moment and look to their individual stories. It is the singer who still, in the year 2006 asks 'How can you go abroad fighting for strangers?' And when we look more closely at our own individual stories we will find acts of stoicism, creativity, ingenuity, constancy, silliness and all the things that are common to humans the world over. We are no different from anyone else. Our indigenous cultural inheritance is no richer than anyone else's, but how long must we wait before we understand that it is no poorer?
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