logo Enthusiasms No 6
A collection of shorter pieces on subjects of
interest, outrage or enthusiasm ...

The Loss of the English Traditions

Your Editor has been discussing - in the desultory way common to those with too much free time on their hands - various ideas about music, traditions, life, the universe and everything with an E-friend in the USA, Julie Hennigan (who wrote the excellent article on Bob Holt for MT).  In the course of the conversation, we'd both noted at various times that the English had lost, or abandoned, their traditional culture sooner and more thoroughly than most other nations.  I had also lamented the fact that so few of the traditional performers we do know about had children who carried on the traditional culture of their parents.  When she asked me to suggest a reason for this I responded, briefly and off the top of my head, with the following:

We seem to have lost our native culture (rather than had it taken away from us by others) much earlier than other nations.  I wonder if, as the centre of 'the greatest Empire the world has ever known', we felt that culture, traditions, ritual, pageantry, etc., were more properly given into the hands of professionals - who would make a suitably grand job of it.  (I think this has happened with other empires too?)  As a result, most people retreated from their roles as participators and became merely an audience for the spectacle.

Where traditions did survive was in isolated and 'backward' communities, and these were inevitably looked down upon by those who had the education and experience to 'know better'.  It doesn't take too many years of this sort of attitude to produce the situation I was describing : one in which the younger members of the few still-supportive communities had no wish to continue the traditions.  Thus, by the time that the Second Revival had made it possible for the traditional performers to reach a wider audience who would (at least in part) understand what they were doing, almost all of them were dead.

This was much less the case in Ireland and Scotland - perhaps since, although their people participated in the Empire, they never saw it as theirs - and retained a strong sense of national identity in the face of English repression.  Comments welcome!

Obviously, she was busy with other things for a while because, a couple of months later, the following appeared at the end of a message relating to the Bob Holt article:

I was looking again at your theory about why England lost its traditions so early, and a number of things occurred to me - perhaps more easily discussed in person, but I can outline my general ideas here, I suppose.

While the theory itself sounds plausible (widespread consciousness of being an imperial power leading to the surrender of local tradition to national 'professionals'), my gut reaction is that, while the Empire played a part, it did so less by having a direct psychological effect on people than by hastening other changes which I feel are the chief enemies of all local tradition: the commercialisation and technologisation of society.  These things had already been at work, though on a much smaller scale, until the nineteenth century, when the wider availability of capital (which in the case of world powers was largely made possible through exploitation of their colonies) hugely increased the amount of commerce within and without the country - which, I would argue, would have a tendency to change people's tastes through exposure to outside influences (as well as aspirations towards betterment of social station), especially as more and more people moved to the cities.  Hand in hand with increasing wealth goes development of technology, which ultimately generated mass transportation and mass media, both of which must have had a profound effect on local culture.  I think England's wealth and status thus brought her people more rapidly into what we now think of as 'mainstream culture.'

I was talking to my father about all this last night, and he reminded me that war had a huge impact, too, on societies and communities, partly through the general disruption and displacement it causes, partly because of the technological developments it hastens, but also through the dissatisfaction with one's own way of life which it can create.

I think the same eroding processes were at work in America, but because of its vastness and the existence of large, relatively isolated areas like Appalachia, more communities went longer without as much impact from the outside world.  Many of the technological 'advances' of the 20th century came much later to these more 'backward' areas.  In the cities and towns, people were just as willing as anyone else to let other people create entertainment or pageantry for them, whether because of the novelty appeal or because it made them feel more 'cultured' than their poorer brethren back on the farm.

I didn't really have a great deal to add to this beyond "Yes, that all sounds pretty reasonable", so I passed on the above extracts from our conversations to Fred McCormick (contributor of, among other good things, the recent Article on the Hammons Family), saying "I neither disagree with her nor have anything more of any particular merit to say on the subject.  Knowing you to be a man who thinks about 'big issues', I wondered whether you had any ideas to contribute to the discussion?"  After a while, he replied:

What you're asking seems to devolve into four questions;

  1. Why do folk traditions die out?
  2. Why were the English ones such an early casualty?
  3. Why do people want to revive them?
  4. Why are the English so disparaging about their native culture?
Regarding the first question, there are a number of possible answers.  As I indicated in the Hammons article, folklore - which is what we are talking about - is social culture which grows out of non-formal group relations.  Therefore, as long as informal relationships exist, folklore will exist.  It merely changes as society changes and adopts new forms.  However, I would argue that, over the last couple of centuries, we have seen qualitative changes in the types of folklore which societies world-wide produce.  From this I would argue that the kinds of folklore which urban industrial societies produce have generally declined in importance and are fairly weak.  They have been displaced by, and exist on the peripheries of, more formal types of culture.

There are a lot of reasons for this decline and I think your friend is right to point to war as one of them.  Certainly, the decimation of Cotswold Morris teams, and of other performance groups, eg. the Antrobus soul cakers, after the first world war is evidence of this.  However, there is a danger in ascribing the decline of tradition to particular causes.  Namely, that if something happens to disrupt a particular tradition, then that tradition, or something like it, will re-emerge once the cause of the disruption is past.  I suspect that the Irish potato famine would make a useful case study.

Pre-famine, there was a large Gaelic tradition of song and story and very little music.  What music existed was in the hands of a few professionals, most of whom I suspect perished in the famine.  Around the same time, the Gaelic language collapsed over large parts of the country, thus creating an enormous cultural vacuum.  It was filled partially by the growth of amateur music makers and partly by the spread of folksongs in English.  Folk traditions therefore need to be understood as self perpetuating entities - ie. if the social conditions are right for their existence, they will exist.

Also, we find that folk traditions sometimes die out because of changes in the consciousness of the folk.  Michael Haralambos: 'Right On: From Blues to Soul in Black America' argues that Black Americans started to reject the blues and began to cleave to soul music during the seventies because of changes in Black attitudes.  This was the time of Black pride and Black upward mobility and identity.  Black people began to see the blues as no-good, down in the alley music - as Jim Crow in fact.  On the other hand, soul, which grew out of the gospel movement, embodied values of pride and respectability.  Also, unlike the blues, the idiom wasn't something which grew out of conditions imposed on them by their White masters.  Indeed, a lot of advocates of soul see in the music something of the nobility of a lost African heritage.  I think the Haralambos thesis has a lot going for it, but I'm not sure how readily we can apply it to the present question.  Urban blues isn't folk music, neither is soul, and what happened was that young Blacks simply swapped one popular music idiom for another.

However, I suspect that there must have been examples in the past, where changes in the consciousness of younger generations led them to reject the folksongs of their elders, but went on to create new folksongs of their own.  Indeed, Bert Lloyd: 'Folksong in England' says something about a new generation of songs growing up in a corner of Western Transylvania after the second world war.  Bert's argument is very Stalinist hack in that he claims that the growth of communism inspired the younger generation to reject the mournful, dispirited songs of their forbears and to develop a much more outgoing, optimistic type of song.  Whether or not you agree with Bert, and I find his conclusions distinctly dubious, you can't deny that the change took place and that something must happened to cause that change.  What I'm saying then is that folk traditions can take a temporary nose dive for a variety of reasons.  But, if conditions are right they will reassert themselves.

However, going back to the idea of folklore as the product of the social group, we can see folklore both as a shared transaction between performer and receiver and as a measure of social solidarity.  Indeed, there seems to be a link between the intensity of solidarity within the group and the type and 'quality' of folklore it produces.  I always find this very difficult to explain but, basically people will not gather together to sing, or dance, or tell each other stories unless there is a sufficiently strong communal spirit.

Mike Brocken [see our 'British Folk Revival' articles/book], in approaching this issue from the perspective of a pop music historian, keeps telling me that there is no fundamental difference between pop music and folk.  His argument is that pop music is used by the social group in exactly the same way that folk music was; that it is absorbed by people into their systems of informal social relationships and it therefore becomes part of informal group culture.  I admit he has a point and I don't feel that enquirers into folk or popular music can understand either field without appreciating this.  What he misses though are the questions of ownership and specialisation.

Pop music does not become transformed by group culture.  If it is, then it becomes folk music.  Therefore, even when a pop record becomes part of group culture it, and the sounds it makes, remain within the domain of the music industry.  It does not become reshaped by the group.  As far as folk music is concerned, the material is owned and moulded by the members of the group on a collective basis.  Moreover - and I'm here defining folk music in terms of its amateur status - there is no social difference between singer and audience.  Indeed, in every tradition that I'm aware of, the question of whether an individual is performer or audience, revolves around whether he or she happens to be listening or singing at any one given moment.

Anyway, once the strength of the community goes into decline, song as a shared experience goes with it.  Along with it go many other of the artefacts of folk culture, storytelling for instance.  We can object that some forms of song and story exist as folk cultural creations in our own time, rugby songs, jokes and urban legends for instance.  However, I would suggest that these survive because their trivial nature means they don't require much solidarity to exist.  You don't for example need a very robust culture to sustain a few jokes, or to tell a few urban myths.  On the other hand, as was the practice in Connemara until very recently, it has to be a fairly close knit community which feels free to gather in one another's houses and spend all night listening to a storyteller.  By the same token, present day work groups have customs and practices which may be labelled folklore.  However, where you may share a joke with your colleagues - and that is precisely the kind of shared transaction which folklore is - you are far less likely to share a song with them.  By, the by, there's a fascinating study of the folklore of Ballymenone, Co Fermanagh written by Henry Glassie called 'Passing the Time'.  In it he discusses the ceilidhing which went on in that part of the world and shows how it related to the neighbourliness of the community and how it was killed off with the arrival of television and the movement of people out of their old cottages into less open types of accommodation.

Of course technology plays a major part in this, but it does so as one of the causes of communal decline.  For example, people acquire television.  That causes them to retreat from the community which in turn causes the tradition to wither away.  In essence then, I think the primary reason why, among the world's folk traditions, the English tradition was one of the earliest casualties is that we were the world's first industrial nation.  Industrialism = mass society and mass society is the anathema of the small community.  There are other reasons, but they'll come out in the rest of what I've got to say.

Turning to the third question, why do people feel the need to revive folk traditions?  All folk revivals, however much they may be disguised by political ideologies or whatever, ultimately stem back to the nationalistic movements of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  There was a desire, at this particular time, on the part of middle class elements of subject peoples, to forge an independent national identity.  By so doing they could distance themselves from their oppressors.  They looked to folklore in this because it was commonly held that the peasantry were the social class least corrupted by extraneous influences.  ie., the peasantry were 'purer' Poles or Ukrainians or Finns, or Slavs or Irish, than were the more cultured, and therefore cosmopolitan, elements of those societies.  Rustic simplicity had in fact kept the peasants isolated from foreign influences.  Therefore, their folklore was seen as the true soul of the nation.  There is an awful lot of crap in this.  Folktales, superstitions, songs etc., cross national boundaries with absolutely no regard for ethnic identity.  Also, the propounders of folklore as national identity were not above faking a few national traditions.  Ireland and Scotland are riddled with phoney examples of 'authentic' folklore, quite a few of which have been fed into the national consciousness and accepted as the genuine article - even by the carriers of folklore.

England is one of the few countries in Europe which was never oppressed by foreign nations in the recent past, and which retained the integrity of its national boundaries.  Therefore, there was never any need to seek a national identity within the peasantry.  True, Sharp looked for an English identity in folksong, as did other collectors of his era and it is also true that they were motivated by Continental ideas on nationalism.  However, Sharp's nationalism was quite different to that of the Continentals.  It centred around the belief that, while England had been fighting wars and conquering subject peoples, it had either not developed or had lost an identifiable musical culture.  Also, the music which the educated English enjoyed was Germanic.  At that particular time, Germany was becoming a major economic competitor.  It was threatening to overrun us.  Therefore, what we needed was a music which not Germanic but British.

To add to this, England is unique in being divided culturally as well as socio/economically.  There is quite a long history in this, so I hope you'll excuse me skating over it.  However, there are two books worth consulting: 'Popular culture in Early Modern Europe' by Peter Burke and 'By Rite' by Bob Bushway.  What they say between them is that the European peasantry and elite once shared a lot of common traditions - storytelling, balladry, dance - and that these traditions only became the preserve of the common folk when the other classes withdrew.  In other words, the growth of polite society in Europe involved the disassociation, on the part of the elite, from the habits and customs of the common folk.  In England, this process went farther than anywhere else, much farther even than Scotland or Ireland.  The nett effect was that the English middle and upper classes felt absolutely no connection with the lower orders.  The lower orders were there to be looked down on, their culture was there to be denigrated.  Even when the middle classes deigned to collect the folklore of their inferiors, they simply patronised them as carriers of 'rude' survivals.  I didn't actually say this in the Hammons article, but I suspect that one reason why Sharp believed that folk melodies evolved via communal selection and variation was because he could not believe an individual member of the peasantry was capable of creating something as beautiful as say Searching for Lambs.

England was also unique, at least among the nations of Western Europe, in possessing a very large empire - and the English attributed their success in this to social evolution.  The English middle classes had evolved farther and faster than anyone else.  They were at the top of the tree of humanity.  Instead of looking to the peasantry then, the English looked to the 'glories' of the empire.  They needed to be able to justify this of course, and therefore, they taught an ethic of subservience and compliance, not just to subject peoples abroad, but to subject peoples at home.  The whole empire would hang together and in so doing would benefit everyone, so long as everyone knew their place and kept to it.  Therefore, the ideal cultural models which the lower classes were expected to aspire to weren't their own folklore but the ideas and ideals of the ruling class.  I don't think the existence of empire on its own amounts to much of a threat to folk traditions.  As an example, Turkey once had a huge empire, yet that doesn't seem to have been much of a threat to Turkish folk music.  The Turkish empire has disseminated, but Turkish folk music is alive and well and living in Turkey.  Where I think the British empire was significant, is that it induced patterns of deference in the carriers of folk tradition in a culturally divided society.  The lower orders were brought up to feel that what they had created was inferior.  Hence, when other factors caused the extinguishment of English traditions, neither they nor their 'betters' felt any inclination to reverse the process

That more or less explains the fourth point.  The condescending attitude of so many English people where folklore is concerned is due to a lack of 'native' nationalism among the elite and to disparaging attitudes among that elite.

The downside of all this is of course that the English receive no state backing for traditional arts, either for performance or study.  God knows we could use some support for both.  The upside is that at least we are left alone.  There are no academies in England to study and preserve folk tradition.  Equally, there are no Ceaucescus or Stalins or Hitlers to form artificial State dance troupes, or to use folk tunes for goose stepping armies, or to use the culture of the common people as the means of their repression.  Reg Hall's thesis on Irish music contains some excellent points about the use of folklore as an instrument of social control by the way.

There is an exception to all this of course.  The Americans are extremely good at preserving folk tradition and at funding academic study, yet they have never been suppressed.  For that matter, I do not believe anyone could accuse them of using folklore as a means of keeping people in check.  The reason I think lies in the fact America is an extremely young country and has few identifiable national traditions.  Therefore, just like any other aspirant nation it has to look to folklore as an expression of national identity.  In the case of America, there is also a strong concordance between the march of the nation and the folksongs which it possesses; civil war, expansion of the frontier, cowboys, the building of the railroads and practically every wreck that ever took place on them.  There is even a Library of Congress LP on the assassination of presidents.  The history which America possesses therefore is intensely bound up with its folklore.

(For fear my memory might be misquoting the various authors mentioned, I think I should say that these weren't specifically referred to for the purpose of the epistle.  Rather, I was hoping to point you both in the direction of further enlightenment.)

That ought to keep us going for a while, and raises enough issues to make me think that the discussion would benefit from being opened to a wider forum.  Consequently, I've published all the relevant material here and hope that other readers will wish to contribute ideas, rebuttals, abuse, etc. to the address below.

Rod Stradling - 26.10.98

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