logo Enthusiasms No 41
A collection of shorter pieces on subjects of
interest, outrage or enthusiasm ...

A Folk Song ...
by Any Other Name?

I read with interest Mike Yates's Enthusiasms article The Other Songs, which deals with the non-traditional songs to be found in singers' repertoires.  It touched on a number of questions I would like to comment on, as did the rather acrimonious correspondence from C J Bearman in Musical Traditions letter pages recently, as well as bringing to mind other aspects of traditional singing that have been bothering me over the years.

Mike wrote:

It is almost a commonplace to say that traditional singers do not only sing traditional songs.  Popular and Music Hall songs feature frequently in traditional repertoires, and this has been the case for many, many years.  Early song collectors, such as Cecil Sharp, Lucy Broadwood and Ralph Vaughan Williams constantly bemoaned the fact that they had to 'suffer' such songs during the process of extracting 'folksongs' from their respective singers.  As musicians, these collectors were probably motivated in the first place by the song's melodies.  The words, they knew, had been printed on broadsides - 'veritable dunghills' according to Professor Child - and, so, were of lesser importance.  And, of course, the Music Hall and popular songs of the time were of no interest whatsoever.

Well, as we know, singers have never made such distinctions and what follows is a survey of some of the Music Hall songs that I know have passed into 'oral' tradition.

The question of whether the music hall songs he quotes have passed into the 'oral' tradition is, I believe, a debatable one which involves whether they have been taken up by the community, altered by adaptation, appeared in different versions, been transmitted orally, and a number of other considerations.  Does a singer learning a song directly from a record and then singing it really qualify it for having passed into the oral tradition?  It is not how I understand the term.

This aside, the article does bring to mind another subject I would like touch on, that of singers' attitudes to the various types of songs in their repertoires.  Mike is, of course, correct in his statement that traditional singers do not only sing traditional songs.  However, it is this fact that has, I believe, led to a basic misunderstanding of traditional singers attitudes to their repertoire in that it is often assumed that they do not differentiate between the different types of songs.  Doesn't everybody sing, play or listen to different types of songs or music?  As Walter Pardon was cited a number of times in the piece, perhaps it is worth hearing what he had to say on the subject.  This is part of an interview Pat Mackenzie and I did with him in 1988.Private recording, Knapton, Norfolk; 1988.1  I have included an unedited transcript of the relevant section in case it is thought that, as was suggested on one occasion, we were putting words into Walter's mouth; his being got at was the term used at the time. 

J C - All right; take another song; take something like Marble Arch and Maid of Australia, both of which are fairly amusing, anyway, would you see any difference in them?

W P - Well yes, because there's a difference in the types of the music, that's another point.  You can tell Van Diemen's Land is fairly old by the sound, the music, and Irish Molly and Marble Arch is shortened up; they shortened them in the Victorian times.  And so they did more so in the Edwardian times.  Some songs then, you'd hardly start before you'd finish, you see; you'd only a four line verse, two verses and a four line chorus and that'd finish.  You'd get that done in half a minute; and the music wasn't as good.  Yeah, the style has altered.  You can nearly tell by the old Broomfield Hill, that's an old tune; The Trees They Do Grow High, you can tell, and Generals All.

Nine times out of ten I can get an old fashioned ten keyed accordion, German tuned, you can nearly tell what is an old song.  Of course that doesn't matter what modern songs there is, the bellows always close when that finish, like that.  And you go right back to the beginning of the nineteenth and eighteenth (century), they finish this way, pulled out, look.  You take notice how Generals All finish; that got an old style of finishing, so have The Trees They Do Grow High, so have The Gallant Sea Fight, in other words, A Ship To Old England Came, that is the title, 'The Gallant Sea Fight'.  You can tell they're old, the way they how they… that drawn out note at finish.  You just study and see what they are, how they work, you'll find that's where the difference is.

And as that got further along; that's where I slipped up with Black Eyed Susan.  I thought that was probably William the Fourth by the music, but that go back about to 1730, that one do.  Well, a lot of them you'll find, what date back years and years, there's a difference in the style of writing the music, as that progressed along that kept altering a lot.  Like up into Victorian times, you've got Old Brown's Daughter, you see, that come into Victorian times; well that style started altering, they started shortening the songs up, everything shortened up, faster and quicker, and the more new they get, the more faster they get, the styles alter, I think you'll find if you check on that, that's right.

Later in the same interview we asked him about his own singing.
J C - Do you think that when you started singing in the clubs and festivals, do you think you are singing any different than you were singing when you were younger?

W P - Dash, yes, I think so.

J C - Do you know in what way?

W P - Oh, I don't know, put more expression in probably; I think so.  Well, but you see, you take these, what we call the old type… the old folk song, they're not like the music hall song, are they, or a stage song, there's a lot of difference in them.  I mean a lot of these… some … it all depend what and how you're singing.  Some of them go to nice lively, quick tunes, and others are… you don't do Van Diemen's Land… If there's a sad old song you don't go through that very quick.  Like Up to the Rigs is the opposite way about.

I mean, we must put expression in, you can't sing them all alike.  Well most of the stage songs you could, if you understand what I mean.  According to what the song is you put the expression in or that's not worth hearing; well that's what I think anyhow.  And as I never did sing them, you see, there was no expression I could put in.

The myth that singers, while including all types of songs in their repertoire, were unable to distinguish between these types has been one of the main causes of the confusion that has sprung up around the terms folksong or traditional song.  I am not suggesting that Mike subscribes to this misconception, he's spent far too long recording singers for that, but I believe it is widespread enough to make it worthwhile to attempt to dispel the illusion.

It is quite obvious from the above, and other interviews we recorded with Walter, that he was well able to distinguish between traditional and non-traditional songs; and he was not alone in being able to do so.  Irish traveller, Mary DelaneySee 'Early in the Month of Spring', Vaughan Williams Memorial Library cassette VWML 001 (1986) and From Puck to Appleby Musical Traditions double CD, MTCD325-6 (2003)2, who has a large repertoire of traditional songs and ballads, also knew a considerable number of Country and Western and popular songs which she refused to sing for us, insisting that they were not the ones we were looking for.  On several occasions she expressed regret that the modern songs had killed off the older ones and she told us that the only reason she sang the new ones was they were the ones that the lads asked for in the pub.  Mary has a phenomenal memory, so the act of learning new songs was not difficult for her.  She termed the songs we would call traditional "me daddy's songs", despite the fact that only a small part of her repertoire came from him. 

Traveller Mikeen McCarthyIbid and 'Michael McCarthy, Singer and Ballad Seller, Singer Song and Scholar', Jim Carroll (ed. Ian Russell), Sheffield Academic Press, (1986)3 described how he saw pictures when he sang his traditional songs; just like being in the cinema, giving detailed descriptions of characters and locations, though these were not included in the texts.  However, this was only with his traditional songs; there were no pictures with his popular, sentimental songs, no descriptions at all.  Mikeen spoke of "fireside" songs and "pub" or "street" songs (he had printed and sold ballad sheets around the fairs and markets in County Kerry in the 1940s) and said this not only referred to the type of song but also to the way they were sung.

Being able to distinguish between traditional and non-traditional material did not automatically imply a preference, though, certainly in the case of Mary Delaney, on more than one occasion she expressed an opinion as to the superiority of the older songs.  This was also true of Walter.  Here is part of an interview we recorded with him in 1993.Private interview, Knapton, Norfolk (1993)4

J C - If you had the choice Walter… if somebody said to you one night they were going to ask you to sing say half-a-dozen or a dozen songs even, of all your songs, what would be the choice, can you think offhand what you would choose to sing?

W P - The Pretty Ploughboy would be one, that's one; Rambling Blade would be another one, The Rambling Blade would be two, Van Diemen's Land three, Let The Wind Blow High or Low, that'd be four, Broomfield Hill, that's five, Trees They Do Grow High, six, that'd be six.

On other occasions Walter told us how he set out to learn the songs, getting them from his mother, his Aunt Alice and mainly from his Uncle Billy Gee.  He did not receive them by osmosis, but deliberately learned them by writing them down.  He said that when he was young, the people in his age group were not interested in the old songs, but preferred the popular songs of the time as they came out.  He had always been interested in the old folk songs (his phrase), and could always tell the difference between them and the other types.

It came as no surprise to me that singers were well able to make a distinction between the varying types of song, indeed, I would have been surprised if they were not.  After all, if I am able to distinguish between a Victorian parlour ballad, an Edwardian popular song, a musical hall piece and a song from the Second World War, and I believe I am, there is no earthly reason why singers we have recorded such as Walter Pardon, Mary Delaney, Mikeen McCarthy, Tom Lenihan'Paddy's Panacea', Topic record, Topic 12TS363 (1978)5 or anybody else, should not be capable of making the same distinction.

When we issued the Travellers cassette, Early in the Month of Spring back in 1986, a reviewer took us to task for not including Country and Western songs, because, as he rightly pointed out, travellers had them in their repertoire.  I have a confession - I am not particularly interested in listening to or recording Country and Western songs; nor do I have much interest in Victorian parlour ballads, Edwardian popular songs or music hall songs.  I find them, by and large, trite, mawkishly over-sentimental, false, vacuous, and patronising; frankly, I'd rather watch paint dry.  However, this is beside the point.  Were I a musicologist or a social anthropologist carrying out an in-depth study of the life and culture of the Irish Travelling People I would, of course, include them in my researches.  I am neither of these; my interests lie in recording and researching traditional songs.

What efforts we made to record non-traditional material from Travellers and from other singers proved only partially successful, mainly because of the fact that once we had made our interests known, we found them reluctant to give us anything other than the old songs, me daddy's songs, the old come-all-ye's, traditional, folk or whatever particular designation was given by them; (Walter Pardon always used the term folk song while, over here in the West of Ireland, traditional is fairly common).  When we recorded The Rambling Blade from Walter he followed his performance by saying: "That's the best old folk song ever written".

On the night we recorded the Country and Western song, The Ballad of John F Kennedy, the singer, and others present, insisted that it was not one of the real old songs.  That same night we also got A Bunch of Violets Blue, Roses of Heidelberg and Sweetheart, Sweetheart, Sweetheart, all learned via records and all falling within the definition the of 'other' songs.  When we were compiling Early in the Month of Spring and From Puck to Appleby, I confess we didn't spend a great deal of time agonising over whether to include any of these.  Nor incidentally, did we take too long deciding whether to include The Grey Cock, Edward or The Outlandish Knight, all recorded on the same night.  Everything we have recorded, traditional or non-traditional, remains as part of our collection and if we ever write up our work they will, of course, be part of it.  Should anyone feel the desire to sing the other songs we have recorded I will be happy to supply copies (so long as they promise not to try and pass them off as traditional!!)

When I first became interested in traditional song and began attending folk clubs, I came to love the songs about poaching and transportation, life at sea and the shanties, the press gang and recruiting, rural love, mining, weaving, the bothy ballads, bawdy and erotic songs, Napoleonic ballads and the whole wonderful and wide repertoire being sung at that time.  I became aware of, and developed a life-long love for the ballads.  It was thanks in part to Mike Yates's generosity in allowing me to copy some of his recordings when we both lived in Manchester in the Sixties, that I developed an interest in traditional singers.  I continued to attend folk clubs for over twenty years and watched as, with a few notable exceptions which were castigated by many as elitist, (purist or finger-in-ear were also common terms of abuse), the traditional songs were gradually edged out by the other songs until it was not uncommon to come away from a folk club without hearing a single folk song.  The repertoire changed, the narrative songs and ballads declined, to be replaced by a diet of unsatisfying pap.  I have not attended a British folk club for some years now but, from what I hear, things haven't altered greatly.  I was told not so long ago of a North of England folk club that put on a night of Beatles songs.  Why not; it seemed to be the inevitable road that the folk scene was taking!!

I believe that one of the barriers to our knowledge and understanding of traditional song is the lack of information from the singers themselves.  There has been, as far as I am aware, no significant body of work carried out (or if it has been, it is not readily available) with traditional singers to discover their feelings and understanding of their songs and what significance they had to themselves and their communities.  By and large, field singers have been treated as little more than repositories of songs rather than sources of valuable information.  Understanding of what makes a traditional song seems to have been based largely on academic analysis; the singers' opinions apparently not deemed worthy of consideration.  This I believe has, on occasion, led to the role of the singer as a creative artist and as a performer being devalued.  In her highly speculative note to the ballad The Lake of Col Fin'The New Green Mountain Songster', Helen Harkness Flanders, Elizabeth Flanders Ballard, George Brown and Phillips Barry (eds.), Yale University Press, (1939)6, involving mermaids and magic islands, American collector and ballad scholar, Helen Harkness Flanders wrote:

Popular tradition, however, does not mean popular origin.  In the case of our ballad, the underlying folklore is Irish de facto, but not de jure: the ballad is of Oriental and literary origin, and has sunk [my emphasis, J C] to the level of the ''folk'' which has the keeping of folklore.  To put it in a single phrase, memory not invention is the function of the folk.
Often the early collectors have been taken to task for their narrowness of approach in only taking down what they considered folk song.  I have to say that, for all the mistakes piled at the door of these pioneers, I believe this narrowness to have been a strength rather than a weakness.  What they did was identify a unique group of songs which they called, accurately or otherwise, folk songs, attempt to analyse them, and in doing so, left for posterity a wonderful body of material that would otherwise almost certainly have been neglected.  Though I believe they made many mistakes and their work is in great need of re-examination, I often feel that the most serious accusation that can be made against them was that they didn't get everything right first time around.

While I have never been an uncritical adherent of Sharp's ideas and have believed for a long time that folk song scholarship would benefit greatly from a re-assessment of his work, I have always felt a deep gratitude for the groundbreaking work carried out by him and his colleagues in salvaging the songs before they disappeared completely.  When I learned, nearly twenty years ago, that somebody was going to deal critically with the work of Sharp and the early collectors'Fakesong', Dave Harker, Open University Press (1985)7, I was delighted; I thought at last there was a chance that their ideas were going to be analysed positively and brought up-to-date.  However, I was not prepared for the 'Somerset Chainsaw Massacre' that was to follow, where not only did we witness the throwing out of the baby and the bathwater, but the bath as well.  The recent 'Malcolm in the Middle' correspondence in the letter pages of Musical Traditions is, I believe, a natural outcome of the negative and unhelpful bloodletting that has taken place.  I can't help feeling that, for all the rainforests of paper and the rivers of ink that have been expended on denigrating the work of Sharp and his colleagues, we are really none the wiser in our understanding of the tradition.

It is many years now since I more-or-less abandoned the term folk song because of the confusion that had been caused by its constant misuse.  Now it seems the same confusion has grown up around the term traditional.  As well as missing the 'good old days' when it was possible to hear a folk song sung at a folk club, I have sometimes found myself at a loss at a number of conferences I have attended where the subjects under discussion had little to do with the songs to which I have spent the last forty years listening and studying.  I find myself in a landscape dotted with deserted rather than imagined villages, the former occupants having moved away to pursue other interests.

Back in 1967, A L Lloyd raised the question of the re-definition of the term folk song.  In the last chapter of Folk Song in England'Folk Song in England', A L Lloyd, Lawrence and Wishart, (1967)8 he wrote:

If 'Little Boxes' and 'The Red Flag' are folk songs, we need a new term to describe 'The Outlandish Knight', 'Searching for Lambs' and 'The Coal-owner and the Pitman's Wife'.
He was probably right, even as far back as 1967, that it was time for a re-assessment of what we mean by traditional/folk song, and if it was true then it is even more so now.  What a pity that there are hardly any of the real experts left to give us guidance - the singers.

Jim Carroll - 4.10.03


  1. Private recording, Knapton, Norfolk; 1988.
  2. See Early in the Month of Spring, Vaughan Williams Memorial Library cassette VWML 001 (1986) and From Puck to Appleby Musical Traditions double CD, MTCD325-6 (2003)
  3. Ibid and Michael McCarthy, Singer and Ballad Seller, Singer Song and Scholar, Jim Carroll (ed. Ian Russell), Sheffield Academic Press, (1986)
  4. Private interview, Knapton, Norfolk (1993)
  5. Paddy's Panacea, Topic record, Topic 12TS363 (1978)
  6. The New Green Mountain Songster, Helen Harkness Flanders, Elizabeth Flanders Ballard, George Brown and Phillips Barry (eds.), Yale University Press, (1939)
  7. Fakesong, Dave Harker, Open University Press (1985)
  8. Folk Song in England, A L Lloyd, Lawrence and Wishart, (1967)

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