Enthusiasms No 84
A collection of shorter pieces on subjects of
interest, outrage or enthusiasm ...
I have decided to turn my recent Editorial into part of an Enthusiasm, since I've had several Comment pieces come in - and can anticipate more to follow. So - here's the editorial concerned:
In the beginning was the word ... so we're told. But is that true?
Victor Grauer was one of the team which worked with Alan Lomax on his Cantometrics project back in the '60s. He wrote 'I've recently become interested in Cantometrics again thanks to certain new developments in genetic anthropology. Many things which had puzzled Lomax and myself about the distribution of musical styles worldwide are now making sense, thanks to the ability of these researchers to reconstruct some of mankind's earliest migrations from strands of DNA'.
One of the results of this work on the 'Out of Africa' theory, currently being explored in the field of genetic anthropology, has been the suggestion that the sung music of the Amazonian Pygmies and Kalahari Bushmen may well be part of the remains of the original culture of homo sapiens and - even more interestingly - may well have developed before speech. Groups of homo sapiens began leaving Africa almost 300,000 years ago, and would have taken their sung music with them. And we know, from the work of the Cantometrics project, that almost every subsequent human settlement has had its own folk songs.
So I think it's fairly clear that humans have sung for their own pleasure for countless centuries. This would be one of the reasons why printers have, since the sixteenth century, been making a living providing us with songs and ballads to sing. Would they have done so if there had not been singers to buy them? Would they have printed the words 'To be sung to the tune of .......' if such a song did not already exist?
Research on dance and drama have found that what went on in the Royal and Noble courts soon found its way into the countryside, albeit in simplified forms. And the same happened to the minstrelsy of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Songs were sung by ordinary people for their own enjoyment - even if no written record of it exists.
It should be clear to most thinking people that an ordinary person of the lower classes, from the 1801 Census until fairly recently, had just three pieces of information about them available to historical researchers: their birth; marriage; and death. Prior to that, virtually nothing. Unless they fell foul of the Law, or did something quite remarkable that resulted in a written record of some kind - that was it! It should also be clear that most of the ordinary singers of songs would not, as singers, find a place in a written record of any kind. This, of course, is one of the problems with 'history' ... most of it relies on the written record, and such records will only describe extra-ordinary events. And if singing for one's own pleasure and the entertainment of one's friends were as normal for most ordinary people as I firmly believe they were ... then there was nothing extra-ordinary about it, and thus little in the way of records of it.
Accordingly, I find myself a little irked by this new fashion of saying "This song dates from it's first printing by so-and-so printer in 1650." The admirable Steve Roud was by no means the first to float this idea but, since the success of his recent book Folk Song in England and its widespread coverage in the Media, this view seems, more and more, to be taken as gospel. To be fair, Steve never quite says this in his book, but careless reviewing (and careless listening) has resulted in this view becoming commonplace.
Clearly, an historian can only 'prove' that a song dates from the discovery of a 'first known' written record, but common sense demands that something similar must have preceded it. Exactly what that 'something similar' may have been is open to conjecture - we just don't know. Sadly, that is the fate of so much of the history of the ordinary people of the past (and, probably to a considerable extent, the present) - we just don't know!
Rod Stradling - 11.4.19
As one of the researchers who has irked you I feel the need to take issue with your recent editorial and bring some clarity to the obvious confusion.
Your first 6 paragraphs must surely be simple logic and taken as read. I can't think of anyone who would dispute them. However, how this relates to your 7th paragraph is beyond logic.
No-one is saying we can prove that the earliest extant broadside equals the origin of any ballad (Other than where the content makes this obvious, e.g., 'Bonny Bunch of Roses'). What we are saying is quite clear:
Steve Gardham - 22.4.19
Ed. I was not irked by researchers, but by others now saying that the date of a particular ballad is 'known'. Further, my use of the term 'something similar' was in quotes because it is a quote from Steve Roud's book.
When I first became interested in folksongs - over sixty years ago - it was fascinating to be told that a song such as The Bold Fisherman was based on medieval allegorical origins, and it came as something of a shock to later be told that it was simply yet another of the 'returned lover in disguise' songs. According to Steve Roud and Julia Bishop, the 'slightly mysterious words' led early folksong collectors on 'flights of fancy' about the songs origin. Again, according to Steve, the 'earliest extant (broadsides) date from about the 1820s (The New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs (2012) pages 392 - 93). This may well be true, but it does not necessarily prove that the song is no older than this date. As we all know, it is very hard to prove a negative and I feel sure that many folksongs predate their first known appearance on broadsides.
Although I have specifically mentioned The Bold Fisherman here, I am not trying to say that this is a song which predates the 1820s. I simply wish to point out that our perceptions have changed over the years. Sixty years ago, there were very few academics studying folksongs. Today this has changed, and standards have become far more rigorous. And so, we should not be surprised to find folksong studies going off in new and different directions. Sadly, though, this often means that when today's scholars write about the songs, we often only find lists of dated broadside versions, and little else. Perhaps what we need is a little more in the way of humanity when we consider the old songs.
Mike Yates - 12.4.19
Just a feeling then, Mike, nothing concrete to back it up? What had you in mind? Have you some examples? There are some good examples, some in articles on this website, but they are very few.
Mike Yates: 'We often only find lists of dated broadside versions, and little else. Perhaps what we need is a little more humanity when we consider the old songs'
The humanity lies in the texts themselves. They are mostly simple and straightforward with clear meanings and messages, and on the few occasions where explanations of old-fashioned terms are needed we do so. We can discuss the beliefs embodied in a song and place the song in its historical context if it has one, but other than that there is very little we can say without stating the obvious. If by 'a little more humanity' you mean the romantic stuff created in the past, I think we need to get beyond this if we are to have any credibility in the modern world.
Steve Gardham - 22.4.19
Accordingly, I did a search in the Roud Index for English songs without the word 'Printed' in the 'Format field'. This resulted in an astonishing sum of 28047 returns which, once duplicates had been removed, gave a total of 5142 such different songs. Clearly this doesn't mean that 5142 English 'folk songs' do not have a printed original source - simply that some of them may not. To find out more requires a good deal extra research.
Clearly, those songs with the highest Roud numbers are those most recently added to the Index, and so should be less likely to have a Broadside provenamce. Unsurprisingly then, the ten highest Roud numbers of my 5142 have no history of Broadside publication. Conversely, for the ten lowest Roud numbers: The Two/Three Ravens/Crows (Roud 5); The Two Sisters (Roud 8); The Cruel Mother (Roud 9); Lord Randall (Roud 10) have no history of a Broadside publication, and False Lamkin (Roud 6) has only two such entries. Roud's earliest entries seem to have all been old ballads and so it's not surprising that they had no history of Broadside publication. If we try ten in the middle of the range (around Roud 12880), we find all ten do have history of Broadside publication, although one of these has only a single songster to its name.
What does this tell us? Very little that was unexpected.
Rod Stradling - 1.6 19
Firstly rather than just refer to 'broadsides' per se, we prefer to use the term 'urban commercial enterprise' which of course includes broadsides, but can also include other things such as Music Hall, sheet music, music collections such as D'Urfey's Pills all of which as you well know have had an influence on oral tradition.
Your little list of early Roud numbers is quite inaccurate as a glance at Child would tell you. Three Ravens earliest extant version is in a printed book with the music, Ravenscroft's Melismata of 1611. The Cruel Mother has its earliest extant manifestation on a 17th century broadside (and most people are of the opinion that is the original after studying it and all other versions closely). Lord Randall is one of those international ballads found all over the continent and you are correct, it seems to have been disseminated orally over many centuries. The Two Sisters is highly likely the result of several translations form Scandinavian versions, probably in the 18th century when a lot of this was going on, particularly in Scotland, so again you are probably right about its lack of broadside interference.
Of course, for many folk songs/ballads we have no absolute proof who wrote them, and when, but by studying in great detail all known versions of a song and its evolution, and also studying many examples of broadsides and how they relate to oral tradition, you can actually arrive at many probabilities. Also we are not totally devoid of pretty conclusive evidence, as many 17th century broadsides had the writer's name appended, and people like Henry Mayhew actually interviewed and wrote about some of the writers of broadside ballads in the 19th century.
Steve Gardham - 7.6.19
Rod Stradling responds My 'little list of early Roud numbers' was not inaccurate, but taken from Roud's Index - not Child - as I assumed most readers would be more able to access the former. Three Ravens may appear in Ravenscroft's Melismata, but did he claim to have written it? Similarly, The Cruel Mother may appear in a 17th century broadside, but does this prove that this was an original composition?
Re: my point 5 - the completeness of our knowledge about the past should always be questioned. I was reminded of this by the case of the song If I Were a Blackbird. As you may imagine, my role as Editor of MT (and main reviewer of English CDs) means that I often get to read comments about the origins of this song. And what has always puzzled me is that no one (except me) seems to be aware of the quite different version - in terms of both melody and rhythm - sung by by Albert 'Diddy' Cook in Eastbridge Eel's Foot, and recorded by A L Lloyd on behalf of the BBC in 1938 or '39. (Dates seem often to be uncertain where Bert was involved!) This in spite of the fact that it is the very first known recording of the song by a traditional singer, and available on Topic's Voice of the People series CDs for over 20 years. So - my points about the invisibility of the singing of 'ordinary people' are rather born out, even in a period of supposed detailed academic scrutiny of the oral tradition.
As you many know (or not), for some time I have been involved in somewhat contentious arguments on just this question elsewhere and have given the matter a great deal of thought. While I don't wish to spread the contention to this forum, I feel I would like to comment on your editorials on the matter, which I tend to agree with.
During my arguments, the claim that our traditional songs originated on the broadside presses moved from being 90% plus to 'only those collected by Sharp and his colleagues' - a screeching U-turn as the argument frst started when I quoted MacColl's moving statement about our songs being created by 'the people - from the workers at the ploughshares to the hacks' at the end of 'The Song Carriers'. As you know, 'The Song Carriers' covered the whole range of our repertoire, from Wedderburn's Complaynt of Scotland to an anonymous WW2 lament concerning the death of an Irish worker in Birmingham, killed during a bombing raid. I was accused of being a starry-eyed naivet for accepting such nonsense. After a longish and somewhat acrimonious argument, the 'early 20th century' qualification appeared.
Whatever the truth of this, it is worth remembering that any knowledge we have of the our oral traditions dates back no further than the end of the nineteenth century, so it is virtually impossible to say which came first, oral or print versions, and we are left with only common sense to decide the matter.
There is far more to this discussion, of course, including the fact that Irish rural workers and traveller were making local songs by their thousands to record their experiences and opinions, right into the middle of the 20th century - beyond, in the case of the Travellers. It seems to me that once you accept that; if working people were capable of making songs, then they have to be serious contenders for having made our folk songs.
Jim Carroll - 16.6.19
I agree; there is good aesthetic reason for arguing that a song is new every time it is realised. However, this is not to say that there is no point in seeking and noting dates but rather that such an exercise has little aesthetic purpose though it may help the singer's imagination or with a history of people's changing taste in songs.
In Ireland songs can be particularly important because, there as elsewhere too, ordinary people, other than convicts, left very little documentary mark. We flounder in search of data about the concerns of their lives, and for hints of what they knew and how they thought. But, the thing that drew every one of us to 'folk' songs, the ones sung by heart in town and country by ordinary people, was the wonderful insight they gave into life events and how people managed joy and disaster. Fascinating also were the songs about events, general or personal.
But we have also discovered that a great deal can be learned about a song, and those who sang it, by finding its variants and trying to put them in order. For me, it started with hearing Geordie Hanna singing The Lisburn Lass: "She's proper tall and quite complete, Like a Wexford Girl from head to feet"; and finding a ballad sheet of John Nicholson (Belfast - fl. 1888 - 1919) "She's proper tall and quite complete, Like waxwork made from head to feet", realising that one followed the other and that, in the gap between one text and the other, there was a gulf of differing experience and knowledge. It took a little while longer to realise that this gap should be attributed to culture rather than ignorance; that Geordie, and the prior singers of The Lisburn Lass from the flat bog at the western shore of Lough Neagh had knowledge and experience, especially of their surroundings that others could never attain.
That gap in culture, that gap in understanding is occupied by two ideas - the first is that the textual change resulted from the need to reassert sense in a new location - the second is that the change indicates a difference of mentality. Geordie Hanna's is not a very good example - better is Stan Hugill's rejection of an often heard line in The Banks of Newfoundland - "wash the blood off that dead man's face and heave to beat the band" - which he said was nonsense - the 'dead man's face' being a roughly skull-shaped, flat metal plate with three equally spaced holes that served to connect the chains of two anchors, one on either side of a ship's bow to allow both to be raised using a single chain attached to the third hole. Such an arrangement was used when a ship was to lie at anchor for some long time - the chain and the dead man's face would lie on the bottom and gather weed and mud - "wash the mud off the dead man's face ". The cultural gulf there is immense; it involves the difference between actual experience and a model built of a general but uninformed idea of the brutality of shipboard life constructed well after such events.
So, where am I going with this? Since about 1969, I've been trying to get poets, musicians and students of history, music and literature to look at songs in oral tradition and cheap print on their own terms; that is those of the song makers, the singers, and their listeners. It's led me into some odd company and to write for some fairly abstruse outlets. First, I was more concerned with songs in tradition though my discovery that an obscure early 19th century poet called Hugh McWilliams wrote When a man's in love and The trip o'er the mountain sent me on a pursuit of vernacular poets, but ballad sheets have been my downfall. In 2007, I completed a thesis "'The Printed Ballad in Ireland': a guide to the popular printing of songs in Ireland, 1780 - 1920". It's comprehensive, it takes account of almost every collection of ballad sheets printed in Ireland, elucidates trade practices, how the songs conditioned people's understanding and belief, and details and critiques the state of scholarship regarding songs and their use as evidence in Ireland. It's anything but user friendly; 1129 pages, half of them lists (sorry Mike) but I hope I've put them to good use. Now this is feasible only where, as in Ireland, the ballad and song corpus is fairly small and some of my imperatives may derive from the nature of ballad usage among people in Ireland but my main assertion was that arguments can only be soundly based on a large sample and that dating and ordering are vital aspects; which is where we came in. I outlined the difficulties inherent in this in my thesis (p. 32);
Mention of singers opens the question of how we may assess the influence exerted by these poems, these printed items, these commercial performances, these private singings - and the effects of memorisation, repetition and transmission? Some songs introduced on ballad sheets have been sung over several generations. Changes can be tracked and the reasons for them assessed. Hence, the researcher who wishes to explore the historicity of songs, their use and significance in cultural terms, needs to know a great deal about songs, about the print and distributive trades and all the other matters touched on above.
It is possible to determine three different kinds of dating: terminus post quem (the earliest possible date), terminus ante quem (the latest possible date) or terminus ad quem (the date at which). In broad terms these can be exemplified: the date of the event (itself a terminus ad quem) dealt with in the song determines the earliest possible date of the song's composition; a date upon which it was collected, as a sheet from a ballad singer, or noted from a traditional singer, provide a latest possible date. Again dates can derive from text, metatext or context.
Given the difficulty of dating songs, it is possible that the attention given to political ballads in Ireland is not simply because this is the traditional orientation of Irish historiography but because such ballads, being upon events, seem easily dated. This is fallacious. As will be seen in Chapter 15, in connection with Father Murphy, songs, though initiated by an event, accrue elements that reflect later perspectives as well as retaining elements of the 'original' viewpoint.
In connection with dating we need to attempt to discover the origins and plot the movements of songs. We need to know where as well as when.
There's one more paragraph in the same chapter that I feel is worth sharing.
So this is my point - dates are vital to an appreciation of what the changes that inhere in performance from memory reveal of the humanity of the singers' and their communities; how their priorities and understanding of things can change. But the dates cannot be used in a linear way, the introduction of places implies a network within which the people live and, used with care, there is little that shows that life better than a well ordered, well questioned, well loved and well performed body of songs.
Yet, I feel I should make clear, I'm not arguing that songs should be studied rather than sung. Songs are for singing: no singing, no songs; but that does not rule out putting them, as meaningful constructs, to other uses; singing though is much more important.
John Moulden - 5.6.19
2. See Shields, Narrative Singing in Ireland 1993: 44.
Although I couldn't follow all of John's letter, not being an academic, I found much to agree with there. As a singer all my life and for much of it semi-professional, I came into folksong in the 60s through listening to other folksingers and then before long singing them myself.
However, I found John's parting shot somewhat subjective 'singing though is much more important'. If we break down the study of folksong and the performance of folksong into the basics we get down to the difference and value of 'theory and practice'. Surely then both are equally important, or at least to different people one will be more important than the other. If we look at it from the point of view of which of the two, study and performance, is practised most then performance definitely wins hands down as there are very few of us actually involved in the study of the songs and their evolution. Most singers barely give a second's thought as to where a song came from. However, to people like me who spend much of their time involved in both, they are equally as important , and indeed to some scholars the songs as historical artefacts will be more important.
At least we both enjoy spending long hours analysing many different versions of the same song.
Steve Gardham - 20.6.19
Ed. I agree that 'singing is much more important', and your comment that: 'most singers barely give a second's thought as to where a song came from' does not accord with my attitude, nor that of most of the singers I associate with.
I should explain. In 1976, Ciarán Carson, then the Traditional Arts Officer of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, initiated a (short lived) newssheet called 'Slow Air' to publish articles on traditional music and song. Following the first issue, the Republican newspaper Andersonstown News took issue calling it the work of 'wired-up academics'. Since then, I've been hypersensitive even though I hadn't contributed at that stage. That stricture, together with other experiences made me resolve never to discuss traditional music or song using terms that would not be readily understood by the singers or musicians who practised and sustained this art. So I've tried very hard not to be a wired-up academic, and my reaction to being called one verges on the resentful!
However, I take the point, fair bits of my argument were left out, because they were directed at academics in the fields of history and literature who generally know absolutely nothing of songs, especially traditional ones and their nature; some can't even tell one song from another, some lump songs on a single event together as versions of a single song. So, I'm sorry, if I've not made myself sufficiently clear and I'd be really glad if Steve, or anyone else who didn't easily follow what I was saying, could indicate where there were holes in either the arguments or the examples that I offered. I'll try to clarify where I think song students may have found problems.
This may take some time but I think it could be very rewarding. In the interim, I'll offer this potential clarification.
The main thing I'd like to say, which is where my insistence that singing is much more important comes from is that, while I love songs and glory in the beauty of their being rendered by traditional singers - like Phil Tanner, Jeannie Robertson, Elizabeth Cronin - I am not so interested in the songs as objects. For me these songs exist only in performance though their elements can be studied. So, I emphasise singing, especially since it seems self evident that, not only is singing necessary to a song being realised, whole, it is in the singing and in the reception of a song that changes take place. We can marvel at the ways in which songs travel, that they are carried and that they change in doing so. My interest is in why this happens, why these changes? What are the mechanisms, the 'rules' that allow singers, ostensibly conservative, within stable communities, to change the songs they sing? As one traditional singer, admiring the accuracy of another's rendition said "He put nothing to it and he took nothing from it." The answer is, of course that there are no rules as such; but that changes occur is indubitable. Can we discern any forces that shape these changes?
I'm ready for another jump of logic. I've never been happy to criticise singers, especially not traditional singers, for having a different set of experiences from mine. For example, in a song, widespread in Ireland since its rendition on an American 78rpm disk by the Donegal singer, John McGettigan, The Murlough Shore, is the line: 'Where the linen webs are bleaching yet and the purling streams run still'. The Clare singer Martin Reidy gave that as: 'Where the linnet wades thy sparkling streams, and the falling Shann runs still.' The linen trade and its ancillaries are little known in Clare so, either Martin Reidy or someone prior in the line of transmission, supplied sense as far as he knew it. It is clear that the sense received was impelled by the sound heard but I would hesitate to say, or even think, that the gap between the hearing and the sensing is occupied by stupidity or lack of care. Think of the elaborate, lengthy versions of The Two Sisters found in Britain and Ireland, wonderful works of verbal and musical art, and then consider the concise, simple versions found among Appalachian singers. I'll not judge one better than the other, each is perfect in its setting.
I'm now even uncertain about the use of the word 'version'. For a singer, in a street in Aberdeen or in Cade's Cove, there is no version, only the song. I'm concerned to overcome the corruption of mentality induced in me by Professor Child. To my mind, even the most seemingly inane 'version' - think of the multiple children's songs that tell the same story - of 'The cruel mother' is right in the place where it is found. So, I cast about for a different paradigm. If we reject 'versions' with its implication of an original from which anything subsequent debases, how do we proceed? My response is to consider each 'version' discrete and equal - happy in its own place. So this is the derivation of my explanation of the variations in traditional songs - mostly they are not the result of ignorance or carelessness (though they sometimes are) but of cultural differences. The singers in the different places are not any less intelligent than one another, not any less devoted to their art, not any less concerned that their songs should make sense. So rather than use the negative implications of 'versions' I devised a positive view that making sense is a necessary element in song transmission. If a change of location or time causes the previous sense to be obscured, the reimposition of sense requires that the song be changed. In most cases, traditional songs have been changed out of necessity, not from a slackening of attention, and not out of ignorance or stupidity.
Last November, I elaborated these thoughts in a presentation to students and faculty at the Irish World Music Centre at the University of Limerick. It was called 'What's the difference between a duck?'. It concluded that the concepts of versions and 'mondegreens' are essentially misleading in our attempts to understand the nature of traditional song. If there's any demand, I'll write it up; hopefully that will generate enough argument to allow my ideas to stand or be proved nonsensical.
John Moulden - 3.7.19
(who really prefers not to be called an academic, or a scholar - like everybody who feels the need to inquire or try to make sense of things, I'm a student; all serious students are equal.)
From one student to another I sincerely apologise. I didn't intend to use 'academic' as an insult, but as an apology for my own lack of understanding. Most of my fellow students/scholars are academics.
Just a few quibbles: 'it is in the singing and in the reception of a song that changes take place'. Not exactly certain what is meant here by 'reception' though I have an idea. However, my studies show that a massive portion of alterations in ballads is highly likely down to deliberate redaction by sophisticated editors (think Scott & co.) and broadside rewriters. I'm sure you must have come across the latter in your own studies. Which has the greater effect on the variation found in balladry, the above or oral tradition is debatable.
As for the use of the word 'version', I'm personally quite happy to use the word in my own writing simply for clarity. (My readers know exactly what I mean.) I'm intrigued. Which word would you use instead when comparing 2 ...er…?
I also have no qualms in using the term with my fellow performers on the folk scene as once again they are, to a person, fully au fait with different versions of songs.
I have heard, second hand, of singers being approached and told they are singing a song 'wrong', but I've never encountered it myself.
Other than that I fully agree with you.
Best wishes Steve Gardham - 10.7.19
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