Voice of the People
by the Reviewers
Comment on the Series - Rod Stradling
Reg Hall's Introduction to the Series, which runs to almost seven pages, is very interesting, suggesting as it does a more up-to-date approach to thinking about our traditional music, song, and its practitioners. It's perhaps a pity then that some of the thematic introductions to the individual CDs are markedly less so, and rather short - some being barely two pages. I can't help thinking that many, if not most, purchasers would find the 'old style' Topic notes on the songs more useful than " ... while the central theme of In Scarborough Town is death during a raging storm at sea". You'd know this by listening to the song once - it's of the same order of offensiveness as being shown an OHP transparency and then having the text read to you!
The mini-biographies, on the other hand, are excellent and focus our attention on the singers and musicians, the sorts of lives they led and the communities from which they came. This should make for a better understanding of the material on the CDs and, possibly, to more meaningful performances of the material from those who decide to sing or play it in the future.
But I've always been a revisionist, rather than a revolutionary at heart and - just because a new approach is good - have seen no merit in rejecting what was good about the old. Is there not room for both? Here we get notes on the performers, but none on the material - save the texts of the songs, not all of which are as accurately transcribed as one might have hoped. Nor is there much discussion of how the material was passed on, what the motivation was, what hindrances there were, why some good singers had 20 songs while others had 200 .......
There is a puzzling aspect to Voice of the People - and one which presented itself even before the series was launched - the question of who it is aimed at. Very little information was available about its content or approach before the review copies started arriving on people's doormats. You may be sure that MT have asked both Tony Engle (Topic Records boss) and Reg Hall (Series Editor) for information on many occasions and even offered them space in these pages to present an overview of the rationale, if not the content - but to no avail. This is at stark variance with the Smithsonian Institute's strategy of heavily trailing their Folkways Harry Smith Anthology in the US media for months beforehand. It was subsequently released as an unprecedented commercial success. It was only through the Hall/Engle interview in Folk Roots magazine's November issue that we discovered approximately who the series is aimed at - and who it's not. And it's quite clearly not aimed at the likes of us!
Most readers will be aware that there is a sizeable market out there which is most commonly termed the 'Heritage market', receptive to products of the kind supplied by, among others, the 'Past Times' chain of shops. The term has become a pejorative simply because much of what they supply is prettified nonsense enhanced with spurious information perpetuating invented myths about 'Merry England', 'Ancient Ireland', 'Noble Scotland' or whatever. On the musical side, Saydisc Records have much to answer for in this respect. But it's not all bad, and Topic have had some success with a few rather good anthologies - though we never see them advertised in Folk Roots! I believe that they hope to follow up this success with the Voice of the People series - and who can blame them. Because the truth of the matter is that there just aren't enough of us to make well produced records of traditional music a viable commercial proposition.
This is a really sad realisation, and one which this Topic release has finally brought home to me, though in truth I've known it for years. Think back! These records began appearing in any number in the '60s when the Folk Revival was clearly a growing interest. They reached their peak in the '70s when the Folk boom was at its height and dozens of companies were putting out anything they could get hold of at an alarming rate. Clearly there was a market for traditional music then - but it wasn't a market of traditional music lovers! People bought them because they were there, played them once, and eventually consigned them to the secondhand shop. Remember how many folk classics one could find in junk shops in the '80s? By the time the '90s came round, only the hard core of serious interest remained and all the record companies except Topic had gone out of business, or turned their attention to the Heritage or Celtic markets.
We are left with the situation where the sort of people who made these records, collected the material, became friends with the performers, learned and carried on the traditions ... are too insignificant in number for records like these to be produced for them, (though the MT series of CD releases is intended to go some way towards filling the gap). They are only able to hear top quality, well produced versions of the music they've devoted their lives to as a spin-off from a release for another market - and one which has little understanding of what it's buying.
Well - tough shit! At least we are able to hear them, in very high fidelity reproductions for the most part, and the anthology format means that we are constantly being surprised by forgotten or unknown gems, which can only be to the good. I know that my musical life is far richer since the Voice came into my possession.
And for those of us who, quite reasonably, recoil from an outlay of around £300, remember this - in a year or two you'll be able to pick up plenty of virtually unplayed copies in the secondhand shops!
Rod Stradling - 11.11.98
Comment on the Series - Fred McCormick
First the accolades; to Topic for having the courage and initiative to launch this series; to Reg Hall for undertaking the Herculean task of pulling the thing together and for writing an excellent introductory essay; to those collectors who placed their recordings at the editor's disposal; and to a whole battery of individuals for what is at times breathtaking audio restoration. As a single instance, place Volume 4 on your CD deck and press the play button. It will come up with The Green Fields of Canada. I have heard Paddy Tunney sing this song at pubs and social gatherings the length and breadth of Ireland and I swear he never sounded as lifelike as he does here.
Yet while the zealot lauds, the sceptic questions. Who is the series aimed at? Why is it thematised and what factors guided the editors in their choice of themes? What selection criteria were applied in choosing performers and performance pieces? In essence, what do Topic hope to achieve by publishing this set and how good a representation is it of the folk music of these isles?
Here I am at a disadvantage. Caught in the employment wasteland of post-Thatcher Britain, I am temporarily prevented from buying - and hearing - the other discs in the series beyond the ones I have been sent for review. Nevertheless, if any single document was ever written on the back of my shirt, it is the old Topic LP catalogue. Therefore, having scanned the track listings for the entire series, I am confident that the discs I possess constitute a representative sample. However, as far as Topic's motives are concerned, we can rule out the quest for big bucks. There are a few like me who will buy the set because we are mad cracked crazy about the stuff that is on them. We do not need elegantly structured programmes to enjoy and to appreciate. We empathise with the sounds and with the people who made them and that is enough. Alas that we are not legion. Even when the so called folk revival was at its height, records of traditional performers sold in minuscule quantities. That is because the vast majority of the members of that revival neither knew nor cared about the people who constituted the tradition. They were happy just to nick their songs, and often did so without so much as acknowledgement.
But if initiates alone will not guarantee adequate sales, these discs deserve to sell well for their obvious didactic purpose. They are a natural to grace the shelves of schools and colleges and libraries, to say nothing of those great institutions which were formed for the study and collection of folklore, if not its dissemination. For that matter, they are, or ought to be source material for future social historians.
In this respect The Voice of the People is no different from several earlier anthologies, The Folk Songs of Britain for instance, or the three volumes of The Columbia World Library which cover these islands. However, the present set has several advantages over earlier efforts. It is bigger in size and scope than anything which has preceded it and, unlike the aforementioned, it has complete performances. It has been put together with the benefit of more experience and to all appearances, with considerably more care. How much of that care comes through is something that will only show up with repeated playings. However, I have already noted several instances where I have been impressed by sharp contrasts of mood in adjoining tracks. As far as didacticism is concerned then, the quality of this set plus the near indestructibility of compact disc, makes it a very handy time capsule. If educators can be persuaded to use the thing properly it will be a piece of primary source material. It will be the means by which future generations know and recognise the voices of their ancestors and the songs and music which we as common people can call our own.
What sort of legacy will they be left with? Well, these twenty discs, with around five hundred tracks, embrace a huge variety of singers from all over the English speaking parts of Britain and Ireland. Their presentation here should leave no-one in any doubt that ordinary people are extremely good at communicating their feelings when they are given the chance. There is also a numerically more limited, but reasonably comprehensive, cross section of instrumental music. However - and this is one of the few downsides I encountered - the world of Gaelic folk song is almost totally ignored. Unless I miscounted there is only one item from Gaelic Ireland and nothing at all from their Hebridean cousins. Nevertheless, the listener will form a very clear impression as to what singers from lowland Scotland, or Western Ireland or Southern England sounded like. How clear a picture will come across of what they sang about, or what moved them to express themselves in song?
Here, I present the reader with a favourite axe, well ground and sharpened. Long years of poring over collections with fatuously titled sections like Country Life, Lovers' Return, Cuckolds and Adventurous and Crafty Maidens, (these are all from Maud Karpeles' editorship of the Sharp collection, by the way) have all but turned me off thematic anthologies for life. That is partly because folk songs do not neatly slot into subject categories, but mainly because categorisation tends to highlight the pre-occupations of the folklorist, rather than those of the folk.
This particular anthology is person oriented. It is first and foremost a showcase for the people who made the tradition. That makes it an admirable diversion from the paths of earlier collectors, who all too frequently regarded traditional performers as little more than interesting ethnographic curiosities. All the more reason then to wonder, why bother with themes? Well, a collection of this size needs some sort of rationalisation to enable listeners to navigate the thing. Then again, Topic needs to be able to sell the finished product and themes and tag lines will help attract the buying public.
What's bugging me is not the presence of themes - unlike the above examples these are broad based and well chosen - but the fact that so little has been done to develop them, or to tell us about the songs. This anthology is about people, that is true. But the songs people sang reflected their lives and feelings and pre-occupations and surely we need some idea of what the songs meant to them. I mentioned the admirable introductory essay and I can add that all performers are given biographies as large as space and knowledge of the individual will allow. I cannot say that I was equally impressed by the introductions to individual discs. I found them skimpy and short on detail and there are too many assertions like "for putting the gilt on a good story, there is nothing better than the supernatural". (From Volume 3, Tragic Ballads). That surely is a matter of opinion. There is no supernatural content in Fred Jordan's The Bonny Boy, yet I consider it one of the finest and most moving of all the ballads on the entire disc.
True, booklet size places limitations on impartible information. However, in these days of advanced technology, I'd have thought it feasible to copy the relevant notes from the old LPs and issue them on a separate CD ROM. I wonder though whether Reg is displaying a disdain for the pedantry of scholars, who discuss the materials of folk culture in minuscule detail, without seeming to consider how these things intertwined with the lives of Durham miners, or Perthshire travellers, or Connemara building workers. If so, then I'm inclined to agree. Those sleeve notes tended to suffer from the same disease and, to make things worse, people used to hawk their pronouncements about the folk scene as though they were truth sent from above. In fact the stuff that got written on the back of Topic LPs was general information and should not have been regarded as anything more. All the same, if you need a context in which to understand what these songs meant to people, general information has its uses.
Which brings me to another favourite axe; the denigration which folksong receives at the hands of the Establishment, and the filtering down of Establishment attitudes to people for whom these songs are their natural heritage. There's never a TV advert, in which a folksong appears, where the voice of the people isn't heard in thick 'Mummerset' accents. There's never a piece of serious TV period drama which doesn't include an out-of-tune 'folk' singer. There's never a 'heritage' shop that isn't stacked out with tastefully packaged compact discs retailing Ye Folke Songes of Olde England. Readers may note Rod Stradling's comments on heritage shops as a possible outlet for these discs. I concur and my own observations on these places were published in MT some time ago (in the Saydisc Children's Games CD review). However, the fact that our folk inheritance has ended up being marketed through heritage shops is itself due to something much more serious; the way that British national culture is constructed acts as a barrier to our understanding and appreciating our own folk culture.
I recently heard an eminent orchestral conductor inform a television audience that "Bartok was one of the first people ever to hear folksong in its natural state". The crassness or arrogance, I'm not sure which, of that remark stems from an Establishment view that ordinary people are of no consequence. How this view arose, and how it affects folksong is too complicated an issue to pursue here. Interested readers are referred to a somewhat off the cuff debate currently being pursued in the Enthusiasms section. Here I shall merely observe that, where other European countries lauded their peasantry as custodians of national consciousness, the custodians of the British empire saw the common people merely as a subordinate part of the overall construction. We weren't in the procession, we merely brought up the rear. As long as the common herd was incapable of leading or governing, the status quo was safe. If the common people could not lead or govern, then logically they were also incapable of producing anything of artistic worth. The politics of control requires that people are first made to feel inferior.
We have nothing to feel inferior about.
Fred McCormick - 5.1.99
Comment on the Series - Vic Smith
In case some of my comments on the Voice of the People sound critical, let me start with my outstanding impression. This is the most stimulating, exhilarating, comprehensive compilation of the songs and music, singers and musicians that I have loved as long as I can remember. The choice of material, preparation of the booklets, the packaging are all first-class. I doubt if it will be bettered in my lifetime. It avoids the major pitfall that marred both previous major series devoted to British traditional music and song (the Topic/Caedmon "Folk Songs of Great Britain" and Columbia/Rounder "World Library of Folk and Primitive Music"), that of often presenting truncated versions of songs and tunes. Mind you, these earlier vinyl releases didn't have the 25 glorious hours or so that the people's voices are allowed here.
The introductory essay, like all of Reg Hall's writing is dense, succinct and thoughtful. He documents the early folk song collectors as part of a movement hoping that "a nation could regain its soul by purifying its culture" which could be obtained from its peasantry. The Victorian/Edwardian approach was not to document the minutiae of the music-making, it was a search for raw material to be refined by their social superiors, "mediating their finds through the conventions of their own culture of art-music and literature."
Well, that's them sorted out! Let's move on with Reg to the "so-called folk revival". The inspiration now came from a different class. It was "rooted in a form of cultural moralism, reacting against the commercial music of show business and aiming for the creation of a proletarian entertainment and art form." Here the narrowness of vision that marred the Victorian approach was replaced by an all-embracing eclecticism with a performance style that "owed little to traditional music making" though latterly "within a section of that movement there has developed a taste for authentic performance". Whew! That's a relief. Some of them, at least, were getting it right though, significantly, 'authentic performance' is never defined.
Reg side-steps the minefield of the definition of our music that has blown up so many of his predecessors, wisely saying that "it is loaded with paradoxes and contradictions with little consensus about what they include or exclude." Isn't it peculiar? We spend all this time, energy and love on something we cannot satisfactorily elucidate. I remember trying to get Bert Lloyd to give me a definition and he said to me, "I can tell you what is day and what is night, but I cannot tell you exactly where one becomes the other; it's the same with traditional music." Reg writes something similar and something that I regard as quite significant for him; "Having long co-existed and cross-bred with popular culture, the boundaries between the tradition and popular culture are blurred and it can be argued that there is value in keeping them blurred." Really? By his choice, Reg draws very clear lines. Looking through the track listings there are only 2 out of nearly 500 that I find even slightly surprising in his choice - one tune, The Padstow Merrymakers playing The Happy Wanderer, because we all know that famous song's pop origins - and one performer, a track by Ian Powrie, well-known and much-recorded Scottish dance band accordionist, who I felt might be too close to the mainstream music industry for Reg. If there are no surprises in the inclusion, there are some in the exclusion: no Seamus Ennis; no Bob Copper, for example. (Is it because they are on both sides of collector/informant fence?) No Shetland fiddle, no Scots Gaelic and one has to wait until nearly the end of the 20th CD to get the only song in Irish.
Rod Stradling's 'Comments on the Series' explains that the Irish content of the series is lower because so much Topic/Irish material appeared recently on the Ron Kavana compilations. However, the thinking behind the two series is not complimentary. If Reg's rather than Ron's choice had been behind the 8 CD Globestyle series, it is very doubtful that the likes of Patrick Street, Four Men and a Dog or even Cathal McConnell would have found a place. Reg mentions that mediating effect of the early collectors; let us be in no doubt that mediation is also going on in this collection and this inevitably throws up some paradoxes. Margaret Barry, who learned quite a lot of her songs from recordings is included. Someone like, let's say Martin Hayes, who learned the bulk of his traditional fiddle repertoire from his father and his uncle Paddy would be unlikely even to be considered.
It is quite difficult to draw Reg out on the subject of the folk scene and its influence and these days he seems to deal with it largely by omission. Searching years back in my long memory, I can remember an album review that Reg wrote on a recording of Paul Wilson. You might have expected Reg to have some sympathy for him after all the loving work he did working with Sam Richards in recording mainly traveller singers and musicians and compiling the lovely Topic album, "Devon Tradition" and Tom Orchard and Amy Birch from that album turn up on VOTP. However, when Paul came to record much of the same material, "dilettante" and "irrelevant" were some of Reg's epithets.
Yet it clear that in many areas, the tradition has drawn some sustenance from the younger revival enthusiasts. Take the north-east. Will Atkinson, Willy Taylor, Joe Hutton et al. gave an enormous boost to the likes of Alistair Anderson and Kathryn Tickell and now all the Folkworks inspired performers. But it is also clear that they gained a great deal of inspiration and help from the enormous enthusiasm that was displayed towards them. It would be good to see this symbiotic relationship at least mentioned. Perhaps Reg feels that the entry of the culturally aware modern minds represents the changes that will end the tradition because the "social and economic conditions that supported them are gone for ever."
You would have to search hard through the text to find why Reg has been inspired to work so tirelessly to make this masterly collection. The nearest would be "These performances have timeless appeal and resonances ." Come on, Reg! These performances are BLOODY MARVELLOUS. Here's my much mocked enthusiasm getting the better of me again, but this stuff is what life is all about. Unlike Rod (review of volume 17) I have no difficulty in listening to 3 and 4 albums on the trot . The only problem is to stop hitting the repeat button over and over again, even the ballads; this afternoon it's been Lizzie Higgins and The Cheviot Ranters. And yet it is difficult to explain satisfactorily why I am such a compulsive junkie for all of this music. Certainly Jeannie Robertson, Harry Cox, Paddy Tunney, Phil Tanner are great artists in anybody's language, but what about the Dorchester Mummers, for example. A bunch of very ordinary guys singing/belting out almost together to less than average squeeze box accompaniment; why is it I find it utterly compelling? Listening to the series has brought out some of the weird aspects of this addiction. Why do I find it necessary to listen over and over again to try to identify those singing the choruses with Jeannie Robertson at Blairgowrie in 1967? - so far I've got Hamish Henderson, Sheila Douglas and Jimmy Hutchison. Why have I constructed a database of the number of times each performer appears on the albums? I'll tell you why. It's so that I can present to you the Reg Hall/Voice of the People 'Hit Parade' of performers who appear on most tracks .... and number one is .....
Vic Smith - 2.12.98
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