Thursday, 25 June 2009

The Singers and their Smocks

Gavin Atkin, in his interesting comments on an earlier post, really hit at a whole number of historical problems within folklore. Folklorists are often mocked for our seeming obsession with self-definition, but these are big (and unresolved) issues within the discipline. In part, therefore, what follows is me thinking out loud, and in part it's a revisiting of points I've made elsewhere in various forms (and which I hope to see published at some stage). It's hardly intended to be definitive, even if I thought that were possible.
I'm by no means convinced that we share a common understanding of the notion of 'folk' itself. Within the folk music world, particularly, there has been a tendency to use the word as if we all agreed on its meanings, without actually clarifying how we understand it. Perhaps that's a negotiation to avoid opening several cans of worms ... 'Folk', in these terms, is both the people performing the lore, and also an adjective describing the essential character of the lore.
Although in practice it's often used as a synonym, 'tradition' seems somehow clearer. It seems to imply some kind of transmission, and isn't predicated on the idea of which groups might have such a tradition. 'Tradition' seems to recognise that any group of people might have such a thing of their own, regardless of who they are: there will be traditions of the officers' mess, just as there are of rural pubs.
Of course, that still raises the problem of the transmission itself. As Gavin indicates, what do we do with a song that's only recorded rarely? One of the things I'd been thinking about before the Sing London launch was the place of composed political songs. (I'd been pondering this following the news that one of the murderers of Victor Jara was finally to be tried for his role in events in the Chile stadium, Santiago). We know, for example, that the National Agricultural Labourers' Union published a songbook for singing at meetings. This was the first such national union, and the music was an integral part of its recruitment and meeting campaign. The songs have not turned up that often in oral tradition, but they have turned up: Walter Pardon had several, which he'd learned from his uncle, a local union organiser. (See Mike Yates' interesting article on them). The very character of the songs might suggest they wouldn't just turn up everywhere, but they have a certain authority within their tradition.
However, once we start talking about 'tradition-al' in musical terms, it suggests that the song belongs to a certain and specific tradition, and adds (for some commentators) criteria other than just transmission. Some critics have required anonymity of origin, and the implication of a certain age. 'A Grand Dream of Napoleon' but not 'Maybe It's Because I'm a Londoner', if you like.
Is this a form of inverted snobbery? Is this an attempt to create something noble and worthy out of pub-singing by discreetly sweeping aside other aspects of the tradition? That would hardly seem tenable to anyone who'd spent time in a folk club, but it does seem to inform some thinking about traditionality in music. Dave Harker, for example, notes that Cecil Sharp thought the song 'Dicky of Taunton Dene' '"had all the character of a traditional ballad", whereas country people knew it to be a townsman's mickey-take of a caricatured yokel'. (1) Whether Sharp liked it or Harker didn't doesn't ultimately change the fact that people were singing it. Interpretative distaste is misplaced here, as it takes the emphasis away from the singers themselves.
Which is where the smocks come in.
This is Howard Millen, a fine singer from Bethersden in Kent. The Millen Family have an interesting repertoire of part-sung 'glees', which they recorded for a rather good CD, 'Down Yonder Green Lane'. A couple of these songs also appeared on the recent Kent compilation Oyster Girls & Hovelling Boys. Alongside this repertoire, Howard has an extensive assortment of comic songs from all over the place. Indeed, with other family members and neighbours, he toured the south east as a comedy rustic act called the Cider Sippers. It's a surprisingly resilient tradition: there have been several attempts to retire the Cider Sippers, but they still keep getting offers of gigs.
For these gigs, Howard wears this smock. It's about 100 years old, and Howard's older brother Gerald has talked thoughtfully about the significance of its style and pattern. Howard got the smock from his father-in-law, David Wickens. I asked if David had ever worn it for work. Oh no, said Howard, just for singing comedy songs round the pubs, where Howard (an idiosyncratic and entirely self-taught musician) sometimes accompanied him on piano. Howard, a countryman himself, follows this tradition of comedy rusticism. They sing 'Buttercup Joe' (a big hit in the 1920s for Albert Richardson), along with various songs learnt more recently from Wurzels albums.
This was clearly a big tradition. Over in Sussex, Cyril Phillips (left) was singing at harvest suppers, also wearing a smock and performing music hall songs parodying rural life. He even seems to have carried a folding five-bar gate for his act! Among his songs were music-hall pieces like 'The Rest of the Day's Your Own' (known to some singers in Kent as 'The Farmer's Boy', confusingly enough).
There is a danger that we base our judgements on vernacular singing on what we would prefer singers to be singing rather than what they are actually singing. Bob Lewis, who sometimes sang with Cyril Phillips at harvest suppers (see the splendid photo below), said that he initially found folk clubs an odd and intense experience, quite distinct from the pub singing he had actually experienced. He said he became aware of an artificial idea about who was or wasn't a traditional singer. In particular, he thought there was an idea that anyone who had ever earned money singing, or had dressed up and performed any kind of music hall or light entertainment turn, couldn't be a traditional singer. His conclusion makes depressing reading: "As a result, I suspect that they wrote off or dismissed quite a lot of really good singers, who they didn't bother to get to know when they weren't doing their turn".
This clearly indicates a sensitivity to different kinds of songs, but without dictating what traditional singers do or don't sing. As I say, I think this is a complicated question, not least because of the residual weight of earlier thinking (which isn't always explicit, and which we can't just ignore). I'm looking forward to having the opportunity to discuss tradition and traditionality with Bob Lewis at the forthcoming Folklore Society Members' Evening event. In particular, I'm looking forward to celebrating a rich and varied set of singing traditions in all their complexity.
Cyril Phillips (left) and Bob Lewis
(1) Dave Harker, Fakesong: The Manufacture of British 'Folksong' 1700 to the Present Day (Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1985), p. 197

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Proverbs in current use

You never catch a fox in the same trap twice.

I heard this last week from one of the workers who had occupied the Enfield Visteon factory in April. He used it when referring to the role of Unite, the union at the plant, in alerting management to a challenge on the question of pensions.
This doesn't feature in W.G. Smith, The Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs, ed. F.P. Wilson, 3rd edn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970).

Monday, 8 June 2009

Sing London/Singing History, and the Take Six website

Two interesting events in London this week have set me thinking again about traditionality in music.

Tonight, June 8th, at the British Library, Sing London launch their regional Singing History booklet. This is one of a series of eight such local pamphlets, which will be supported by educational material, covering Oxfordshire, Plymouth, Sunderland, Manchester, Norfolk, Kent, and Birmingham. The booklets will also be available for download here, where four are already online at the time of writing. The London booklet is not currently available there, but is on the British Library site.

The booklets vary in quality, and I'm unimpressed that some unfinished booklets have been uploaded. The Sunderland booklet lacks an introduction or acknowledgements (evidently having used the Plymouth template for the latter), while the Oxfordshire booklet lacks some pictures and has the wrong cover. Notwithstanding its rough edges, the Sunderland booklet is the clearest-designed as an educational tool. I'm looking forward to the Kent booklet, which has been put together by the educational group Music for Change, and seems to cover a fairly broad range of local occupations.

As an organisation, Sing London are more interested in the vernacular practice of singing than in traditional song per se. For someone used to the folk scene, this makes a refreshing change. There are domestic song traditions that are not usually included in folk song collections, although they are clearly thriving. At a now-defunct karaoke night in E7 I would sometimes hear unaccompanied rebel songs and country ballads in with the usual pub r'n'b and pop power ballads, suggesting (at the very least) that singers had other repertoires of songs apart from their karaoke favourites. It hinted at different registers of singing.

The Singing Histories lean more towards the folk scene. According to one press release, the project 'aims to preserve regional songs by making them accessible to new audiences, thereby giving folk music back to the folk'. Sing London have worked on this with the English Folk Dance & Song Society. Accordingly they cover some good songs collected by earlier folksong collectors, and the London launch will also publicise the recorded collections in the National Sound Archive. In the case of the London booklet, this means a number of songs mentioning London recorded from traditional singers from outside the city, which may not exactly reflect the city's music.

Some of the booklets also contain songs written more recently in 'the folk idiom', ie written and sung in a folk club culture. I am not dismissing such songs (I have written some myself). Many songs by Cyril Tawney (right), for example, have a very wide circulation. (One is in the Plymouth booklet). My anxiety is that they may not reflect a more representative and/or thriving singing culture. Perhaps I am unnecessarily over-sensitive on this count - the London booklet does contain 'Maybe It's Because I'm a Londoner', after all, which I don't believe I've ever heard in a folk club - but I have always been uneasy about presenting folk-club composed songs as being synonymous with the tradition they aim to reproduce. They can, and do, acquire a traditional life in certain social groups, but at the moment of composition they are not traditional. They are awaiting the selection of the folk process. This may be the problem in publishing broadside songs which never attained any broader traditional circulation: they have an historical value, but may not reflect actual traditions of singing.

The notion of the 'folk idiom' itself is somewhat problematic. It is based on a selective recording of folk songs by earlier collectors, who cherry-picked from singers' repertoires. In many cases they were more interested in (some) songs than in where and when they were sung. The folk clubs developed, to some extent, to perpetuate this model of folk song and folk singing. I'm not saying that it's wrong (it has developed in its own way), just that it may not adequately reflect wider aspects of traditional singing. There has also been a tendency to draw a line of equivalence between the traditions of the folk club and the traditions of the singers from whom club singers learnt their songs. Both are certainly traditional, but they are not quite the same.

Viewing 'tradition' as a series of artefacts can underplay the dynamic role of the people who actually perform that tradition. After all, if a tradition has to be 'given back' to the folk, might this not suggest that 'the folk' had already stopped using it as a tradition? This slightly curatorial tendency rubs up against Sing London's overall purpose of getting people to sing.

Any apparent contradiction here may only be resolvable in the practice of singing. I don't hold with the contrarian view that, because the collectors were only reflecting part of the repertoires of singers, we should therefore reject everything they actually did collect. I'm delighted, therefore, that on Tuesday evening at 6.30pm the EFDSS's 'Take Six' website goes live. This lottery-funded project has seen the digitisation of six manuscript folksong collections covering the first half of the 20th century - Janet Blunt, George Butterworth, Francis Collinson (below), George Gardiner, Anne Geddes Gilchrist, and brothers H.E.D. and R.F.F. Hammond.

I've been previewing the site for a while now, as I have a special interest in Collinson's work. It's a complete digitisation of every page of manuscript, fully indexed and searchable. In the case of the Gilchrist collection, this means that the complicated cataloguing has finally been standardised. Full access to the images of the manuscripts will be followed by an educational outreach programme. It's a great resource, and gives some idea of the riches that lurk in the corners of the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library. Hopefully it will facilitate further local research to place the collected songs in the broader context of vernacular singing.

I've been mulling over ideas like these for some time now. A couple of other recent events have also been preying on my mind, but I'll come back to them. First I have to go off and sing.