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.


  1. You're not too sensitive about presenting written songs as folk songs - even if they have become part of folk scene culture. You're exactly right when you say they are awaiting the selection of the folk process. It's a great shame that so many people take it as a slur when we insist on the meaning of 'folk' - but all it means is that their enthusiasm has outstripped their thinking. Hence also the inclusion of Bob D's whisky song, which I've never heard outside of a club. It's a perfectly good song - to the point that I've considered learning it - but it can't be called a folk song and for the moment at least doesn't seem likely to catch on in the same way as 'Maybe it's because I'm a Londoner...'

    Of course all that could change if a pop singer were to pick it up, but that's where it all gets confusing...

  2. Well, it could also change if people start singing it as a result of its publication in the Sing London booklet, too - which would be one of the more interesting possible outcomes of the venture.

  3. Quite so. If someone makes a song I think it's quite legitimate to seek to get it known to the point when it gains wide currency, short of pretending it should be described as something it's not - a folk song.

    I'm not sure one could say the new books deliberately confuse the issue, but newcomers to the idea of oral transmission might well be confused. The editors could so easily be accused of having simply assembled the books from from songs they like and want others to learn...

    I'm with you on the broadside ballads, by the way. If they haven't been found in the field, I guess we have to make their origins clear. But what do you do if they haven't been found very often? How about something like the Plains of Waterloo - the version is clearly a broadside, and I only know of one occasion when it was collected. That might be a bad example, as I'm no scholar and there may be more collected versions around, but if I'm right and there are only two or three at the most, can we treat that as a folk song or not?

    Heck, I'll sing it anyway. Or rather, I'll sing it one day when I come across an audience that looks as if it wants to hear a blow by blow account of a battle that took place nearly 200 years ago, and which lasts for 15 minutes...

    In the end there are lots of difficult questions around these things, but what is clear is that we shouldn't undermine the vocabulary we've got by misapplying terms to suit our ends...