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

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