Saturday, 24 December 2011

Season's greetings

The last month has been spent catching my breath a little. Any PhD was always going to be a marathon with a particularly gruelling last leg: after a serious health interruption to my work in 2010, this year's efforts felt like even more of an uphill struggle.
But that struggle is now over. The viva went well and the examiners demanded only minimal revisions. These were accepted, a hard copy was lodged at the University of Hertfordshire, and an electronic copy is now available online at the University's Research Archive.
So much for catching my breath. I've had the great pleasure of working in the Folklore Society's Library over the last few weeks while I reorient. I've submitted a book chapter on ghosts in white sheets, and I've started to think about future projects. These include turning my thesis into a book: I've begun thinking about proposals, and will get those into better shape early in January. I'm also planning on getting back on the conference trail in 2012, so I'm drafting paper proposals over the next fortnight as well.
Suddenly it doesn't sound quite like a break, but it's certainly the start of something new. Here's to 2012, and the season's best to you.

Monday, 21 November 2011

On Carey Street

The period at the end of a PhD is peculiar. Even though the thesis is completed, and even when the viva is over, there's still a panoply of fiddly (and time-consuming) things to get done. I'm now all done, bar binding the hard copy of the dissertation, but it means I've been rather preoccupied and haven't been able to get back to gainful employment in any meaningful way up till now.
So perhaps it wasn't coincidence that, laying in bed last night, the phrase 'on Carey Street' came back to me. I'd first heard it when giving directions to the Seven Stars, a pub on Carey Street WC2. The person I was telling beamed delightedly and said 'So you really would end up on Carey Street!'
The phrase entered local proverbial usage to mean bankruptcy. Carey Street sits behind the Royal Courts of Justice, and provided one entrance to the bankruptcy court. Later, a drinker in the Seven Stars also explained this to me.
I doubt how widespread the usage is, as both of these informants were over 60. It isn't listed in the Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs, and it would appear to be a recent coinage, possibly of literary origin. The bankruptcy court only moved to Carey Street in the 1840s, where a new building was erected for it in 1892.
From Carey Street it's still been possible (just) to see the bankruptcy court, which was moved in the 1960s to the Thomas More building (the ill-fitting tower block at the Clement's Inn end of the RCJ). This may eventually change, as four Bankruptcy Registrars will shortly be located at the Rolls Building on Fetter Lane. The Rolls Building is unlikely to be visible from Carey Street. It won't stop people ending up on Carey Street.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Katharine Briggs evening 2011

Before I head off to the South East London Folklore Society for my talk tonight I should mention last night's Katharine Briggs evening at the Folklore Society. I'm a bit thick-voiced after the reception, which is normally an indicator that a jolly time was had: there were a number of comments to the effect that the Briggs evening is acquiring a customary life of its own as a seasonal event, with regular visitors and a formalised tradition of how it all unfolds. It was also a nice chance to meet other scholars I didn't know, authors whose books I'd reviewed but whom I didn't know, and people I'd so far only spoken to on Twitter.
The Briggs lecture was given by Michael Rosen on 'The Folk Tradition: What Do We Do With It?' (The accompanying picture, blagged from his website, shows Mike at the Ledbury Poetry Festival). His engaging performance was really about the folk traditions that play out in his work. He laid particular emphasis on the range of such traditions and the interactions involved in eliciting and documenting them (for example in getting children to collect from each other and from their parents). Much of this isn't overly controversial for contemporary folklorists, but it was refreshing to hear a reasoned and entertaining defence of collecting whole repertoires rather than selective documentation. It was also very nice to hear the audience respond with a realisation of the wealth of folkloric material they have heard throughout their lives.
The Katharine Briggs book award went to Herbert Halpert and J.D.A. Widdowson, Folk Tales, Tall Tales, Trickster Tales and Legends of the Supernatural from the Pinelands of New Jersey: Recorded and Annotated by Herbert Halpert between 1936 and 1951 (The Edwin Mellen Press, 2010). I'm very excited about this book, which sounds remarkable. I've long admired Halpert's fieldwork and his scholarship, and I'm pleased to see recognition given to what, in some ways, was a pinnacle of his work. Receiving the award John Widdowson said the book had become Halpert's 'life work': towards the end of his life he had almost lost sight of publication because of his ongoing research and annotation. Widdowson also paid tribute to their publishers. Where other publishers had wanted to cherry-pick stories and ditch the scholarly apparatus that make the project so valuable, Edwin Mellen took the manuscript on in its entirety. That was almost the most encouraging part of the story. It is still possible to produce books of serious scholarly folklore research. That is also cause for celebration, and is a fitting tribute to Herbert Halpert and his work.

Friday, 28 October 2011

The AFS on proposed changes to research ethics models

The American Folklore Society have recently issued a statement on proposed changes to consent requirements for fieldwork. The AFS's response, with their existing statement of principles on research ethics, can be found here.
Fieldwork ethics is important. It's about how we deal with people as humans, how we document, report and reflect their lives accurately and respectfully. The AFS statement is well worth reading, as it is a sane and humane approach to research ethics in this field.
It also bears reading here in the UK, too, where the marginalised character of Folklore in academia means that university research ethics policies may also be designed primarily with laboratory research models in mind. The absence of legislative guidelines may not mean there isn't a general trend in that direction, particularly in the absence of an authoritative and respected body which represents a recognised field of study. (The Folklore Society here is certainly respected, but is perhaps easier to ignore in the absence of Folklore departments).
When discussing ethics clearance for my recent doctoral fieldwork I initially came up against a number of expectations that clearly derived from scientific research models: some academics seemed baffled when I said that anonymisation might not always be appropriate, and might in fact be insulting depending on the nature of the tradition being examined. I'm happy to say that a school-specific ethics committee (which has been more active since the introduction of oral history modules there) worked with me in a constructive way, helping me to move away from this 'human subjects' laboratory model. Anybody who is undertaking field research needs to think about these questions, and needs to think about the ethical structures they require.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Mummers, Maypoles and Milkmaids

We've lately seen something of an enthusiasm amongst artists for vernacular culture and tradition. The results have been exciting, with the creation of new works going alongside a very broad championing of the folk arts. From his background as Art Director in the fashion world Simon Costin has sought to build a Museum of British Folklore. Grayson Perry is exploring the world of vernacular artefacts. Jeremy Deller and Alan Kane curated the Folk Archive. Whatever their artistic impulses and interpretations, all of these projects have addressed actual folk practice and its artefacts.
They have also, refreshingly, looked at folk practice in a broad way, encompassing existing traditions, revivals and adaptations, and newly developed customs. (In this respect they are building on the work of Doc Rowe, as they acknowledge). More needs to be said about the nuances and differences between these registers of vernacular practice, of course, but they all need documenting and considering as folklore.
Sara Hannant's beautiful new book Mummers, Maypoles and Milkmaids: A Journey through the English Ritual Year (Merrell Publishing) belongs with this same trend. She documents a selection of events across the year, from the Allendale Tar Barrel Parade (1 January) to The (Insert Name Here) Mummers (28 December). For each event a short explanatory text introduces some of Hannant's vibrant and evocative photographs.
It is primarily a photographic book - a snapshot of some parts of the ritual year that have caught Hannant's eye and lens - and it is gorgeous. There are particularly striking shots of processions at night and/or involving fire. You can see some of the pictures in a portfolio on her website (and an exhibition has just opened at the Horniman Museum if you're around south London over the next year), but the Hinton St George Punkie Night procession (below) gives some idea of her best. (For me the outstanding shot is of a burning Lewes bonfire effigy of David Cameron and Nick Clegg). She also captures well the informal solemnity of such seasonal events: members of the Druid Order processing down Primrose Hill at the Autumn Equinox, or a break for a bag of chips at the kerbside during the Sowerby Bridge Rush-Bearing Festival. The qualities are combined in a great shot of the Britannia Coconut Dancers dancing round Bacup in falling snow (further down the page). It's serious, ridiculous and intense, and Hannant has a sympathetic eye for the people who participate in or watch these customs.
She has focused her attention on England in order to 'explore notions of national identity' (p.10). It is unclear whether this actually gets beyond documenting what seasonal customs are currently practised in England (although that in itself would be valuable), but it certainly throws up some interesting questions for future researchers.
What is interesting about the book is its combination of the old, the new, and the thought-to-be-old. Here, certainly, are the older 'star attractions' of the English seasonal year (Padstow, Lewes, Bacup, Abbots Bromley), but Hannant also does a very good job with more recently established and civic events. She notes the involvement of local folklore enthusiasts in the revival or invention of some traditions, many of which have existed in their current form for only 30-40 years. Here, alongside May Day customs and morris dancing, are civic carnivals and trade association events like the Pearly Kings Harvest Festival. There are also some striking sequences on recently established events like the Hastings and Deptford Jacks-in-the-Green.
These pictures point to one of the book's more intriguing features. Hannant is interested in questions of the beliefs embodied in seasonal customs. Some of these are fairly recent developments within Anglican tradition: Painswick's 'Clypping', for example, for all its claims of age, owes much to the Victorian antiquarianism of enthusiastic Church of England pastors. Hannant has documented further many of the emergent traditions around what we might loosely call neo-pagan beliefs. She is particularly good at covering the range of events around specific dates like 31 October (Ottery St Mary's tar barrels, the Antrobus Soulcakers' Play and Glastonbury Samhain events).
To some extent she has thus documented a new ritual year, one which has arisen only in the last two decades, although an ancient heritage is claimed for it. Her text does not deal with this in any great depth, although she is largely sympathetic to its practitioners (and has made much use of Ronald Hutton in her background reading, so her sympathy is well-informed). It may be up to others to tease out the relationship between these events (and between them and their supposed forebears), but that is not really the point of Hannant's glorious book. It would, of course, be nice to hear more about the background to events like the London Beltane revival (and there may be an error in the location here), but the novelty of documenting it so well still justifies its presentation in this way here.
It is a mark of the book's quality that it does point directions for such future consideration, but that should be taken as a bonus to its other, rather more evident, qualities. The book is an attractive celebration of a wide range of seasonal observation. It deserves to be seen widely and enjoyed. It should trigger further interest in seasonal events, drawing attention both to their existence and - hopefully - to their implications and meanings.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Pinch bottom day

I came across the following sentence last night. I find it rather beautiful: it sums up what's interesting and fun about folklore and its research.
'1 May in Fittleworth [Sussex] was once known as "Pinch Bottom Day", although I cannot find out why' (1)
And no, I don't know why, either. Exciting, isn't it?
* * * * *
1: Tony Wales, We Wunt Be Druv: Songs and Stories from Sussex (London: Galliard & EFDSS, 1976), p. 10.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Katharine Briggs Award shortlist 2011

The judges have announced this year's very strong shortlist for the Katharine Briggs Award. The book prize was established to encourage the study of Folklore, to help improve the standard of Folklore publications in Britain, to establish The Folklore Society as an arbiter of excellence and to commemorate the life and work of Katharine M. Briggs. The shortlisted titles (alphabetical by author) are:

Gary Fine and Bill Ellis,
The Global Grapevine: Why Rumours of Terrorism, Immigration and Trade Matter (OUP, 2010)
Patricia Fumerton and Anita Guerrini,
Ballads and Broadsides in Britain, 1500-1800 (Ashgate, 2010)
Herbert Halpert and JDA Widdowson,
Folk Tales, Tall Tales, Trickster Tales and Legends of the Supernatural from the Pinelands of New Jersey: Recorded and Annotated by Herbert Halpert between 1936 and 1951 (The Edwin Mellen Press, 2010)
Alessandro Portelli,
They Say in Harlan County: An Oral History (OUP, 2010)
Steve Roud,
The Lore of the Playground: One Hundred Years of Children's Games, Rhymes and Traditions (Random House, 2010)
Jay M. Smith,
Monsters of the Gévaudan: The Making of a Beast (Harvard UP, 2011)
Alexandra Walsham,
The Reformation of the Landscape: Religion, Identity, and Memory in Early Modern Britain and Ireland (OUP, 2011)
Jack Zipes,
The Enchanted Screen: The Unknown History of Fairy-tale Films (Taylor and Francis, 2010)

My congratulations to all the authors. The winner will be announced at the Katharine Briggs Evening, 9th November (see the FLS Facebook page or the website for further details). The Briggs lecture will be given by Michael Rosen on 'Folk tradition: What do we do with it?' Alessandro Portelli, one of the shortlisted authors, will also be in London the night before to give the Raphael Samuel Memorial Lecture at the Bishopsgate Institute.

Friday, 23 September 2011

A Watchet Sailor

I recently spent a happy 3 weeks holidaying in Watchet on the Somerset coast. The small harbour town's development was tied up with the import and export of minerals, particularly iron ore from the neighbouring Brendon Hills. Earlier it had hosted a Saxon mint which was plundered by the Vikings, and there are a couple of good local legends around the church and the big local landowners.
For anyone interested in folk song and its collection in England, Watchet means shanties. It was the home of the remarkable singer John Short (1839-1933). Between April and September 1914 Short sang 57 songs, most of them shanties, to Cecil Sharp. He was the main contributor to Sharp's English Folk-Chanteys, providing 43 of its 60 songs.
Short had started work in the local coastal trade at the age of 14, but in 1857 moved onto deep-sea vessels. For the next 50 years he worked at sea, eventually moving back into the coastal trade. His time on the Union ship the Levant, running the Civil War blockade under a British flag of convenience, earned him the enduring nickname 'Yankee Jack'. When he finally came ashore, to look after his ailing wife, he worked in Watchet harbour.
He heard his first shanty, Cheerily Man, on his first deepwater trip. Thereafter he made a point of trying to pick up a new shanty on every new vessel, which may explain some of the range of his repertoire. This is also worth noting when we think about traditional singers' active pursuit and preservation of songs. Short was a fine melismatic singer, as the notation of a complex piece like Carry Him to the Burying Ground reveals. In his later years Short served as Watchet's town crier. The town still has a crier, but I doubt that he could share John Short's boast that his voice could be heard for 2 miles with the right wind.
What is striking in Watchet is how far Short's fame within the folk revivals has intersected with his local celebrity. There is a statue of him in the centre of the Esplanade overlooking the harbour. (I do not particularly like Alan Herriot's statue, although I prefer it to his other local statue of the Ancient Mariner). Short's former residence is marked with a slate plaque.
Some of this may reflect the interest of folk song collectors (Sharp's picture can also be found on local information boards), but that is not quite the whole story. The town's good Boat Museum has a range of Bridgwater 'flatners', local boats built for inland work along the coast. These are now making a comeback as leisure vessels, and the museum has a nice recent example named after Short. The impression is of a celebrated local figure who has also become known to the outside world through his very specific talents. These reflect on and augment his local standing.
That is both charming and appropriate. In Watchet we get a real sense of a singer as a person, and of his repertoire as reflecting that person's enthusiasm and activity. There has been a healthy push towards such an approach when thinking about folk song (1), but Watchet's relationship with John Short gave me the fullest sense of how this might work.
It was appropriate, then, that in the Watchet Town Museum I picked up the first volume in a projected 3-CD set of all John Short's songs. Short Sharp Shanties Vol. 1 was put together under the auspices of Tom and Barbara Brown. They have brought together an eclectic group of lead singers, each of whom was given free rein with the arrangement of their songs.
The result is a diverse collection that highlights the move from shanties as historical worksongs to their current presentation as social and performance pieces. One of my big dislikes of shanty sessions is their lack of variety. That is not the case here. There are some more 'traditional' representations of shanties as worksongs, but Short's musicality is given full credit both in straightforward hauling shanties like Shallow Brown (and I warm more and more to Jim Mageean's singing) and in Carry Him to the Burying Ground. Sam Lee's singing of the latter is assured and complex, but I do not find his reading of songs yet as compelling or convincing as, say, Jackie Oates's fine take on Fire! Fire! here. Jeff Warner's banjo points to the breadth of Short's musical adventuring. I'm a big fan of Jeff Warner, and particularly enjoyed his warm and delicate Won't You Go My Way? (He touches on John Short's repertoire on his new solo album, too). At its best, this CD points to the same tendency seen in Watchet: these songs are part of a man's life, and are part of how he lived that life. In celebrating the songs, we have to celebrate the singer.
* * * * *
1: See, for example, the article on Short in Still Growing: English Traditional Songs and Singers from the Cecil Sharp Collection, ed. Steve Roud, Eddie Upton and Malcolm Taylor (London: English Folk Dance and Song Society, 2003), pp. 79-80.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Some burial folklore in literary sources

Whiling away my holiday with some light reading I came across several rather throwaway references to folkloric practice and belief. It is the casual manner of their introduction into literary fiction that makes them compelling as folkloric record. I was particularly struck by some references to burial practice.
The idea that a piece of land has been left undeveloped because it covers a plague burial ground has become a common one in London in recent years. Steve Roud has described the motif as 'a real growth area' (1). It may have developed alongside other similar ideas: in the late 1970s my father told me that a grassy corner of carpark outside the Fox on the Hill pub on Denmark Hill remained bare because it covered a Roman burial ground. (Pragmatism - and access to maps of Roman cemeteries - suggest that it remained undeveloped, rather, because it was awkwardly triangular and too narrow for a parking space). I'd associated the development of the motif with the post-war period, but a passing reference suggests a slightly earlier flourishing.
In Chapter 5 of Sax Rohmer's 1916 sequel The Devil Doctor (US: The Return of Fu-Manchu) we find exactly this kind of emergent pseudo-historical legend. Dr Petrie believes an islet in a south-west London park is naturally occurring. Nayland Smith is scornful in such a way as to point to the creation of authority in a legend:
'Nothing of the kind; it is a burial mound, Petrie! It marks the site of one of the Plague Pits where victims were buried during the Great Plague of London. You will observe that, although you have seen it every morning for some years, it remains for a British Commissioner resident in Burma to acquaint you with its history!'
Thinking folkloristically we might take this last assertion as evidence of the recent development of this legend. (I read this courtesy of Project Gutenberg, so I should also tip my hat here to the recently-departed Michael Hart, its founder and the inventor of the e-book).
This assertion of the 'history' of this legend is in marked contrast to another reference to burial practice I came across in fictional form. In Ambrose Bierce's short story 'A Holy Terror', a gold prospector is tipped off about a plot in a cemetery. He digs through a grave, and with chilling Biercean understatement, finds that 'This frail product of the carpenter's art had been put into the grave the wrong side up!' (2) The lack of explanation creates the effect: the detail relies on a reader's knowledge that burial upside-down is reserved for those likely to cause supernatural disturbance otherwise. (People are buried upside-down to prevent them clawing their way to the surface after death).
This is still a relatively late reference to prone burial. A recent historical survey found the last documented incident of the practice in 1916 (3). Of course, this is the sort of practice that is difficult to establish: it requires a degree of trust in the researcher that may not be inevitable given the rather extraordinary and infrequent practice. Ruth Tongue claimed to have been told of such things in Somerset in the early years of the 20th century (4). There must be some doubts about this: she said she was told of such things because she was a 'chime child', born at midnight. She wasn't. She was evidently a remarkable and gifted storyteller, but her reliability as a witness might be questionable. The Bierce reference, though, does suggest some wider familiarity with the idea.
* * * * *
1: Steve Roud, London Lore: The Legends and Traditions of the World's Most Vibrant City (London: Random House, 2008), pp. 117-119.
2: Ambrose Bierce, In the Midst of Life (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1939; first pub. 1892), p. 121.
3: Caroline Arcini, 'Prone Burials', Current Archaeology, 231 (June 2009), 30-35.
4: Ruth L. Tongue, 'Some Odds and Ends of Somerset Folklore', Folklore, 69.1 (1958), 44.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Paremiology and literature

I've long been interested in the relationship between folkloric items and their presentation in literary material. (It's one of the things I touch on in a talk I'm giving on St Clement's Day celebrations to the South East London Folklore Society in November). There is, I think, a tendency to underestimate the capacity of literary authors to be inventive and adaptive with traditional material, and to assume that how they present an item in their fictional, created world is identical to the way it is used in the ethnographic world around them.
A corresponding tendency is to look at literary works primarily for their folkloric content. I confess to a sinking feeling on learning that Archer Taylor's first reaction to a William Faulkner novel was 'He doesn't use many proverbs!' (1) This seems to me to miss the point on a number of levels, but that might simply be because there is no further record of what he made of the novel as a work of literature.
However, paremiology is actually an area where a straightforward reading of folkloric material can be possible in literary text. I was reminded of this after some summer escapist reading, having finally got round to Arthur Bernède's Belphégor (1927). Many of the characters use proverbial expressions, but they do so in direct speech. One might have to take into account personal characterisation employed by the author, but the proverbs here are familiar and seem to employ standard forms. Characters describe a situation more than once as 'clair comme l'eau de roche' (clear as crystal). Alain Rey and Sophie Chantreau record the phrase but give no historical antecedents (2).
Rey and Chantreau do not record the expression 'Un homme prévenu en vaut deux' (forewarned is forearmed), found in Belphégor, but it is noted in online collections of French proverbs along with the variant 'un homme averti en vaut deux'.
Another other proverbial item that leaped out at me was when the protagonist insists 'j'ai toujours eu pour principe de ne jamais vendre la peau de l'ours avant qu'il fût à terre' (I've always made a point of never selling the bear's skin before he's down). While the second part of the phrase is variable, the bearskin element is widespread, most famously found in La Fontaine's Fables. Rey and Chantreau note that in Middle French the specific mention of 'the bear' wasn't necessary (3).

* * * * *

1) Quoted in Jan Harold Brunvand, 'My Summer with Archer, and Some Unfinished Business: The 1999 Archer Taylor Memorial Lecture', Western Folklore, 58.1 (1999), 4.
2) Alain Rey and Sophie Chantreau, Dictionnaire d'Expressions et Locutions (Paris: Le Robert, 2007), p. 201.
3) Rey and Chantreau, pp. 664-5.

Monday, 29 August 2011

The anniversary of 'Folklore'

Having just got back from my holiday I thought I'd better catch up with one of the more important anniversaries in the history of the discipline of Folklore.
On 12 August 1846 William John Thoms, under the pen name Ambrose Merton, wrote a letter to
The Athenaeum magazine. It was published on 22 August. In it Thoms wrote of 'what we in England designate as Popular Antiquities, or Popular Literature (though by-the-bye it is more a Lore than a Literature, and would be more aptly described by a good Saxon compound, Folklore, - the Lore of the People)' (1).
It's a convenient marker for the start of Folklore as a self-identified discipline, but the letter makes no claims for inventing the discipline, pointing back as it does to the work of the Grimms and the earlier popular antiquarians. Rather, it begins to delineate the idea of what folklore is ('the manners, observances, superstitions, ballads, proverbs, etc., of the olden time') and encourage its collection ('how much may yet be rescued by timely exertion').
It's the start of a great exploration, so it's no surprise that folklorists take it seriously. Last year's Folklore Society weekend on Death in Legend and Tradition was held in Brompton Cemetery, where Thoms is buried. On behalf of the Society Dr Jonathan Roper laid a wreath at Thoms's grave (top) and gave a short eulogy (left). Jonathan's article on 'Thoms and the Unachieved "Folk-Lore of England"' is available free here.
I'm pleased to commemorate the occasion, and give credit where it's due.
* * * * *
1: The letter is reprinted in The Study of Folklore, ed. Alan Dundes (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1965), pp. 4-6.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Decorating the bride

The latest issue of Folk London (254, Aug-Sept 2011) contains this interesting little comment from the editor, Peter Crabb-Wyke:

'When I first started work in The City in the late 1960s it was customary for girls who were about to marry to be decorated by their work mates. It was a regular sight at Liverpool Street to see some poor girl on her way home on a Friday night with streamers pinned to her clothes and usually an "L" plate on her back. When I returned to work in the Square Mile in the '80s the custom seemed to have died out and friends who worked in the West End in that era have never heard of it. Do any of our readers have memories of this custom, or better still photos?'

At around the same time Peter recalls seeing girls decorated, George Monger documented the practice in some Essex industrial centres. Monger recorded the practice from Harold Hill and Ongar, places accessible to the City for commuters. Some other comments around the same time suggest the practice was probably widespread. (1)

Peter's call for memories or photos is welcome, and I hope he gets some results, but it would also be interesting to know if there is any connection with the current practice of the costumed hen night trip. Many of the costumes are almost standardised (pink cowboy hats, wings): this may reflect commercial availability, but it would be interesting to know if there's any understood connection with older traditions. The L-plates certainly remain popular, and have also become part of the commercial repertoire.
* * * * * * *
1) George Monger, 'A Note on Wedding Customs in Industry Today', Folklore, 82.4 (1971), 314-316.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Sharing the Harvest

I recently received an e-mail advising me that the National Library of Australia's bookstore is now online. I was on their mailing list having previously bought a quite wonderful CD from them. Hopefully the launch of the online store will enable them to get round some of the rather charming problems I'd had with their manual system - the CD was initially out of stock, and took about a year to arrive, by which time I'd forgotten having ordered it.

The CD, though, turned out to be a real treat, so I'm pleased to see the store lists it as still being available and in stock. (The Australian Dollar also seems to have strengthened since I bought my copy: the CD costs Aus$19.95 before postage, which today works out at about £14).

Sharing the Harvest is a 2-disc set of John Meredith's field recordings of folk songs and tunes made in the 1950s. There are some pieces generally familiar from Australian, Irish and British traditions (there's a strong selection of Irish/Australian bandit songs), but also some less well-known items.

As ever with field recordings, there are are variations of quality for several reasons. Some are technical, some relate to the age of the performers, some to the recording context, and none makes any difference to the value of the collection. There are some truly exceptional traditional performers represented here, like Sally Sloane. The dropping out of the odd word cannot detract from a performance like Sid Heather's great The Wonderful Crocodile, anymore than the unprompted accompaniment of Ron Manton's dog during what he could recollect of The Banks of the Condamine.

Revisiting the CDs, I'm struck again by Meredith himself. Born in New South Wales in 1920, Meredith had learned the button accordion from his bush worker father, and played for local dances. Moving to Sydney to work for a drug company, he became involved in a folk revivalist movement promoted by the Australian Communist Party. In part they were driven by a cultural nationalism, but this led to a renewed interest in bush songs. Meredith was introduced to a retired shearer, Jack 'Hoopiron' Lee (who can be heard here).

There's an interesting technical aspect to this amateur drive to research. In the 1950s, portable recording equipment was becoming more widely and cheaply available. Meredith, who did not have the technical ability to transcribe a tune, was still able to purchase a tape recorder and go out looking for songs. He was able to record tunes and songs long before he found a scholarly collaborator in Hugh Anderson who could help him prepare them for publication in book form.

Meredith was quite rightly recognised for his fieldwork. The NLA bought his tape collection in 1963, and encouraged further fieldwork to record the oral histories of performers. Meredith resumed fieldwork in the 1980s in collaboration with the Music Department at the University of New South Wales, further adding to the NLA's documentation of vernacular culture.

However, the availability of this technical wherewithal extended well beyond those like Meredith who dedicated themselves to the quest for traditional music. I have heard several stories of people in the 1950s recording domestic parties at which there was singing, in part simply because they now could. These less formal, less directed, recordings may still be lurking in attics and cellars. It's worth keeping an eye open for these things, as they may offer small but valuable contributions to our knowledge of vernacular singing.

John Meredith at the Holbrook Woolpack Museum, c.1990, playing the late 'Pop' Craythorn's accordion. (Photo by Rob Willis from the NLA Pictures Collection)

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Songs of Love and Emigration

I'm not quite out of the thesis woods yet, but am beginning to start thinking about research/interests/life generally after I finally finish. One part of this has involved catching up on some recent CD releases. I've finally picked up a copy of Songs of Love and Emigration, a 2 CD set of songs recorded by London Irish pensioners.
I already knew something of the project, having had the privilege of hearing one of the singers, Andy Higgins, several times at Sharps Folk Club. The 21 singers here perform a wide range of songs and recitations from folk songs, popular theatre pieces, to a song from the repertoire of John McCormack. Gerry Diver has contributed an impressive and sensitive backing to all of the pieces.
I hope that someone also recorded these singers in the settings where they actually sang most of these pieces, but that's not a criticism of this project. It's interesting to hear songs that might not get an airing in the folk world, invested here with evident emotional significance. Anne Morrissey sings Galway Bay, for example, quite beautifully. It is a song that reminds her of leaving Galway for America at 19, and you can hear that in the performance.
What's also interesting is the evidence of a continued tradition of making songs and poems. There are poems here performed by their authors, but the song that caught my attention immediately was John Butler's The Gracie Blue. I knew nothing of this song, or the story attached to it.
It relates to an event in Schull Harbour in 1947, when local traders were passed dud cheques by a conman in an ornate naval uniform. The song sung by John Butler appears to have been just one of a number of local compositions on the subject. It isn't the song sung at the end of this lovely local oral history film, for example:

The Gracie Blue: A People's History from El Zorrero Films on Vimeo.

Here is folk poetry, commemorating an otherwise forgotten incident in local history, and it's got me very excited about getting onto another research project in due course.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Across the Forest review

Supernatural beliefs are a difficult area to write about. A lot of contradictory assumptions are made – they’re dying out or they’re flourishing, they reflect experience or discussing them indicates no experience, they are exactly the same as artistic representations or artistic representations have changed them forever etc etc etc. All too often comments on belief are based on these preconceptions or, just as bad, are based on the assumption that commentator and original source had a common understanding of the concepts and entities being described.

One step towards overcoming these assumptions is just to go and ask people about their beliefs and experiences. (This seems obvious, but it also seems to need repeating). Problems still arise with interpretations, but at least you then have a starting point of people’s own testimony. It’s a real pleasure, therefore, to see such testimonies documented on film, and publicly available.

Across the Forest, dir. Justin Blair & Matthew Vincent, 2009 (79 mins) contains footage of interviews conducted in Romania. The interviewees describe their experiences of, and beliefs in, various supernatural beings. Many of these are stunning (‘binding’ a corpse to the grave by stabbing a nail through its heart), and informants are allowed to give their own accounts of experiences and belief (the man who insists ‘The dead do come back’ also states categorically that ‘without experiences people don’t believe’).

Blair and Vincent deserve credit for retaining the native terms here (strigoi, varcolaci etc), although these are often compared with English equivalents (vampire, werewolf etc). Strigoi are often compared to vampires: they have a lot in common with ghosts of the uneasy dead, but it would be forcing the issue just to translate the term, not quite accurately, by either word. They are strigoi, and we see here what this actually means. This is particularly important given how far notions of ‘Transylvania’ have shaped popular representations of supernatural beings, including the vampire of film and literature.

The film’s greatest strength is its refreshingly unflashy presentation of the interviews in extended sections. This is welcome for two reasons.

Firstly, it gives due weight to the speaker’s own account and interpretation of their stories. These unfold more fully than if they were implied in more heavily edited soundbites. This is not to suggest an absence of editorial direction, as I will discuss below, but it does place the emphasis on the interviewees. All of the interviewees are identified, but their names are listed during the end credits, a device more suited to the soundbite editing style eschewed here. Given the construction of the film it might have been better to have identified them as they appeared, but that is a minor quibble.

Secondly, the longer interview clips also give the viewer some idea of the narrative context for the stories. While most of the interviews are individual discussions, we do see some group storytelling contexts, and we hear about others.

This is significant, because one of the driving motivations for the film is the idea that ‘These beliefs are quickly dying out as the world modernizes around the tiny villages’. The evidence may be slightly skewed here, as the interviewees are mostly older people, so we do not see transmission of the stories to younger generations. However, family narrative traditions are revealed, and interviewees themselves do engage in some way with changing patterns of belief. It takes nothing from the interviews as evidence of individual positions to think that further work needs doing on how they are transmitted.

A related question is my biggest concern here. Blair and Vincent refer throughout to Transylvania. This seems a little too imprecise for the social context. One informant simply talks about being Romanian. There is evidence of social context within the interviews, including evidence of fluidity of labour across the region (one informant discusses a Moldovan indentured servant).

This may not be a big deal here, beyond flagging further questions for consideration in interpreting and analysing the testimonies here. Transylvania may just be intended as a general geographical term, but it needs a little more caution given its popular literary uses.

Perhaps I became more sensitive to this given the film’s one big weakness. The interviews are intercut with other footage. Most of the slideshows of establishing shots are unexceptionable. However, I found some strident soundtracking and night-vision footage of the filmmakers en route redundant. This left a slightly unpleasant aftertaste. This footage has no narrative significance, and the sub-Blair Witch night vision seems to be pointing to a literary and cinematic culture of supernatural representation somewhat different to the rest of the film. (Some of the slides fall into the same category). This felt at best like a slight loss of nerve, at worst like a manipulation of the interviews.

But this caveat should not discourage anyone from getting hold of this film. It is distracting, and points to areas for future study and consideration, but it does not undermine the remarkable interviews in this film. There is much to enjoy, savour and contemplate here, and it is worth your time

More information, and details of how to order the DVD, are at the film's website.

Friday, 1 April 2011

Not cold reading but cold calling

Things here are busy and tense with work on my thesis, and blogging's had to take a backseat.
However, I was delighted to receive a pre-recorded junk advertising call a month ago, as it fell within the scope of my work. 'My name is Chris', declared the recorded voice. 'I am a clairvoyant and a parapsychologist ... I have already helped people with my parapsychological gift'.
This is the first time I've heard such an advertising cold call in this field. Also striking was that this was the first time I'd come across that vernacular use of 'parapsychology' to mean 'psychical'.
I'm delighted to have been able to include this in my thesis. If only Chris had told me how to get it written faster.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

A Green Man

I've only just got round to picking up a copy of Jacqueline Simpson's recent book on the folklore of pub names (1). It is the kind of well-researched delight we have come to expect from her, and I'm enjoying it very much.
I'm also extremely chuffed to find myself mentioned in the acknowledgements there. When she was researching the changing iconography of Green Men in pub signs, Jacqueline had asked around for any images people might have. She was thus able to describe a number of signs, including 'The Green Man on the corner of Plashet Grove and Katherine Road (London E6) [that] shows a "wild man" figure carrying a tankard and standing next to a barrel' (p. 121).
Here's the photo on which she based that description. I'd taken it in part because the pub was closing down, and I felt there should be some record of the motif in use there before evidence of it disappeared. The building was subsequently demolished, and a block of flats is nearing completion on the site.
There had been quite a lot of local interest in the pub because it was one of the older buildings in the area. (Although it wasn't a great pub by the time I knew it). I'm pleased that such interest can also be used to inform other research.
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1: Jacqueline Simpson, Green Men and White Swans: The Folklore of British Pub Names (London: Random House, 2010).

Thursday, 10 February 2011

A meme streak

Last night's Newsnight saw Paul Mason appealing to the notion of 'memes' for the circulation of radical ideas. (He'd already floated the idea on his BBC blog). I hadn't intended to get into the question of meme-theory here yet. It's quite a broad field, as I've found in my doctoral research.
I've not been convinced by memes thus far. To a great extent they seem like a judgemental short cut advanced by disapproving scientists to account for religion without viewing it in any broader social context. To quote an abstract by Susan Blackmore, 'Not only does the God meme satisfy minds that were not evolved to accurately assess the origins of the universe or the likelihood of life after death, but wraps itself up in religious memeplexes that use threats and promises to ensure their own propagation'.
There are a number of problems with this. For one, it doesn't really account for contrary theories held by minds presumably at exactly the same evolutionary disadvantage. As some critics have noted, there does not seem to be a tendency for bad memes to be countered by good ones. In the work of Richard Dawkins, for example, there is a tendency for bad memes to be countered by rational criticism, which doesn't seem to have memetic status. (1) Indeed, some scientists have pointed to this problem more generally. Lewis Wolpert has written 'Just what a meme is, and how it is distinguishable from beliefs, I find difficult. Is the word "bird" a meme, and is the second law of thermodynamics also one?' (2)
This tendency of memetics reveals a lack of familiarity with the study of traditional narrative and its transmission. Schrempp has pointed out that folklorists have long dealt with the transmission of traditional narrative elements - 'less ideologically and more scientifically', he notes archly - in trait and motif studies. (3)
A related problem, with more serious implications, is the implication that these motifs are themselves responsible for their own transmission. (This is clearer in Blackmore's writings than in Dawkins's). Folklorists' examination of motifs and types does not proceed from the assumption that the stories are transmitting themselves. What sounds like the ultimate in materialism from the memeticists is a way of removing human agency from cultural artefacts. It gives the idea supremacy in its philosophical framework. If you tell a myth, or believe in a god, this is evidence of your human failings in the face of quasi-genetic elements, rather than any cultural expression.
Distasteful though I may find it intellectually, however, the 'meme' has acquired a certain folk life as a way of representing transmitted ideas. You do find it in popular discussion, and in that respect it must be taken seriously. It exists as a popular and vague definition. (I don't like the popular use of 'folklore' to mean something false, but I recognise it exists, and has to be factored into any appraisal of emic analysis).
What's interesting about Mason's appeal to memes is that you see that process at work. Although he pays lip service to the notion of self-replication, in practice he actually abandons much of the contentious baggage because he sees it in terms of agent-driven communication: 'ideas arise, are very quickly "market tested" and either take off, bubble under, insinuate themselves or if they are deemed no good they disappear. Ideas self-replicate like genes. Prior to the internet this theory ... seemed an over-statement but you can now clearly trace the evolution of memes'.
I still find it a vague and unhelpful concept, in origin profoundly ignorant of any study of traditional communication, but there does seem to be some attempt to use memes now to express something closer to the items that people transmit between themselves. There seems to be some attempt to restore human matter to the transmission of non-material artefacts between people. To restore the folk to the folklore, maybe?
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1: Gregory Schrempp, 'Taking the Dawkins Challenge, or, The Dark Side of the Meme', Journal of Folklore Research, 46.1 (2009), 91-100.
2: Lewis Wolpert, Six Impossible Things before Breakfast: The Evolutionary Origins of Belief (London: Faber and Faber, 2006), p. 30.
3: Schrempp, 'Dawkins', 98.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

The legal historian of cannibalism at sea

I'm sorry to hear that the legal historian AW Brian Simpson has died. There's plenty of detail in Christopher McCrudden's obituary in The Guardian.
Simpson's probably best known to folklorists (and most general readers) for Cannibalism and the Common Law, his classic account of the Mignonette tragedy and its ensuing legal case. (This established the precedent in English law that you could not kill someone to eat them, even in the most extreme of circumstances). I've written on the case here before.
It's an excellent book, rich with ballad and customary evidence, and it's invaluable for anyone trying to understand the clash between folk culture and the law. I used it extensively when I was working on Thackeray's poem about cannibalism at sea 'Little Billee' for an article in the Folk Music Journal, 9.5 (2010).
I don't know whether Brian Simpson ever saw this article, but he was certainly uppermost in my mind when I came to illustrate it. He had quoted a broadside ballad about the Mignonette, 'Fearful Sufferings at Sea: Lad Killed and Eaten', but wrote that he had never seen a copy of the ballad. It was serendipity that, while looking for ballad illustrations in the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, I came across that very ballad in Ralph Vaughan Williams' own collection. It now adorns the cover of that issue of the journal. Its inclusion was always intended as, and remains, a small tribute to Brian Simpson's sterling work.

Monday, 17 January 2011


Fiona-Jane Brown has a complaint about the last of the BBC's Aurelio Zen adaptations (which aired last night). At no point. she says, did anyone mention what the 'Ratking' of the title was. As a rattophilic folklorist, I'm happy to oblige. (F-J knows, by the way, she just thinks other people should too).
The rat king is a phenomenon whereby rats apparently become knotted at the tail while they are in the nest. The famous image here is of an example from Rucphen, but there are one or two other good examples in museums around the world. The Rucphen one has been x-rayed and, yes, the rats, really are knotted together at the tails. (It's been suggested that the tails were broken and had re-knitted, which might cast a doubt on the idea that this occurred naturally when they were young).
So, there's a question-mark over whether this really is naturally occurring or whether it's been 'arranged' at some point. Apart from the actual object, what's interesting from it folklorically is that it's attached to reports of intelligent social behaviour from the rats. The rat king supposedly occurs in the nest while the rats are young, which would be a problem for their future development. Rats, though, have a reputation for cleverness, and for looking out for each other, so other rats are supposed to bring food back to the nest for the afflicted animals.
This ties in with all sorts of other folklore about rats' social behaviour. There are contemporary legends reported from Germany of two rats, each holding the end of a straw in their mouths as they scuttle round a farmyard. On closer inspection the trailing rat is found to be blind, and is being led around by its colleague. As rats swarm, there are also tales of a dominant rat leading them in their flight, and their flight is also taken as prescient of impending danger. (There's a story about rats swarming down main roads away from the bombing during the Coventry Blitz).
Just before Christmas I had the chance to see some of Walter Potter's taxidermy tableaux. The theme of the intelligent rat recurs throughout his work, although it's perhaps less well known than his kittens. In 'The Friend in Need' (below) a rat is caught in a trap. There is a concerted and intelligent effort to free him by his friends. Potter seems to have broken the faces of his rats to make them seem less visually ratlike, but it's clear that he's still dealing with folkloric ideas about rats.
In another tableau Potter portrayed rats stealing eggs. As P.A. Morris puts it, 'This is an evergreen topic of folklore in the countryside, even today. Potter admitted that he never saw such a thing himself, but created the case based upon what a clergyman (presumed to be a reliable witness) had told him'.(1) Right there you have the folkloric idea, and its transmission.
There was also a tableau of rats attempting to steal wine. This was based on another story resting on similar ideas about their intelligence. Rats are reputed to dip their tails into wine or oil, and then lick the fluid off it. (This image, and the egg-stealing, can be found in reproduction in this article about Potter).
That was a new one on me, but it fits perfectly with the other folklore about them. I really never will stop finding them fascinating.

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1: P.A. Morris, Walter Potter and His Museum of Curious Taxidermy (Ascot: MPM, 2008), p. 63.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Shoes on telephone lines

The new year finds me beavering away, wrestling full-time with finishing the thesis. So, to remind myself of some other folkloric things I love, here are some shoes thrown over telephone lines. There are all sorts of reasons for it as behaviour. I don't know why these are here, and I don't claim to have any handle on all of the reasons why they might be. That's part of the attraction of studying folklore. These were photographed in Goodwood Road, London SE14, on 16th March 2010.