Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Folk-Song for Our Time? 1954

THE MARXIST QUARTERLY (January 1954) Lawrence and Wishart
Folk-Song for Our Time? pp. 47-56.


God knows it is easy to misjudge the trend of public taste, but for some time it has seemed that a revival of interest in folk music is upon us, a revival more powerful and more significant than that experienced early in the century. Of late, thousands of ordinary people, youngsters particularly, have been turning to folksong in search of the satisfaction of some apparently deep artistic want. The enormous popular success of such near traditional singers as Josh White and Burl Ives would have been as unthinkable, five years ago, as would the broadcasting of the Ballads and Blues series by the B.B.C. And if the new movement is already developing its cult, this is but the mildly irritating product of a genuine, if raw, enthusiasm.

If the signs are read aright, the new revival is more powerful than the former one because it is more firmly rooted in the mass of the people. The revival of fifty years ago was mainly among middle class folk, scholars, educators, parsons, givers of garden parties. Let no one disparage what was achieved then. Nonsense was talked and silliness done, but a few serious characters accomplished tremendous things, and with the further development of musical folklore as a science, the stature of Cecil Sharp, for one, has increased, not diminished. But the present revival of interest is a different affair, for it seems to have arisen more or less spontaneously among young people in youth clubs, rhythm clubs, trade union branches, night school classes, in fact precisely among those people who are the true heirs to that lower class musical heritage we call for want of a better name folk music. The purpose of this article is to try to suggest what folk music may have to offer to such people, and what they may have to offer to folk music. The problem is one of some importance, for it is intimately linked not only with the defence of our cultural independence, but also with the future of the popular creation of music in Britain.

Folk music possesses two fundamental characteristics which distinguish it from other kinds of music its manner of performance and its function in society. By performance, I imply such features as oral transmission, the perpetual variation of the material, the various aspects of vocal or instrumental technique (Scottish pentatonism, Bulgarian rhythms, the Andalusian crying voice, etc.). By function, I mean the reason why a song gets sung, what it means to the singer, what the singer hopes to achieve by its performance (the propitiation of evil powers, solace for a baby's death, strengthening men's determination during a strike).

Till now, bourgeois folklorists have concentrated most of their attention on the formal aspects of folk music, and have given little thought to its function. That may be one reason why, after years of cogitation and conference, they have still failed to define what folk music is, have still not contrived to reach agreement on just what it is they are studying. What is the meaning of the word "folk", for instance? Does it mean the entire nation, within or beyond the political frontiers, as the German romantics believed? (So that to them, any widely accepted song is a folksong. Die Lorelei, words by Heine, melody by Silcher, is a folksong. And Abide With Me?) Does it mean a single class say, the working class? Or does it mean, as Bartok and others thought, a fraction of the people say, the peasant class whose material conditions of existence isolate it from the rest? The more the folklorists discover, the more sociology comes to bear on criticism and the vaguer the notion of folk music becomes. Small wonder that the folk music scholar takes refuge in some quiet room where he can study tune shapes and dissect melodies like so many frogs. But here again, confusion follows him. Folk music doesn't as a rule come into being conveniently fixed in ink on paper like art music. It is passed on by word of mouth and subject to constant change as it goes from singer to singer, because one doesn't like the run of the song and so he alters it to suit his fancy, while another can't remember exactly how it went so he fills in the gaps for himself. The material, then, is always likely to be in a state of flux and permutation, and the folklorist with a fixed and formal mind is sometimes baffled by the fact that even if he limits his investigations to one song, he may find it existing in countless forms reflecting quite different musical, psychological and social nuances.

The Marxist folklorists of the U.S.S.R. and of the new democracies have an enormous advantage in that not only are they dealing with a folk tradition in full flower, but their philosophical approach provides them with a method of grasping the material however subject it may be to fluctuation and change, and gives them a theoretical groundwork for interpreting the social character of folk music. "Society influences music and at the same time music influences society" is their thesis, and the process is seen in its clearest and most exciting forms in folk music, precisely because it isn't the solitary talented individual who speaks through the folksong, but the humble anonymous collective crowd with the power to move mountains and bring down the stars.

It must be remembered that the great musicians, the art composers, European or Oriental, affect the lives of only a tiny fraction of the world's population. The Congo pygmy woman yodelling to keep bad luck away from the little elephant hunters, the Rumanian shepherd playing cajoling music on his flute to entice a lost sheep out of the rocks; the Negro convict gang hoeing in the long rows of a cotton field and distracting their minds with a song of Long Gone John the escape artist, these, and hundreds of millions like them, are quite uninfluenced by the cultured works of the great men. For them, music is little concerned with aesthetic pleasure. Rather, it is a desperate necessity. Things cannot happen right, life is not supportable, without the proper music, or, it may be, the proper dance. Such songs and dances may have many layers of meaning, and the magical world they create is a direct extension of the real world; and such is their power that even when through some social change, their significance is lost to the intellect, it may still be felt by generations of singers and dancers. Thus, the young calusari dancer who leaps and prances at the Bucharest Festival no longer believes that his dance has power to make the crops grow and the cattle breed (though his elder brother may have believed it only ten years ago). Nevertheless neither he nor his spectators are insensitive to the magical encouragement of the dance, even if they associate it with phosphates and tractors rather than with semen and water buffaloes.

Over most of the world, this kind of functional music may form a prominent part of the folksinger's repertoire, but it was hardly the thing that attracted the early collectors, who followed Herder's romantic view that "All people who are still uncultured are singers. Nature created man free, joyous, singing. Art and society have made him pentup, sullen, dumb." Those holding this opinion believed that folksong must be something simple, naive, as spontaneous as the song of a bird on a bough. Innocence and charm was what they looked for.

After all, it must be remembered that most of the early collectors were only doing the job as an amiable pastime. Many of them were curates keen to fraternise with their flock, or maiden ladies with a passion for bicycling. The music they liked best, the songs they collected and published with the greatest will, were often precisely the least representative items of the folksinger's repertoire. The music the folklorists like best is not necessarily that which most interests the bearers of the tradition. In one area of Eastern Europe folksingers came to have a horror of folklorists because the scholars pestered the peasants to sing rare old funeral chants of a kind which the singers had abandoned years before. In the case of the conventional folk music collections, it was generally the most harmless part of the country repertoire, and the part which corresponded closest to the style of art music, which appeared most readily in print.

Work songs, plough cries, shepherd calls, lullabies, material which was closest bound to the folksinger's life, most frequently used, and most characteristic in expression, were pushed into the background by the great majority of the early folklorists. In this respect, Britain was better served than many West European countries. Because of our peculiar social history, our tradition is far richer in "diversionary" songs than in functional songs; nevertheless relatively early investigators such as Miss Lucy Broadwood showed a keen interest in street cries, for example, which doubtless seemed rather ridiculous to the compilers of the lavender and mothball collections of Quaint Songs of Olden Times or Ditties My Grandmother Sang. Also despised and neglected were songs of more or less anonymous origin and oral dissemination, reflecting social conditions in the towns and industries. To the conventional folklorist, a song had to be rustic to be good. If it was old and rustic, that was better. But best of all was the old rustic song suitable for singing in evening dress from a concert platform. As a result, to this day those of us who only know folk music from the popular collections have a distorted idea of what the material sounds like. To people who have made the acquaintance of the Negro spiritual through the concert versions, the Library of Congress recordings of authentic spiritual singing come as a tremendous shock.

It was on the basis of the printed collections that German scholars, some forty or fifty years ago, came to the conclusion that there was no such thing as folk music. John Meier endowed this bold conclusion with a working title : Rezeptionstheorie. According to this theory, all art is created at the top of the social edifice. The common people are incapable of creating anything. They merely receive the art that filters down to them from above and preserve it long after the ruling class have finished with it. Of course, the art song doesn't remain identical, once it is taken to the bosom of the common man. The people, having no idea of, nor respect for, the integrity of the work, remake it without scruple. Through the technical incapacity of the singers, through their defective memory and their tendency to confuse one song with another, the material becomes eroded out of all recognition until finally the once fashionable material is zersungensung to pieces.

Thus, the songs of the troubadours and minnesingers became the folksongs of the sixteenth century, the songs of eighteenth century poets became popular songs in the nineteenth. For this process Hans Naumann coined the phrase gesunkenes Kulturgut (sunken cultural values), which has been a catchword ever since for those folklorists who cannot believe that the Oklahoma farmer, the Hungarian servant girl, or the Durham miner are capable of making up songs for themselves. The antidemocratic nature of this theory delighted the Nazis, and today has a special appeal to fascist folklorists in Spain, for instance, who appear to take it as their duty "to save folk music from the folk".

The theory dies hard, though its fallacious character is not hard to demonstrate. Oral tradition is capable of absorbing widely disparate material, and certainly in most European traditions, particularly in Western Europe, the folksinger's repertoire is likely to contain many songs which ultimately derive from cultured sources. But it is likely to contain many more which don't have any connection with art music. As a witty French critic remarked: "If all folksong derives from art sources, where does the pentatonism come from? Debussy?"

It was around 1910 that Meier and his followers triumphantly announced that they were on the way to tracking some 1,700 printed German folksongs to their cultured source. At the same time, Bartok was rattling in a horse-drawn vehicle over the rough roads of Hungary and Rumania, into country where the gap between the classes, between haves and have nots, literates and illiterates, was absolute in a way unknown in Western Europe, save perhaps in parts of Spain. Particularly in Rumania, Bartok realised he had stumbled on a wealth of music quite different from that created for the privileged classes music not played and sung exclusively for entertainment, music in which art is not the only master nor beauty the only end, music created and performed to still the terrors, soothe the longings, fill the needs of men. Music with a direct social function.

True, Bartok chose to disregard all other aspects of folksong than the strictly musical ones, and his scientific analysis of the thousands of songs he collected has yielded important results. But he pushed the method too far. The measurements of a beauty queen don't tell you what kind of a girl she is. The folklorist needs to remind himself that a folksong is but the outward form of a complex of ideas in the minds of the men and women who make it and sing it. It arises through certain social circumstances, certain wants, desires and ideas, and its form is also determined by the ideas and techniques of its maker, as well as by environment and possibly the natural materials at hand for instrument making, etc. The formalistic approach of the tune dissector leaves too many factors untouched, it is inadequate even for musical purposes.

It is often said that the great difference between folk music and art music is in their dissimilar techniques or dissemination folk music spreading from mouth to mouth or hand to hand, with all the variation implicit in such a process, while art music is transmitted in printed form, with the composer's intentions fixed in black and white.

But it may well be that a far more important difference lies in the everyday adaptability of folksong, the fact that it is cut to suit the desires, the needs, the victories and defeats of the hour the raising of a barn, the flogging of a prisoner, the installation of a new patent cage in the mine. Book literature, composed music, cannot compete with folksong in that everyday functional respect. Yet folksong is no less durable than high art in its emotional effect. An atom scientist may be moved to tears on hearing a girl sing The Cuckoo is a Pretty Bird.

Of course, by no means all folksongs have a direct function. Only in primitive societies does it happen that the singer's repertoire is made up almost entirely of utilitarian songs. In traditions such as ours, folksong has become increasingly an object of diversion and entertainment. Even so, many lyrical songs have come into being with the practical purpose of easing the singer's heart and stilling the mind. An Indian in the Argentine Andes expresses clearly why he sings:

Yo no canto pa cantar.
Ni pa tener buena voz.
Yo canto para que vayan
Las penas del corazon.

No sé que tiene mis penas
Que no me qüieren dejar.
Ayer me separo de ellas
Y hoy me vuelven a encontrar.

(I don't sing for singing's sake, nor because I've a good voice. I sing so that my troubles may leave my heart. I don't know what's wrong with my troubles that they don't want to leave me. Yesterday I separate myself from them, and today they come back to meet me.)

In British tradition, there is an abundance of songs whose purpose is to give expression to heartbreak, and so console the singer. Those with only a slight acquaintance with folksongs are familiar with such verses as:

I wish my baby it was born
And smiling on its father's knee,
And I was dead and in my grave,
And the green grass growing over me,


I sit upon the high green land where quiet the waters lie.
I think I see my true love sail atween the sea and sky,
With one babe at my bosom and another at my knee,
I sorrow for my sodger lad in Low Germany.

Less familiar, but often even more striking as illustrations of folkmusic function, are those songs dealing explicitly with the class struggle, the "songs of protest" as they are called. Protest songs form a category which is very common in the repertoire of folksingers in many parts of the world, though here again, the printed collections are often poor guides. For this, there may be a twofold reason: on the one hand, the collector may suppress such songs as disrespectful, on the other hand and this is even more likely the singer may withhold such songs for fear of giving offence to his genteel guest. Such songs may be defiant:

You take mah labour, an' steal mah time,
Give me ol' dish pan an' a lousy dime,
'Case I'm a nigger, dat's why.

White man, white man, sit in de shade,
Here in de hot sun, sweat wid de spade,
'Case I'm a nigger, dat's why.

Worm get turnin', cat hug a lion,
Mah hell get risin', don' care about dyin', '
Case I'm a nigger, dat's why.

They may be heartfelt exhortations, as the song written by the coalminer's wife who watched the strikers' children walking barefoot in the rain to the soup kitchen, and said: "After they had passed by I just set down by the table and began to wonder what to try to do next. Then I began to sing out my blues to express my feeling. This song come straight from the heart and not just from the point of a pen." Her song ends:

Oh, don't go under that mountain
With the slate a-hangin' over your head,
And work for just coalite and carbide,
And your children a-cryin' for bread.

Oh listen, friends and workers,
Please take a friend's advice,
Don't load no more, don't pull no more,
Till you get a living price.

Or they may be satirical, as the biting dialogue song The Coalowner and the Pitman's Wife, which was orally circulating among Durham colliers for more than a century before it finally appeared in print in 1952. Whatever the character of these protest songs, research in areas where relations between collector and singer are uninhibited suggests that such songs abound to an undreamed of extent.

The question of relation between the folklorist and the bearer of folksong is a particularly important one, connected as it is with such vital problems as the investigation of the creation of folksong. Putting aside the romantic theory that all folksongs have their genesis in some mysterious collective activity, putting aside also the so called realistic theory that all folksongs are inherited from upper class cultured sources, there still remains the problem: Who starts off a new folksong and how? Many folklorists believe in the total absence of any author for a folksong, and make anonymity an essential condition, as if a folksong would cease to be a folksong if, one day, the name of its humble author were to come to light. Now, in the main, our folklorists have had little luck in their interrogation of folksingers regarding the authorship of songs of apparently recent makeup in their repertoire. Perhaps there has been too little trust between investigator and informant. Perhaps too, the folklorist has been taking too narrow a view of what constitutes a folksong.

A most remarkable example of self imposed limitation is afforded by those folklorists the majority of Western folklorists, in fact who regard rural manifestations as the only ones worthy of their attention, who would deny the term "folksong" to any product of the cities, whether orally transmitted or not, and who prefer to disregard any historical evidence of song traffic between the urban and rural lower classes. Now, in fact, the working classes in the towns and cities probably played an enormous part in shaping the folksong not only of countries such as Britain, but also of those East European countries where some folklorists would have us believe the peasantry have been living in a closed rural civilisation, utterly cut off from town culture, high or low. I believe that would be a most rewarding field of study, the influence of town workers on our folksong heritage. Particularly since, if our folksong has any future, that future lies with the town workers.

It cannot be overlooked that at least part of the newly revived interest in folk music has a strong political bias. There are many who believe that music may be a force to assist the progress of the human race; and since folk music is created directly out of the common experience and aspirations of working people, it follows that folksong is likely to be a powerful aid not only in mirroring man's condition, but also in encouraging him on his forward march. Also, folksong is the most truly and deeply national aspect of our musical culture, and at a time when that culture is in grave danger of losing its independence, it is well that we avail ourselves of what we can in the way of fortification. A prominent folklorist recently remarked: "I am told that certain trade unions have become interested in promoting folk music lately. Is it an accident that these are precisely the most militant unions ?" He could be assured that this was no accident.

 Capitalism has made a sad mess of our folksong tradition, but the outlook for a revival not merely of interest in folk music, but of the actual creation of new forms of it does not seem so dark as it did in, for instance, Cecil Sharp's time. Our native musical idioms are among the most powerful as well as most beautiful in Europe, and there seems to be a wide audience, young, hungry for culture, anxious to listen to folksong, and what is more important, to take it into their own repertoire, to make it part of their own cultural baggage.

Can those circumstances lead to a revival of folk music creation? It remains to be seen. But it is worth bearing in mind that if the old folksong repertoire largely passed out of wide popular use during the nineteenth century, the process of oral transmission remained, though altered by new social conditions. After all, relatively few people learn their music from print; and radio and gramophone must be regarded as extensions, and very powerful extensions, of the means of oral diffusion. The young man in the suburban back room who tries over on his trumpet a tune learned from the radio, and who scorns to play it as he heard it, but determines to improvise, to vary, to impose his own fancy on the melody, may not be playing folk music, but he is perpetuating a technique which the folk musician whether Galician bagpiper or Uzbek drummer would recognise and sympathise with. His heart is in the right place, the problem is for him to supply himself with musical material that is worth exercising his fantasy on.

At the 1952 Conference of the International Folk Music Council, the eminent American musicologist Charles Seeger had interesting things to say about the revival of traditional music in an industrialised society:

"If.. . the common ultimate goal is maximum continuity between the best known of the past and the best conceivable for the future, what we have to deal with here is an equation between what people will accept from their ancestors, and what they will create for themselves and their children. No matter what the reviver thinks of the present state of affairs, therefore, he must accept it as his given quantity and use it as the base that it inevitably is for whatever accretion it may accept. This base will in all probability be a conglomeration of opera arias, salon music, popular songs of various vintages, some folk and near folk materials . . . and not to be forgotten the commercial exploitation of the whole lot. Indigestible? By no means. Oral tradition can digest anything, give it but enough time."

Those who feel that the springs of folk creation have dried up, as far as the industrial worker is concerned, may take heart from what happened in America in the 1930s. There, the great stimulus towards the creation of new folksong began when militant trade unionism swept through the textile mills and coalfields of the south, among industrial workers still living within a traditional folk culture. Folk bards arose such as the North Carolina cotton spinner Ella May Wiggins, Aunt Molly Jackson the Kentucky miner's wife, and most remarkable of all, the Oklahoma migratory worker Woody Guthrie, whom one folklorist has described as "the best folk ballad composer whose identity has ever been known." Guthrie poses a special problem for the academic folklorist. Musically, he was brought up within the folk tradition. His manner of performance and style of creation are traditional. Is one to take it that he was a folksinger while he was among the migratory workers, and ceased to be so when he moved into the city? Is he a folk balladeer while he makes up songs in his head, and does he cease to be one when he reaches for his typewriter?

Such people, and a host of others, known and anonymous, enriched the fund of American folksong with hundreds, perhaps thousands of pieces, some deep in the oldest traditional style, others having much of the ring of the jukebox or the talking film, but devoted to describing the condition and aspirations of the modern folk community, the industrial community, and capable of becoming synthesised into an eloquent traditional shape, just as in the past our tradition has absorbed and been enriched by all kinds of disparate musical influences. The new folksong movement that came into being under the impulse of trade union enthusiasm during the early days of the C.I.O. did not confine itself to the singing South. Its leadership quickly passed into the hands of city dwellers. The movement led to a vast resurgence of oral singing whose wave has, at least momentarily, receded under McCarthyism, but whose effect is being felt most vigorously in Britain.

The example is a salutary one, for it showed that, in order to move the urban masses, one does not have to rely, as the Wobblies did, on the parody of the Salvation Army hymn and the parlour ballad. The Brooklyn garment worker and the man punching out car fenders in Dearborn showed himself capable of taking old traditional songs to his heart, even pentatonic ones, and of producing his own songs in the form of a modern adaptation of the traditional pattern. Of course, much that was so produced was raw and fugitive. But a number of these songs had stamina enough to stick in the imagination of singers, to pass into currency, to start the life of change and adaptation that is proper to the true folksong. Now, we hardly know what we have in the way of British industrial folksong. The field remains almost unexplored, though a superficial investigation of songs of the coal mining industry has produced sufficient results to indicate that the coalfields, at least, are richer in folksong than was commonly supposed. But what concerns us here is not only the folksong of the past, but the folksong of our time, valid for the everyday lives of town workers, such as began to emerge in the United States shortly before the war. In Britain, the ground for a similar resurgence is prepared. It may be that the impulse to germinate is not far off.

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