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Folk Music

There was something doing the rounds on Facebook this week that got me thinking. Well first it got me annoyed and then it got me thinking. Enough, in fact, to write the blog (or should that be rant) myself this week!

It started with a copy of the London Underground map, only it’s titled a ‘Map of English Folk Music’ and the coloured lines are labelled Songwriting, First Folk Revival, Bands, Squeezeboxes, Fiddle, Guitar etc. It sounds like it could be quite funny and clever, but in fact, I didn’t think so, and nor did some of the people whose names appeared on it.

So I got to thinking, what precisely was it about this image that bothered me so much? And after a while, I realised that it was precisely the same thing that bothered me last week when I heard Howard Goodall being interviewed on Radio 4 about his Story of Music programme on BBC TV.

What riled me with Howard was his presentation of music as a linear progression from something primitive and simple in the past, to something grand and sophisticated. This seems to stem from the belief that classical music is somehow the culmination of hundreds of years of effort, and that other traditional and ethnic musics are somehow less important. I was also frustrated to hear him write off exploring music of other cultures as not relevant enough to include in a six part series, even though the UK has had links with the Indian sub-continent for centuries and trade along the silk road goes back millennia, bringing music, instruments and folklore with it. Surely the early arrival of the bow in Northern Europe deserved a mention!

So back to the Map. Is the attempt to classify and pigeon-hole folk music and folk musicians to this degree is to be barking up the wrong tree? I can see what they were trying to do – make a simple guide to the main aspects of English Folk Music. But does that really achieve anything?

I think I might be getting to the nub of my irritation here. For a start, there are so many folk instruments, it would necessitate the expansion of the underground throughout the UK to accommodate all the possible contenders And yet, not a whiff of a hammered dulcimer, whistle, crowd or harp, all of which have been played in England at least as long as the guitar and the fiddle. And what about ‘found’ objects – spoons, bones, tables, washboards, saws…? There are so many instruments that make up ‘folk music’ that it would be impossible to categorise every last one of them and still have a coherent map. Not to mention how you can represent amateur and professional folk musicians who excel at playing more than one and should therefore appear on several tube lines in the diagram.

And then, the revivals, of which there have been 2 according to the map. Isn’t every rediscovery of traditional song a little revival? There are always articles popping up in the Guardian about the new fashion for folk music – this week I was pleased to see that it was the Child Ballads that made it into the Review section. There have been revivals on and off since people started collecting songs back in the Victorian era. Revivals do not necessarily require electricity and record studios. Even the fashion for collecting wasn’t new then – Shakespeare, Rabbie Burns, Ravenscroft etc were all collectors in their day.

And what of the tireless amateur musicians? Would they not need a whole underground system of their own? It’s all very well listing all the people who have sold records, but they are but one tiny part of the English Folk Music scene. There are many people who week in, week out, sing the songs of their fathers and mothers, and make new ones of their own. And they are the ones who buy the records of the people that made it onto the map. There are few songwriters in the folk world who haven’t steeped themselves in traditional material or other people’s songs, or, like me, have started out as a song writer but then turned to other older wells for inspiration. Where do you put those people?

So my point here? Are not both these representations of music – the TV show and the Map – attempting to distil something undistillable. It seems we are looking at 2 different definitions of Music here, one which requitres clear genres of music for sale that the staff in HMV would know where to put a new CD on the shelves, and one which is about people making music. What I’m saying, is that music doesn’t boil down to a few linear progressions. It’s a web of relationships, cross-fertilisation, experimentation. It can’t be frozen in time, because careers and hobbies take lifetimes, and people change, and so do audiences. People look to field recordings made in the early 20th Century, as well as modern technology. I might listen to some 60’s folk revival recordings to inspire my songwriting and versions of traditional material, but my version of English Folk music can also be informed by Arvo Part, Danish field recordings, Sigur Ros, and Delibes, not to mention our loop station. And you can’t really show that on a map.

And so I was immensely relieved to see someone’s answer to the Map. It was a colourful scribble, with no stations at all, just all the colours messed up and random. Like Music.

posted by Kate

 

 

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Kate and I kind of belong to two ‘communities’ (or should I say subcultures?), the Pagan Community and the Folk Music Scene. They are oddly similar, maybe even a similar size, though its harder to quantify the number of active folk music fans as there are no questions about your musical taste in the Census (though wouldn’t that be cool!). There is also a lot of crossover in membership.

Both Folk and Paganism have a combination of national events and small local groups. They have their own celebrities, who are World Famous in Folk Music or Paganism, though no-one else has heard of them. Occasionally these people get to go on the TV or Radio, where they are mostly treated as special cases and not usually included in the bracket of the ‘normal’. There are also a lot of caravans involved in Folk Music and Paganism..There is one more wonderful thing they have in common, and I will call it by the slightly poncey title of the Complete Right to Amateur and/or Incompetent Creativity. That’s CRAIC for short. Do you see what I did there?

You see we all live in an a world where music is dominated by two factors which kind of feed off each other, firstly, easy access to recorded music and, secondly, the increased professionalisation of performers. The recorded music industry makes available great music, and I am grateful for that. There is an inevitable side effect though, that is especially obvious with instrumental music but also affects sung traditional music.

Obviously the best musicians are going to get recorded most, but it isn’t the case that a really good fiddle player will get to be on say, 10 CDs, whilst a fairly good one will get on 7. No-one wants the fairly good fiddle player on their record, so a small number of excellent musicians will monopolise all the top level recordings. The music industry only needs one or two players of any given instrument or singers of any given style, as, thanks to the wonder of recording technology, those two musicians can be in everyone’s home and car.

This reduces the diversity in style and makes musicians judge themselves, and one another, in comparison to a very small pool of excellent full time professional performers. It also effects audience expectations. If the only whistle music they have heard is Michael McGoldrick or Brian Finnegan, what are they going to think of my humble tootling? Or yours? Now you may say that the fact it is easier than ever to record a CD and market it yourself may end this situation, and I hope that is right, but I still think I have a point.

The worst side effect of this uniformity is that it might put people off playing and singing. Lots of people start, but a lot stop when they realise they may never be ‘as good’ as their favourite musician. These are unrealistic expectations though fuelled by lack of exposure to, and lack of value given to, live, amateur performance.

However that live amateur performance happens, thank the Gods, in spades at the average Pagan Camp and the old fashioned type of Singaround Folk Club, and long may it continue. Let’s use the Pagan camp and the Folk Club’s power of CRAIC™ to resist this sterile cultural hegemony!

The CRAIC™ Manifesto

As Pagans and Folkies let’s encourage everyone’s participation. Artificial boundaries between ‘audience’ and ‘performers’ are harmful to our culture.

Collective performances by everyone are more valuable than solo performances by skilled individuals. Collective performances build community, togetherness and love. And all that Hippy Shit.

Playing and/or performing is rewarding and marvellous in itself, regardless of any outcome. Acts of pointless beauty are to be encouraged.

Singing songs and playing tunes keeps them alive, but it is variation that keeps them evolving.

Listen to others for inspiration, but not comparison.

The ultimate test for any piece of dance music is its ability to get people’s feet moving, not how many notes it fits into any given second.

The ultimate test for any song is how much it moves the audience and the performer, not how in tune the notes are.

Now is a good day to start learning something new.

Remember the Lady says:

and ye shall dance, sing, feast, make music and love, all in My praise., for Mine is the ecstasy of the spirit and Mine also is joy on Earth.


Red_AppleIt’s wassailing time again. And it’s been lovely to see so many reports of hobby-horsing and wassailing on-line this year.

It seems it is finally fashionable again to embrace these native traditions, and we’ve enjoyed seeing film and photos of people doing them over the winter season. It’s especially satisfying to see folk who’ve come to our workshops over the years actually doing the things we were prattling on about! There is nothing more wonderful than seeing mummers, wassailers and hobbyhorses return to communities where they had been lost, and people re-discovering that the real depth of these rituals is not in knowing about them, but in doing them.

On the surface wassailing would seem to be a ritual to make our fruit trees bear well in the coming year, even though you could say that this is quite irrational given our modern understanding of how growing food really works from a scientific point of view. Of course it also serves to bring communities together at the darkest time of year, and give them an excuse to eat, drink and sing together, all activities which provide social ‘glue’ that bind people together in a common purpose. It cements the interdependence of the people and the trees and recognises our dependence on the trees for food and shelter. We promise to be thankful for what they have provided, that we’ll give back to the trees what we can, and we’ll endeavour to protect them from harm.

So how do you actually ‘wassail’ a tree? Well, the consistent features seem to be the following: you process to the trees, singing together, you drink alcohol from a common cup (often a three sided Wassail Bowl) and toast the trees, you talk to your tree using one of several techniques (poetry, flattery,threat and pleading all seem to be quite traditional), you show your appreciation to the tree by decorating it, hanging toast in the branches or libating its roots. You make some loud noises perhaps using pots and pans before shooting through the branches (or maybe letting off a firework or thunderflash) to drive away any lingering evil spirits. There may be a Master of Ceremonies (usually called a Butler) with symbolic items on a tray, perhaps yew for everlasting life, bread, wine and salt. There may be a Wassail King and Queen. The details vary but there is lots of beauty and power left in the old ways.

All this has raised some questions too, in the Kate&Corwen household, about the very nature of ritual, in both folky and pagan communities. Rituals are by definition, repeated acts, and when something is repeated often enough, the reason and origins sometimes cease to be important, simply the fact of doing reigns supreme. Ritual needs purpose, but does the purpose need to be made explicit? Is it better to write our own wassail, or adhere to some traditional form, or maybe combine these two things in some way? Is it still a wassail, if it fulfils the purpose of a wassail, even if it has none of the traditional features or words?

So questions for you- do you have to have Pagan sympathies to carry out an ancient folk tradition, or an understanding of heritage to conduct a Pagan ritual? How do you know when such a ritual has been successful? Can we even distinguish between a Pagan ritual and a folk custom if carried out well by those conducting it?

Helpful Links:
http://www.whitedragon.org.uk/articles/wassail.htm
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wassailing#The_Orchard-Visiting_Wassail
http://www.webcitation.org/5kmoXNFxi
or search Mudcat’s Lyrics and Knowledge Search for ‘Wassail’ http://www.mudcat.org

Further Reading:
Everything you need to know about a Wassail by A.Butler

In the meantime if you’re looking for us we’ll be in the Orchard with some cider and a pop gun 🙂

We love ballads, and we don’t mean Everything I Do I Do it For You type ballads.

Ballads are folk songs that tell a story. They are often quite long. Actually, they are often very very very very very very long! The longest one Corwen knows to sing is Sir Orfeo which has twenty some verses and takes around 6 minutes to sing, Kate wins over him with The Raven (33 verses), but we are learning one at the moment that is 93 verses long (which will be on Fish or Fowle)! Takes about 40 minutes to sing. Maybe it feels even longer if you are listening…

They aren’t boring though, that’s the thing about ballads. They are often oddly concise, almost haiku like, for their length. They don’t waste any time on character development, characters are fairly two dimensional, often social stereotypes, but character isn’t the point. The ballad is all about plot. They cram lots of incident into their verses, they are often like mini Greek Tragedies (or Shakespearean tragedies come to that). And they are old, did we mention that? Not only are individual ballads often quite old (a few hundred years) but the stories they tell are old, and the worldviews they express are positively ancient. Magic is a reality in the ballads, but not the miraculous Christian magic of the lives of saints, no, its the deep Pagan magic. To quote Steenstrup:

“Concerning all others the rule holds good that however many remarkable and marvelous things happen, miracles never take place. It is not by prayers and petitions to the saints that metamorphosed Knights and maidens get their shapes back again, nor is it by making the sign of the cross nor by reading the Scriptures that evil is bested. The intervention of the Virgin Mary or of holy men is un-necessary; that which heals or reshapes, that which draws the frigid lover to longing is mysterious remedies, the various instruments of superstition, the token and the mystic word. Runes have a wonderful alluring power, a man’s life is bound up in his name as if with a mathematical power, and with or against this one can work as though it were the man himself. In a kiss lies witchcraft which releases that which is bewitched, and drinking of a man’s warm blood and tasting of his flesh leads to metamorphosis.

They really are remarkable pieces of art, of real interest to folklore fans, musicians, and Pagans. And great stories too. You can even dance to them. Dance is an almost lost aspect of ballad singing, but for those who have been reintroducing it, it is a powerful way of a whole community to immerse themselves in a shared and ancient common culture.

Many folk fans will have heard Raggle Taggle Gypsies, The Silkie or Matty Groves but few will have heard of Sir Aldingar, Hind Etin, Earl Brand, Lamkin, Gil Brenton or Young Waters. Some folk musicians put a token ballad (often heavily abridged) on a recording, yet the recognition of these songs seems low among folkies and extremely rare among the general public. But these are some of the great works of British native culture. So why don’t we hear more of them?

There are obstacles to their performance. Firstly the language. Many ballads were first collected in the Scottish borders and the musician must decide whether to sing them in a dialect few will understand or whether to rewrite them partly or fully in modern English. Many ballads are lacking their tunes and were recorded as texts alone. Some versions are incomplete or corrupted. It does sometimes take a bit of detective work to come up with a singable piece, tracking down a tune, compiling verses from several collected versions and where necessary altering dialect words. No wonder many people who do sing ballads often trot out familiar versions from Fairport Convention or Martyn Carthy. It’s well worth the work to perform a lesser known ballad in my opinion though, and this sort of creative work puts the musicians personal stamp on the song

Also it comes down to audience demand I suspect. Most folk musicians shy away from performing anything more than 6 verses/4 minutes long, and many ballads can’t convincingly be cut down to this length without losing much that makes them special. People have increasingly short attention spans and find it hard to follow a story unless it has pictures to go with it, let alone if it is sung rather than spoken. Ballads are all about the story, and ballad singing all about telling it. The skill of ballad listening needs to be developed too.

With that in mind it is worth reading some ballads and listening to some to get familiar with their conventions, style and language. You’ll find all the texts of the most well known collection (the so called Child Ballads, collected by Francis Child) online here. Googling the title of any of them will bring up articles with explanatory notes, and searching for many on Youtube or Amazon’s MP3s will find you performances to hear. Take some time if you aren’t used to ballads, think of it as educating your palette, you will be rewarded.

If you are a singer and don’t know any ballads, why not learn one? Mudcat will furnish you with many tunes. If you are serious about it then Loomis Press have reprinted both the Child Ballads and Bronson’s invaluable work The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads. For style I recommend listening to field recordings, and to Chris Foster, who is the best ballad singer I’ve come across. Sadly only a few of his albums are currently available.

In 2012 Kate was lucky enough to go to the annual gathering in Denmark of the small but mighty group of people who have brought Ballad Dance back to life in that country. She spent a weekend dancing and singing burdens in Danish, and generally immersing herself in this ancient form of ballad performance. The songs get into the core of a community when they are remembered and celebrated in the feet as well as the voicebox. We hope to run an event like this in the UK, at the end of 2013, so watch this space.

Good luck with your ballad mission if you choose to accept it, and when we see you next, we want you to sing us a song, and it had better be very very very very long! 

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