|Currently experiencing an upsurge in the popularity of its folk music – termed ‘the second folk revival’ – English society is at the same time attempting to address the issue of national identity. _Chris Wood – pioneering singer, fiddle-player and composer, who this year was nominated for four BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, including folk singer of the year – is musically at the very heart of what is taking place in English folk music at present. Here, he provides his personal view of English society today and the untapped potential of its traditional music.|
My music has at its centre the most prolific of all composers: Anon..
I have been asked for a personal view of what is happening on the English folk music scene at present, and personal is what it shall be. Some of what I have written is, I feel, specific to England – some of the issues are not. It will contain generalisations to which there are numerous exceptions.
Here is the first. The English folk music scene exists in a ghetto largely of its own making. It does not encourage work which challenges its thinking, and at the other end of the continuum, nor is it in a position to insist on strict adherence to traditional style bearing.
Perhaps my writing
and recording work have cloistered me away more than is good for me, for
indifferent to my misgivings, the English folk scene is thriving. Festivals
are as well attended as ever and, I am told, by a younger average age
group each year. BBC 4 Television has just recently broadcast a three-part
series entitled Folk Britania, which celebrates the ‘second folk
revival’. The haemorrhaging of the folk clubs seems to have abated
with occasional new promoters chancing their arm. We now have our first
Folk Music Degree graduates released into the community and stirring things
up for us old lags. I could go on.
Moving forward in a positive way from this state of affairs is no small matter. Firstly, England’s establishment would rather attempt any degree of legislative and cultural gymnastics before acknowledging the real issue. Secondly, the effect of this cultural confusion is that it attracts those who peddle a bureaucratic, commercial panacea. The heightened stratification, streamlining and compartmentalisation of commercial structure has crept into our media, our arts administration and practice, our politics and schools, our social and community organisations and inevitably, the individual’s perception of just about everything. Only managers can manage, only painters can paint, only teachers can teach, only writers can write, only composers can compose. But where does that leave Anon.?
When the English government, media and arts administration do respond it is to what they interpret as a ‘lack of nationhood’, and it is often with the deft hand of tokenism. A recent example is the ‘Culture Department’s’ brand new ‘initiative’ called ‘Icons Online’ where we are invited to vote for our favourite English icon, the list to be updated each month. Popular icons so far include: fish & chips, the mini (now owned by BMW), the Routemaster Bus (now ‘phased out’), the red telephone box (now sealed to foil bombers) and so on. My vote for ‘The Peterloo Massacre’ has yet to appear on the list.
But when we ‘English’ look at the legacy left us by Anon., what do we find? Not icons but jewels. Songs, tunes, dances, ceremony, custom, lore, vocabulary, craft, magic and most crucially, an instinctive understanding of the pedagogical power of narrative. Nothing short of ancestral attempts to unriddle the universe. Offerings so perfect in their conception, so apposite, so full of wisdom, so spot-on, so timeless – so ‘English’ – that no ‘cultural initiative’ comes close.
Please understand these are the observations of a musician, not a history professor, but to paraphrase my dictionary, the common model for diaspora is the movement of a people away from the place where their culture was most concentrated. Putting the dictionary aside, my perception is that there is more often than not a bogey-man involved, real or otherwise, who will eventually play an important role. Upon arrival in new lands, the refugees congregate to reaffirm and reinvent their identity, and it seems to me that the oppressor plays a major role in this reunification and the cultural outpourings that follow. In many such cases diaspora becomes the catalyst to a great deal of positive cultural activity.
If, however, a people are not taken from their land and their way of life, but their land and their way of life are taken from them, we see the negatives of diaspora with few, if any, of the positives. Writing in the Journal of Music in Ireland I need hardly go into the details of enclosure and clearance, except perhaps to point out that these things took place in England too. The subtle but substantial difference is that we here in England are our own bogey-man.
Hugh Brody, writer, anthropologist and filmmaker, writes in The Other Side Of Eden on the enforced teaching of English as a replacement, not addition to, the native languages of North America.
As a musician I have the opportunity to drive the length and breadth of England, but I carry with me that selfsame ‘wordlessness’ because England’s history, like every other nation’s history, is written by the ‘winners’. For example, Castle Howard is one of England’s flagship stately homes – probably on the ‘Icons Online’ list – but what of Hinderskelf, the village which was levelled to make way for it? There are many such examples – the English enclosures have taken place over seven centuries.
Where clearances were carried out in, for example, Scotland and Ireland, those atrocities have entered the cultural fabric of those countries. They are eloquently mourned in song, story, poetry, painting and dance, and carried in the heart of Anon. from generation to generation. But when your oppressor is writing your history for you, there will be a great many glaring omissions, and I do not believe it is an overstatement to say that ‘the English’ have not been allowed to mourn the loss of that which defined them.
Rather than focus further on the enclosures I would like to give an example of how subtle the paradox is by looking at the vast body of song on the subject of Napoleon.
‘Official’ history focuses pretty much on battles and dates, for example, this line from the BBC’s website: ‘... along with the help of Prussian general von Bluecher he [the Duke of Wellington] defeated Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815, bringing Napoleon’s reign to an end.’ But Anon. is captivated by the emperor’s exploits, by the Prussian act of betrayal which leads to the downfall at Waterloo, and by the romanticism of the exile to Saint Helena, and an outpouring of song ensues. It is in between the lines of these songs that you can hear an unspoken hope, a yearning for Napoleon to cross the channel and overthrow the system which oppresses them, but for the English singer to sing in outright praise of Napoleon was not just unpatriotic it was treasonable. The closest to crossing the line I have ever heard is in the song ‘Our Captain Calls All-hands’; the young man is leaving for war and the girl asks ‘How can you go abroad fighting for strangers?’ It is that use of the word ‘for’ which lays bare the plight of England’s Anon.. It always has and it does still.
to Hinderskelf, to the suicide in my local park
I am aware that this subject extends too far to be dealt with in one article, but I have tried to raise these issues in the spirit which I was invited, the very personal view of a musician working in England today. Out of all this negativity there is a creative freedom which stems from this ‘wordlessness’, and it is to be found in the atavistic gaps which result from such a tattered tradition. My teaching engagements at the University of Limerick were enough to show me that, so strong is the tradition in Ireland, that musicians are able to split hairs to an extent that we here in England are not. But it is England’s cultural alopecia which has stirred me to concentrate on composition and writing in particular and to take regular sabbaticals from the restrictions of the ‘folk scene’.
Recent sabbaticals have produced work for BBC Radio 3. Listening to The River was a demonstration of a relationship England’s indigenous music has always had with regional speech and landscape. Christmas Champions was a collaboration with writer and storyteller Hugh Lupton and was a piece which delved into the mysteries of England’s Mummers’ Play. Far from a documentary on the subject it became a dreamlike journey along linear time (days, months, years) and circular time (seasons, ceremony, ancestral evocation). Traditional music has never adhered to the constructed boundaries of a governing class. Nor should our sense of ourselves.
From Peterloo to Hinderskelf, to the suicide in my local park, it is the singer who will teach ‘the English’ how to love themselves. It is the singer who will encourage the ‘English’ to place their official history to one side for a moment and look to their individual stories. It is the singer who still, in the year 2006 asks ‘How can you go abroad fighting for strangers?’ And when we look more closely at our own individual stories we will find acts of stoicism, creativity, ingenuity, constancy, silliness and all the things that are common to humans the world over. We are no different from anyone else. Our indigenous cultural inheritance is no richer than anyone else’s, but how long must we wait before we understand that it is no poorer?
This article was first published in the March-April 2006 issue of the Journal of Music in Ireland.
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