There’s nowt so fake as “folk”

The Scots, Welsh and Irish have an authentic tradition of folk songs. England demonstrably does not

Dominic Green

I appear to have struck a chord with some readers by my assertion (in “Overrated: Billy Bragg” last month ) that English folk music is fake music.

It is not my job to provide comforting fictions. We have folk singers for that. Especially English ones who peddle an inauthentic, anachronistic and commercial music bearing little or no connection to its purported origins. So much the better.
People have always performed songs peculiar to their time and place. And of course, some of those people were rural folk. But the notion of “folk music” as a discrete style is a Romantic invention. To call any musician before the age of Johann Gottfried Herder a “folk musician” is akin to calling Cleopatra a feminist or Moses the pioneer of adventure tourism. Like most anachronism, it tells us more about the present than the past.

In 1597, Thomas Morley’s Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke described English music of “the last degree of gravity” as “villanelle, or country songs” whose composers, eschewing “perfect chords”, set “a clownish music to a clownish matter”. As Matthew Gelbart explains in The Invention of “Folk Music” and “Art Music”, Morley could not have wondered whether this music originated among “professional composers” or “the folk”. These categories did not exist.

As a style, the Elizabethan villanella had variable origins and uses. The Romantics redefined such music as a testament of Volkische spirit and creativity: the sound of soul and soil. The nationalistic “folk” genre was defined as local and rural — the antithesis of the literate cosmopolitanism of the new cities. The same values produced the similarly anachronistic categories of “high culture” and “low culture”. Thus “folk” was the high culture of the future because it was the low culture of the past.

When Romantic folklorists went fossicking in the countryside for old tunes, they selected their material with arbitrary preconceptions. In England, mediaeval church music was the true common inheritance of the Volk. But that music was Catholic and Latinate. The Georgian antiquarians were anticlerical patriots, seeking Anglo-Saxon or pre-Christian origins. Similarly, the collectors preferred oral transmission to notated transcription. They took a recent variation on a loosely fixed lyric or melody for an original and standard form of the kind recognised by the recently-established Copyright Acts.

Meanwhile, industrialisation dragged the English off their fields into the cities. By the 1850s, the English were the first modern people to have a majority-urban population. The English Volkseele (national soul) now resided in the music hall and the piano rags of London pub music, which echo in the “Rockney” of Chas’n’Dave. But the folk fetishists have always reviled these urban English styles. For them, “Folk” is pre-modern and rural.

Nor do folkies accept the other modern urban music, the songs of African Americans which white intellectuals call  “blues.” If it’s played acoustically, they call it “folk blues”, a fictional genre from the “folk  boom” of the Sixties, when singers like Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker, who had been playing electric urban music for years, realised there was money to be made from gullible students in Europe.

Yet electric blues already met every “folk” criterion. It was unique to African Americans, was sung in English, and used the same instruments, harmonies and chords as English music, especially the I-IV-V chording of the hymnal. But it did not originate from Europeans, and used the modern abomination of electricity. The only possible conclusion is that “authentic” folk music is a Volkslied for Luddite whites only.

English folk music is largely the creation of the 20th-century revivalist Cecil Sharp, who  added Edwardian chord sequences and harmonies to the solo acapellas he found in Somerset pubs. He also invented a national style of Morris dancing, based upon the vestigial stumbling he observed near Oxford. He did the same for the “rapper sword” dances of Tyneside, for which no evidence exists before the early 18th century. Inevitably, Sharp was a vegetarian and socialist.

Sharp’s William Morris mediaevalism hardened into Popular Front folkiness in the Thirties, then softened into the commercial Folk Boom of the Sixties. Its best songs were written by Jewish college dropouts such as  Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. Its worst performances were given by the Seegers, a family of Harvard-affiliated communists. The adoption of American “folk rock” by English hippies produced the cider-folk of free-festival noodlers such as Fairport Convention. All harmless if you have time on your hands and weed in your pocket, but all inauthentic.

Even in Morley’s time, English “folk” was urban and commercial. Consider the quintessential English folk song, “Greensleeves”. The notion that Henry VIII first plucked  out the melody while trying to get into Anne Boleyn’s wimple is a typical folk fiction. In fact, the number originated in the Elizabethan music business. In 1580 a tunesmith named Richard Jones registered a ballad called “A Newe Northen Dittye of ye Ladye Greene Sleves” at the Stationers’ Company in London. The Elizabethan equivalent of Tin Pan Alley cashed in, and six variations on “Greensleeves” were registered over the next year, three of them by a student of musical economics named Edward White. The tune became a pop standard, familiar enough for Shakespeare to joke about it in The Merry Wives of Windsor.

“Greensleeves” didn’t come out of English folkmusic. It went into it. When Jones called “Greensleeves” a “northern ditty,” he was either making a joke or a sales pitch. All hip Elizabethans knew  “Greensleeves” was a Spanish jam. The verse sequence is the “Andalusian cadence”, familiar from Flamenco or, for deutero-Elizabethans, Del Shannon’s “Runaway”. The chorus uses the romanesca variation on the passamezzo antico, a rhythm  from the courts of Renaissance Italy. “Greensleeves” became a “folk song” because the ears of English folk were already attuned to foreign music.

Just over 400 years later, Elvis Costello repeated Richard Jones’s joke at the Live Aid concert of 1985, by introducing “All You Need is Love” as “an old northern folk song”. As Costello recognised, ever since Elvis, the music of the English folk has been electric pop. Like “Greensleeves”, the song didn’t emerge from “folk music”, but it has become the music of the folk.

So there’s nowt so fake as English folk. Like all popular music, it’s at its best and most authentic when it’s at its most modern and least authentic.

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