song


song
   Until the late 19th century, it was generally agreed within the musical establishment that England, alone amongst the countries which comprise the British Isles, possessed no traditional folk-song or music. The campaign to refute this misconception gathered pace as the turn of the century approached, culminating in the formation of the *Folk-Song Society in 1898, and the great collecting boom of the Edwardian period, led by enthusiasts such as Cecil *Sharp and Ralph *Vaughan Williams (see also *song revival). As the collectors began reporting, and publishing, thousands of finds, music students and composers turned eagerly to them for material and folk-song became an overnight craze, recycled into numerous classical pieces.
   The Edwardian collectors had little problem recognizing the genuine article. For them, folk-songs were old and quaint, to be found almost exclusively in the mouths of the elderly rural poor, who were claimed to be the remnants of an unlettered, culturally conservative, and musically uncreative peasantry. They also took it as read that the conditions for the perpetuation of genuine folk-songs had been eroded during the 19th century by railway travel, universal education, urbanization, and the rise of commercial music in the form of the music hall, and that they were involved in a last-ditch rescue operation. Sharp declared in 1907 that 'in less than a decade, English folk singing will be extinct' (Sharp, 1907: 130), and commented: 'I have learned that it is, as a rule, only waste of time to call upon singers under the age of sixty. Their songs are nearly all modern; if, by chance, they happen to sing an old one, it is so infected with the modern spirit that it is hardly worth the gathering' (p. 150).
   Sharp attempted the only real definition of the subject for his generation. His collecting and writing perpetuated the rural bias and the idea of 'unlettered peasant' as the prime source, but he also provided a more theoretical framework by identifying key elements fundamental to the genre, which have remained central to later attempts to define folklore. He laid particular stress on Continuity, Selection, and Variation. Continuity ensures that some songs are passed on from singer to singer, generation to generation, and thus exist long enough to become 'traditional'. Selection is the process by which only those items which satisfy the community's criteria for judging a good song survive, while those which do not are forgotten. As songs are passed informally from singer to singer, changes occur, and this variation makes development of the song possible, while selection again ensures that only positive changes will survive. Sharp's debt to evolutionary theories is clear, and his writings underpin his fundamental belief that because folk-songs have resulted from ages of unconscious selection and moulding by English communities, relatively untainted by passing fashion and foreign models, they necessarily embody the musical taste, even the musical soul, of the English nation: '. . . the unconscious output of the human mind, whatever else it may be, is always real and sincere . . . The music of the common people must always, therefore, be genuine and true' (p. 44). Similar sentiments underlay Vaughan Williams's notions of 'National Music'.
   By concentrating on the process of transmission rather than the item itself, Sharp side-stepped the problem of origins. By his definition, songs could originate from any source, and only became 'folk-songs' after being submitted to the continuity/selection/variation process, but only if a further condition - the lack of access to an authoritative original - is satisfied. Variation is artificially hampered if singers are able to check their performances against the original form of a song, as happens when they possess a printed score or even a modern sound recording. Thus, the notion of an unbroken 'oral' tradition was mooted as a necessary basis for genuine folk-song. The status of oral transmission, however, was itself controversial. Antiquarians and literary scholars such as William *Chappell and F. J. *Child viewed the variations brought about by oral transmission as 'corruptions', and the process as largely degenerative, while for Sharp's theory to function, the oral tradition needed to be largely beneficial, or at the very least neutral.
   It is easy to criticize Sharp's attempts at definition and to challenge his assumptions. His description of 'the folk', for example, as 'Those whose mental development has been due not to any formal system of training or education, but solely to environment, communal association, and direct contact with the ups and downs of life' (p. 4) is condescending and hardly describes the English rural working class of the time, and he systematically downplays the creative role played by successive performers, while overstating the humble status of his informants. The idea that English people have had a purely oral tradition at any time in the last three or four hundred years is clearly wishful thinking, as almost since the invention of printing *broadside and other printed versions of songs have been available. Nevertheless, Sharp and his contemporaries were almost exclusively interested in the tunes as opposed the texts of the songs, precisely because a much stronger case could be made for the existence of a long-standing 'oral' tradition in the musical sphere, and the tunes were thus deemed to be much 'purer' than the words. Nevertheless, the notion that the rural poor were somehow immune to influence by other forms of music is also untenable.
   Sharp's writings were tremendously influential, and, filtered through the work of Maud *Karpeles, formed the basis of the definition which the International Folk Music Council (founded 1947) adopted at their 1955 Congress in Sao Paulo:
   Folk music is the product of a musical tradition that has been evolved through the process of oral transmission. The factors that shape the tradition are: (i) continuity that links the present with the past; (ii) variation which springs from the creative impulse of the individual or the group; and (iii) selection by the community which determines the form or forms in which the music survives. The term can be applied to music that has been evolved from rudimentary beginnings by a community uninfluenced by popular and art music and it can likewise be applied to music which has originated with an individual composer and has subsequently been absorbed into the unwritten living tradition of a community. The term does not cover composed popular music that has been taken over ready-made by a community and remains unchanged, for it is the re-fashioning and recreation of the music by the community that gives it its folk character. (Journal of the International Folk Music Council 7 (1955), 23)
   Virtually every element of the Sharp/IFMC definition has been questioned by later writers, although not replaced by any other workable solution, and since the late 1970s it has been common for scholars to doubt the very existence of a separate genre of 'folksong' (see, for example, Harker, 1985). A further criticism of the earlier collectors is that because of their restricted definition of folksong they ignored a large part of singers' repertoires, leaving us with only partial knowledge of the singing practices of the time. But as documentation of the full singing picture of the time was not in their brief, and they made no secret of their restricted area of interest, their omissions may be regrettable from our present perspective, but not blameworthy.
   The collecting boom had petered out by the First World War, and there was little collecting activity in the 1920s and 1930s, apart from by individuals such as Alfred *Williams and James Madison *Carpenter. By their definition, Sharp's contemporaries were correct about the demise of traditional singing, although they were certainly over-pessimistic on the speed of its decline. Post-Second World War collecting forays by the BBC/EFDSS and other collectors found plenty of songs still known, and many still being sung regularly in homes, pubs, and clubs all over the country, but this was probably the last generation which would be able to provide this sort of material as part of their everyday lives rather than as conscious revival of the past.
   As with most folklore genres, the age of folk-song is often overestimated. A small proportion of the folk-song repertoire can be shown to have been current in the 17th century, and most of these are *ballads included in F. J. Child's collection. The bulk of the songs collected at the turn of the 19th century, however, could not claim to be older than 100 years, as they had originated in a variety of popular entertainment sources of the late 18th and 19th centuries: pleasure gardens, song and supper rooms, operas, other stage shows and interludes, music hall, and, most important of all, the printed *broadsides, *chapbooks, and songsters. Nevertheless, despite decades of intensive research, the authors of most songs in the traditional repertoire remain anonymous.
   The folk-song repertoire can be categorized in many ways. From the subject point of view, songs about love, or the relationship between the sexes, comprise the vast majority, but range from the wistful to the robust, from the gentle romantic to the comic treatment of aldultery. But there were plenty of other topics - battle and adventures at sea, including press-gangs and pirates, poachers, farm life, the pleasures (and occasionally miseries) of drink, highwaymen and other criminals, and, in the older narrative ballads, the exploits of Robin Hood, lords and ladies, kings and queens. They can be narrative, lyrical, humorous, pathetic, sentimental, callous, or coarse. The social mores of Victorian and Edwardian England severely constrained what the collectors noted and even more what they published, and, given their relative lack of concern for the texts, they had few qualms about 'softening' some of the sentiments involved. In addition, many singers censored items which they thought unsuitable for visiting gentlemen or ladies, and this successive filtering process ensured that a further distorted view of the total repertoire was given. There is no doubt that a range of sexually explicit songs existed, although given the same social mores they would most likely be confined to all-male situations such as army barracks or the sports locker room. Some broadsides overstepped the line between risque and crude. But England had no collector who made a point of noting everything, including the bawdy. It has been claimed that bawdy song has retained a more purely oral tradition precisely because of this problem of publishing, and this is true to a certain extent. Some books of bawdy songs were actually published, but they tended to be collectors' items, printed abroad, and there is also evidence that bawdy songs circulated in typescript and manuscript form. From the 1960s onwards, however, books and records of 'rugby songs' have been widely available, which have standardized the repertoire. England has not had much of a tradition of work songs (i.e. songs to accompany work as opposed to songs about work), apart from a vigorous tradition of *sea shanties. After the Second World War when politically active enthusiasts such as A. L. *Lloyd and Ewan *MacColl started taking an interest, the song traditions of miners, weavers, and other industrial workers began to be researched. Traditions of song-making and singing were identified in many areas, and a characteristic of these traditions was that many of the songs had been written by identifiable local authors.
   It is almost a cliche to claim that people do not sing as they used to, but all the evidence confirms this as an accurate assessment of the decline of vernacular song. Home-grown music of all kinds has been largely swamped by the commercial music industry, and the spread of the radio and gramophone has dramatically changed the way that ordinary people view musical performance. This is not to argue that in the past all singing was 'folk singing', but many popular songs were at least singable by non-professionals, while few modern popular songs are suited to amateur unaccompanied performance, and as performance contexts have dwindled almost to the point of extinction, so has the habit of singing. Ironically, we nowadays have far more day-to-day access to music than any previous generation, but it is now primarily in the role of listener rather than participant. By most definitions, folk-song in England is all but dead, although a case could be made for one or two exceptions, such as children's rhymes and songs, which are still largely passed on informally, bawdy songs, carol-singing, and other informal genres such as football-crowd chants.
   As indicated, the Edwardian collectors were primarily interested in tunes rather than texts. Whereas previous antiquarians such as *Chappell had 'corrected' tunes to fit with established musical practice of the time, the folk-song collectors were delighted to find that many traditional tunes used a different tonal basis than the standard major/minor forms of the period; namely, the so-called 'church modes', such as the Dorian, Mixolydian, and Aeolian. To the modern ear, their main characteristic is that certain notes are consistently sharpened or flattened when compared to a conventional major scale. Such modal idioms had not otherwise been in regular use since the religious plain-chants of the 16th century, and were thus held by some to be an important marker of the antiquity of traditional music. Sharp and his successors classified the tunes according to modal theory, but such sys-tematization underestimated the fluidity of traditional tonality and modern scholarship takes a less prescriptive approach. An important exception was Percy *Grainger whose thinking on tonality was well ahead of its time (see JFSS 3 (1908), 147-242). It must also be stressed that their interest in modal tunes led the collectors to exaggerate their numerical importance, and a majority of the songs noted were in the standard major.
   ■ Cecil Sharp, English Folk Song: Some Conclusions (1907); Dave Harker, Fakesong: The Manufacture of British Folksong, 1700 to the Present Day (1985); A. L. Lloyd, Folk Song in England (1967); Iolo A. Williams, English Folk-Song and Dance (1935). Gammon, 1980; B. H. Bronson, The Ballad as Song (1969); Roger D. Abrahams and George Foss, Anglo-American Folksong Style (1968).

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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