song revival


song revival
   There have been two major *song revival movements in England; one lasting from the late Victorian period to the 1920s, the other commencing after the Second World War, and they are conveniently termed the first and second Revivals, although there was a degree of continuity between them. The starting-point of the first Revival is conveniently placed at 1898, with the formation of the *Folk-Song Society, although it is clear that this was a culmination of a growing interest in traditional song evidenced by the increasing number of publications through the second half of the 19th century. Sabine *Baring-Gould, Frank *Kidson, and Lucy *Broadwood had all published their first volumes of songs before the Society was formed. What distinguished these new folk-song enthusiasts from their primarily antiquarian and literary predecessors was a growing interest in the use of traditional music as raw material for the renaissance of English musical taste, the identification of the 'folk' as carriers of a valuable song tradition, and the willingness to leave the library and undertake fieldwork in villages up and down the country. The motives of these early collectors were a mixture of nostalgia, romanticism, and nationalism, but they were all driven by the idea that here was something essentially 'English' which had all but been destroyed by universal education, railway travel, urban development, industrialization, and the styles of popular music purveyed by the music hall. The movement received a further boost from 1903/4 when major propagandist Cecil *Sharp, and young musicians such as Ralph *Vaughan Williams, Percy * Grainger, and George *Butterworth became enraptured by folk-song tunes and commenced a collecting boom which lasted until the outbreak of the First World War, and which resulted in the major manuscript collections which still exist today.
   The first revival movement achieved several positive results. In addition to the large quantity of collected material which would not otherwise have been recorded, the public awareness of a mass of vernacular song was raised, and it became accepted for the first time that England had an interesting and valuable musical heritage. Many English composers made use of folk music in some form or another in their work and certainly enriched the home-grown classical repertoire, and schools taught British 'folk-songs' to children in music lessons. Unlike the parallel *dance revival, however, the first song revival did not result in a major upsurge in the practice of folk-singing, and it apparently had no appreciable effect on those segments of the population who sang traditional songs. Folk-Song Society members were mainly academics, musicians, or composers, although a few were professional singers who included folk-songs in their recitals. Put simply, the movement made a difference to music in the middle and upper classes, but none in the working classes, and it certainly did nothing to reverse the perceived decline in popular musical taste. On the negative front, the collectors' severely selective definition of folk-song has left us with a hopelessly unbalanced view of the repertoire of traditional song at the time, and the assumption that the rural poor were the only possessors of traditional culture. As they took little interest in the singers themselves, performance venues, or events, we have little knowledge of the social context in which the songs were sung.
   After the First World War the collecting boom was over, and only a few newcomers such as Alfred *Williams continued to be active. The Folk-Song Society merged into the *English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS) in 1932, after publicly stating that there remained few folk-songs to collect, only variants. Nevertheless, there were stirrings of interest in other quarters. The newly formed BBC, for example, often used folk music in its early programmes, and developments in other areas were building a new set of enthusiasts which would result in major changes in the 1950s. Pre-war mass unemployment, the trade union movement, popular leisure pursuits such as hiking and cycling, workers' theatre, left-leaning children's organizations like the Woodcraft Folk, and so on, all included elements of vernacular song - either deliberately fostered as a vehicle for protest or political 'education', or as spontaneous 'community singing' - which by one definition or another had connections with folk-song. Wartime propaganda celebrating the achievements of the common people, and further shifts of the political spectrum to the left, encouraged an interest in workers' culture, both rural and urban.
   These influences coalesced after the Second World War. In the early 1950s, visiting American folklorist, Alan Lomax, discovered a growing, but largely unorganized, interest in folksong in Britain, which was fuelled largely from the burgeoning folk revival in his own country. He suggested to Ewan *MacColl, A. L. * Lloyd, and others, that the time was right to found a British Folk Revival movement. These key players were already involved in regular programmes for the BBC, and they thereby introduced folk-song, and the ethos of the new revival, to a nationwide audience. The adoption of the 'folk club' as the main meeting place/performance venue (borrowed from the jazz scene) rapidly provided new foci for enthusiasts in almost every town in the country. The new movement received a boost from the short-lived 'skiffle' boom of 1957/8, which was largely based on the repertoire of American folk and blues singers such as Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie.
   Meanwhile, the EFDSS still survived, dedicated to preserving the legacy of Cecil *Sharp and others of the first revival. By the 1950s the rank-and-file Society membership was more interested in dance than song, and their experience of folk-song would have been at concerts where the songs were 'interpreted' by trained singers and musicians. In contrast, the revival's emphasis was on informality and participation, and the difference between these two performance styles is a key indicator of the way the folk world was changing. A piece in the Society's magazine, in 1953, reported one of the first contacts between the two worlds. After describing a recent concert with its previously announced 'carefully planned menu', the writer contrasts this with an informal Evening of Folk-Song, where the performers sat around and swapped songs: 'It was as though the audience had strayed into some private informal gathering . . . What programme there was had been sketched out over coffee beforehand and filled in as the singers' blood warmed. Nothing quite like it had been heard before at Cecil Sharp House . ..' (ED&S 18:1 (Aug. 1953), 26).
   The material for the radio programmes in the early 1950s came largely from an ambitious BBC project (in co-operation with the EFDSS) to tape-record dialect and folk-song across Britain and to preserve the recordings in a permanent archive. Peter Kennedy, Bob Copper, Seamus Ennis, and others, discovered a wealth of material and many previously unknown singers and musicians. Another generation of collectors appeared in the 1960s and 1970s, and again significant numbers of recordings were made for posterity.
   For most people, however, the distinguishing feature of the second revival was not the collection and study of materials, but performance, and this is the area most fraught with disagreement and debate. There were inevitable disagreements over both repertoire and style, with major divisions between traditionalists and moderns. Even when sticking to a predominantly traditional repertoire, revivalists rapidly developed styles of performance which were radically different from the ones in which the material had been collected and previously performed, and the performance milieu and class context were equally far removed. It could be said that while the first revival was built on the pianoforte and the concert platform, the second was built on the guitar and the folk club; both equally foreign to the traditional music being 'revived'. Other tensions stemmed from the overt left-wing agenda of the movement's founders when faced by later enthusiasts whose interests were less politically motivated. Some argued that all that mattered was that people were making their own music and enjoying themselves; others that the middle classes were playing at being working class and misappropriating their culture as they had done throughout history. Commercial interests moved in as record companies attempted to create a more commercially viable 'folk-song' sound for the mass market by softening, prettifying, and controlling both material and performer. Although the revival supported a number of professional singers and musicians, and many more semi-professionals, there was a widespread determinedly amateur ethos in the movement, against commercialism and impatient with questions of definition and intellectualization. Nevertheless, several of the newly discovered traditional singers became active performers in folk clubs and festivals, and had LP records of their own. The song revival thus contained more than its fair share of paradoxes.
   Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s there was a burgeoning nationwide 'folk scene', with sufficient numerical strength to support hundreds of folk clubs, annual festivals, national and local record labels, and a variety of magazines. Although those heady days are gone, 'folk music' is still a definable minority-interest pastime, and appeared, in the late 1990s, to be on the rise again.
   The founders of the second revival have mostly passed on or retired, and even the second wave is now giving way to a new generation, and further changes are inevitable.
   ■ Georgina Boyes, The Imagined Village: Culture, Ideology, and the English Folk Revival (1993); Vic Gammon, 'Folk Song Collecting in Sussex and Surrey 1843-1914', History Workshop Journal 10 (1980), 61-89; Niall Mackinnon, The British Folk Scene: Musical Performance and Social Identity (1993); Dave Harker, Fakesong: The Manufacture of British 'Folksong', 1700 to the Present Day (1985).

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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