Anarchy 51/What have they done to the folk?

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What have they done
to the folk?


One day you wake up and find that your minor­ity cult has mush­roomed. It may be your polit­ics, or your anti-polit­ics, it may be a place, it may be some activ­ity, a sport, a music. Do you re­joice at the ar­rival of the mil­len­nium? No, the chances are you don’t. More likely you feel re­sent­ment, per­haps you move on further out, trek into the wil­der­ness and re­store your minor­ity cult—until the crowd fol­lows on.
  There is an in­trinsic self­ish­ness in most en­thu­si­asms—you may preach, spread the good word, but al­ways there is a part of you that takes pleas­ure in the very con­di­tion of cliquish­ness. Thus, where a cult
sud­denly ceases to be a cult and turns into some­thing more like a cru­sade, there is re­sent­ment. It is partly a quite under­stand­able and jus­ti­fi­able pleas­ure in hav­ing things on the human, per­sonal scale. Pleas­ure in know­ing what is going on, who is who—and also in form­ing part of a move­ment or group, in which there is only rudi­ment­ary de­vel­op­ment of or­gan­isa­tional bar­riers—of bar­riers be­tween audi­ence and per­former, be­tween those whose tastes tend one way and those whose tastes tend the other.

  As things get big­ger, the bar­riers go up—there is an audi­ence to be enter­tained, and enter­tain­ers to do the job. And the bar­riers get in­sti­tu­tion­al­ised; you get in­ternal se­greg­a­tion de­velop­ing, clashes of doc­trine, al­most amount­ing at times to holy war. Where once eth­nik, folk­nik, pop­nik and r ’n’ b ex­po­nents could all go to the same club, and be aware of what they have in com­mon, now the dif­fer­en­ces come to the fore.

  As the next stage of the boom comes along, the pub­lic at large starts to take note—Bob Dylan is heard on House­wives’ Choice—gets a pro­file in Melody Maker—The Ob­server starts try­ing to pon­ti­fi­cate on the sub­ject in its cus­tom­ary switched-on (though not plugged-in) man­ner. Re­search chem­ists in the labor­at­or­ies of Ready Steady Go syn­thes­ize an er­satz Dylan. Folk pro­grammes pro­lif­er­ate on TV ran­ging from the ex­cru­ci­at­ing Hob Derry What-not (why don’t the Welsh Na­tion­al­ists do some­thing about it; like blow­ing up the studio) to the re­mark­ably good Folk in Focus. It be­comes pos­sible to buy folk-records (some folk-records) in ordin­ary local re­cord shops. If you are not run­ning a club, you find that you can­not get in any more, and you could not af­ford to any­way.

  The easy re­ac­tion is to reel away in horror, shout­ing “com­mer­cial­ism”, and point­ing to the mass of fake-sing­ers who are jump­ing on the band­wagon, and the fake-folk that is being pushed, Catch the Wind, or I’ll Never Find Another You. (N.B. I say fake-folk, not be­cause the songs are not tra­di­tional, but be­cause they are not honest songs.)

  And there is, of course, reason in this re­ac­tion—the big money is more likely to go, for the most part, to the sweet­ened, smoothed-up im­it­at­ors, who are mov­ing in now, rather than to the sing­ers who have been around so long with­out the bait of big money. But though this is un­fair, the fringe pick­ings that go to the people who built up the club scene are at any rate big­ger than they were.

  And ac­tu­ally of course, the present boom is very largely not a nat­ive thing at all, but an Amer­ican im­port. It’s the clubs, and the nat­ive scene, oddly enough, that are in a sense para­sitic, pro­fit­ing from the in­ter­est that spreads over from the im­ports. Sim­il­arly with tele­vi­sion. That is the way it’s been for a long time, in a less ex­treme form. I’d haz­ard a guess that nine out of ten folk en­thu­si­asts, even the most aus­tere eth­niks, had their taste for folk aroused in the first place by Amer­ican songs (or by songs in Amer­ican style—e.g. most CND songs). And that in­cludes many of those who hail from a still com­par­at­ively liv­ing
folk tra­di­tion. Many is the Scot or the Irish­man who hardly thought of sing­ing a Scots or Irish song until he came to England or Amer­ica and had his taste aroused by Amer­ican ma­ter­ial. And the folk scene as it has existed for the last few years was pre­dom­in­antly com­posed of ex-skiff­lers.

  The danger with an en­thu­si­asm is that it can blind you to waht lies out­side its lim­its. You build walls round your gar­den, and the walls be­come the gar­den, and it is only a flower if ti grows within the walls. So a pur­ist might listen to Bob Dylan, say “It’s not Folk”, and ig­nore the truth that per­haps it’s bet­ter than much that is folk. Or he might listen to a folk-in­flu­enced pop-record, and de­nounce it as a cor­rup­tion, dis­miss­ing the truth that it may have its own spe­cial and dis­tinct merits. Or he may cry “en­ter­tainer” at, for ex­ample, Alex Camp­bell, as if this were an in­sult (and as if he were mak­ing a for­tune out of it in­stead of a pit­tance).

  The funny thing is that of all types of cul­tural ac­tiv­ity, folk-music is per­haps the one least suited to this kind of cult­ism. An ac­cept­able cap­sule defin­i­tion might be “The pop­ular music of another time and/or place, to­gether with songs, etc., writ­ten in im­it­a­tion or under the in­flu­ence of this”. Even this is too nar­row a defin­i­tion if it is to in­clude a num­ber of songs rightly ac­cepted in any club. But the point is the em­phasis on other times and places is only rel­ev­ant where your own con­tem­por­ary tra­di­tion is dead. And this need not be so.

  There are two dis­tinct ele­ments run­ning like se­par­ate threads through the folk re­vival, since its earli­est days (which I sup­pose one could say were some time in the 18th cen­tury—Bishop Percy, Robert Burns, etc.—revival is not per­haps the best word, but it is cur­rent). There is an an­ti­quar­ian ele­ment, and a refu­gee ele­ment. Or, less el­lip­tic­ally, you may be in­ter­ested primar­ily in pre­serving some­thing that is in danger of being lost, or you may be a fu­git­ive from some as­pect of main­stream cul­ture, find­ing in folk-song, or music, some­thing that you are un­able to find in the cul­ture that you flee. And the cul­ture you are flee­ing may be high, low, pop, or the lot. And what you are after is a cul­ture with a greater de­gree of rel­ev­ance—and free­dom; one which is not in itself clique-direc­ted, but rather, at least in its ori­gins, di­rec­ted towards the com­mun­ity as a whole, not just the in­tel­lect­u­als or the fans; songs which are not re­stric­ted in sub­ject, lan­guage or form in the way that pop songs are, and which are rel­ev­ant, as main­stream poetry so rarely is.

  The an­ti­quar­ian as­pect is of course im­port­ant, but it is second­ary. The reason it is im­port­ant to pre­serve some­thing is be­cause what is pre­served is in it­self im­port­ant, and in some way ir­re­place­able. And so far as the refu­gee as­pect is con­cerned, what is most im­port­ant about ex­cur­sions into the cul­ture of other times or places is what you bring back, and what you do with it. Other­wise it’s just escap­ism, and es­sen­tially ster­ile. It’s pos­sible to take folk-song in this way, and much good may it do you; sing sea shan­ties in order to feel tough and ident­ify
with the men who made them, sing rebel songs and save your­self the trouble of re­bel­ling, sing love songs and save your­self the ef­fort of lov­ing. Whereas the pur­pose of a shanty is to help you keep on work­ing, a rebel song is to get you re­bel­ling, and a love song is typic­ally to get her (or him) feel­ing sorry for you, or help you feel bet­ter if that’s no good. And the rel­ev­ance of tra­di­tional songs to us is closely tied up with their ori­ginal func­tion. By which I am not try­ing to say that en­ter­tain­ment as such is out, which would ob­vi­ously be ab­surd. But if you think primar­ily in terms of en­ter­tain­ment as a goal in it­self (in­stead of an in­dic­a­tion that the goal has been reached), then you’re going to miss an awful lot.

  So the most im­port­ant thing about the folk-revival, at least so far as I am con­cerned, is what is pro­duced in the way of new songs, new kinds of songs. For once you have ac­cess to the store­house of images, themes tech­niques, etc., used in folk trad­i­tions (note the plural), you have a vastly in­creased po­ten­tial for say­ing im­port­ant things, ex­press­ing your­self in terms that en­able real com­mun­i­ca­tion, such as be­come vir­tu­ally im­pos­sible in main­stream cul­ture, po­etry or pop song. And it be­comes pos­sible to at least hope for a kind of cul­ture that will side­step ar­bit­rary bar­riers of this kind (pop, in­tel­lec­tual, etc.) and re­place them with a grad­u­ated spec­trum with the mer­ging div­i­sions based on func­tional cri­teria—so that you would have songs for dan­cing, songs for ex­plain­ing, songs for preach­ing, songs for ex­alt­ing. In fact this kind of dis­tinc­tion one can (but need not) make within folk music in the wild.

  However, it seems over­whelm­ingly prob­able that the cur­rent boom is likely to be rel­at­ively short lived, on the pop side, if only be­cause pop music is es­sen­tially for dan­cing, and words are ultim­ately of second­ary im­port­ance. But the col­lapse of the boom is not im­port­ant, for the kind of change I’m talk­ing about is es­sen­tially a long-term one, and each turn of the wheel ad­van­ces it. Skiffle died and left be­hind it the basis of a folk under­ground, and also the seeds of the beat groups and r ’n’ b. The pres­ent thing will leave a sim­ilar res­idue but at a higher level, and one which ap­proaches more closely the kind of uni­fied cul­ture of which I am writ­ing.

  Already you have in­div­id­u­als who have made the bridge, though it is still fairly ten­u­ous. In America you have Bob Dylan as a kind of cross be­tween Yevtu­shenko and Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger as a one man per­son­if­i­ca­tion of the folk revival, US style. Here, the cult of per­son­al­ity is less ob­vi­ous. There is of course Ewan Mac­Coll, but though he may be the High Priest of Brit­ish Folk, he is a bit short in the ecu­men­ical spirit. He is so firmly rooted in his­tory that he some­times seems to be ap­proach­ing the 20th cen­tury as an im­mi­grant—as a kind of eth­nic Dr. Who. This is of course a gross over-simplif­i­ca­tion, I hasten to add, to save you the trouble of scrawl­ing this in the mar­gin. What­ever does de­velop in the way of neo-folk will owe a fan­tastic debt to Mac­Coll, to his sing­ing, his song writ­ing, and par­tic­u­larly to his work in the radio-bal­lads. It is largely due to him, di­rectly or in­di­rectly, that
trad­i­tional songs have es­caped from the cus­tody of the col­lec­tions, and the Eng­lish Folk Dance and Song So­ci­ety (not that I’m knock­ing the EFDSS which, with the help of Peter Ken­nedy, among others, has under­gone an in­ternal re­vo­lu­tion in the last few years). And it is again largely Mac­Coll’s di­rect and in­di­rect in­flu­ence that has saved the next gen­er­a­tion of sing­ers and song writ­ers from being pale re­flec­tions of the Amer­i­cans. There can scarcely be a singer in the coun­try (within the rel­ev­ant con­text) whose whole way of sing­ing and at­ti­tude to ma­ter­ial has not been deeply in­flu­enced by Mac­Coll, and the in­flu­ence stretches fur­ther—even a style that is on the face of it totally dif­fer­ent, Bob Dylan’s fre­quently shows traces of Mac­Coll (e.g. North Coun­try Blues). But for all that, listen to a song by Ewan Mac­Coll such as The Gal­lant Col­liers (on his LP The Best of Ewan MacColl) and I think you will see what I mean.

  Closely re­lated to Mac­Coll in their ap­proach, are sing­ers like Lou Killen, Bob Daven­port, Enoch Kent, Matt Mc­Ginn and Johnny Handle. The last three, with Ewan Mac­Coll him­self, are per­haps the most im­port­ant es­sen­tially trad­i­tional song writ­ers of the present day. But though they have pro­duced and are pro­du­cing fine songs, I cannot help feel­ing that to fol­low di­rectly in their paths is to run the risk of going up a cul-de-sac.

  Further away from Mac­Coll are a large num­ber of song writ­ers. These range from those who are still in many ways very close to Mac­Coll (such as per­haps Ian Camp­bell) to a lone wolf like Leslie Haworth. What these writ­ers do tend to have in com­mon is songs with a greater degree of ac­ces­sibil­ity. (In­ci­dent­ally I only use the word “writ­ers” for lack of a con­ven­ient altern­at­ive. In this con­text it can be mis­lead­ing, since it car­ries the im­pli­ca­tion that a song is made up on paper, whereas in many cases, and these per­haps the most im­port­ant, the ac­tual writ­ing down of a song only comes at a late stage. Indeed there are many con­tem­porary songs, even quite widely sung ones, that have prob­ably never been writ­ten down—and I don’t just mean the ones that would scorch the paper. Leslie Haworth is the ob­vi­ous ex­ample.) By “a greater degree of ac­ces­sibil­ity” I don’t ne­ces­sarily mean that the songs are simple. But even where they are dif­ficult, they are re­lated to the world out­side. You do not need to undergo an ap­prentice­ship in folk-song be­fore you can see there is some­thing in them that con­cerns you. They are not wear­ing fancy dress.

  I picked out three es­sen­tially trad­i­tional song writ­ers. To set against them, a suit­able trio of the more ac­ces­sible vari­ety might be Fred Dallas, Cyril Tawney and Sydney Carter. All three are defin­itely rooted in the Brit­ish trad­i­tion, but in addi­tion they have ob­vi­ously in­cor­por­ated elem­ents of other trad­i­tions as well and, para­dox­ic­ally, the fin­ished re­sult, at least in my opin­ion, has a greater one­ness in con­se­quence. If you live in a divers­if­ied cul­tural mi­lieu, then it is only when you al­low the mul­ti­tude of in­flu­ences that are work­ing upon you to mingle and breed and come out in your songs, that these songs can
truly ex­press you as you are. It is no good try­ing to im­pose a kind of cul­tural apart­heid on your mind.

  So, in the writ­ers I se­lected, you may have clear Amer­ican in­flu­ences, the trace of the chan­son­niers, or the fla­vour of Brecht. Cyril Tawney comes out with The Grey Flannel Line with its bor­row­ings from Dink’s Song, Sydney Carter writes Port Mahon with a Greek tune and echoes of Ven­ezuela.

  This bor­row­ing of what is needed, with­out wor­ry­ing about its former con­text, is car­ried to a bene­fi­cial ex­treme by Bob Dylan, e.g. Hard Rains (Lord Randall inter alia), Rest­less Fare­well (The Part­ing Glass), Bob Dylan’s Dream (Lord Frank­lin), With God on Our Side (The Patriot Game). Not that there is any­thing in the least new or un­usual in re­work­ing old songs to fit new cir­cum­stan­ces—but what is spe­cial, as with the Cyril Tawney ex­ample I quoted, is that the new con­texts are, con­ven­tion­ally speak­ing, so ut­terly re­moved from the old. In some ways it re­sembles the cul­tural mis­ce­gen­a­tion that gave rise to jazz—or for that mat­ter, to the Re­nais­sance.

  Take away the bar­riers and you can get any­thing. And this is what the whole folk re­vival can do—ex­cept where it erects new bar­riers of its own.

  This kind of bor­row­ing and re­work­ing can, and prob­ably typ­ic­ally does, take place un­con­sciously—as indeed it does in a trad­i­tional folk cul­ture in the wild. To give a per­sonal ex­ample, on the 1963 Alder­maston, while walk­ing from Reading RSG shel­ter, I made up a song. The tune sounded famil­iar, but I couldn’t place it. The same for the words. Both of which pre­sum­ably helped it catch on for the lim­ited period of its topic­al­ity. It was not, so far as I re­call, till the last day of the march that I read in the even­ing papers about march­ers “sing­ing their new march­ing song to the tune of I love a lassie, and re­mem­bered. Though I was more aware of it as I love a sausage. From which my sub­con­scious folk-pro­cess had made I’ve got a secret.

  You are likely to get the most au­da­cious and suc­cess­ful trans­form­a­tions in con­texts where there is a height­ened emo­tion of some kind in­volved. It may be the kind of help­less rage that is aroused by the ca­sual brut­al­ity of gov­ern­ments, by napalm raids on vil­lages, by lynch­ings, by apathy, by the uni­versal ac­cept­ance of the in­toler­able. It may be in­dig­na­tion at some com­par­at­ively minor in­just­ice, or ex­ult­a­tion at some token vic­tory of just­ice. Or it may be more per­sonal—per­haps you’re in love. What­ever the reason, you are more in­ter­ested in what you want to say than in how you say it. You are not after ap­plause from an au­di­ence; rather you want to help them, her, or your­self, to feel in a par­tic­u­lar way, or to under­stand a par­tic­u­lar emo­tion.

  So where does enter­tain­ment fit in? Is it just a coat­ing of sugar on a bit­ter medi­cine—a ploy to en­tice the poor suck­ers in and then preach at them? Evid­ently, since I phrased the ques­tion in that way, I’m going to an­swer “No”. And to just­ify my an­swer I fall back on two
aphor­isms which I won’t elabor­ate at the mo­ment:
(a) The pur­pose of art is to help you ap­pre­ci­ate life (and hence also to as­sist and en­cour­age you in mak­ing life worth ap­pre­ci­at­ing).
(b) Enter­tain­ment is what you have when art is suc­cess­ful (the degree of suc­cess of course varies).

  This, the range of art and enter­tain­ment, is as wide as you can go. And there is no con­flict be­tween dif­fer­ent parts of it. A song may have no pur­pose beyond arous­ing laugh­ter, or it may aim at arous­ing laugh­ter for some pur­pose, or it may aim at do­ing a thou­sand dif­fer­ent things to the listener. And it is all en­ter­tain­ment and itt is all art.

  A good club ses­sion will in fact have songs from widely separ­ate parts of the range. If it’s all jolly chorus stuff, or all doom and soul, or all pro­test, it will lose much of its value and im­pact. It is li­able to be­come en­ter­tain­ment in the nar­row escap­ist sense, cater­ing to people who know what they want, giv­ing thenm a pre­pack­aged com­mod­ity. You lose the sense that any­thing might hap­pen, as it be­comes noth­ing more than a pleas­ant way to spend the evening. Flex­ibil­ity is grad­u­ally super­seded by rigid­ity.

  Un­doubt­edly this tend­ency is en­cour­aged and em­phas­ised in any folk boom. Sing­ers also lose flex­ibil­ity, and con­cen­trate on sup­ply­ing what is ex­pected—Joan Baez tends to sing all kinds of songs in the same voice, and the same mood. For that mat­ter, Ewan Mac­Coll does ex­actly the same thing. You have, in fact, that tend­ency to self-fix­a­tion, even self-parody, that seems to be in­ex­tric­ably linked with suc­cess, whether it is on the scale of Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger, or of hund­reds of ama­teurs in clubs every­where who get them­selves trapped within an image. And it is of course a uni­versal human trait—call it mau­vaise foi if you pre­fer pigeon holes.

  But the very pres­ence of a strong trad­i­tional found­a­tion in folk-song, works against this trait. There is a cer­tain ana­logy with a masked ball, where by as­sum­ing a formal mask, you shed the one that you wear the rest of the time. The very elem­ent of trad­i­tion to which any­one who gets in­volved in folk-song to any real ex­tent is go­ing to get ex­posed, can nour­ish a kind of in­divid­u­al­ism which can then go on to grow, to in­tegrate, to pro­pa­gate—and to re­move the mask.

  So per­son­ally, I am op­tim­istic. One may squirm to hear the Search­ers as­sas­sin­at­ing What Have They Done to the Rain, and tremble for the fu­ture of those who get caught up in the glare of pub­li­city (for all one knows, Donovan might have great poten­tial—and we’ll prob­ably never find out now). But it’s some­thing when you can have Masters of War blast­ing out of a mil­lion trans­ist­ors tuned to a pirate sta­tion.

  And when the pres­ent thing dies down, the fer­ment will still be work­ing, and the new trad­i­tion grow­ing and chan­ging.