Anarchy 51/What have they done to the folk?
What have they done
to the folk?
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
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-
The easy reaction is to reel away in horror, shouting “commercialism”, and pointing to the mass of fake-
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-
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-
The funny thing is that of all types of cultural activity, folk-
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-
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
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
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
- (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.