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TRADITIONAL BRITISH FOLK SONG

No. 1: AN INTRODUCTION

FOR those who find the complexity of classical music lacking in specific meaning, for those who are left cold by the ephemeral nature of light music, and for those who find heavy rock music disturbing, there still remains the all-too-neglected treasury of our national folk music. The plaintive and poignant melody of some tragic ballad or the stirring roar of a sea shanty, is a balm for the soul overwrought by the angst of modern living.

What is folk music? It has never been satisfactorily defined. Many attempts have either included that which should not be properly regarded as folk music, or excluded that which should. Some definitions have hinged on the anonymity of authorship, though some folk songs do have traceable authors. Other definitions have stressed oral transmission, though many folk songs have been passed on by 'broadsides'. Still others have treated folk music as the product purely of rural communities, when there has always been interplay between town and country, and when industrial songs in the authentic folk tradition were later produced entirely by city dwellers.

Such definitions may all have an element of truth in them, but they seem to depend more on accidental characteristics and tendencies rather than on the actual essence and form of folk song. As to that ... when you know what it is you will know it when you hear it!

Irish folk music has had a continuous living tradition which still survives in a wide-spread manner today. Scottish ballads have long featured in anthologies of national poetry. English folk music, however, has been something of a twentieth century discovery ― snatched from oblivion by a few Victorian enthusiasts when it was on the point of dying out as a living tradition. This was happening in spite of the fact that it has formed the basis for so much of the West's great 'fine art' music. Classical composers who have borrowed from folk music have included, for example, Chopin, Tchaikovsky and Vaughan Williams.

Parallel with its influence on music has been that on literature. Wordsworth and Burns immediately spring to mind as examples of poets who have imitated the form of folk songs.

What is the value of a folk song? Besides its musical attraction to enthusiasts, folk song is of particular interest as a mirror of social attitudes, historical events and psychology, as well as of regional, national and racial characteristics. In short, folk song is par excellence an ethnic kaleidoscope of human aspirations and laments ―a panorama in microcosm of life and history.

How old is a folk song? Some allusions may stretch back into the mists of prehistory, while in another way a folk song is only as old as the last time it was sung. A folk song does not have an 'authentic' version, but is subject to a continual process of selection and amendment.

Singers in the oral tradition have usually made a point of passing on the words of a song much as they found them. The similarity of versions collected from different sources has sometimes been quite remarkable, but other singers have garbled their material.

Even more open to variation have been the tunes. Some singers have not only varied the tune from verse to verse but from rendition to rendition!

The melody is further often varied by its embellishment with grace notes, which gives singers a characteristically wailing sound which can be anathema to the un-acclimatised but is lovingly appreciated by devotees.

Folk music is essentially monophonic, either solo or in unison. In English folk music heptatonic (seven-note) scales are the most common. Among them are a number of scales or 'modes' known to mediaeval church music, though the labelling of folk songs with these church modes is both inadequate and can be misleading. (An explanation of these scales is to be found in A. L. Lloyd's Folk Song in England, pp. 36-54).

These modes, which are difficult to harmonise, nevertheless provide a richness of melodic form which has been lost by the wholesale adoption of the easily harmonised major and minor keys. Our awareness of these ancient scales has become so impoverished, that some of those coming to folk music for the first time find some folk melodies almost 'Oriental' when in fact they are merely 'Old European'. Unrestrained by the unimaginative strait-jacket of modern conventions, folk songs are full of hidden beauties and surprises.

A good half of English tunes are in the 'ionian' mode, which corresponds to the modern major scale. Despite its condemnation by the Roman Catholic Church as 'wanton' it established its predominance early in England. The adoption of this robust scale was no doubt a reflection of growing national self-confidence.

The typical English song is about an octave in range and fairly rhythmical. Irish songs, in contrast, are characterised by mystical wandering melodies and a large note range. As with much in the history of the British Isles, however, the interplay between the various regions of the archipelago has been so great as to preclude any rigid regional divisions.

As a parting comment to this opening chapter it is important to stress that no folk song can be fully appreciated solely in terms of its words or solely in terms of its tune. These two elements are intrinsic parts of a whole. Dry print is no substitute for actual listening, a deficiency that can only by corrected by the reader.

Note: this is the introduction to a series of articles on traditional British folk song, which continues in subsequent issues of Heritage & Destiny.