Caught by the River

Folk Song in England

Cally Callomon | 9th September 2017

Folk Song in England by Steve Roud, with chapters by Julia Bishop
(Faber & Faber, hardback, 767 pages. Out now and available here.)

Review by Cally Callomon

One may argue that there is no place for taxonomy in matters as fluid as music, but our author, here, is the creator of the Roud Folk Song Index — a database of nearly 200,000 references to songs that have been collected from the oral tradition in the English Language from all over the world.

We song detectives of this world, many of us armchair-bound, may delight in the arcane and fanciful stories that emanate from songs of a folk tradition. We may go on to lay claim to the secret of the song’s origins or name the person we collected that song from. After a few more pints we delve into the hidden meanings of the lyrics and attribute all manner of historical fact and occurrence to the rhymes and clues in the words.

Knowing this to be the case, one Bob Dylan delighted in feeding our thirst for mystery in song and several books were thus spawned, each unravelling the different truths to be found in his every word. Dylan was known to raid the Folk wardrobe from time-to-time, redefining what treasures he found there, adding to the palimpsest.

Many earlier attempts at this book (and there have been many) neatly shied away from the definitions of the ‘folk song’ and the ‘tradition’, basking in the slippery nature such vague terms often rely on.

This is not such a book.

* * * *

Little is more facile than the struggling art-school discussion of ‘what is art?’, such tedium bettered only by the dreary follow-up ‘but is it good art?’

Probably against all better advice, Roud bravely stands more as barrister less as soothsayer, daringly asking for clarification of terms and definitions, levelling out the playing field for all concerned. He arrives at set definitions of what ‘folk’ is, because this study demands and relies upon such objectivity, if only to get the reader to a cohesive end.

Roud leads us away from the song itself, and turns to the cold evidence of who sang what, when, where and how. His task is made all the harder by the porous nature of language. Much as any generation defends the old use of any word, and rails against the blow-in ‘To be honests’ and abundant use of ‘like’, we have to face up to the fact that, like language, no song ever stands still, and no version is definitive.

The book, all 750+ pages of it, is divided into three neatly ordered sections. The first is the history of the slow and steady song cultures of ordinary people over 250 years, stopping at the late Victorian and Edwardian collecting boom. This handy cut-off also allows the strata of more recent developments to settle.

Our backwards glance at a song’s history can act as a triangle placed on its peak, the most recent Fairport Convention taking precedence over a more time-tested version of the same thing. Who knows if ‘Candle in the Wind’ will be seen as a popular-song evergreen classic in 30 years’ time, or if Elton John, years after his death, is to be seen as a mediocre but popular Light Entertainer of his day (and the of-his-day bit is significant). Before you splutter over your screen, I refer you to Beethoven and Vivaldi as two examples whose work benefitted from the objective rear-view mirror time gave them long after their own dismissing generation had died out. Let’s not start on Van Gogh.

Part two welcomes in the barrister again, putting forward evidence to suggest that some of those ancient songs were perhaps not quite as ancient as we liked to think. Roud goes back to the early 1500s on this voyage. Edwardian Museums liked to paint Penny Farthings black in order to make them look more antique than they actually were (some a mere 30 years old), ignoring the bright colours they were often painted, and this bad habit plagued museums from then on, calling in a quaint nostalgia for the antique that came newly dressed in ancient black clothing. Furniture suffered the same indecent fate.

Come part three, Roud carries out detailed investigations into folk song’s handlers and their specific trades: sailors and soldiers and particular contexts such as the church and the workplace, and types of song, be they bawdy or of a particular dialect.

At all times, Roud asks less ‘what folk songs did people sing?’ and concentrates more on the question ‘what songs did the folk sing?’ – cart and horse placed in correct order.

Roud suggests that many have come to use the folk song for their own purposes — to evangelise, to diminish lesser forms of music, to propagate, or to bowdlerise — motives that inevitably compromise and manipulate the song into clothes they may be ill-suited to wear. These guises came in piano studies, school dances, grown up romantic orchestral arrangements, and even the later denim-clad troubadours of the sixties and the hideous songbirds of the spoilt boys-in-pain found on the internet today.

He clearly shows how being — or pretending to be — working class is not inherently better than being middle class or bourgeois, lest we forget those words’ origins: bourgeois merely being of the town, and the term ‘peasant’ — one we have attached a convenient slur to — meaning to be of the country(side).

Had we read the first half of Rob Young’s excellent Electric Eden book, and thought that was all we needed, Roud offers up further vast territory to discover, debunking, along the way, many of the popular myths set by the demands for a simple story.

None of this investigation will hinder your enjoyment of the song in any way; it’s simply a courageous attempt at clarifying, gently setting boundaries so that we may see how it fits into the grander scheme. There’s a gentle whiff of the debunk hanging on every page here.

Those of us of a past dance-music persuasion may well be versed in the ludicrous taxonomic categorisation of music that accelerated out of the late 1980s. House was no longer a useful term without a prefix, be it Hard or Deep. What the ears termed ‘disco’ the music press defined in BPM and ever-more arcane sub-categories appeared. The same can be said of Metal, be it hardcore, death, grind black or the speed variants. Nowadays we so often use the term ‘Classical’ as a catch-all for violins, usually involving dinner jackets and serious expression, that we neglect the date-bound categories such as Early, Baroque, Romantic, or Modern — definitions that made conversation about formal music so much easier. Roud calls this ‘the Incremental Creep Of Definitional Expansion’ and has a similar task ahead himself, but unlike the aforementioned handy pockets, he simply has to draw boundaries and offer up reasonable definitions to get us to the end of the story.

By these ambitions and their very nature, the reader may take issue with some of Roud’s posits, which is fine. Roud took years to get there, I only took 3 weeks to read the book, and so I tend to bow to his findings above my own prejudices. This is, in all aspects, a triumph of writing-about-music. Just as Roud manages to pin matters down, so he sets us on a wider excursion into a history all of its own, social, economic, political and artistic.

Book-loving buyers will not be disappointed: the spines are stout, the typesetting pretty but not illegible, the paper dense enough to hold the welcome woodcuts, the index essential, the cover (by Harry Brockway) proud enough to display. Buy it as a hardback now before the inevitable hideous softback takes all the credit.

This is why the medium of The Book is still so essential — a TV documentary would never allow the subject to breathe as it does here. We’d have no time to ponder.

The term ‘set text’ is a cliché of ‘Fit For Purpose’ proportions, but if this text was set, no student would go wanting, and if those long armchair winter evenings need entertainment, this is a much more satisfying, rewarding, long-lasting dish than is found on the telly. Pinches of salt not required.


Folk Song in England is available in the Caught by the River shop for the specially discounted price of £20.00. Buy a copy here.

Cally Callomon on Caught by the River