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Howard Jones New Book: Folk Song in England (2094* d) RE: New Book: Folk Song in England 23 Aug 18


I think we are in danger of taking these job titles too literally. "Ploughboys", however they were known in different areas, were men skilled in handling heavy horses. In addition to ploughing and harrowing, they would also be involved in all the other jobs around the farm which involved horses, which was pretty much everything. In East Anglia they were usually known as "horsemen", which says it all.

Turning back to the broadsides, it is too simple to dismiss them all as hack writers. No doubt many were, but a normal bell distribution curve would suggest the profession contained a range of talents and abilities, as you would expect in any occupation and just as you find in modern journalism. Somewhere Roud makes the point that these writers were only a few degrees up the social scale than those they were writing for, so it is quite possible that some may have had experience of farming, the sea or other occupations, which they were able to write about from a position of knowledge. Besides, I suspect the folk might be quite tolerant of errors provided they did not spoil the overall effect of the song, and if necessary these could in any event be edited out by the singers themselves.

We are only concerned with those songs which found their way into the oral tradition, which probably rules out the worst examples of broadside writing, and certainly those Jim dismisses, with some justification, as unsingable.

Furthermore, the broadsides also published the popular songs of the day, written by professional songwriters and performed on the stage and in the pleasure gardens. Roud describes how the ordinary people could be exposed to these songs, not only through broadsides but from travelling players and performers. It goes against common sense to think that people would not take up these popular songs, and whilst most would be short-lived a few would have sufficient staying-power to remain in the tradition.

Finally, it is probable that the broadsides published existing folk songs, which probably included not only anonymous songs from the tradition but songs composed by ordinary people and offered for publication (which is something Roud describes).

No one has disagreed that the people made their own songs, the question is how much of what is regarded as traditional song originated this way. We are told that as much as 90% of the songs found in the tradition were published as broadsides. That leaves only around 10% where we can say with some confidence that they originated among the people. As for the rest, we can't be certain but they probably comprise a range of origins as described above. If only those songs composed by the people themselves can be regarded as folk song, that excludes a large part of the song tradition and which up until now has been thought of as "folk".

It is not a question of wishing to disprove that the folk made their own songs. It is about following the facts, even if they lead us to a conclusion that we find unwelcome. Roud points out that folk song did not exist in a cultural vacuum, and he has provided an explanation of how composed songs could find their way into the tradition, and I for one find it persuasive.

Roud's concluding words are "once we have jettisoned the idea that it is the origin of a song which makes it folk, we are forced to concentrate on the people, and process, rather than the items themselves, to find our difference...put a pleasure garden song into the tradition and if it is not spat out as unsuitable it emerges at the other end as a clearly different type of song... it is now sung in a different way, by different people, in different places, and will never be the same again". This seems to me to be entirely consistent with the 1954 idea of what is folk song.


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