Mudcat Café message #2262670 The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #2224   Message #2262670
Posted By: Brian Peters
14-Feb-08 - 06:47 PM
Thread Name: What is a Folk Song?
Subject: RE: What is a Folk Song?
There's a wonderful scene in the Watersons film 'Travelling For A Living", showing a scene from a pub in Hull during the 1960s, in which the entire clientele is indulging in a rip-roaring sing- song. Like Bert, I can remember several pubs in the East End of London, and one or two in North Manchester, which during the 1970s still employed a pianist - and where folk in the room would sometimes feel moved to join in . My grandmother sang songs (mostly hymns, admittedly, but she did know several verses to 'Cosher Bailey's Engine', which I'm told is a real folksong)) around the house all the time. My Mum and Dad sang a lot for their own amusement, too. As Peter Bellamy remarked in the 1980s, in an article on our present topic, lots of people as late as the 60s used to sing or whistle about their everyday work. My parents' generation went regularly to chapel and sang their hearts out. I didn't but was still expected to sing hymns at school assembly.

I would suggest that all of this has disappeared. We still have football chants, vestiges of children's playground rhymes, and songs at a few surviving rural socials such as shepherds' meets, and also the village carolling in Yorkshire (although whether the locals outnumber travelling folkies is a moot point). News reports, meanwhile, bemoan the fact that parents no longer sing nursery rhymes to their children.

I too have doubts about whether every ploughboy knew scores of old ballads, but I suspect that many rural and urban people knew and sang at least some songs, a hundred years ago. Flora Thompson wrote about agricultural communities singing in the fields. During my short experience of a production line in the 1970s, we were piped Radio 1 at high volume. No opportunity for work songs there.

I must plead ignorance of 'JCB', but I do remember that several years ago, the case was made regularly that 'Yellow Submarine' was a modern folksong because people would sing it spontaneously. My feeling was that many people could and indeed did sing the seven-word chorus, but that only a tiny number would know the lyrics to even one verse. And my kids would scarcely recognize 'Yellow Submarine' forty years down the line.

George has already answered Bert's point about 'American Idol' - that it's is about self-promotion, not informal or communal entertainment, and it's goldfish bowl TV, not a participatory mass movement. Karaoke, though an interesting social phenomenon, is part of the same thing. I'd be more inclined to accept karaoke as modern folksong if the singers didn't require a prompter.

Songwriters like George, who compose finely crafted and heartfelt songs, may well find their work absorbed by the folksong community - a self-selected body that still holds dear the unquestionable value of singing for fun - in a way analagous to what some of us call 'the traditional process'. But with all due respect, I don't think I'm ever going to hear the window cleaner singing one from the top of his ladder.

I would love to know which songs Bert believes will be "the folksongs of the future".