The Conspiracy of Good Taste: chapter 3
CECIL SHARP The colonisation of British working class song & dance.
Cecil Sharp followed in the footsteps of a long line of folk song collectors and publishers, but it is his name we associate with the institutionalised category of 'folk music'. Cecil Sharp House, the centre of The English Folk Song & Dance Society, is in Camden Town, London, and is still known as the headquarters of English folk music. To understand why Sharp occupies this dominant position we should first look briefly along the line of song mediators that preceded him, picking out a few of the key collectors.
The Earlier Collectors
Broadsides of popular songs were produced from around 1550 and forty or so publishers of broadside song existed in England by the later 17th century. The growth of the publishing industry was a key force in the development of capitalism and in the formation of the modern nation state. Books held and disseminated the knowledge that was key to the new bourgeois culture. The dominant world view was literally all that was published. Silent reading only began in the C17th. Gradually poets began to write for silent reading and the transition from an oral to a literary culture had begun in earnest.
The power of the capitalist resides in the size of his market. Publishing created standardised languages of literacy -- which gradually withdrew from the diversity of oral languages and dialects that could be found in the same territory and became languages of power. This entirely new type of language embodied the values of the dominant class. We still observe the differences beween the old spoken dialects of England and 'Standard English', the official administrative language that most publications appear in. There has been a very gradual attempt to impose a standardised version of this language and its accompanying set of cultural values, on the whole population. Significantly 'four letter' words are still in the old Anglo-Saxon. In my youth the Catholic mass was still intoned in Latin, which was the language of the literate when publishing began in the sixteenth century. So we can see how gradual are these processes of change.
Ambrose Phillips had been to Cambridge University and ended his life as a judge. He was one of the first antiquarians to publish the lyrics of songs with his Collection of Old Ballads in 1723. This made a tasteful selection from the popular song of the period including material taken from 'common tradition'. It is from this time that we can trace the myth that the 'better' working class music, the ballad, was a relic of the minstrels of the medieval age who were supposed to have wandered between noble courts -- a 'golden age' from which the ancestors of the new middle classes liked to think they had come. It had been passed on through the generations but had often, so the myth went, degenerated in the hands of the illiterate and vulgar common people. From these 'spoilt fragments' it was fair game for the collector to reconstruct a version which was to be more 'truthful' to the romantically imagined original. As the minstrels were 'wandering', and hence gathered songs from all regions, it was presumed that they gave the English a homogeneous national culture. According to Harker (1985) Phillips seems to have been advised that his first edition was not tasteful enough and he was careful to see to it that his second edition contained 'no vile Conceit, no Low Pun, or double Entendre'.
Joseph Ritson had been born in humble circumstances in Stockton-on-Tees in 1752. He had gone to London, done well in business and had become High Bailiff-of-the-Liberty-of-the-Savoy before being called to the Bar. He was strongly anti-aristocratic and had adopted republican views. He took various members of the literary establishment to task, including song mediators like Bishop Percy and John Pinkerton, challenging inaccurate presentations, which he saw as being practically fraud. Bishop Percy's publication of 45 ballads in 1765, the Reliques, had challenged the cold formalism of English poetry and influenced people such as Sir Walter Scott, William Wordsworth and Coleridge.
In 1783 Ritson's A Select Collection of English Songs set new standards of accuracy for collectors. By the time of the publication in 1790 of his Ancient Songs from the Time of King Henry the Third, to the Revolution, there was already a realisation that the formation of a national culture, which reflected a recognisable appearance of common culture without expressing its interests, was useful in bringing the public towards a political unity and loyalty to the state.
Although Ritson accused people such as Percy of forgery, his own selections were chosen not to "tinge the cheek of delicacy, or offend the purity of the chasest ear." So whilst Ritson is notable and progressive in bringing increased accuracy to the songs in his collection, by excluding whole songs he critically misrepresented a culture. He had in fact accepted the view that 'National Song' derived from courtly culture, and that the song culture of the common people was a debased remnant of an earlier minstrelsy. The implication was that the common people were incapable of creating culture of their own.
It should also be noted that his idea of accuracy is relative to the market for which he published. He would still correct spellings and grammar and 'make sense of nonsense'. In this one suspects much must have been lost. However it is largely because the different collectors competed with each other over the crucial issue of authenticity, generating a critical discourse around issues of accuracy that we can get quite a good picture of how the texts were manipulated.
The question of authenticity was important because of the underlying claim on history. If you could convince your reader that your songs represented the ancient lineage, they could be considered part of a national heritage. If they were proved fraudulent, this whole project fell apart. Authenticity was a key issue in the creation of the nationalist myth. But because of the respectable and refined taste of the literary market, vulgarity was paradoxically unacceptable. This exposes an interesting contradiction that goes to the heart of class oppression. Fundamentally, dominant culture is a repression of the 'lower senses', for example, reference to bodily functions -- which the upper classes, being more akin to gods than animals, did not really like to admit to.
Robert Burns was born in 1759 in Alloway, the son of a poor ploughman. He gained an early reputation as a witty poet and song writer and by 1786 he was being lionized by Edinburgh society, although at the same time his poetry sold widely and fulfilled a deep need for the expression of the Scots' identity. Burns was instrumental in the production of the comprehensive six volume, The Scots Musical Museum, published in 1803. Driven by a fierce partisan feeling for his downtrodden Scottish brethren, he had given up his own career and spent much of his time from 1787 researching this collection of 600 Scots songs.
Such a edition was only possible because of the growing middle class book buying market. Although there is no doubt that he recognised the vitality of workers' culture there was of course considerable pressure on him to make a publication that complied with the edicts and taboos of bourgeois taste. At one point he admitted that in a "good many of them, little more than the chorus is ancient, though there is no need for telling everybody this piece of intelligence" (Harker, 1985, p.36). In other words Burns realised it would spoil his readers' fantasy of it as their own ancient heritage if he acknowledged authorship. He would also translate texts into educated English with his audience in mind typically leaving out all erotic material. Paradoxically it is now only this erotic material that survives unchanged to give us an idea of what the original transcriptions were like.
Other collectors would not have even collected erotic material, but it can be seen how the demands of the market place of the time made Burns change what he recorded. However, Burns was a rare example of a working class collector and writer and much may be learned of working class values from his own work.
The historical context must be kept in mind. At this period the bourgeoisie was still a new class. Compared to the aristocracy they had little history of their own. They needed and probably still felt a connection to a pre-industrial time in which they would still have been part of the people. However a truthful picture of people's history would have been too painfully in conflict with their current exploitative practices. They therefore took refuge in a romanticised history seen through the screen of an aristocratic code of good taste. Central to this myth was a soft focus image of an idyllic life in the country in touch with nature: a nostalgia with which almost everyone would empathise, especially as the cities were a relatively new phenomenon. This theme is repeated from the 17th century on and in time becomes an important part of socialist ethos.
Walter Scott, son of a well-known Edinburgh lawyer, who was the leading song mediator in the next period of 1800 to 1830, shared King George IV's fear of the emergent urban workers. Around 1810 a lot of cheap political pamphlets and chapbooks were being produced in the cities amid widespread signs of the development of a new urban culture. The urban proletariat was considered a dangerous rabble in contrast to the old peasantry which was by now relatively unthreatening and fragmented. Scott, it should be noted, was the great medievalist whose books so influenced the young William Morris. Scott's song books built up an idea of the primitive nobility of the peasant and a sacred reverence for their mythologised medieval past. This was set against the vulgar urban proletariat whose culture needed to be distanced from the origins of the bourgeoisie. This whole vector of culture also led to the creation of romantic poetry and a place for those from the bourgeoisie who felt they had to take a position critical of the excesses of their own class.
Scott's 'Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border' was published in 1802 and presented a biased view of Scottish history mainly focusing on chiefs and nobility. Ordinary people appeared only in the entourage of the powerful, or as soldiers or victims of violence. It avoided any sympathy with democratic causes and helped to reconstruct history to fit in with the most conservative of bourgeois attitudes. Scott wasn't just looking for good songs from the people; they had to come from 'tradition'. So the penny pamphleteers, broadsides and chapbooks, the germ of a working class literature, were derided as vulgar and paltry. To have recognised this cheap type of printed matter as a worthwhile source would have given them value and was against the very basis of his project.
Scott had a wide circle of helpers and other mediators and collectors from this time. They all tended to depersonalise and generalise their sources, rarely giving credit to an individual, as if there were no individual creativity or invention amongst the common people. They were seen as rather poor vehicles for this stuff coming from the ancient springs of humanity. On top of this and especially for the gentlemen collectors, there was the likelihood of self-censorship imposed by the singers themselves. Few people would want to risk upsetting a local gentleman or stranger with a song revealing class anger or violence, as fantasy or fact, which might lead to retribution.
Before Scott died, he admitted that perhaps he was wrong to 'improve the poetry' at the expense of their 'simplicity'. In fact the mother of Hogg, one of his main lower class collaborators, told him to his face:
"Ye hae spoilt them awthegither. They were made for singin' an' no for readin'; but ye hae broken the charm noo, an' they'll bever be sung mair. An' the worst thing of a', they're nouther richt spell'd nor richt setten down" (Harker, 1985, p.70). I particularly like this quote because it gives the rare insight that working class people were quite aware of what was going on.
Robert Chambers, a middle class Scot, was the first to address 'the general reader' with his cheap edition of' The Scottish Ballads, published in 1829. Chamber's philosophy was 'social progress within sound constitutional limits'. This signalled both a break from the literary/antiquarian market and from noble patrons. It also meant that the collections originally formed for owning class audiences were gradually filtering back down to the people. The Scottish Ballads was a compilation garnered from other more expensive collections. Chambers would often edit together various versions of a song found in different regions to produce a version that was to consist of the best lines and even the best words in each version. As usual, literary or at least commercial merit was gained at the expense of authenticity.
John Broadwood was amongst the collectors busy in the South. Born in 1798, the grandson of a pianoforte manufacturer, his family moved to a 13th century estate in Lyne on the Sussex-Surrey border in 1799. In 1851 he succeeded his father as squire. In the meantime his Old English Songs was published in 1843 and set the tone for the subsequent middle class Folk Revival. The book's subtitle is famous: 'as now Sung by the Peasantry of the Weald of Surrey and Sussex, and collected by one who has learnt them by hearing them Sung every Christmas from early Childhood, by The Country People, who go about to the Neighbouring Houses, Singing, 'Waissailing' as it is called, at that Season. The Airs are set to Music, exactly as they are now Sung, to rescue them from oblivion, and to afford a specimen of genuine Old English Melody: and the words are given in their original rough state, with an occasional slight alteration to render the sense intelligible'.
He was followed by his daughter Lucy Broadwood who was a contemporary of Cecil Sharp.
With urbanisation and the profound changing relations between owning and labouring classes, 'The People' came under increasing study. With the rise of the Chartists in the 1830s and '40s the search for a unifying national cultural heritage was driven by the winds of reaction. The area of study of what came to be known as folklore developed in this context.
It was thought that 'the golden age of the minstrels' ended in about 1700 after which the ballads were vulgarised by being printed in broadsheets and through oral transmission. The people involved in folklore studies and publishing around the mid 1800s were not state officials or agents but simply people who could afford to follow a genteel hobby. This shows how organically oppression was propagated through a culture of good taste and respectability.
At the same time the philanthropists were developing the concept of 'rational recreation'. As soon as the workers won time for themselves then the content of this leisure was hotly contested between the dominant culture with its civilising Rational Recreations, and working class culture with its 'mindless and frenetic' pleasure seeking. Commercial popular culture stood in no-man's land ready to exploit whatever yielded a profit in the ensuing battle.
Choral singing became a central part of the concept of rational recreation. People were to be brought to socialism via the Vocal Unions which did not, at this time, focus on the encouragement of traditional song. Montague Blatchford, founder of the Clarion Vocal Union, called for workers to be given an 'art of their own': but this art was to be Tudor madrigals and the like. By the 1880s various prominent agencies were attempting to transform popular culture through the refining qualities of 'good' music. Societies such as the People's Concert Society and the People's Entertainment Society "were dedicated to destroying worker's ties to 'lower forms of amusement' by training them to a 'very high standard of taste' which would secure their commitment to the established social order" (Waters, 1990, p.99). The lower forms of amusement were mainly the public houses and music halls.
"Socialist advocates of choral singing were more concerned with training workers in accepted standards of musical taste than they were in delineating the components of an explicitly socialist culture" (Waters, 1990, p.127).
Carl Engel, a German emigre, was shocked at the lack of interest taken by British serious musicians in establishing folk roots for their national music, and was, in 1878, pushing for a clear distinction to be made between national and popular. Engel and Sabine Baring-Gould, a member of the old English squirarchy, also tried to engage the interest and involvement of professional musicians in the collection of material.
Collected lyrics were a poor transcription of oral language and clashed with literary standards. The critics had no understanding of the structure of dialect which was just considered a poor version of 'proper' speech and clearly needed to be translated into 'correct' English. Baring-Gould found that they were: "Usually rubbish" or that "some of the most exquisite melodies were coupled to either foul or silly words".
The arrival of Carl Engel with his theories of national music, and the involvement of the upper class heavyweight Baring-Gould, signalled the beginning of a new stage in which the music was emphasised (whereas with Scott and Burns it was the poetry) and the conscious propagation of nationalism became increasingly urgent. The working class folk song culture had been colonised through the activity of the collectors and publishers. It had been cleaned up and was then fused with bourgeois idioms and presented back to the people as national culture in opposition to the 'vulgarised' urban popular culture. This was all in the context of the broad arcadian movement I mentioned before.
The paradoxical situation was that bourgeois culture was in reality internationalist; German symphonies, Italian operas, Russian ballets, French farce: and, in spite of regional differences and the relative lack of short term mobility, the folk customs of Europe and further afield shared many commonalities. (See Bob Pegg, Rites and Riots, 1981).
Between 1888 and 1915 the word 'folk' was used in the titles of at least 27 song collections. The vast majority of these would be accompanied by piano arrangements, "which, while providing the necessary prop for a drawing-room performance and theoretically helping to coordinate the undisciplined singing of a hall full of school children, at the same time imposed the rhythmic strictness and tonal strait-jacket of the pianoforte upon a music which appears to have cared not at all for the discipline of the metronome and owed nothing to the chromatic scale employed by art musicians and composers" (Pegg, 1976, p.18).
The English Folk Song Society, with which Cecil Sharp was to become synonymous, was formed in 1898. Based in Mayfair it attracted leading musical luminaries of the day including the composers Elgar, Dvorak and Grieg. Urban culture was seen as nothing but common rowdyism and sordid vulgarity. Folksong was contrasted to the got up glitter, sham and vulgarity of music hall. It was idealised as unsophisticated, primitive, genuine -- simple beauty and common emotion.
Cecil Sharp and 20th Century Musical Taste
Cecil James Sharp was born on the 22nd of November in 1859, in Denmark Hill, South London, the eldest boy in a family of nine. His father was a slate merchant in Tooley Street, near London Bridge, who had a taste for archaeology and was referred to lovingly by Sharp as 'The General'. His mother was of Welsh and Italian extraction. He was a nervous boy who was 'highly sensitive to noises'. Fortunately his parents were fond of Handel and Mozart. "An early and vivid recollection was the sound of a brass band in the street when he was in bed; in his ecstasy he wept" (Karpeles, 1933, p.4). When he was eight he was sent to a private boarding school in Brighton. At ten he went to Uppingham, the only British public school where music was taken seriously. He entered Cambridge in 1879 at the age of 20 to read mathematics, but mostly he played piano. At Cambridge he was much shaken by Charles Kingsley's Aalton Locke, which featured the Chartist rally of 10th April 1848, and was influenced by the Christian Socialists. It was here that he first met Charles Marson and George Bernard Shaw. He was later to become a member of the Fabians.
He went to Australia in 1882, after graduating from Cambridge, and had jobs which ranged from a bank clerk to director of the Adelaide College of Music. Returning in 1892 he got a job as music master at Ludgrove, a preparatory school. The pupils were mainly being prepared for Eton and at one time he was tutor to the children of the Prince of Wales. He stuck at this job until 1910 and this educational experience was to play a major part in his future schemes, but the turning point in his life came with his discovery of folk culture in 1899.
"Sharp and his family spent that Christmas with his wife's mother, who was then living at Sandfield Cottage, Headington, about a mile east of Oxford. On Boxing Day, as he was looking out of the window, upon the snow covered drive, a strange procession appeared; eight men dressed in white, decorated with ribbons, with pads of small latten-bells strapped to their shins, carrying coloured sticks and white handkerchiefs; accompanying them was a concertina player and a man dressed as a 'fool'. Six of the men formed up in front of the house in two lines of three; the concertina player struck up an invigorating tune, the like of which Sharp had never heard before; the men jumped high into the air, then danced with springs and capers, waving and swinging the handkerchiefs that they held, one in each hand, while the bells marked the rhythm of the step... Sharp watched and listened spellbound. He felt that a new world of beauty had been revealed to him. He had not been well; his eyes had been giving him pain, and he was still wearing a shade over them, but all his ills were forgotten in his excitement" (Karpeles, 1933, p. 26).
He keenly questioned these Morris men and noted down their tunes. He followed up his interest by looking into the folk song collections of Kidson and Broadwood, both of whom were in the English Folk Song Society. By 1902 his newly found enthusiasm had already led him to produce A Book of British Song for Home and School. He saw this both as a collection of national song and a collection of 'ideal' texts and tunes. However it was only in 1903 that he actually heard his first live folk song from a gardener, John England, in Hambridge, Somerset.
"That song was 'The Seeds of Love' that was Sharp's introduction to the live folk song. He was sitting in the garden talking to Mattie Kay, and John England was singing quietly to himself as he mowed the lawn. Sharp whipped out his note-book, took down the tune, and afterwards persuaded John to give him the words. He went off and harmonised the song, and that same evening it was sung at a choir supper by Mattie Kay, Sharp accompanying. The audience was delighted; as one said, it was the first time that the song had been put into evening-dress. John was proud, but doubtful about the 'evening-dress'; there had been no piano to his song" (Karpeles, 1933, p.33).
Mattie Kay was Sharp's demonstration singer. In the revised edition published in 1967 the revealing last sentence is edited out. The following quote on Sharp's collecting is also cut out:
"I was in her wash house sitting on an inverted tub, note-book in hand, while my hostess officiated at the copper, singing the while. Several neighbours congregated at the door to watch the strange proceedings. In one of the intervals between the songs one of the women remarked, 'You be going to make a deal o' money out o' this, sir?' My embarrassment was relieved by the singer at the wash-tub, who came to my assistance and said, 'Oh! it's only 'is 'obby'. 'Ah! well,' commented the first speaker, 'we do all 'ave our vailin's' " (Karpeles, 1933, p.36).
This is a valuable illustration of the cynicism of working people to the collector -- their awareness that all was not well with the process they were witnessing.
Sharp had found his mission in life. He had long felt that English culture, since Purcell, was lacking a native idiom. All was imported. He had been looking for the roots of a national culture and now all the pieces were coming together. He used his media connections to get publicity for his ideas in the Morning Post. With other prominent collectors -- Broadwood, Baring-Gould and Marson -- he then took over the English Folk Song Society. They pooled their contacts and considerable influence to popularise these ideas. "Our traditional songs are a great instrument for sweetening and purifying our national life and for elevating and refining popular taste" (Harker, 1985, p.183).
Working class culture was to be stultified, backdated, modified, cleaned up and sold back to us as the genuine article -- the mythologising of authenticity that goes to the irrational core of bourgeois culture. This was to be done by infecting one of the great hopes of working people, education.
Song - The Perfect Vehicle of Indoctrination
Since 1840 the state had taken an increasing interest in the education of children. By about 1880 John Hullah had structured singing lessons within the strict harmonic code favoured by the established order. His Tonic Sol-fa method was taken up by schools.
"The Tonic Sol-fa system of music notation was originally intended as a means of moral training for workers, giving the illusion of unsupervised participation without threatening middle-class cultural hegemony. Although socialists used Tonic Sol-fa notation, the equation of the system with the improvement of musical aptitude within well-defined boundaries, made it hard for socialists to overcome its conservative connotations. In short, while they demanded that workers help construct a socialist culture, socialists hoped to develop workers' consciousness of this need by using methods that, by definition, could subvert their own goals" (Waters, 1990, p.128).
Chappel, another song collector, published mass edition music which allowed this propaganda to reach many people. The mass production of cheap pianos also helped this process. The result was that collected music became disfigured with harmonies. The collection of tunes, within the strict code of musical notation, reduced them to precise and limited conventions. Subtle variations of pitch and timing where lost. Some tunes when converted into written music would lose all their life.
The 'high moral tone' which was applied to censor the content of songs became part and parcel of the Victorian manufacture of childhood. The vulnerability of the young was confused with a myth of innocence. The reasonable protection of children from abuse was confused with a protection from supposedly crude language and vulgar realities: in other words from working class culture. The child was to be inculcated from the start with 'good taste'. So as young people were released from the bondage of child labour they were embraced by a new style of oppression.
I remember the relief with which we would get a break from the harsh regime of my Roman Catholic junior school to sing-along with the BBC radio once a week. I loved the little song-books, handsomely illustrated with woodcuts or pen and ink drawings, which were, like school milk, supplied free. Notably they were the only publications we were allowed to take home and keep for ourselves. I still have several copies of Singing Together, BBC Broadcasts to Schools, Rhythm and Melody from the late fifties.
At the end of the 19th century the movement for public secondary education was on the march, fuelled by an increasingly technocratic industry and the percieved need to inculcate time thrift and punctuality.
"In 1907 article 20 of the Regulations stated that the proportion of free places [to Grammar Schools] 'will ordinarily be 25 per cent of the scholars admitted' ... The scholarship Regulations of 1907 were thus a vital part of the ladder of opportunity between the elementary school and the grammar school and a step on the way towards secondary education for all" (Sanderson, 1987, p.24).
In the same year Sharp produced his key book of theory, English Folksong: Some Conclusions. The expansion of state organised mass education was exactly the vehicle of indoctrination that the national culture mongers needed. The Board of Education had already, in 1906, issued a report which suggested the school curriculum should include 50 'National or Folk Songs', "the expression in the idiom of the people of their joys and sorrows, their unafflicted patriotism." But Sharp wanted only pure folk song:
"Let the Board of Education introduce the genuine traditional song into the schools and I prophesy that within the year the slums of London and other large cities will be flooded with beautiful melodies, before which the raucous, unlovely and vulgarising music hall song will flee as flees the night mist before the rays of the morning sun" (Sharp, correspondence (V), 3.4.1906).
"We may look therefore, to the introduction of folk-songs in the elementary schools to effect an improvement in the musical taste of the people, and to refine and strengthen the national character. The study of the folk-song will also stimulate the growth of the feeling of patriotism. It cannot be said that, in the present moment, the English people are remarkable for their love or pride of country.
There are many ways of stimulating the feeling of patriotism. Education is one of them. Our system of education is, at present, too cosmopolitan; it is calculated to produce citizens of the world rather than Englishmen. And it is Englishmen, English citizens that we want.
If every English child be placed in possession of all these race products, he will know and understand his country and his countrymen far better than he does at present; and knowing and understanding them he will love them the more, realise that he is united to them by the subtle bond of blood and kinship, and become, in the highest sense of the world, a better citizen, a true patriot. The discovery of the English folk-song, therefore, places in the hands of the patriot, as well as the educationalist, an instrument of great value. The introduction of folk-songs into our schools will not only affect the musical life of England; it will tend also to arouse that love of country and pride of race, the absence of which we now deplore" (Sharp, 1907, pp.135-36).
"The subjects of the folk-ballads, that are sung in different parts of Europe, are substantially the same. Some of them have been traced to an Eastern origin, and they all appear to have been drawn from a common storehouse, the heritage, presumably, of the Aryan race" (Sharp, 1907, p. 89).
Sharp romanticised 'the common people' and criticised his bourgeois colleagues who conflated this concept with the modern masses, those who "confound the common language of the illiterate with the dialect of the unlettered, and refuse to distinguish between the instinctive music of the common people and the debased street-music of the vulgar" (Sharp, 1907, p.33).
This way of sounding radical, populist, even progressive, when you are essentially being reactionary and elitist is certainly something I recognise as the behaviour of the art establishment of my own time. For a young working class intellectual there is terrific unease that is difficult to put your finger on. At times this unease is even felt as a deep revulsion, which all too often leads to a general disillusionment with everything intellectual.
At the same time as going on about authenticity, Sharp's actual practice when collecting was far from objective. He would only record words at all if he approved of their quality. This hypocrisy was built into the typical Victorian family. Here is Mary Neal, a one time colleague of Sharp, describing her own family: "typical of the Victorian age: everything must be correct on the surface, no matter what the reality" (quoted by Judge, 1989).
Of course the quality of listening and the gesturally communicated interest of the listener will effect what people come out with and what they complete and how they perform. "Henry Burstow, who claimed to know four hundred songs, would not sing much of his repertoire, 'unfit for ladies ears' as it was, while another man had many songs he would not sing 'even to a gentleman' (Pegg, 1976, p.14).
Of course dirty songs were the first to go. They would rarely been sung in the presence of a gentleman. Jerry Silverman puts it succinctly in his introduction to his collection The Dirty Song Book, (1985):
"Where were the folksong collectors when the dirty songs were being sung? Where were the dirty songs when Cecil Sharp, Carl Sandburg and John Lomax came around? How is it that in song after song, unearthed and preserved by these and other scholars, sexual references, when they do exist, are smoothed over and couched only in the vaguest of terms? ...Did the cowboy, sailor, or chain gang convict suddenly become shy when confronted with the strange fellow with the notebook (and much later the tape-recorder)? Or did the collector himself bowdlerize, expurgate, edit -- and in short, `clean up' priceless and irretrievable examples of the natural wit, candour and insight of his informants' songs?
And yet dirty songs have always been sung. They exist in the oral tradition and are preserved through the folk process. They surface in schools, camps, military service, pubs and in so many other natural gathering places where singing plays a role that we can only infer a tacit conspiracy of silence as the reason for their almost complete non-existence in print ...when Alec Guiness led his hardy band over the River Kwai they only whistled the tune of the so-called 'Colonel Bogey's March'. Do you suppose that the British soldiers didn't have some choice lyrics to fit that stirring march? Your're damned right they did! Turn to page 92 for a poetical analysis of the anatomy of Hitler, Goering, Himmler and Goebbels and then see if you could ever be satisfied just whistling the tune again."
The music hall was the commercial side of the mediation of working class culture. It had grown from pub sing songs:
'Everyone free and easy... Do as you damn well pleasy...'
The people present each took a turn at doing a song or whatever they fancied to entertain the company. In one club people who did not sing would have to drink a pint of salty water as a forfeit. These Free 'n' Easys then gradually became formalised with professional acts and an entrance fee' and by the 1850s further formalised by moving into purpose made theatres. These proved so popular that by 1870 there were at least 415 music halls in Britain.
"Over the course of the 19th century, the 'audience', once taking it in turns to do an act, came to be 'sedated' in fixed seating and more of a spectatorate. The performer, once hardly distinguishable from the audience in the days of the free and easy in a pub, came to be a syndicated artist for a limited liability company, and a worker who needed trade union protection like any other with a capitalist employer.
The selection had to be made from the cultural stock generated by the working class. The triumph of the Empire over the Effingham Arms ensured that the view of life selected for projection (even if never totally or even deeply assimilated) would be that of the satisfied customer, rather than the angry producer -- a culture of consolation rather than confrontation!" (Penelope Summerfield in Yeo, 1981).
"There was no abrupt terminus to music hall's career but its problems were now more than those of outfacing puritans without and unionists within. By 1912 music hall was well into a crisis of over production and reduced profits" (Bailey, 1986).
By the time Sharp was writing ‘Some Conclusions’ in 1907 the music hall had passed the height of its commercial success.
"Up until now the street song has had an open field; the music taught in the schools has been hopelessly beaten in the fight for supremacy. But the mind that has been fed on the pure melody of the folk will instinctively detect the poverty-stricken tunes of the music hall, and refuse to be captivated and deluded by their superficial attractiveness. Good taste is, perhaps, largely a matter of environment; but it is also the result of careful and early training" (Sharp, 1907, p.135).
"Flood the streets, therefore, with folk-tunes and those, who now vulgarise themselves and others by singing coarse music hall songs, will soon drop them in favour of the equally attractive but far better tunes of the folk. This will make the street a pleasanter place for those who have sensitive ears, and will do incalculable good in civilising the masses" (ibid. p.137).
Dance and Mary Neal
Sharp also collected and promoted folk dances, especially The Morris. In this area he was initially led by Mary Neal, a powerful and good hearted philanthropist. She was looking for dances to introduce to her settlement club for working girls and had asked Sharp for advice. He knew little about dances at this time but told her of his experience at Headington and gave her the name of one of the dancers, William Kimber. "She promptly took a train to Oxford and a hansom cab to Headington Quarry where she found William Kimber and arranged for him and his cousin to come to London to teach dances to the girls" (Judge, 1989).
It is interesting to note that Headington was the site of prolonged and riotous resistance to an enclosure between 1850 to 1890 (Howkins, 1991)
The women taught by Kimber then began to teach classes. The fashion for the folk revival was taking off and soon they were in demand all over the country. Mary Neal had her own strong ideas about folk dance which she promoted with her Esperance Troupe. One of the most central tenets of her philosophy was that dances should be learnt, wherever possible, direct from a traditional dancer. She promoted The Morris as vigorous, joyful and easy to learn. Sharp was her colleague for the first two years but then began to realise that her ideas were leading on the one hand to a romantic excess of the 'Merrie England' sort and on the other were too close to the qualities of actual working class culture. He decided that Mary Neal threatened his project and his leadership and he must regain control. Frantically, he began to collect dances, publishing them in a series of books. In this way he built up his authority in the proper manner. Mary on the other hand believed that the dances should stay in the minds of the dancers. Sharp also began to train teachers, and from this group of 'Chelsea girls' formed a demonstration team. Using his professional educator's base and contacts, he campaigned for a professionalised approach to the teaching of Morris. He set standards and believed the dances should be preserved, recorded and taught in the 'purest form'.
At the same time, although Mary Neal was less machiavellian than Sharp, she was a better organiser and her movement was continuing to proliferate. From about 1910 Sharp attacked the performances of the Esperance as execrable, debased, hoydenish, overstrenuous, undignified, uncouth, too flamboyant and decorative, and altogether a gruesome spectacle. She on the other hand called him a pedant and their hatred for each other grew. Here is Mary Neal describing Sharp's troupe:
"The atmosphere, the movements, the general style of the dancing is not that inspired by the peasant mind, the uncultured, unlettered artist of the field; it is rather the adaptation of this by the cultured musician."
She contrasted this with a traditional performance at Bampton:
"The men danced in a sort of trance, in a mood inarticulate, unselfconscious; each man had his own way with the steps, no two dancing precisely alike, and yet the same mood was so heavy upon all that the general effect was harmonious and curiously impressive" (Judge, 1989, quoting from The Observer 3.12.1911).
On another occasion Neal pointed out the difference in class between her dancers and Sharp's who she thought demonstrated the inability of "the average young lady or gentleman to get near to the spirit of the dance." Her own dancers, "working lads and lasses, from town and country," did more closely achieve this spirit.
"Like the Victorian and Edwardian folk-song collectors, who selected songs according to quite personal and unscientific standards, the early chroniclers of country dance chose their material in a way which, while not totally arbitrary, did not reflect the taste of the people they collected from" (Pegg, 1976, p.108).
The war interrupted activity and afterwards the Esperance Club was never reformed, perhaps because Neal had realised, in a devastating moment, that The Morris was essentially a male ceremonial. However Sharp's institutionalised position had gained ascendancy and survived the war.
Both Neal and Sharp misunderstood and appropriated the Morris. But Sharp's motives were more elevated and his understanding of the function of good taste in the task of mediation more thorough. His was the exemplary 'rational' approach of the dominant culture. Neal, an active supporter of women's suffrage, perhaps understood things too much from the other side of the coin.
But in the years before the War, Sharp was already, with the help of his influential friends, pulling most of the strings in the folk song and dance movement. The president of the English Folk Dance Society was now a friend of his from Australia, a Lady Mary Trefusis, who was 'Woman of the Bedchamber to Queen Mary' and by the end of 1913 Sharp could announce that:
"'Speaking from memory, I should say that the majority of our certificate holders are elementary school teachers!' Well before the State recognition which followed the end of the war, Sharp had built up his folk-dance cadre, and had permeated the plutocratic part of the movement with Webbian efficiency" (Harker, 1982).
By 1913 Sharp had to be persuaded to rejoin the Fabians, after their alliance with the Labour Party, by Beatrice Webb. "It was felt we had to take some part in the organisation of the Labour Party, as perhaps the most potent instrument for permeating working class opinion" (Sharp correspondence, 7. 5. 1913).
After 1917 the time was ripe for turning this bourgeois fad with folk into a "restoration of heritage" to "the common herd." The composer Vaughan Williams explains:
"Country people from whom we get our songs are only a small part of our population -- why should their music be essentially our national music? Is it not because it is only there... we can find music in its most primitive state and this is the reason, is it not, why we go to them to find out where our national music really is?" (Harker, 1985, p.209).
This was seen as the embryo of all national culture, an embryo the working class had abandoned and which it was up to the native composers of the bourgeoisie, as natural leaders of the people, to save and develop. By the end of his life Sharp had, with a prodigious expenditure of energy, collected some 3000 songs in Britain and 1500 in the USA. It is interesting to note Sharp writing in 1916 describing John Lomax's Cowboy Songs and other Frontier Ballads as "a volume which contains nothing but the dregs of literature and the garbage of musical phrase" (Sharp, letter to Mrs Storrow, 6. 12. 1916).
Around 1908 Percy Grainger had collected songs in Lincolnshire with a wax cylinder Edison Bell Phonograph. He repeatedly studied his recordings and began to come to conclusions which challenged the 'folk song consensus'. He noticed the importance of style and also variations in the singers' use of harmonic scales which, if proven, would have meant that "the conventional system of modal classification would have to be scrapped, and the folk-song collections would be seen as no more than artful re-creations for a middle-class public" (Bob Pegg, 1976, p.21).
Grainger's observations were published in the Folk Song Society's Journal in 1908. Grainger, who had some extreme right wing ideas, dropped the subject and nobody followed up his work. In fact machine recording was not used extensively for collecting until the work of the BBC in the 1950s. Even then the change to sound recording has been painfully slow. In 1976 Bob Pegg was heard to remark that there was still a complete lack of recorded music from whole areas of the Midlands and the North. These heavily industrialised areas would have promised a rich continuity of rural folk to urban song.
The explosion of electronic rock music and youth cults with their large markets overtook the slow moving folk scene. Music was increasingly being produced for the recording. The record was the main object of music making. With the advent of personal computers in the eighties studio quality recording became possible in the garage of ever Tom, Dick and Harriet. British rock music largely side-stepped the pollution and censoring of our indigenous tradition and took much of its influence from across the Atlantic -- yet there is probably more native influence and continuity with traditional urban musics in our contemporary rock than is generally known.
Now it is mainly commercial considerations and power struggles within the vast pop music industry that limit what rises to public attention through commercial success, although the good taste of the media still has its crucial filtering effect. Also the popular cultural taste that informs this market was deeply affected by those processes and values that Sharp brought to such resounding maturity.
In the bleak cultural atmosphere of the London suburbs the extraordinary and subtly manipulative ritual of the BBC broadcasts to schools was my only contact with a rich tradition of working class song. Before the first World War the villages had been alive with song. People would sing at work, after work in a pub, at church on Sunday, on charabanc trips: life was full of song. In the suburbs of the fifties the tradition had often been completely broken. My Grandpa Sid, away up in Nottingham, had played violin in the church orchestra but never at home when I was there. My own attempt to restart was met with a harsh "Pity you can't sing", a judgement which must have been based on the success of the Sol-fa scale and the general message that the working class people who didn't pick up these conventions quickly, or who intuitively resisted them, 'couldn't sing'. Singing was considered a gift, you either had it or you didn't. It was a revelation to me when, as a teenager, I visited folk clubs in cellars and barges and heard all kinds of rough hewn and beautiful voices, whose value was all expression and little to do with the rigid adherence to a convention of notes. In spite of this impression the post-war folk revival was still under the sway of Sharp's ideas in many ways.
One area in which the tradition survived and thrived in its oral form was as erotic material. It was in the boys' showers in school that I learnt all the rude and rousing 'rugby' songs, material that the prudish collectors had avoided but which are, by almost any definition, folk songs (see Bob Pegg, Folk, 1976, for a good chapter on this).
Much later I had the relaxed, appreciative and uncritical attention of my son who would beg me to sing Beatles songs to him until he fell asleep. In this way I did gradually relearn to sing and realised the pain that my Granny Daisy's sharp retort all those years ago had caused. Pain that had actually disabled me from singing. Now I can see, writing this, that this was a point at which this aspect of class oppression bit into me -- a concentrated heritage of Sharp's repression. I can also appreciate the hurt it had caused Daisy in reducing her Lincolnshire tradition to a wooden national stereotype which was to be passively consumed from the radio.
Does this explain why the resurgence of English working class music via rock 'n' roll was primarily influenced by Afro-American Rhythm 'n' Blues? The fracture of our tradition had been so severe that it was simply unavailable. It does show the persistence of working class culture that it can arise like a phoenix by grafting onto whatever is available.
It also reminds me of how rock music was attacked when I was a youth and how much my own parents had been convinced that these values were correct and became agents of the oppression. No place was safe from the onslaught, except perhaps late night R&B clubs which I occupied like some psychic haven. Snobbish middle class people can still occasionally be heard to reiterate the myth that there is only one type of 'good' music. From the time of William Morris good music was assumed to 'elevate the passions and pave the way for social harmony'. Good music promoted morality whilst 'bad' music was a force that 'demoralised'. In my youth I was told not to buy those pop records because they wouldn't last more than a few weeks. Why didn't I buy some serious music that had stood the test of time? Rock music was even seen as sexually immoral and culturally bankrupt.
This experience will be familiar to most of my generation. What is remarkable is that these myths, generated before the turn of the century, were still going strong sixty or seventy years later and had been internalised by working people like my parents. It shows how successful the mediators were in their undermining of working class culture and autonomy. How thoroughly they estranged us from our history.
This process by which people's culture is cleaned up, as it is collected or studied, is probably universal to dominant cultures, as suggested by this quote from a South African journal:
"The study of 'freedom songs' has taken a back seat in academic circles. Ethnomusicologists such as the Tracys have collected hundreds of songs but amongst their collections one can't find 'freedom songs'. Social historians have studied a wide variety of topics but hardly ever political songs. The History Workshop has, to my knowledge, only presented two papers which touch on the topic" (Staffrider, 1989, p.83).
In spite of all this rock and pop music have given expression to an urban culture, sometimes more directly than at others. This was quickly invaded and then channeled by market forces. The superprofits to be made from this market shouted down the fey BBC version of Sharp's national music. If you were a Ted, Mod, Hippy, Punk or Raver who was part of the scene that suddenly found itself leading the market, you experienced a strange and exciting sense of power. For an enchanted moment you were there directing market forces rather than simply being a victim of them. It is an experience that demonstrates that when working class culture chooses autonomously, the market has to fall over itself to keep up and recuperate that autonomy. This recuperation, which is about to devour the rave scene (see Time Out July 14-21 '93, p.14), is a potent form of oppression but we are also aware that a consensual working class culture has an undeniable power and at the end of the day the market system is dependent on us rather than we on it.
From the Ruins...
At some point in the sixties the bubble that Sharp helped to create burst:
"Around that same time a good many of us were getting into folk music. And folk music, through no active fault of its own, fooled us into certain sympathies and nostalgic alliances with the so-called traditional past. The Thirties. The Highways and Open Roads. The Big West, The Southern Mountains. The Blues, Labour Unions, Childe Ballads. All of which left their mark, even on this record. Almost as if Chuck Berry and Batman had really nothing to do with who we were and Uncle Dave Macon or Horton Barker could do a better job of telling us. But the paradox was implicit: what the hell were rebels doing looking around for roots? And how long would people with contemporary poetic sensibilities be content to sing archaic material for an immediate purpose? Especially when their government was in the habit of wrenching them away from their growth to train them as two year technicians in a nuclear army.
The underground reaction, the reaction in the cellars of what you might call everybody's own MacDougal street, was topical and quick" (Farina, 1965).
The trouble was that most of us had already become consumers, reduced to singing along with the record.
Bob Pegg defines folk music by hanging it onto the thread of orality, but perhaps the key project for a real people's culture is to take on the literary; on our own terms; with our own materials. In the space of a generation or two an immense wealth of completely new song has accumulated. This includes much 'golden oldie' material that is without much doubt working class culture. In forty five years I know (1993) what must be many hundreds of excellent tunes and fragments of lyrics.
Then recently, like a rebound from the farthest eastern reaches of rock's sphere of influence came Karaoke. The increasing passivity that technology seemed to exert is inverted. People can perform songs from this new heritage in their own style or as a caricature of the original, sometimes even adding their own words. It allows people to develop the confidence to stand up in front of a crowd and express something and, in effect, lead. Another important thing is that people can read the lyrics for the first time. Karaoke has given us back the lyrics as literature. The words in the original records were not always clear. It can be surprising what comes up on the Karaoke screen. (Particularly surprising if the first time you see them is whilst you are performing!) This allows a different level of assessment of the song's content to occur which may have as yet unknown repercussions, apart from an increase in sales of song-books.
There was another unsatisfactory thing about commercial rock and pop. That was the glamorisation of the rock star. This idealisation created an audience of passive consumers. Karaoke allows everyone to be the lead singer. To get the attention which makes performing so thrilling. To stop living vicariously and do it.
Shake it up baby now...