Folk: Repression and Revival of English rural culture

Notes on reading Georgina Boyes The Imagined Village: culture, ideology and the English folk revival, Manchester U.P. 1993

Before capitalism and before even the development of cities people lived, and still do, in what Claude Levi Strauss has usefully typified as myth-based societies (Levi Strauss 1978). Culture is orally transmitted and embedded within daily life. The stories and images generated in myth creation interconnect different aspects of life providing meaning and shared understanding to aspects of life which might otherwise be too abstract or complex to be shared or celebrated in common. The heritage of this culture has become known as 'traditional' or folk culture.

A 'Folk Revival' of the early C20th set a warped frame for our perception of this oral tradition which was even effective when the movement became driven from below in the Fifties and Sixties. The Revival leaders, Cecil Sharp and Ralph Vaughan Williams and then, in the fifties A.L.Lloyd, organised a set of institutions which created the dissemination of our image of native English culture in classic hegemonic fashion. The English Folk Dance and Song Society, the Morris Ring and The Folklore Society presided over a variety of folk and dance clubs, mummers teams and so on. Later in the 1950s the Workers Music Association hardly challenged these models of acceptable working class culture (see Boyes 1993).

The model was of songs, dances and rituals handed down from a distant and idealised past. This material had to be handed down intact and could not be the product of contemporary invention or pastiche. In contrast the contemporary Music Hall songs were castigated as vulgar and worthless.

"The cardinal premise in the survival theory was, therefore, a definition of the Folk as manifesting a comprehensive absence of creativity"(ibid p.12).

The early C20th revival was influenced by Romanticism and its medieval myths of a rural 'Merrie England' in which everyone was content in their class roles, and was preceded by a widespread enthusiasm for the study of 'Popular Antiquities'. It was also influenced by the development of Darwinian anthropology which evoked a gradual rise or evolution of 'the savage' to the heights of civilisation. This was used to prove the superiority of the Aryan race and the inferiority of women within a broader context of a justification for the excessaaes of imperialism.

According to Georgina Boyes the early revival was motivated by the fear that:

"The sheer weight of working class numbers, combined with their inherited physical and moral weaknesses would inexorably lead to the political and cultural obliteration of the race, the nation, the empire and the social structures that supported them" (ibid p.24).

By the early C19th communal and seasonal customs, which had until then been seen as useful to a rural economy, came to be suppressed by a new code of decency and decorum. These often rowdy ceremonies were replaced with an increasingly formalised and constructed royal, civic, military and religious pageantry.

"Women were especially vulnerable to such social pressure and from the 1820s and 1830s their public participation in customary performances was greatly reduced" (ibid p.).

After the initial period of suppression had created a nostalgic longing, there then followed a period in which folk pageants, cleansed of vulgar elements, were presented as a revival of 'Merrie England' in the grounds of the local manor house.

Astute politically minded men saw the potential of Folk Revival as a source of hegemony in a new modern culture of Nationalism. In the early C20th Cecil Sharp followed the pattern set by the revival pageant except that he used modern channels of social control to disseminate his representations; first through the burgeoning school system and later through Lord Reith's BBC. Clearly the power of these hegemonic institutions was many times greater than that of the Manorial pageant.

Songs were cleaned up in terms of grammar, scales, techniques of delivery, and, of course, content was bowdlerised. Revival style folk dancing became a part of village fetes and national celebrations across England.

The process still held a danger that working class people might take control of the movement and turn it from 'revival' to celebration. To combat any such danger Sharp made sure that:

"Throughout, the English Folk Dance Society, the Folk Revival was organised, staffed, trained and recruited among the middle classes" (ibid p.107). Even then the process was not uncontested. It was in fact a woman, Mary Neal who had initially started folk dance revival. She was a good organiser but her connections with the suffragette movement, politics to the left of Sharp's Fabians and use of working class dancers led to her being eclipsed by the machiavellian Sharp (Judge 1989).

Although things changed after the 2ndWW and the success of the Revivals representations was diluted it still colours and distorts our view of British native oral tradition and alienates working class people from our own cultural heritage.