Article MT053

England, whose England?

Class, gender and national identity in the 20th century folklore revival


This paper was originally written for a staff seminar at the University of Northumbria.  Many of those present were not very well informed about the past, or present, state of the folk song and dance movement.  So, the paper contains much information already familiar to readers of this publication.  Most of that material has been left in to preserve the coherence of the argument, such as it is.  The paper was intended to be provocative, and it therefore made some rather risky assertions.  These have also been retained, in the hope that they will stimulate challenges from readers who have information not available to me, or who see things differently.

1.  Overview of a problem area

In 1999 the Guardian marked the appearance of a new biography of Enoch Powell with a discussion between two MPs.  One was elderly, right-wing, male and white, the other young, left-wing, female and black.  The early exchanges were predictable.  Then, the young black MP said she particularly resented Powell's assertion that however long immigrants lived here, they could never become British.  Her colleague observed that this was a misquotation - Powell actually said they could never become English.  She replied "Well, that's the same thing, isn't it?", and the discussion moved on.  I boggled.  With a Scottish Parliament, a Welsh Assembly, and devolution under way in Northern Ireland, how could any MP claim 'English' and 'British' were the same?  This suggested a thought-experiment, which I'd like you to participate in. 

Imagine a young man, or woman, born and educated in London.  He/she leaves school to work for a large corporation, and eventually gets transferred to their Edinburgh office.  He or she becomes fascinated by all things Scottish, and eagerly embraces the local culture.  Eventually, a colleague says: "Listen - you can eat the haggis and drink the whisky, wear the tartan and dance the strathspey, play the bagpipes and learn the works of Burns by heart - but for all that, you'll never be a Scot."

I think most of us would understand.  The English may sometimes resent the abrasive manner in which some Scots assert their national identity.  But few of us would deny that the Scots have a national identity, or contest their right to assert it.  However, the question of whether an English national identity exists - and how it should be asserted - is far more controversial.

Now imagine the experiment in reverse.  A young person from Aberdeen, Armagh or Aberystwyth, moves to London, and wishes to immerse him or herself in English culture.  Where would they find the local equivalent of a Burns supper, a St Patrick's night ceilidh, or an Eisteddfodd?  Would any of their English colleagues know - or care?  What might we recommend?  A Test match at Lords?  The last night of the Proms?  The Notting Hill Carnival?  Where does the essence of Englishness reside? 

This question has been debated for decades.  Many books (and TV programmes) have described journeys in search of England.  Not looking at England, like Celia Fiennes, or William Cobbett, but looking for an England that's lost, or vanishing.  This genre flourished between the wars, with books like J V Morton's In Search of England, J B Priestley's English Journey, and J G MacDonnell's England, their England.  More recently, Beryl Bainbridge retraced Priestley's footsteps on television in the '80s, and Bill Bryson's Notes from a Small Island became a '90s best-seller.  Jeremy Paxman's 1999 book, The English has also attracted considerable attention.  However, the most celebrated example of the in-search-of-England genre still remains George Orwell's, "England, your England" - a mental journey through scenes witnessed during his years on the road, from which John Major once borrowed a few memorable phrases.

Most of these works have three phases.  First comes a paradox - Englishness is nowhere and everywhere, constantly changing, yet essentially the same.  Then we get a series of picaresque adventures, all illustrating aspects of the English identity, while hinting that its survival is threatened.  Finally, there's a revelation, which transcends - yet never resolves - the initial paradox.  Englishness is experienced, but not explained.  (Some examples are quoted below in the Appendix.)

Of course, all national identities are problematic.  But Englishness seems to be particularly anomalous.  (For example, at sporting contests, the Scots sing Flower of Scotland, and the Welsh, Land of my Fathers, but we use God Save the Queen - theoretically the anthem of all the British nations.) Over the past few months, the puzzles and paradoxes of Englishness have attracted increasing attention from academics and journalists.  Bernard Crick discussed 'The English Problem: National Identity and Citizenship', in his George Orwell Memorial Lecture in November 1999.  'What's Wrong With England?' was the theme of an issue of the Spectator in 1 April 2000.  Even fROOTS (the publication formerly known as Folk Roots) gave it an airing in the editorial column of its April 2000 issue.  I want to suggest that this muddle over our national identity is closely connected with the unusual (perhaps unique) attitude which we take towards our national culture.

In most towns and cities around the world, three cultures coexist more or less amicably.  There's international high culture, featuring Mozart, Michaelangelo and Shakespeare - which goes with diamonds and dinner jackets, champagne and smoked salmon.  There's international pop culture, centred on Hollywood, Tin Pan Alley, and satellite TV - which goes with tee-shirts and trainers, Coca-Cola and hamburgers.  And alongside them, there's a distinctive indigenous culture, celebrated in local festivities, and exported as an advertisement for the nation.  It has an official place in the school curriculum, and a protected niche on the broadcasting networks, and it is encouraged (and subsidised) by the government.  Everywhere except England. 

Here's an instance.  A few years ago the Carlisle Sword Dancers were invited to represent England at an international folk-dance festival in Toronto.  They booked their annual leave for that week, rehearsed their showpieces in their spare time, paid their own way to Canada, strutted their stuff, and socialised with the other artistes.  By the end of the festival, they realised that "we were the only ones who had day jobs."

Now I'm not requesting lavish state funding for English traditional music and dance - though a fraction of the money that currently goes to opera and ballet would help.  I'm just suggesting that England is anomalous.  Most other nations promote their traditions far more vigorously.  Not out of sentimentality, but because they expect significant political and economic returns from it.  But perhaps we are the only ones in step? 

A number of scholars seem to think so.  In 1983, a collection of essays, co-ordinated by the historian Eric Hobsbawm, discussed the 'invention of tradition' in various contexts.  This concept was further explored in Patrick Wright's On Living in an Old Country, and Rob Colls' and Philip Dodd's Englishness, Politics and Culture.  Hobsbawm's analysis also informs Linda Colley's Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707-1837.  The double-entendre in her subtitle - forging the nation - makes the point neatly.  The thesis that ruling elites concoct synthetic traditions, and exploit them as instruments of social control, is now widely accepted in England.  So, attempts to celebrate our national traditions are often viewed with suspicion.  Recent conflicts in eastern Europe have given this critique a new edge.  Michael Ignatieff asserts that

Nationalists are supremely sentimental.  Kitsch is the natural aesthetic of an ethnic 'cleanser'.  There is no killer on either side of the checkpoints who will not pause, between firing at his enemies, to sing a nostalgic song, or even recite the lines of some ethnic epic. 
From this viewpoint, massed dancing in national costume looks suspiciously like paramilitary drill, while a folk festival begins to resemble a Nuremberg rally. 

Some observers also reject cultural nationalism on the grounds that other loyalties have stronger claims on us.  One obvious candidate is religion.  (After all, St Paul wrote that in Christ, there is "neither Greek nor Jew").  But for centuries, warring tribes who were nominally of the same faith have used theological differences to sanctify their antagonism.  Even today, where strong religious convictions survive, they're often yoked to national grievances (as in Ireland).  Meanwhile, the secular majority find other outlets for the emotions once channelled into sectarianism and nationalism.

For some, the vacuum is filled by class solidarity - Marxists assert that the proletariat has no country and its anthem is The Internationale.  Meanwhile, feminists often reject patriotism because of its association with patriarchy, arguing that women of different nations have more in common with each other than with their male fellow-citizens.  And many people identify most strongly with their age-group.  (At the trial following a big anti-Vietnam war riot in Chicago, one defendant, when asked his nationality, declared "I am a citizen of Woodstock Nation" to applause from the gallery.)

It's worth noting that these alternative loyalties have important economic implications.  Large areas of cultural production, and huge sectors of the market in consumer goods, function as they do because their target audiences are differentiated by gender, class, or age-group, rather than by nation.  These differences are continually reinforced in advertising, and by the media at large.  In this new age of global capitalism, post-nationalist loyalties to class, gender, or generation offer a direct challenge to the 'traditional' identification with the motherland.  So, perhaps all national identities are doomed, and the English are simply the first at the funeral?

Nevertheless, for the past century, a few enthusiasts have struggled to reconnect the English with their past through the folklore revival.  Its history may throw fresh light on our problem.

2.  A Case Study: National Identity and the Folklore Revival

The English folk-lore revival had a long prehistory, but it really took off between 1890 and 1914, as chilly breezes were rippling the surface of imperial complacency.  Kipling's Jubilee poem Recessional foretold the retreat from Empire (Lo!  all our pomp of yesterday / Is one with Nineveh and Tyre).  More prosaic commentators argued that Britain's industrial and military strength would soon be surpassed by Germany and the USA.  The Oscar Wilde scandal confirmed current apprehensions about moral decadence among the elite.  And the physical unfitness of many recruits for the Boer war underlined widespread claims that the underfed, and under-exercised, masses were also degenerating.  These fears were amplified in H G Wells' 1895 best-seller, The Time Machine, set in a remote future where humanity had divided into two separate species.  The brutish, stunted Morlocks tended their underground machines, while the decorative but defenceless Eloi danced and sang in their wilting Arcadia, evoking a recurring nightmare of physical and moral decline.

Many feared the apocalypse would come sooner than Wells predicted.  Early 20th century Britain seemed to be falling apart.  Clashes between Irish Nationalists and their opponents threatened to escalate into civil war.  As organised labour grew more assertive, troops were mobilised, and strikers fired upon.  The gunfight between soldiers and anarchists in London's Sidney Street encouraged hopes (or fears) of imminent revolution.  Meanwhile, gender conflict intensified, as peaceful suffragists were upstaged by the violent (and occasionally lethal) activities of the militants.  Against this background of civil strife, and fears of national decline, a few idealists sought to restore the nation's spiritual health through music.

In the 19th century, England was called "a land without music" - or at least, without music of its own.  'Serious' music was dominated by Germany, thanks to Beethoven, Brahms, & co.  Popular music was infiltrated by Americana - from Stephen Foster to the Kentucky Minstrels.  Other European nations - including the Scots, the Welsh and the Irish - cherished and publicised their own musical traditions.  The English did not.  (Cynics claimed this was because they had none worth cherishing.) Nevertheless, in the 1890s, enthusiasts began seeking out and propagating traditional English music.  By 1914, folk melodies were influencing English 'art music', while folk songs and dances had begun to gain a foothold in the school curriculum.

Several of these pioneers had an almost religious belief in the power of folk music to reconnect the people with their past, and with each other.  Paternalists like Sir Hubert Parry, had a vision of enlightened leaders guiding the masses into a harmonious future.  Radicals, like Mary Neal, dreamed of an awakened populace marching to claim its rights.  But they agreed that music was the key to regeneration.  Neal wrote, in 1913:

" I am now more than ever sure that this folk music has got some wonderful life-giving force in it for the 'healing of nations' ..."

3.  The English Folk Revival: origins and consequences


The most prominent figure in this revival was Cecil James Sharp.  Born in 1859, the son of a London slate merchant, Sharp left Cambridge with a poor degree (having spent too much time on music and rowing).  Dispatched to Australia with £10 in his pocket, he worked as a lawyer's clerk, became deputy organist at Adelaide Cathedral, and composed music for amateur theatricals and concerts.  After ten years exile, he returned to England, married Constance Birch, and joined the Fabian Society.  He managed to earn his living as a music teacher, despite being handicapped by severe asthma, and an eye complaint which sometimes left him almost blind.  He published some original compositions, but had no major successes.

In 1899, Sharp's family spent Christmas with his wife's mother, at Headington, near Oxford.  On Boxing day a group of dancers performed in their drive.  Sharp asked the team's musician, William Kimber, to play the tunes again, noted them down, and paid him for his trouble.  The melodies noted and re-harmonised by Sharp included Country Gardens.  This eventually became a mega-hit when arranged by Percy Grainger, though neither Kimber nor Sharp profited directly from it. 

Kimber was born in 1872.  He was a bricklayer from the village of Headington Quarry, which provided Oxford with stone, and stonemasons, for generations.  His father and grandfather had formerly danced in the village's morris team (which had virtually ceased performing after the 1887 Jubilee).  That Christmas, Kimber and some friends revived it.  As he explained in a subsequent interview, most of the dancers normally worked in the building trade, but unusually bad weather "froze us all out."  So, they decided to dance on Boxing Day and "see if we can't get a bob or two."  Kimber described the half-sovereign that Sharp gave him as "a Godsend."

Sharp incorporated some of Kimber's tunes into a suite for strings, but paid no further attention to the dances.  Then, in September 1903, he visited a musical friend from his Adelaide days.  Charles Marson was now the perpetual curate of Hambridge in Somerset, a Christian Socialist, and a trial to the local bishop.  It was from Marson's gardener, appropriately named John England, that Sharp noted down The Seeds of Love the first of over 300 Somerset folk songs he collected and published. 

Many of Sharp's informants also sang parlour ballads, and music hall ditties, but he ignored these.  He collected only folk songs, which had no identifiable author, and had been handed down from mouth to ear for generations.  Sharp published numerous settings of these songs, harmonising them for piano accompaniment, and bowdlerising the texts.  (Both changes were necessary to make them acceptable in state schools, and polite parlours - though Sharp preserved the originals in manuscript.) His songbooks made little money, but attracted some admirers - including Mary Neal.

Neal, the daughter of a Birmingham button-maker, was born in 1860 and christened Clara Sophia.  In her youth, she was appalled by the poverty and injustice surrounding her affluent home, and became an active supporter of trade unionism and women's suffrage.  In 1888 she joined The Sisters of the People - a team of voluntary social workers started by the Wesleyan Methodists at their West London Mission - taking the name 'Sister Mary'.  In 1905, while organising a Christmas entertainment at a social club for working girls, she contacted Sharp, seeking some traditional dances to augment the folksongs from his book.

Sharp gave her Kimber's address, and Neal paid Kimber to come to London and teach the girls Morris dancing.  The Christmas show was a tremendous success.  Neal's girls were invited to dance again in London, and further afield - notably at the annual Shakespeare Festival at Stratford.  Neal's ablest pupils, like Florrie Warren, were much in demand as dance teachers at other girls (and boy's) clubs, and the revival appeared to be flourishing.  But in 1909 a bitter row broke out between Neal and Sharp, with Kimber balanced uncomfortably between them. 

Sharp claimed that Neal was betraying the tradition, and exposing the revival to ridicule by turning the dances into "a romp."  Neal accused Sharp of embalming the dances as museum pieces, stifling their spontaneity and liveliness with his pedantry.  Neal wanted mass participation, as quickly as possible.  Sharp argued that letting novices teach dances which they themselves had only just learned would lower performance standards.  He recruited some athletic young men and women from universities and teacher training colleges, who were willing to learn the dances thoroughly before performing in public.  With their help, he recaptured the Stratford festival from Neal and her girls.

Neal continued to criticise Sharp's approach, and queried the accuracy of his collecting.  In response, Sharp and his disciples extended their fieldwork into a nationwide search.  Sharp himself devoted much time to the sword dances of Yorkshire, Northumberland and Durham.  (He was invited to judge rapper dance competitions in Newcastle several times.) By 1914, he was established as England's leading authority on traditional dance and song.  Neal, though still battling, was a marginal figure.

Today, socialist critics accuse Sharp of being an elitist who thought folk-music was too precious to be entrusted to 'the people'.  And feminist critics see him as a misogynist, who couldn't bear to see a woman taking a leading role in 'his' movement.  Neither accusation can be dismissed lightly - but the published sources suggest that the 'quality control' dispute was sufficient in itself to cause the split.  This clash of values still divides the revival.  But, like other controversies, it was sidelined in 1914.

After war broke out, Neal undertook welfare work in London.  Sharp - in his fifties, and in poor health - was unfit for military service, but he showed the flag in the USA, lecturing on English folklore at colleges, and collecting ballads in the Appalachian mountains.  William Kimber was in uniform, but survived unscathed.  His son (another William) was seriously wounded.  The seven young men of Sharp's display team all enlisted.  Four were killed, and another grievously injured.  One remained in the RAF as a career officer, and the last - Douglas Kennedy - succeeded Sharp as Director of the Folk Dance Society (later, the English Folk Dance and Song Society).


The war left gaps in many other folk-dance teams.  Survivors like Kimber handed on their traditions to the next generation, but such links with the past were fragile.  Young dance groups often disbanded after a few years, as members got married, or left the area.  Shifting patterns of employment, and new forms of mass entertainment, were destroying village communities and their traditional cultures.  Singing in pubs continued, but the songs were likely to come from the music-hall, the gramophone, or the radio, rather than the folk memory.

After 1918, Neal abandoned the revival.  Sharp, despite poor health, and shortage of funds, remained its dominant figure.  After his death in 1924, a memorial appeal funded the building of Cecil Sharp House, a permanent headquarters for the Folk Dance and Song Society.  (Kimber himself laid the foundation stone - assisted by Sharp's secretary and biographer, Maude Karpeles.) Sharp's successors continued to stress the importance of authenticity and precision, in performance and teaching.  This helped to preserve the tradition, but it also handicapped attempts to popularise it.  The revival never became the mass movement Neal had envisaged.  It remained a recreational activity for the art-crafty wing of the intelligensia.  One observer noted:

The places where Morris and Country dancing is spontaneously practised are probably not very numerous, and if they are fewer than they were, say, a hundred years ago, no conscious 'movement' from the towns is going to increase their number among rustics who have begun to prefer the foxtrot and the Charleston in village halls to the hey and the jig on the village green.
However, one dissident group attempted to widen the appeal of traditional dance - though in a manner that would now be regarded as politically incorrect. 

Even before 1914, the membership of the folk dance movement had been predominantly female.  (Many women PE teachers regarded folk-dancing as a valuable form of exercise for girls).  Wartime casualties left the revival with an even heavier gender imbalance.  In social dancing, women often partnered each other for lack of men.  More controversially, female teams often performed the 'masculine' morris and sword dances.  Eventually, a group of young male dancers who found this situation uncongenial launched their own organisation.  The catalyst for this reaction - though he played no direct part in setting up the organisation itself - was Rolf Gardiner.

Gardiner was English on his father's side, with Scandinavian, Austro-Hungarian and Jewish forebears on his mother's.  Born 1902, he was too young for the war, and studied modern and mediaeval languages at Cambridge, before taking up farming in Dorset.  An early advocate of organic agriculture, and a founder of the Soil Association, Gardiner was also a gifted dancer and singer, who believed passionately in the healing power of music.  (The conductor John Eliot Gardiner is his son).  Gardiner's advocacy of the Morris dance as a mystic ritual, reuniting the soul of man with the spirit of the earth, was strongly endorsed by his hero, D H Lawrence.  More surprisingly, Gardiner also convinced Mary Neal.  In 1924, she wrote:

I realised in a devastating moment, that these dances were the remains of a purely masculine ceremonial, and that they represented a ritual of discipline for war and sex expression ...  I knew then, for the first time, that by putting women on to this masculine rhythm I had quite innocently and ignorantly broken a law of cosmic ritual and stirred up disharmony ...
Sir James Frazer and his Golden Bough have a lot to answer for! 

Folklorists generally divide traditional dances into two categories - social and ceremonial.  Social dances are performed at any time of year, usually by equal numbers of men and women, in ordinary dress.  Ceremonial dances are seasonal (sometimes confined to a specific day), often require elaborate costumes, and are frequently performed by single-gender groups.  Frazer's followers believed that surviving ceremonial dances were remnants of a pagan fertility cult.  The village youths performed their distinctively masculine dances for the pleasure of the Earth-Mother, while the village maidens did their distinctively feminine dances to delight the Sky-Father.  Any transgression of this gender division was an interference with the natural order, and a threat to the success of the harvest. 

Academic folklorists like Ronald Hutton now dismiss this as romantic piffle, for which there is no solid evidence.  Perhaps it might be safer, then, to bracket these dance traditions with more familiar forms of single-gender sociability - like stag nights and hen parties, or Sunday morning football leagues, and Wednesday night aerobics classes.  Nevertheless, in small communities where old traditions do survive, some local people still claim that if the dance isn't done right, the crops don't thrive.  Dismiss this story if you wish - but Gardiner and his associates seem to have swallowed it whole.  So for them, women dancing the morris was blasphemy.

Their federation of dance teams - the Morris Ring - was (and remains) an all-male organisation, often accused of machismo and misogyny.  Nevertheless, the gusto which Gardiner and his associates injected into the revival did succeed in dispersing some of the prissiness associated with Sharp's approach.  Gardiner, however, was as autocratic as Sharp - in the 'twenties he even flirted with Fascism, though he backed off when Hitler's agenda became apparent.  And some of his followers were (and still are) rigidly dogmatic in their approach to preserving their version of the tradition.  So, as Europe staggered towards another conflict, England's folklorists continued bickering, until air raid sirens drowned the debate.


War, and post war austerity, stalled the revival again, though the EFDSS and the Morris Ring struggled to keep it going.  As austerity gave way to affluence, there were brief spasms of popularity for various types of folk-based music, from the square-dance fad of the early '50s, through the skiffle craze, the political folk-drama of Ewan MacColl and Joan Littlewood, the folk-protest songs of the Dylan era ...  all the way to Riverdance, and the recent boom in new-age Celtic Muzak.

None of these crazes made a secure cultural base for traditional music of any sort - certainly not for English traditional music.  Many folksong clubs, and folk-dance groups, appeared, flourished for a while, and folded.  Specialist record labels and little magazines came and went.  Interesting radio programmes emerged, then disappeared, or got dumbed down.  This was the 'folk scene' I stumbled into in 1960, and have been stumbling along with ever since.  It was - and on the whole, still is - a small-scale, low-key affair, mostly run by amateurs, with indifferent financial success.

Meanwhile, despite Sharp's belief that he had documented the last generation of folk singers and dancers, a few village performers kept their traditions alive in their local communities.  People like Jim Phillips in Headington, Billy Pigg in Northumberland, Jacky Berisford in Wharfedale, and the Copper family in Sussex, still preserved their cultural heritage in their own way, often maintaining a slightly ironic detachment from the polite purists of the EFDSS, and from the rowdy radicals of the folk-clubs.

Today, English folk music remains a minority interest, often scorned by the cultural establishment.  (An attitude summed up by the famous legend that Sir Thomas Beecham advised "try everything once, except incest and folk-dancing" - to which a critic allegedly replied "what's so bad about incest?")  English folk music has little exposure on the broadcast media - far less than Irish traditional music gets on RTE, or Scottish traditional music on BBC Scotland.  It has no protected place in the school curriculum.  Some regional arts agencies, like Folkworks in the North-East, are striving to improve the situation, but England still has no national centre of status and influence comparable to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, or the School of Scottish Studies in Edinburgh.  The majority of the English public ignore or reject 'folk' music of any kind.  Even the remainder tend to prefer American, Celtic or 'World' music to their own heritage.  The revival appears to have failed - so far.

4.  Some Possible Explanations

So - back to our thesis.  Is the failure of the revival linked to the confusion surrounding the English national identity?

Perhaps England is too diverse to have a common cultural identity?  Yet in Scotland, the divisions between Highlands and Lowlands, Glasgow and Edinburgh, or Celtic and Rangers, don't prevent a shared sense of Scottishness manifesting itself.

Perhaps England is too big to attract loyalty?  But the USA has a strong sense of national identity that's enriched, rather than diluted, by loyalty to states, or regions. 

Perhaps imperialism is to blame?  - were the English too busy subjugating other nations to cultivate their own national identity?  But England's anti-heritage mood survives long after the Empire's decline, while more recent imperial powers (like Russia, China, and the USA) still reinforce their national pride by celebrating their national culture. 

And so we come to the usual suspects - class and gender.  Socialist scholars, like Dave Harker, argue that England's bourgeoisie exploited and patronised the workers - then appropriated their traditions, gentrified them, and tried to sell the results back to the original owners.  Result: alienation!  Feminist critics, like Georgina Boyes, accept this, but add another dimension.  The bourgeois folklorists were not only exploiters, appropriators and patronisers - they were also misogynists, who excluded, or marginalised, women in the revival.  Result: more alienation!

Looked at from this viewpoint, it was class and gender prejudices that frustrated England's folklore revival, and fragmented our national identity.  And yet I wonder - is there no class antagonism in Scotland - no gender inequality in Ireland?  It seems unlikely.  Nevertheless, the Scots and the Irish are fairly clear about who they are, and tolerably comfortable with their own culture.  And what about the many other nations who still cherish their own folk traditions - are they all paragons of political correctness?  Not entirely!  Then what is different about the English?

Are there any clues in the relationship between Sharp, Neal and Kimber?  Was it characterised by exploitation and patronisation?  First, look at the economics.  Right from Sharp's half-sovereign on Boxing Day 1899, Kimber was always paid for his time and trouble.  When Neal invited Kimber to teach dances at her girls' club, the fee she originally offered wasn't enough to compensate for his time off work.  He refused, until she raised the sum he demanded.  When Kimber performed at Sharp's lectures and summer-schools, he always got his agreed fee, even when Sharp's own fee was small, or nonexistent.  Sharp's personal finances were fairly precarious for most of his life.  (The funds raised by publishing the songs and dances he had collected generally went into financing further fieldwork.) Yet surviving letters reveal that when dance bookings were unavailable, and building work scarce, he often helped Kimber with small sums of money.  In a taped interview, Kimber quotes Sharp's inscription on one of his books: " It says there 'To William Kimber, from his old friend' - and God knows he was one - 'and pupil'.  That's as precious as anything I got to me."

I never saw Kimber, but I knew Jim Phillips, who had learned the Morris from Kimber as a schoolboy, after World War One.  In the 1960s, Jim carved stonework on Oxford colleges, and played the melodeon for the Headington Quarry morris dancers.  He also presided over sing-arounds at the Masons' Arms, to which members of the University folksong society were invited - provided we behaved ourselves.  Jim was no forelock-tugging yokel - he had a skilled man's pride in his craft.  It was we who were deferential towards him, not vice versa.  If Kimber was anything like Jim, intellectuals patronised him at their peril. 

Returning to the wider perspective, it's obvious that the folk revival still has a substantial bourgeois element - urban professionals, yearning for the rural 'good life', or what someone from the National Theatre called 'the Laura Ashley audience'.  But alongside them, there are all sorts and conditions of people, from the aristocracy to the underclass, who seem to get along together tolerably well.  I would suggest that this is because a person's standing in the folk community depends on their commitment to the movement, and their ability as musician, dancer, or singer, rather than on their accent or their income. 

So much for class - what about gender?  Was the clash between Sharp and Neal a skirmish in the war between feminism and patriarchy?  This seems unlikely to me.  Sharp had many female colleagues and pupils who remembered him with great affection.  And Neal appears to have had no problems working with William Kimber - even Rolf Gardiner won her confidence, despite his advocacy of D H Lawrence's anti-feminist ideals.  Moreover, although Neal criticised Sharp's policies, and his autocratic manner, I've seen no evidence that she accused him directly of anti-female prejudice.

Of course, the gender difference must have affected their relationship to some extent.  It could hardly have been otherwise, given the social code of the world they had grown up in.  But I would suggest that a far more significant factor was that Neal and Sharp were two extremely strong-willed individuals, both accustomed to exercising leadership, and not overly tolerant of dissent.  Moreover, they had a fundamental disagreement over policy.  Neal believed in widening access, even at the cost of some lowering of standards, while Sharp wanted to promote excellence, even if that meant some degree of exclusivity.  This in itself was ample reason for their split. 

What about gender politics in the revival at large?  Well, it's true that thirty years ago, the club and concert scene was overweighted with male performers.  And female professionals were often under-appreciated and underpaid - though probably less so than their sisters in the world of pop music.  But now, artists like Norma Waterson, Maddy Prior, June Tabor, Eliza Carthy and Kate Rusby are dominant figures on the scene.  (Even the arts pages of the broadsheet press now devote occasional features to 'folk divas' - or 'folk babes'.)  Of course it's true that many traditional songs display archaic - and potentially offensive - attitudes to sexual relationships.  But on the other hand, many old ballads describe resourceful maidens outwitting their would-be exploiters, and modern songwriters are continually augmenting them with new compositions on the same theme.

What about Morris men - often accused of hostility to female dancers, and boorishness towards women in general?  Well, quite a few still conform to this stereotype, but in my experience they are now seen as anomalous - even pathological - cases by the majority of their colleagues.  And even their macho posturing may be just an over-reaction to the cries of "What a load of poofs!" which tends to greet morris dancers in city centres, particularly on Saturdays during the football season.  Thanks to recent scholarly studies, most morris men have become aware of how much women contributed to traditional and early revival morris dancing.  (Kimber himself was aware of this - when asked, at a Ring meeting, whether he approved of women dancing the morris he said "why shouldn't they dance?  ...  Let me tell you, they dances a damn sight neater than 'alf of you do.")  In recent years, the impressive performance standard of the best all-women sides has won over many former sceptics.

In general, the folk movement - like society as a whole - has made some progress towards gender equality in the last few decades.  To see the evidence, just go to Sidmouth, or Whitby, during festival week, and watch all the 'new men' tending their offspring, while their partners attend clog-dancing workshops, or seminars on feminist songwriting.  It would be foolish to suggest that the folk revival is entirely free from gender hostility, but it seems to be less prevalent there than in English society at large - or in some other countries that do have a flourishing folk culture.  So, if class and gender divisions can't explain the conundrum, what can?  Well, here's my suggestion.

5.  Consumerism and Culture: Some Tentative Conclusions

England was not only the first industrialised nation.  It was also, as the historian Neil McKendrick points out, the first consumer society.  About two centuries ago, an economic system based on the expectation of scarcity started giving way to one based on the hope of abundance.  Once productive capacity exceeded the normal level of consumption, people had to buy more and more commodities, if the economy was not to drown in unsold goods.  So the communications media - first printing, and later broadcasting - became dominated by the need to instruct consumers on how to spend their money.  Fashion-consciousness gradually crept downmarket, until even relatively poor people were being persuaded to buy new possessions before their old ones wore out.  And around this time, professionally produced, mass-marketed entertainment began displacing the home-made culture of the common folk. 

Wherever industry and consumerism flourished, antiquarians and scholars responded by writing obituaries for folklore, and collecting fragments of it as museum pieces.  In some nations, politicians realised this endangered 'folk' culture could be a useful ideological tool, encouraging solidarity at home, and promoting a positive national image abroad.  So they provided a subsidised life-support system for it.  But the English weren't a submerged nation (like the Finns), a fragmented nation (like the Germans), or a newly invented nation (like the Americans).  So English intellectuals had fewer incentives to discover - or reinvent - their 'folk' culture.  And English governments had little interest in encouraging it.  Instead, England's national heritage budget went on preserving stately homes, or promoting 'our' contributions to high culture, from Shakespeare to Benjamin Britten.  The preservation and promotion of folklore was largely left to amateurs.  In the game of cultural Monopoly, if you try the Community Chest, you generally get "proceed directly to Cecil Sharp House: do not pass GO, do not collect Arts Council Subsidy".

Elsewhere - in Scotland and Ireland, for example - traditional culture has a protected place in education, broadcasting, and the subsidised arts scene.  Admittedly, many Scots and Irish people remain lukewarm towards their traditions, and cynical about their exploitation as tourist attractions.  They cheer Billy Connolly's dismissal of Hogmanay as "the night your TV gets infested by men dressed as shortbread tins."  But even if they distance themselves from their heritage, they still know it exists, and that it belongs to them.  At times of celebration, or distress, it's an emotional superglue that bonds the community together.

And so, when the ceilidh band strikes up The Irish Washerwoman or The Dashing White Sergeant, even the most cynical and cosmopolitan Celts can be seen leaping about, as if to the manner born.  (Which, of course, they are.)  And when the dancing stops, the singing often goes on till the liquor runs out.  But the English (outside the ghetto of committed folkies) are much harder to coax into a dance set.  And "ere we go, ere we go, ere we go" , is often the nearest thing to a song you can get from them.

So here's my thesis.  In the absence of a strong and sustained lobby for folk music, consumerism - and the media pressure that goes with it - has alienated most English people from their musical traditions.  Of course, the music they enjoy now is also their own - in a sense.  They are the consumers, and they have chosen it.  But in fact their choices are monitored, and manipulated, by the people who manage the entertainment industry.  The incessant propaganda for disposable musical novelties is hardly ever challenged in the mass media.  Any mention of folk music there is usually hostile - unless it's being marketed as this week's disposable novelty.

And yet, in every generation, and every class, some people reject this commodified culture.  Like the heroine of Willy Russell's Educating Rita, they feel there must be better songs to sing, if only they could find them.  Some of them do find their way into the folk scene - but many stay outside, because they fear they won't feel at home. 

Young people fear the folk world will be full of tedious geriatrics - older people fear it will be full of raucous kids.  Educated people fear being jeered at by Philistines - people from the cultural mainstream fear being patronised by intellectual snobs.  Members of the majority ethnic community fear multiculturalism will be thrust upon them - members of ethnic minorities fear they may be unwelcome.

So, who is welcome in the English Country Garden?  This question brings us full circle to the ever-sensitive issue of race.  Lord Tebbit's recent remarks about cricket have not helped here.  M'lud complains because, at Test matches between England and Commonwealth nations, many British citizens cheer for their ancestral homeland, rather than for their country of residence.  But what Tebbit fails to recognise is that while Britishness is a matter of civic rights and obligations, Englishness is a matter of cultural identity.  (Neither has much to do with ethnicity - these islands are a melting pot in which successive waves of immigrants have been blending for millennia.)

I would argue that British citizens residing in England are perfectly entitled to cheer for the Welsh rugby team, the Scottish soccer team, or the Indian cricket team.  And if they spend their evenings singing Cwm Rhondda, dancing the strathspey, or playing the sitar, good luck to them!  They are no less British for opting out of the indigenous English culture - after all, most of the indigenous English have already opted out of it.  However, if the Cyfarthas, the Campbells, the Khans, the Kellys, or the Cohens choose to identify with the place they live, rather than with their ancestral roots, we should welcome them in - along with any English people who want to reconnect with their past, and recharge their spiritual batteries.

Some English country dances are for a set number of couples - others are traditionally announced as being "for as many as will".  I believe the English folk heritage can also be for "as many as will".  For an example of this ecumenical spirit, listen to Edward II - a band including a number of English-born Rastafarians - wellying into Shepherd's Hey, a century after Sharp collected that tune from Kimber.  They show that music with traditional roots can still flourish in a multi-cultural environment.  The English folk revival may not have become a mass movement yet - but it is alive and kicking.  Over the past century, it has seen several false dawns.  Often it has seemed about to destroy itself through internal strife, or to collapse in the face of indifference, ridicule or hostility from the wider community.  Somehow it endures - but perhaps this precariousness is also part of 'The Tradition'.  Or, as William Morris, put it, writing on a different, but related topic:

...  I pondered on all these things, and how men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes, turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name - while I pondered all this, John Ball began to speak again.  ' ...  he who doeth well in fellowship, and because of fellowship, shall not fail though he seem to fail today, but in days hereafter shall he and his work yet be alive, and men be holpen by them to strive again, and yet again'. 

Mike Sutton
School of Humanities, University of Northumbria

Article MT053

Select Bibliography:

  1. In Search of England
  2. In Search of 'Heritage'
  3. In Search of Folklore
  4. In Search of the Folklorists
  5. In Search of the 'Folk'

Appendix: 'In Search of England' - some examples of the genre

1) The opening paradox:

Then the vastness of England swallows you up, and you lose for a while your feeling that the whole nation has a single, identifiable character.  Are there really such things a nations?  Are we not 46 million individuals, all different?  And the diversity of it, the chaos!  The clatter of clogs in the Lancashire mill towns, the to and fro of the lorries on the Great North Road, the queues outside the labour exchanges, the rattle of pin-tables in the Soho pubs, the old maids biking to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn mornings - all these are not only fragments, but characteristic fragments of the English scene.  How can one make a pattern out of this muddle? 
George Orwell, England Your England (1941)

2) The looming crisis:

In Cambridgeshire, I know of a particularly lovely hedge, called Judith's Hedge, that is older than Salisbury Cathedral, older than York Minster, older indeed than all but a handful of buildings in Britain, and yet no statute stands between it and its destruction.  If the road needed widening or the owners decided they preferred the property to be bounded by fenceposts and barbed wire, it would be the work of a couple of hours to bulldoze away 900 years of history.  That's insane.  At least half the hedgerows of Britain pre-date the enclosure movement and perhaps as many as a fifth date back to Anglo-Saxon times.  Anyway, the reason for saving them isn't because they have been there for ever and ever, but because they clearly and unequivocally enhance the landscape.  They are a central part of what makes England England.  Without them it would just be Indiana with steeples.
Bill Bryson, Notes from a Small Island (1995)

3) The final epiphany:

At his feet were the glittering streams of the Itchen, that small magic river of silver and dry-flies and trout.  Beyond them were the playing fields with their white dots of cricketers, and beyond them the tower of the College Chapel, and beyond that the slumbering leviathan, Wykeham's House of God.  The air was filled with little sounds, the tinkling of sheep-bells across the vales of the chalkland, the click of cricket-bat, the whispers of the fitful puffs of wind in the trees behind him, the megaphoned shouts of the coaches as the racing-fours went up the stream with flashing blades, and from across the valley the bells of the Cathedral, deep and far, like the strong clang of Thor's anvil in Valhalla. Twenty or thirty feet below the grassy deck-chair on which Donald was by now half dozing ran the circular trench which the Britons dug as a defence against the Legions. The line of the Roman road was clear, a chalky arrow, as far as the blue horizon. Saxon Alfred's statue might have been as visible through a field-glass as the pale-yellow Norman transept of the Cathedral was to the eye. The English school, whose motto puts kindliness above flourishment or learning, lay among its water-meads, and all around was the creator, the inheritor, the ancestor, and the descendant of it all, the green and kindly land of England.
A G MacDonnell, England Their England (1933)

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