Article MT134 - Part 1

The Singing Englishman

An Introduction to Folk Song
by A. L. Lloyd

The Beginning Of It

The German poet Brecht asks one of the great questions of history : Wer baute das siebentorige Theben? : Who built Thebes with its seven gates?  In books you will read the names of a lot of kings.  Was it the kings who hauled-the great stones there?  Where did the plasterers go at evening when work was over on the Chinese Wall?  Had Byzantium only palaces to live in?  Philip of Spain wept when the Armada was destroyed: did no one except him weep?  Frederick the Great won the Seven Years War : he and who else?

Brecht's famous question remains for the most part unanswered.  The history books praise famous men and them mostly of the ruling class.  But of the people, of the life and works of the ordinary and obscure labouring men whose skill and muscle are the foundation of most of what the history books are about, they tell you little as a rule; and this is something specially true of the histories of culture.

The library catalogues are fat with books on music and if you skip through them you will find on every page the names of the famous figures, the glorious and illustrious and romantic men, the Scarlattis and Bachs, the Haydns, Mozarts, Beethovens and Stravinskys, and that is as it should be, without a doubt, for after all they are the great individuals.  But others are concerned in the story, too, who do not appear in the books: a whole nameless mass of people who stoked in a monastery bakehouse perhaps, or hammered in a wheelwright's shop, who learned to use a longbow fighting the guerillas in the Welsh hills, who mended pans on the Great North Road, who tended fat stock for Lord Turnip Townsend and blew a bugle on the heights of Abraham and got themselves transported to Botany Bay for poaching or else with wife and kids were taken on at the gloomy cotton mill just opened at the river's bend.  These were the common people and they made up music too, and very fine music it often was, though like anything else, it had its ups and downs.

If you will, you can learn much from these neglected songs of what the common people felt and how they went about their business; what pleased them, what terrified them and what brought them grief; what they had of science and religion, and what they had of hopes.  But only a dryboned old professor could think of the folksongs as archives merely.  The documentary thing is only incidental, like Beethoven's dedication of the Eroica.  Much better to look at the folksongs first of all as music and poetry, the peak of cultural achievement of the English lower classes; and, believe me, it is a very high peak, and if you put the songs together they can take a place alongside those other great collective creations of the unnamed masses : the Iliad, the Nibelung cycle, the Romancero, the Kalevala, and all the folk epics which are the full flower of the minds of mature men anywhere, but of men as a community, as a class even, not as solitary individuals isolated like weathercocks on a steeple of genius.

What we nowadays call English folksong is something that came out of social upheaval.  That is no random remark, but a statement of what happened in history.  It grew up with a class just establishing itself in society with sticks, if necessary, and rusty swords and bows discoloured with smoke and age.  While that class flourished, the folksong flourished, too, through all the changing circumstances that the lowborn lived in from the Middle Ages to the Industrial Revolution.  And when that class declined, the folksong withered away and died.

Let us start at the beginning, or as near the beginning as we need to go, for there is no real beginning to the story, you could just go back and back, and no useful purpose would be served as far as we are concerned just now.  For us, 1066 is as good a start as any.

The Anglo-Saxon military class had its heroic pagan epics, and the clerical class - missionaries, monks, priests - had their Latinized lyrical poems on Christian themes.  But what the third great class had, the farm workers, we hardly know beyond a few magical charms for the swarming of bees, the curing of sick cattle.  and the securing of at least a crop a man would not starve on.

Still, we do know a little about English culture before the shocktroops of William, Duke of Normandy, set off on their last hosting.  And we do know that after the Normans piled out of their assault craft on to the Sussex beaches, that culture was never the same again.  For on the autumn day when Harold's levies were mown down by the Norman archers, the English language went underground.  It disappeared from polite society.  It was never heard in the dining halls of the Norman nobles.  It was never spoken in the council chambers where the laws were framed.  It was never sung by the star musicians who lived on the fat of the baronial land.

The jongleurs brought over by the invading noblemen sang a rather fancy style of song which was a mixture of two opposite sources: church litany and the secular song of the roving poets; and financially they did very well indeed.  For their services as court musicians the topliners came to expect presents of money, furs, jewels, horses, land even.  Berdic, the minstrel of William the Conqueror, owned three villas in Gloucestershire; a later Court minstrel, Richard Jeffrey, was given the district of Vaux-sur-Mer in Normandy.  But in contrast, the Anglo-Saxon minstrel's job had come to an end.  His style was out of date.  His master was either dead or hobnobbing with the French aristocracy, learning their language, and making a mess of it as like as not, imitating their table manners and their treatment of servants, humming their songs, which compared to the old war epics did seem very catchy, though often very frivolous too.  Only the most diehard among the conquered aristocracy still kept their gleemen.

The rest of the English minstrels were turned out on the country roads to bawl, cap in hand, on the village green, and even if need be to exhibit a trick monkey or dance on a rope or act the clown; and it is worth remembering that the jester was originally the 'gesteour,' the man who sang gestes or heroic military romances.  Over the countryside these unemployed musicians rambled, and many of them were fine honest and talented men and in a bad business.

All through England the Norman conquerors did away with the old local kingdoms and set up in their place a single feudal system, complex and absolute, whose classes were as separate and as clearly marked as a fancy layer cake with all the sugar on top.  And the lowest classes were doubly marked not merely by their inferior social position but also by the separate and despised language they spoke.

French was the language of the king and the upper classes.  It was the language of culture.  But down in the servants' halls, out in the workshops and the fields, wherever the common people served and laboured, tended the flocks and tilled the land and forged the tools and weapons, English persisted.  There it was spoken and sung.  The lower classes were the guardians of the English language, and while they were looking after it, they made of it something tough, flexible, expressive.  When some 300 years after the invasion, the barriers were broken down and the stream flowed again, when English language and English song came back into the courts and the churches even, it was with a great difference.  The old stark bloodshot tones of Havelock and Beowulf were long gone, and what you had now was something clear, simple, humorous, even graceful.

About the end of the 13th century, the barons began to lose their grip.  Towns were spreading.  Trade, especially the wool trade, was growing.  Military science was developing.  Merchants were on the way in; heavy cavalry were on the way out.  Looms and longbows meant that on economic and on military counts Sir Galahad was out of date.

As the knights declined as a class they tried hard to justify themselves with a phenomenal display of fancy armour and an even fancier code of gallantry, and no doubt this was just because militarily and morally they were running to seed.  The old French epics of chivalry, the chansons de geste, the military legends of the routing of armies and especially the slaughter of dragons were more than ever the favourite songs of the baronial halls.  But outside, another kind of song had become commoner since the 13th century and these were not about the clatter of arms and the triumphs of earls, they were more likely to be about blackbirds and about women with common names like Alysoun or Joan and about the western wind.  And as if in defiance of the endless bloody ballads of the barons, in the towns and out in the countryside there were spring songs everywhere of a pattern which English folksong has preserved very well to this day, such as :

I would I were a thrustle-cock,
A bounting or a laverock,
Sweet bride! 
Between her kirtle and her smock
I would me hide.

Not that life was any sort of song-and-dance in feudal times.  Indeed it was not.  For the most part of the people it was a time of deep poverty and bitter hardship.  The serf had not only his lord to carry on his back.  The tithe barn was always there to remind him of the power and needs of the Church.  It was no easy task-for him to forget his Church, and the less so since the dues-collecting was backed up with a ceaseless barrage on his conscience and his imagination.

Commonly the monasteries and the manor rode the people hard, and harder, still after the Hundred Years' War which had meant a heavy loss of life and money for little gain.  Taxes rose and times grew tough, and with the people finding a certain independence of spirit, the political tension was considerable.  Now an ugly note of social criticism came into the English vernacular songs, and the Grimsby fisherlads and the Lancastrian scullery-boys began to sing at work and after knockoff-time about the tyranny and vice of their masters and about their own longing for a better world.  They sang about the proposition the monk put to the girl and what she agreed to do and what came of it all and how he was never the same monk again; and they sang about the knights who spoke all the time of brave quests and who never fought except with the wooden-pointed lances of the tournament field; and they sang about how heavy the taxes on the peasantry were, and how little of the money ever reached the Treasury.

The declasse minstrels were specially busy spreading anti-authority songs.  The way they had to live turned many of them into petty thieves and underworld figures, but there can be little doubt that it was not so much their fancy for pickpocketing as their power as anticlerical propagandists, that led eventually to their excommunication.  From the beginning of the 14th century and for nearly 200 years on they were reckoned by churchmen to be ministers of Satan, corrupters of youth, and the dregs of humanity; officially they were classed with epileptics, magicians and whores, as having no hope of salvation in this world or the next.

What are now the stock figures of comic pantomime; the villainous baron, the lecherous monk, the miserly miller, were at this time the symbols of a bitter and threefold class oppression, and songs running these down were sure of a good hearing in the kitchens and in the barns and round the campfires as well if they were not sung too loud.

It was in the civil struggles of the barons' wars and in the years following that the songs of the people really rose to the surface and crystallised into a style.  Then you got ballads like the Robin Hood cycle which was about not only the adventurous life of the outlaw who was almost a guerilla, but also the anger of the downtrodden at the callous luxury of the rich.

What strikes most people about English folksongs, once they get to know them, is their deep melancholy.  Their style of tune comes from the Church modes of the Middle Ages and it often seems to have stamped them unmistakably with the bitter sadness of the time of the Black Death and the baronial oppression of the 14th century.  And before that century had come to a close, the effect of oppression and plague had brought radical changes in the relation of labourers to the soil and to their masters.  The spread of a disease which, at its height, wiped out one in two people in London, one in three in the Eastern counties, put the finishing touch to the peasant revolt movement in 1381.  The outbreak of lawlessness which followed the dislocation of town and country life, with its consequent labour troubles, filled the green woods with outlaws and rebels.  It was about this time that the people began singing a song called The Cutty Wren. Several versions of this song have been collected, each with a different tune and a fairly different set of words.  The version quoted below (the tune is also the tune of Green Bushes) is surely too sophisticated to have been the original.  The course of time has no doubt modified and altered this song, but of its character enough still remains to let us form an opinion of its origin.

O where are you going?  said Milder to Malder,
O we may not tell you, said Festle to Fose. 
We're off to the woods, said John, the Red Nose,
We're off to the woods, said John the Red Nose.

What will you do there?  said Milder to Malder,
O we may not tell you, said Festle to Fose.
We'll shoot the Cutty Wren, said John the Red Nose. 
We'll shoot the Cutty Wren, said John the Red Nose.

How will you shoot her?  said Milder to Malder,
O we may not tell you, said Festle to Fose. 
With bows and with arrows, said John the Red Nose,
With bows and with arrows, said John the Red Nose.

That will not do then said Milder to Malder,
O what will do then?  said Festle to Fose.
Big guns and big cannons, said John the Red Nose. 
Big guns and big cannons, said John the Red Nose.

How will you brie;, her home?  said Milder to Malder. 
O we may not tell you, said Festle to Fose. 
On four strong men's shoulders, said John the Red Nose. 
On four strong men's shoulders, said John the Red Nose.

That will not do, said Milder to Malder,
O what will do then ?  said Festle to Fose. 
Big carts and big waggons, said John the Red Nose,
Big carts and big waggons, said John the Red Nose.

How will you cut, her up?  said Milder to Malder,
O we may not tell you, said Festle to Fose. 
With knives and with forks, said John the Red Nose. 
With knives and with forks, said John the Red Nose.

That will not do, said Milder to Malder,
O what will do then?  said Festle to Fose. 
Big hatchets and cleavers, said John the Bed Nose,
Big hatchets and cleavers, said John the Red Nose.

Who'll get the spare ribs?  said Miller to Malder,
O we may not tell you, said Festle to Fose. 
We'll give it all to the poor, said John the Red Nose,
We'll give it all to the poor, said John the Red Nose.

Pretty certainly this was originally a magical song, a totem song, which about this time took a strong revolutionary meaning.1

Mythology and folklore do not concern us here, but it is worth remembering that by many people the wren is still considered a power of evil.  In countless legends the wren features as a tyrant.  It was called the King, the Little King, the King of the Birds; it still is called the "hedgeking" in some parts of England.  To kill a wren meant that great misfortune would overtake you; but nevertheless the annual custom of killing the wren was common here and in France.  Down to the 18th century there was a wren-hunting ceremony on Christmas Eve on the Isle of Man.  Whether the masters liked it or not the servants would all take the day off, go to church, and when the bells rang at midnight they would set off to hunt the wren.  When they caught one, they killed it, put it on a long pole with its wings extended, and carried it in procession to every house.  For a few hours till dawn they had the freedom of the village, and they could do pretty well as they pleased, even in the master's house.  In the Golden Bough Frazer reports that they sang:

We hunted the wren for Robin the Bobbin,
We hunted the wren for Jack of the Can,
We hunted the wren for Robin the Bobbin,
We hunted the wren for everyone.

In the song of the Cutty Wren it would seem the tyrant wren had become a symbol for baronial property, preparations for whose seizure and redistribution to the poor was such a formidable task, to be carried out in great secrecy.  These wren songs which Frazer speaks of as being sung on the hilltops at midnight, may well have been sung at witches' sabbaths; but before the end of the 14th century the Church was commonly labelling as witches' sabbaths the meetings of the secret political societies, and indeed it would seem that quite a lot of ritual and dancing did go on there and pretty surely they sung songs like the Cutty Wren.

The Church called it witchcraft and that was giving a dog a bad name and they knew it.  But the witchcults were very likely concerned in the political agitation of the time to some extent.  In the villages, especially the remote villages, some still worshipped nature gods of a pre-Christian kind, and more and more peasants patronised this primitive religion during the 14th century when they felt that State and Church had ganged up on them and made their lives well nigh unbearable, and they had to turn to something for consolation.  These desperate men had nothing to hope for from God as they saw it: God was the monasteries and the priests and the monks, and these they knew all about; so they put their hope in the Devil.  And sometimes poor friars, many of whom were men of strong social conscience, were themselves so desperate that they joined the witch groups, too.

This is something that was happening everywhere, in Scotland, France and Germany even more than England.  Everywhere the organisation of the witch groups was the same, and there seems even to have been quite a bit of international to and fro between witches in the different countries.  Of course they were wildly persecuted and had to work as strictly undercover groups. A com munity would have a sort of sub-district committee of twelve or thirteen witches called a coven; the coven leader, whom the others were not supposed to know, would be responsible to a kind of district committee, and the district leaders to a higher authority still.  The coven or district leader was looked upon as the Master and he was the object of adoration at the Sabbaths, where a great deal of hysterical fun and games went on and some say the Master kept an artificial phallus handy, but that has little to do with the political thing.  Certainly the organisation of the witchcults was perfectly adapted to illegal political work.  Certainly a lot of the witches' songs in adoration of monstrous animals were taken over and given new and revolutionary meanings at this time.  And certainly the authorities exaggerated the connection between the witchcult and the political societies, though some experts say that, for instance, Joan of Arc really was in a witchgroup, and that explains a lot of otherwise mysterious things about her political life and her wildfire success.  That is something it is hard to be sure of: but we do know the witch songs and the rebel, songs were often much the same.

By and large, we know really very little about the folkmusic of this time, but it would seem just as the Lollard heresy was beginning its attacks on social abuses and on the established Church, just as the Great Society was preparing armed revolt on a national scale, just as the common people were emerging for the first time as free men or wage labourers and beginning their long fight for political freedom, a typical style of folksong came to life, and that style was to persist, with little alteration, right up to the time we live in now.

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