Article MT134 - Part 2

The Technique Of It

Some folksongs are good and some are bad.  Many which have come down to us from quite early times seem hardly worth the trouble.  But many have something fine and tragic, with great emotion in the words and exotic beauty in the tune; and this is no exaggeration, the best of them are probably the highest points reached by the imagination of the ordinary Englishman.

Some people find it hard to credit that the lower classes could produce such a fine sensitive kind of art, and their theory is that the songs were made up by professional musicians, aristocratic musicians even, and the peasantry learned them by heart.  Others, kind but hazy, say the folksongs developed spontaneously as a result of some communal artistic activity which they cannot adequately describe.  Whatever the facts, for a long time after the ruling classes rediscovered English folksong (that is, after Bishop Percy published the Reliques of Ancient English Poetry in 1765) they saw them as something uncouth, naive and rather absurd, and Jamieson, editor of Popular Ballads in 1806 apologised for printing the Shooting of his Dear:

Come all you young fellows that carry a gun.
I'll have you come home by the light of the sun.
For young Jimmy was a fowler and a-fowling alone,
When he shot his own true love in the room of a swan.

Then home rushed young Jimmy with his dog and his gun,
Crying: 'Uncle, dear Uncle, have you heard what I done?
Cursed be that old gunsmith what made my old gun,
For I've shot my own true love in the room of a swan.

Then out rushed bold uncle with his locks hanging grey,
Crying: Jimmy, dear Jimmy, don't you run away.
Don't you leave your own country till your trial come on,
For they never will hang you for shooting a swan.

Well, the trial wore on and young Polly did appear,
Crying: Uncle, dear Uncle, let Jimmy go clear,
For my apron was bound round me and he took me for a swan,
And my poor heart lay bleeding all on the green ground.2. Polly is, of course, the direct descendant of the Swan Maiden and the enchanted doe of the magical legends. 

Wrote Jamieson : "This is indeed a silly ditty, one of the very lowest description of vulgar English ballads which are sung about the streets in country towns and sold four or five for a halfpenny."  He wrote like that because by the 19th century the polite world knew their lower classes, and they knew them to be ignorant, insensitive and without imagination.  And if you gave them evidence to the contrary they could not accept it because they could not understand it.  It was axiomatic : the upper classes produced art, the lower classes did not; and that was all there was to it, and what was the use of arguing?

Now, we do not reason that way.  We prefer to go deeper into it.  We accept the best folksongs as genuine poetry and music produced by East Anglian shepherds and Wiltshire ploughboys and cattle thieves on the Border.  And to see how they came to be made up and why they are so good, we try to relate them to the social and historical circumstances in which they were conceived.  Of course we have to be careful how we go about it, because most kinds of culture do not reflect their history and their social upbringing directly or without distortion, and folksong is no exception in this respect.  You get people who say the songs you find in the Oxford Book of Ballads or in Child's English and Scottish Ballads are servile because they are all about lords and ladies and kings and princesses and not about the common people at all, or very rarely.  But that does not make good sense, because of course what would a poor community find more beautiful than those red velvet cloaks and golden saddles and ivory birdcages that the ballads and songs are full of?  And in these songs the highborn only differ from the lowborn by virtue of their impressive trappings; and moreover the convention of the ballads at least seems to have been fixed at a time when class opposition was not so considerable as the oppression of barren soil and hostile neighbours, and the war chiefs and their families were the best fighters who stood at the head of a community all of a piece and sharing a common fate or fortune.  So one should not jump too quickly to conclusions.

To go back to the two theories about how it all started, and whether folksongs are cultured songs gone slumming, or whether they are the product of a group-mind, the chances are that neither is quite wrong; what seems to have happened is something between the two.  After the Norman conquest there was a gradual infiltration downwards of a kind of song that was originally exclusive to the ruling class, and the songs got altered very much in the process and really did become a communal affair rather than an individual thing.  In a primitive society like a feudal village or a family settlement up in the Border hills, people were bound much closer together than they are in a developed capitalist society; and the harder the living, the closer the ties.  They were not split by religious or political class difference; they were inclined to think as one.  And for the matter of that, even in capitalist society, whenever a really common emergency crops up, as in the blitz, you get a weakening of class and other barriers; and Jews and Protestants, artists and clerks, directors and dockers, Tories and Reds may act together and think as a group rather than as isolated individuals, at least over a short spell.  And at any time, where you don't have private enterprise, communal art is no more unlikely than communal ploughing.

In relation to his material and to his audience, the illiterate folksinger was in quite a different position from the cultured musician or poet.  His subject was not at all his own; it belonged to the people.  It might be some popular traditional story, or a situation so simple and obvious that everybody knew just what was involved, or it might be some recent experience whose details were just going the rounds; but whatever it was, the folksinger was not interested in treating it in any startling or innovatory way. He had no idea of impressing his personality on it, and unlike the cultured artist he did not see himself as an exceptional figure with a message either of substance or form.  What he was singing, he knew many of his neighbours could sing as well; and what his song was about was what everybody felt.  Of course to suit his personal fancy he would alter the words here and there, and ornament the tune with turns and flourishes wherever he chose to put them, but in the usual run of folksong the phrases and the forms were something sanctioned by long tradition and within that tradition everybody knew just where they were.

Sometimes, and this is something that happened particularly with the ballads, a whole group of people would help make up a song.  One man would start off on a simple kind of pattern and another would improvise the next verse and so on.  The course of the story would be so obvious and inevitable, the run of the words would be so fixed by convention, that the song could be ended without the help of the singer who started the thing off.  You can see how it works in ballads where you get this sort of thing:

Hangman, hangman, hold your hand,
O hold it wide and far. 
For there I see my father coming
Riding through the air.

Father, father, have you brought me gold?
O have you paid my fee? 
Or have you come to see me hung
Beneath the gallows tree?

O I have neither brought you gold
Nor have I paid your fee. 
But I have come to see you hung
Beneath the gallows tree.

Hangman, hangman, hold your hand,
O hold it wide and far. 
For there I see my mother coming
Riding through the air.

Mother, mother, have you brought me gold?
Or have you paid my fee?
Or have you come to see me hung
Beneath the gallows tree?

And so oh with the mother, the brother and the sister, till at last comes the sweetheart, who brings the gold, pays the fee, and takes the young girl down from the tree.

But mostly communal authorship was not such a direct and literal affair.  The community worked differently and more subtly.  The songs were always learned by ear, remember, and as they spread from village to village across the country and down the ages, they were changing all the time.  Lapses of memory would leave gaps which needed new verses to fill them in; bits of other songs, words or tunes, would creep in by accident or intention; singer after singer would modify or embellish the song; till by the time it had spread two hundred miles and been sung for two hundred years, so much would be lost and so much would be added that often the original song would be impossible to distinguish among a thousand variants; and sometimes the variants were so different from the original that they were really quite new songs.  Folksongs have no one author; not only that, they have no fixed and final form, no version is more "authentic" than another, and it is hard to say with most of the songs what period they date from, when they began.  As a rule the most we can say is: that kind of melody and that sort of words sound like what you would expect from, say, the first, half of the eighteenth century; but that tune and those words may merely be a variant of something that started two hundred, three hundred years before.

We know much more about the ballads than about the lyrical songs, but there is a great deal of literature about the ballads and much of it is excellent, so I do not want to say a lot about them in this book.  Generally the truly great ballads had a sense of honour and a sense of glory far beyond that of the ordinary folksong, and perhaps because they were the product of a simpler kind of society.  But if the best of the ballads and songs have a common trait, it is pride, and if they have another, it is commonsense.  This quality of pride and commonsense is as hard and wild as the Border hills and the East Anglian coast, and it diminishes as it comes away from the north and the east.  Down in the south, in counties like Somerset, it becomes something charming and picturesque and idyllic; but up on the Border there is such a tradition of danger that it becomes heroic, and in the east, as in all countries bounded by a cold sea, it is bitter and hard and without any illusions at all.

The Border ballads are mostly about fighting and that is what you expect because of the primitive condition of society there, and the constant guerilla warfare of the cattle raids and the family feuds.  The songs of the East Anglian coast are mostly about the hardness of earning a living and that again is no surprise where the soil is often poor, or, with the fishermen, drowning is nothing more mysterious than an industrial accident.  So in these proud commonsense songs, you can feel the singers knew the facts of life precisely, and were not trying to avoid anything; they looked reality dead in the eye and they accepted it.  They heightened it until it became larger than life (and that no doubt is the artist's business), but they told the truth.  They altered nothing, dodged nothing, and even if what they had to say was horrifying and heartbreaking, they expressed, in the best songs anyway, no disgust, no disappointment, no resignation.  They did not need to in any case.  Their audience knew all about it.  The Kings Lynn whaler-man need pass no judgment in his song of the Cruel Ship's Captain.  The people he sang to had been to sea.  They knew the difference between Heart of Oak and:

A boy to me was bound apprentice.
Because his parents they was poor;
So I took him from St James Workhouse
All for to sail on the Greenland shore.

One day this boy he did annoy me
Nothing to him then did I say,
But I rushed him to my frozen yardarm,
And kept him there till the very next day,

When his eyes and his teeth did hang towards me
With his hands and his feet bowed down likewise,
And with a bloody iron spike I killed him
Because I would not hear his cries.

click to play MIDI file

The Border ballads took the same fine objective view whether they were about horror or joy, love or death.  They were not the songs of a people at work, they were not made up by wage-earners as the East Anglian songs were, so the subject matter is different; but the attitude is much the same, and their heroic sense of honour, their pride in people as people, shows clearly in all the best of them.  In Clerk Saunders, Margaret's brothers find Saunders in her bed and kill him, and there is something superb in her grief, when she says to her father who comes to comfort her:

Comfort well your seven sons,
For comforted I'll never be:
I ween 'twas neither knave nor loon
Was in my bower last night with me.

There is something of the same feeling in the proud but almost demented grief of the Lincolnshire bride whose husband has been shanghaied from her bed to the Arctic whaling grounds:

click to play MIDI file

The Spermwhale Fishery

Last night I was a-married and on my marriage bed.
There came a bold sea captain, and stood at my bed head,
Saying: Arise, arise, you married man, and come along with me,
To the cold, cold coast of Greenland to the spermwhale fishery.

O Greenland is a wondrous place, and in it grows no green.
It's a wild inhabitation for a lover to be in,
Where the keen winds blow and the whalefish go, and the daylight's seldom seen,
But the cold, cold coast of Greenland lies between my love and me.

No shoe nor stocking I'll put on nor comb go in my hair,
Nor any lamp or candle light bum in my chamber bare.
Nor shall I lie with any young man until the day I die,
Now the cold, cold coast of Greenland has torn my love from me.

One thing that puzzles people is this: you know a song common in Somerset, say, or Derbyshire, and then you find it or something nearly identical is also sung in Telemark in Norway, or in Poitou or the uplands behind Turin.  Sometimes this is because the song has been directly imported.  The Westphalian version of the Maid Freed from the Gallows is very like that sung in Cumberland, and this may easily be because in Elizabeth's time Germans were working the copper mines at Coniston, and many German smelters settled in Keswick and thereabouts.  And there is no doubt the trade between Scandinavia and England, especially to Yarmouth and back, from the twelfth to the fifteenth. century, had meant a big exchange of songs.  On the other hand, the resemblance between the Bruton Town ballad and some Italian ballads, and by the way the Bruton Town story is the same as Boccaccio's Isabella and the Pot of Basil, is harder to account for; and the general opinion is not that the English ballad influenced the Italian or vice versa, but that both have a common primitive source.

When you come to look at the music of the folksongs this international resemblance is more striking still.  Some say folksongs sound the same all over the world, and they are not so far wrong.  Cultured music, no; Oriental compositions do not sound at all like European compositions, not even like Mozart's Turkish March, or Ketelby's In a Persian, Market. Even the folkmusic, if it is city folkmusic, differs greatly from place to place; the music of Seville does not sound like the music of Belgrade or New Orleans, and this is perhaps because in this kind of music, even more than in cultured music, the individual performer, the virtuoso if you like, is somebody very important.  But in the real folkmusic, the unselfconscious mass thing, there is an astonishing likeness in the character of tunes from quite different parts of the world, and a Buriat Mongol celebrating the founding of a hunters' co-operative may sound very like a Hebridean who is glad the harvest is over, and I assure you that is no exaggeration.

Take three tunes at random :

click to play MIDI file

click to play MIDI file

click to play MIDI file

These tunes are not handpicked.  It is not that they are particularly alike in outline, and if they were it would probably be fortuitous, but they do have a close inner similiarity; the logic of them, shall we say, is very much the same, and even if they seem a little exotic to us more used to modern western music, that exoticism is common to them all.  Yet those tunes come from different parts of the world and date from quite separate times.

No. 1 is the Plucked Flower, a lament for the death of Lenin.  It dates from the early nineteen twenties and is sung by the Khor peoples in the Soviet Far East.  No 2 is a song from the mountains in Piedmont, in Italy.  It is called Maria Catlina and it is probably of eighteenth century origin.  No. 3 is the tune of the Shooting of his Dear, whose words are quoted on page 11.  I would not like to guess any date for it.

So far we do not know for sure why this general resemblance should be, but on the face of it, it looks as if, even if they did not have a common origin, this kind of tune at least had a similar line of development.  And quite apart from the international resemblance, there is often a closer, far more literal resemblance between one English tune and another.  Just as some say there are only three dirty jokes and all other dirty jokes are variants of these three, so Percy Grainger has said there are only three English folktunes and all others stem from them.  That is not quite true but very nearly so.  You may say this is absurd, that you know a couple of dozen or a couple of hundred folktunes and all different; all right, you write them down one below the other and compare them note by note, and phrase by phrase, and see how much the outlines coincide and how closely they parallel each other in shape and I can guarantee you a surprise.

The first thing that makes these songs different from composed melodies, but much like each other, is that as a rule they are not in the ordinary doh-re-mi scale, but in one or other of the old diatonic modes, the forerunners of our modem scales.  Commonly people think of the modes as moth-eaten relics of the early days of musical history, which were replaced round about 1600 by a scale system better suited for modern harmonisation.  But to the English folksinger the modes were no mere survival from the past, they were his natural idiom; and when he learned a composed song, even a music-hall song, he often would alter the tune till it corresponded to one or other of the familiar modes of English folkmusic.

These modes were developed in early Christian times, on the basis of such scanty knowledge of Greek music as was then possessed, and indeed they do to some extent correspond to the modes of ancient Greece, even if the names, Dorian, Phrygian and so on were often wrongly applied.

The rnodal systems in India are still the richest in the world, and it is likely that the Greeks long ago took over the simplest of those Indian modes and somehow they came to be named after certain Greek districts.  There is nothing mysterious about these modes and they are easy to remember.  For instance, the Dorian has D for a keynote; if you play from D to D on the piano, using only the white notes you have played the Dorian mode; it is as simple as that.  From E to E, always using the white notes, is the Phrygian; from F to F, the Lydian; from G to G, the Mixolydian; from A to A, the Aeolian.  These are the commonest modes of English folksong; the Lydian is pretty rare in England though not so rare as was believed.  For those who are interested enough and who find it easiest to use a mnemonic, here is one: DiPLoMA, based on the initial letter of the name of the mode and the order of the respective keynotes; Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian: D, E, F, G, A.

It is a common thing to find these modes or the related pentatonic scales all over the world.  You may hear Uzbek collective farm songs which are pure Phrygian and negro railway-workers' songs which are nothing but Dorian.  And what is a queer thing is that the old modes should have preserved themselves in England right up to modem times, considering that as early as 1240 an English song in a pure major key was composed, and that was the famous Reading rota: Summer is icumen in.

Many times we come across tunes which if you look into them have a deeper resemblance than merely being in the same mode; they are closely alike in shape, sometimes nearly note for note.  So people say When Johnny comes Marching Home is only a variant of High Barbary, and High Barbary is only a variant of Henry Martin, and before they know where they are they have linked together a hundred tunes all very similar.  The truth of it all may be that these songs grew out of a very limited number of tunes; and some who should know what they are talking about say the answer is to be found in the Gregorian psalmody, which has been cultivated by the Roman Catholic church since its earliest days.  Their theory is that each Dorian tune, or Mixolydian, Aeolian or what have you, is just a variant of the psalmody in that same mode.  If that is indeed so, no English folk tune came into being as a wholly new composition.  Each was a variant of an already existing shape.  And those who claim that this is correct say that while each singer embroidered more and more on the tune, the original form of the modal psalmody, the skeleton of his song as it were, saved him from losing a natural healthy shape and a genuine integrity of style.

I do not say this is so, that these songs surely take their shape from early Christian church tunes.  It is a reasonable theory backed by quite a bit of evidence, but it may be that the outlines of the tunes had already been in existence long before the establishment of the Roman Catholic church and in very remote parts of the world.

All over the world, folksingers consider the tunes and the words inseparable; often they cannot remember the words without the tune, even with songs they have been singing for half a century.  In England the singer's fancy usually brought more ornament into the tune than variation into the words.  Any singers who usually sing unaccompanied, as the English did, are likely to be inventive in style; and as a rule they will not sing two successive verses of a song the same and the performance will alter in detail from day to day, which is one of the things that makes the singing of a folksong "as written", in say a Cecil Sharp arrangement, such a false and unrepresentative thing.  Commonly the folksinger would put his flourishes and trills and turns into the melody wherever he fancied; often he would go quite a long way from the basic tune; and always he allowed himself great rhythmical freedom so that at times a song would be much more like plain-song than the rigid metrical foursquare and obvious thing you get in the printed arrangements.  If you are interested in jazz music you will understand something of what is meant.  In fact, the folk singer's idea of improvisation was not so farfetched as that of the jazz virtuoso, though on all the evidence the street singers in the towns and cities would seem to have had a very extravagant style, much more than the country singers pure and simple, and this of course may be due partly to the exigencies of a top-of-the-voice delivery unhampered by any instrumental backing.  There is no doubt the street singer's style had a big influence on folksinging in general and Cecil Sharp has remarked: "Folksingers like to sing in as high a pitch as possible, and will often apologise for not being able on account of age to sing their songs high enough."

If ever you have the good fortune to hear a singer with a traditional style - and it is not too late yet for you to have the chance - even if you do not like that style, even if the ornamentation and the longdrawn notes at the end of the phrases seem far-fetched and fantastic to you, you will at least get an idea how terribly far off the mark is the folksong as written in the arrangements and as sung on the concert platform.

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