Styles & Forms | Folk Songs
To this day, many still contend that a written song is not a folk song. Purists claim that only a traditional song, shaped and honed by the environmental context that produced it and handed down by word of mouth through the generations, can justly claim to be true folk music.
Indeed, the great Scots folklorist, writer and performer Hamish Henderson – so admired that he was offered (but refused) an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) – insisted that songs should be learned only by the aural tradition. He refused to write songs or tunes down, or allow potential performers of them to record him on tape, but he was quite happy to spend hours singing or humming a piece of music to his students until they had learned it. Another great Scots folk legend, Ewan MacColl, once famously decreed that singers and musicians should only perform songs and music of their own national culture. He refused to allow them to appear in his own folk club unless they agreed.
Yet both MacColl and Henderson wrote some classic material that, heavily structured in a traditional style, could not be considered anything but folk song. Some of Henderson’s best work was based on his experiences in the Second World War, and it provided genuine insights into the minds of those sent to serve.
Himself a fine performer of traditional ballads, MacColl swiftly developed into the finest songwriter of his generation with a whole catalogue of songs, still widely performed, that many assume to be traditional. Among these are ‘Dirty Old Town’, written about his experiences in Salford, where he grew up; ‘Freeborn Man’, about the plight of gypsies; and ‘Manchester Rambler’, about freedom of the countryside. MacColl’s visionary Radio Ballads series, written in the late-1950s and early 1960s with his wife, Peggy Seeger, portrayed the reality of working-class lives in a folk music context. But they were not merely brilliant snapshots of Britain’s social history; they also established a strong catalogue of new MacColl songs that have sustained the folk movement ever since. And yet, MacColl wrote many tender, personal songs too – most famously ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’. Should these qualify as folk songs?
The outspoken singer-songwriter Billy Bragg, made his own telling analysis of the topic, arguing that once songwriters moved from a journalistic stance, painting descriptive pictures of events to expressing more oblique personal emotions about their own lives, they ceased to be folk singers. In this context, it is easy to see why many fine songwriters are overlooked simply because their work is assumed to be traditional. Indeed, for some of those writers it has become the ultimate compliment that their music has passed into such common parlance that it is regarded as traditional. The edges become even more blurred as modern writers and performers amend and adapt existing traditional songs, or simply write their own lyrics. The great English singer...
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