Styles & Forms | Traditional Folk
Traditional is the term given to folk music so old its origins have been long forgotten. Different songs are often performed to the same tunes and sometimes the same ballad is played with various tunes. Songs with the same story pop up on both sides of the atlantic with different treatments, after being transported by emigrants and adapted through the years.
In some ways, it’s a miracle that British traditional music has survived at all. That it has, and in such rich quantities, is due in no small part to the zealous collectors who travelled Britain annotating the old songs. What we do not know is how much they left out or censored. The early song and dance collectors were largely motivated by a sense of nationalism, and if an old singer performed something overly bawdy or offensive to the collector, it was likely to have been ignored or amended. It is impossible, therefore, to know how much of the tradition has been lost, or tampered with, through time.
One of the major forces of traditional song is The English And Scottish Popular Ballads, a five-volume collection by the American Francis Child, published in 1882 and including the texts of more than 300 songs. Child’s ballads provided the backbone of material in the 1960s folk revival, reinforced by the work of other collectors such as Lucy Broadwood, George Butterworth, Ralph Vaughan Williams and – most famously in England – Cecil Sharp. Inspired by seeing the Headington Quarry morris dancers in Oxfordshire, Sharp set off with missionary zeal and, famously, collected his first song, ‘The Seeds Of Love’, from the Somerset gardener John England in a vicarage in 1903. Subsequently, he travelled across Britain and America, collecting folk songs with Maud Karpeles. Unlike Child, Sharp annotated the tunes as well as the words, and recognized that many of the songs he found in America were variants of those he had collected in Britain and that he was merely following the songs’ original journey.
And yet, despite the importance of the collectors, the most crucial element of folk song is the oral tradition. Modern folklorists contend that the spirit and feeling of the tradition is more important than slavish recreations gleaned from book collections, which may have been sanitized in the first place. Cylinder discs made it possible to preserve the feeling of the traditional singers, as well as the words and music (Percy Grainger’s 1908 cylinder recordings of Joseph Taylor are the oldest in existence), while the advent of tape recorders transformed the credibility of the collectors’ work.
The field recordings of John Lomax and his son Alan provide a massive catalogue of traditional music of many different facets. John published his first collection, Cowboy Songs And Other Frontier Ballads, in 1910, but his immortality is ensured by the field recordings that he and Alan, who was then a teenager, began making for the Library of Congress in...
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