JANE: Last time, I pointed out that there are many varieties of folk music and suggested that we might take a closer look.
You commented that one of the great things about folk was that it wasn’t limited to traditional pieces, but was open to new material as well. Afterwards, I was thinking how this extended further – that even traditional pieces were open to reinterpretation.
ALAN: You really are a secret folkie, aren’t you? That happens a lot, and it’s one of the reasons why the music stays so alive and relevant.
JANE: I’m discovering that I know a lot more about folk than I realized. That’s for sure!
One song that immediately came to mind was “The Cherry Tree Carol.” This is a lovely piece often included on Christmas albums, although it really isn’t a Christmas song. It tells the tale of how Mary told Joseph she was pregnant – and how Joseph didn’t take this announcement well at all.
The song begins: “When Joseph was an old man/an old man was he/ he wedded Virgin Mary/ the queen of Galilee…”
Are you familiar with it?
ALAN: No – that one seems to have passed me by. Do go on!
JANE: What’s interesting is how different groups have rewritten the payoff. The basics are the same. Mary makes her announcement. Joseph is not happy, Baby Jesus speaks “from his mother’s womb” asking the cherry tree to bow down so his pregnant mother can pick cherries.
However, in the version by the group Just Friends on their album A Dulcimer Holiday the lyric is something like: “and Mary gathered cherries/ while Joseph stood around.”
The Clancy Brothers version is much harder on Joseph: “Mary shall have cherries/ and Joseph shall have none.” Jim found this very unfair to poor Joseph, so I pulled out the other version for him. He was relieved to learn that the interpretation wasn’t absolute.
ALAN: That kind of thing is very common. There really isn’t any such thing as a definitive version of many of the old songs. James Francis Child (in the nineteenth century) and Ralph Vaughan Williams (in the twentieth century) compiled huge collections of traditional material and again and again and again they set down variant lyrics for the same song.
Amusingly, Vaughan Williams’ first name is pronounced “Rafe.” I just thought you’d like to know that…
JANE: “Ralph” = “Rafe”? You Brits are definitely pronunciation challenged.
Any other thoughts on how folk music stays “alive” rather than being trapped in tradition?
ALAN: Absolutely! Not only do the lyrics vary, so do the musical styles. On the one hand, you might find the much derided Morris Dancing music, on the other hand something vaguely Elizabethan involving dulcimers and lutes, and on the gripping hand something with pounding rock rhythms. All can live happily together, and indeed all may well be in the repertoire of a single group of people.
I have a record of Morris Dancing music which Robin absolutely hates (though I love it). Once I had a student on a course who asked if he could leave early on the Friday afternoon because he had to get back home in time to attend a Morris Dancing ceremony to welcome the new sun. If he didn’t get back in time, the sun wouldn’t rise the next morning. He was completely serious. I made certain to time the course appropriately. I didn’t want to lose the sun…
JANE: I was introduced to Morris Dancing in Terry Pratchett novels. I’m not sure it made it to the U.S., although I’d be happy to be informed otherwise. Maybe re-creation groups have kept it going here. That would be very good, since making sure the sun will rise should not be left to any one population!
ALAN: Absolutely! Good backups are vital.
I spent much of my teens and twenties travelling the wilds of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire in search of obscure pubs with folk singers in the attic. I saw many of my heroes live. Traditionally, folk singers stick a finger in their ear, the better to hear their demonic wailings via bone conduction. Once I saw Martin Carthy (very famous in the field) playing live. He used two hands to stick fingers into both ears. Memory insists that he continued to play his guitar with one foot and his willy. But I must be making that up…
JANE: Well, if he was using his willy, that would explain why folk music gradually died out on the pop music scene. That’s a joke. I know folk remains a vital, multi-cultural musical force. In fact, it’s so varied that it’s unfair to lump all forms of folk music together.
For example, my immediate reaction if someone says “Do you like folk music?” is to wince, because I’m thinking of poorly done harmonies, badly-mixed albums where banjo, harmonica, and jangling tambourines overwhelm the gentler instruments, while school children shrill with atonal enthusiasm. This is like judging SF after reading a handful of poorly written pulp pieces.
ALAN: That’s a perfect analogy. You’re exactly right.
JANE: I love dulcimers… They’re magical. Harps are great, too. Good acoustic guitar, flute… All these make my heart soar. And, like you, I have a weakness for songs that tell stories.
Any suggestions as to groups I might like?
ALAN: Oh, I could make a huge list! But before I do, you need to understand that, in the UK anyway, everybody knows everybody else and the groups change personnel between themselves all the time. The cover of my LP The History of Fairport Convention is a family tree that attempts to define the coming and going of various personnel among various groups during the years 1967 to 1972. It’s so bewilderingly complex that at several points the diagram simply gives up.
So you must realise that the Steeleye Span who made the album Please to See the King in 1971 is a very different Steeleye Span from the group that made the album Parcel of Rogues in 1973. Nevertheless, there is a degree of stylistic continuity. Steeleye Span have always concentrated largely on traditional material.
Renaissance, on the other hand, while obviously influenced by the folk tradition, never performed any traditional material at all. The lyrics of many of their songs were written by a poet who rejoiced in the magnificent name Betty Thatcher-Newsinger (about whom I know nothing). The Renaissance members wrote their own music to go with Betty’s lyrics.
Pentangle straddled those two extremes with an eclectic mix of traditional and modern material.
And, more recently, I’ve fallen in love with a British group, Mumford and Sons. And an American group, The Decemberists. Both of them sing original material that is obviously very influenced by the folk tradition.
JANE: Thanks for the recommendations. I’ve heard of Steeleye Span and Renaissance. Jim might even have some of their albums.
Anyone else want to offer recommendations?