Comment

Afraid or too embarrased to speak?

(September 15, 2007)

Is there fear and embarrassment in the English folk tradition?

Talking to songwriters, singers and bands to gain their views on where folk is going and how the folk style relates to people in the 21st Century, two questions appear:

“Why isn't there a wider acceptance of English music as part of England’s national culture in the same way as Irish or Scottish music is part of their culture?”

“Why is it compulsory for the English to parody English folk music or mock those who take part in singing, playing and traditional folk expressions such as dance?”

These questions keep cropping up so I thought that a brief wander through the collected thoughts might provide some views – not necessarily any answers though. Combined thought about the wider acceptance (or not) of English folk music, reflects the belief there is a broader inner battle within the English race over what is and isn't acceptable. Most people believe that this self-limiting approach is deep-seated in the English psyche. Does it creep into its musical tradition?

There’s a self-deprecating style to the English, which you tend not to find in many other nationalities. But why is this? The vast richness of English culture is surely something for pride not awkwardness. Now I know there are many vocal exponents of English music and dance (and much power to them) but compared with the voices from ‘Celtic knot’ that surrounds England, their voices are distinctly hushed.

In England right now it's cool to proclaim Celtic blood. The ‘Celts’ or those who proclaim Celtic ancestry are always eager to announce their heritage and defend it at any given moment. It has often been said that despite that fact they continually ‘war’ with one another, the only issue guaranteed to unite the Celts is their dislike of the English. Talk to someone about his or her roots and it takes but a moment to discover someone has a great grandmother in Dublin or a long-lost auntie from Glasgow. So do the English have the same pride? I think the answer is yes - but they don’t proclaim it so readily.

Are the English deeply troubled over the whole issue of patriotism and national culture? Right now the English government is continually apologising for this and that misdemeanour from history. Now, although many historically committed acts are now condemned by more enlightened days, they were hardly the fault of the average Englishman or woman in the street today. But this question is not steering a political course so let’s get off that tack. The general view is most English people don’t so much apologise for their culture, as remain vaguely embarrassed by it.

It’s clear there exists in England a mockery of folk performance (music, song or dance) that does not exist in Ireland or Scotland. Purely anecdotal evidence shows that if a local English pub tries a folk night (unless it’s an ‘approved’ folk venue) there is usually a drop off in customers. If a local English pub invites a Morris side to dance in the car park there are usually howls of ridicule the nights before. Even though many of the howlers have never seen Morris dancing before (interestingly many of the howlers still turn out to watch) they often go away quietly impressed.

Probably there’s a conservatism that has not allowed English folk traditions to remain current and relevant. Possibly, it’s because singing is not accepted in pubs in the way it is in Ireland. Spontaneously bursting into song in many English pubs is liable to get you thrown out, not so in Ireland.

There are well known singers and songwriters who have campaigned long and hard to revive and secure English traditions. Yet they seem to belong to the old school. Perhaps they're the new school that once was and the advocates have just grown old. Then again, there is a future that looks brighter. Performers such as Seth Lakeman and Eliza Carthy, who dare to cross the divide between museum piece tradition and contemporary popular culture may well be the vanguard of a new age of living traditional music.

So be not reserved England. Be proud of your traditions. They live and breathe today and don’t deserve to be the province of an enlightened minority or the ‘quiet’ people who won’t stand up for their birthright. They deserve to be shouted from the rooftops.

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