The Whistlers - a new revolution

Thursday 5 October 2006 10:53

I was reading a fascinating article in the Canadian Journal for Traditional Music recently. the article was about AL Lloyd, the great English collector of folksong. Lloyd had a remarkable life - orphaned at 15, sent to Australia by his relatives to work as a labourer on the sheep ranches, educated himself through distance learning, returned to England and joined the Communist Party, sailed on a whaling vessel in the Antarctic, and so on. He was a man of remarkable intelligence and it was said he only needed three weeks to gain a working knowledge of a new language. His book The Singing Englishman, was, it seems, a radical new way of looking at the development of folksong. He saw it in Marxist terms, tough, anti-establishment, resistant, often revolutionary, but above all truthful about the lives of the urban and rural poor. One of his great interests was work song.

But what occurred to me was how important the ownership of folksong became in the twentieth century. One of Lloyd’s aims was to reclaim the songs of the poor from the slimy grasp of the elite middle-class folk societies that tended to gentrify the lyrics and set the melodies in orchestral contexts, or with the dreaded piano accompaniments. His own singing is raw, forceful, and tender. I am thinking particularly of the sailors’ song The Cruel Ship’s Captain, which tells the story of a captain who murdered a ship’s boy, or The Coast of Peru, a whaling song.

But in reclaiming the song tradition for its makers, Lloyd was also asserting a political stance – one that was quite clear in his personal life (he was a noted anti-fascist during the thirties, and only volunteered for the army in WWII when Hitler invaded Russia).

Lloyd’s work led on to that of Ewan McColl and the virtual ‘school’ of left-wing folk-singing that followed him, and also to the eloquent protest songs that have always been written, but which multiplied enormously in number during the period 1950-1980.

Having lived through the Irish folk revival, which coincided with the explosion of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, I am conscious of how political ownership of the folksong tradition has been here. The collectors of the late nineteenth century were often at pains to establish a form of distinct Irish imagination. This work is in evidence in Douglas Hyde’s editions, for example; elegant and moving but full of a Victorian reticence that had more to do with what the English said about Ireland, than with the reality described in the songs. I am thinking here, for example, of the lovely lyric Mo Bhrón ar an bhFarraige, in which Hyde neatly avoids translating the fact that the girl and her lover slept together. Declan Kiberd explains this obverse Englishness very neatly in his book Inventing Ireland. It is, he says, an Irish nationalist response to gibes about the indolent, feckless, immoral and drunken Irish. Hyde and his fellows responded by defining the Irish as everything the enemy thought they were not. (Or words to that effect anyway. I don’t have the book to hand to quote from it.)

In the sixties, the folk revival here had everything to do with a developing self confidence in Ireland, and also with a growing hostility to England as disaster followed disaster north of the border, reaching its height during the H-Block hunger strikes. In addition folk singers like Luke Kelly and Christy Moore, and to a lesser extent Frank Harte, were avowedly left-wing. They competed with groups like Comhaltas Ceoltoirí Éireann who were more middle-class and establishment in their outlook.

The development of faux-folk-singers (to coin a phrase) like The Wolfe Tones who were regarded as the IRA’s own marching band and whose speciality was ‘rebel’ songs, divided the movement.

Why has folk music, in particular, been such a battleground between the left and the right? What raises these beautiful songs to such iconic status? Perhaps Lloyd is right and it is the authenticity of the stories told, a counterpoint to the narrative of history as told by the educated elites - the true stories of mill-workers, sailors, ploughboys, soldiers, loom-breakers, highwaymen, cottiers, tailors, young women and young men of every religious persuasion and every colour who all shared one common humanity and who found someone to sing about it, or could sing about it themselves.

What is the relationship between politics and present day folk-song, if the modern music industry can be called that? I suspect that a temporary colonisation has occurred, and that Capitalism, as always, turns to the spectacle to distract the multitude. Most music nowadays lacks that essential truthfulness or authenticity that Lloyd regarded as the touchstone. It is difficult to find anything to do with real life in the endless iterations of stock scenarios - my baby left and I’m gutted, I met someone new and I’m delighted, you’re the best, you’re the worst, etc.

In fact, people rarely sing at all now - why should they when they have iPods, piped music and television? It is even rarer to find someone who whistles. I suspect also that a revolution will be near at hand when we start to hear people whistling in the street.

Website of The Canadian Journal for Traditional Music