Gone for a song


Britain feels saturated with music, but there is precious little left of national origin and tradition. If there was ever such a thing as the voice of the people, it has faded and grown quiet, as the roar of imported music has overwhelmed our working and living spaces. A proud melancholy seems to hang over a new series of CDs on Tony Engle's Topic label, the pre-eminent source of British folk music and song on record.

The Voice of the People explores every aspect of traditional music, mainly through unaccompanied song, but also in the dance music of different areas. Over the space of 20 discs it offers a ghostly recollection of something that is almost gone. Reg Hall, who edited and annotated each of the discs, acknowledges that the cultures which succoured the singing and playing of working people have passed away. The ending of some of the hardships chronicled in these songs may be welcome enough. What one regrets is the loss of a creative tradition that transcends its original surroundings.

Most of the recordings captured here are by performers who had no reason to sing or play other than their liking for the expression which a song afforded them. They were in an oral tradition that was already venerable when they played their part in it. The oldest singer here, Joseph Taylor, was born in 1833, and was still a Lincolnshire bailiff when he was recorded in 1908. Those who followed him were of a diversity that is as wide as Britain could provide: threshers, hawkers, flax-beaters, trawlermen, plate-layers, ploughmen.

They sound like the essence of rural romanticism now, but Hall's copious notes on the lives of each of the artists make it clear how harsh, even savage, their working and living conditions were. Think of Enos White, the Hampshire farm labourer, a tough little man with a sweet, almost heart- breaking voice in the tragic ballad "George Collins". He was already ploughing with two horses at the age of eight - "Why, you got to know everything, you see, how to look after your horses, and plough and harrow and drag, binding, grass-cutting, drilling. And 15 bob a week! We brought up our family at 15 bob a week."

Since most of the recordings date from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, and were taken down when the singers were already at a great age, they seem like relics from a period that is unimaginably cruel. Hall's notes, which are so concentrated and fascinating that they are as valuable as the recordings themselves, frequently alight on a detail to shock an affluent society. May Bradley, born in Monmouthshire around 1900, sings the grim story of "Calvery" on volume eight. Born to a family of hop- and pea-pickers, she worked from the age of ten, hawking on a bicycle into middle age until her hands and feet gave out, and somehow managing to raise a family of 15 children. Fifteen children. No wonder she felt, as Hall calmly notes, that she had had a hard life.

If the booklets that go with each of the discs tell as much as they can about the performers, their voices still have the grace of anonymity. Instead of an artist's ego, the singers have the dignity of witnesses to a music-making that has barely survived the passage of time. Unlike the country blues of America, which was extensively documented on record, British folksong was never so lucky. While folk historians took down countless songs in manuscript, very little was recorded until after 1945, which was already too late. Most of these singers should have been caught in their prime, instead of as old men and women with often quavering voices. As vast as this archive seems, it is but a snatch of what was once heard all over Britain.

Hall has divided the songs into thematic issues for each of the discs: courting, hunting and poaching, nautical life, ballads tragic and lyrical, local and national events, seasonal celebrations, drink. There is a disc each for southern and northern dance music, done on accordions, fiddles, pipes and piccolos, and if some of the song collections can be hard work to get through, these lighter, almost frolicsome discs are the antidote. But the most powerful of the singers have a surpassing eloquence about them, even with words and tales that might have been worn smooth with time. The ballad collection on volume 17, It Fell on a Day, a Bonny Summer Day, has singing by Jeannie Robertson, Lizzie Higgins and Willie Scott, among others, that can humble self-important vocalists. It is not all doomsaying, though; many of the songs are born of merriment, and You Lazy Lot of Bone Shakers, volume 16, includes mummers, morris dancers, wassailers and even stranger rituals.

Folk music hasn't altogether gone, but it is now in the hands of committed performers such as Martin Carthy, featured in these pages a few weeks ago. The Voice of the People asks us to hear men and women who would have sung and played anyway, as part of their life. Since we now sit mute before televisions, there is no more singing at home; pubs everywhere, rural or otherwise, prefer piped music to nightly singing and stepdancing; buskers learn from jukeboxes, not forefathers. Even the language and accents of these singers are disappearing. It is a lost world.

This article first appeared in the 18 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, A time for unadulterated tradition