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Back to our roots

Tracing the utopian visions conjured by folk in the 20th century.

“Our system of education," wrote Cecil Sharp just over a century ago, "is...too cosmopolitan; it is calculated to produce citizens of the world rather than Englishmen." Sharp, one of the founders of what is now known as the English Folk Dance and Song Society, and generally considered the figurehead of the English folk revival, was unambiguous about what he considered to be the social use and importance of the music that he collected from England's rural heartlands. In his manifesto, English Folk Song: Some Conclusions, published in 1907, he set out a vision of folk music playing a significant role in schools, "to effect an improvement in the musical taste of the people and to refine and strengthen the national character. The study of folk song will also stimulate the growth of the feeling of patriotism."

Today, such sentiments continue to play into the hands of those who consider English folk music - and, indeed, the wider context of folklore and culture - to be linked inextricably to a sense of nationhood. It is a sense born of malevolent, snow-blind and isolationist attitudes of the kind recently exhibited by Brian True-May, producer of ITV's Midsomer Murders, who defended his all-white televisual bailiwick as "the last bastion of Englishness".

At the beginning of the 20th century, composers and critics were working to conjure a new and specifically English strain of music. We find here a type of nationalism very different from what is occurring today. It was able to make a distinction between a country's artistic and political cultures.

One composer who loved the first and had little time for the second was Ralph Vaughan Williams, who began his own folk-collecting sorties in 1903 and, in the years that followed, began to incorporate folk themes and texts into his compositions. His work at this time dovetailed with that of Sharp, but Vaughan Williams was equally enmeshed in England's visionary tradition - the poetry of Bunyan, Blake, Shelley, A E Housman and others - and was almost single-handedly responsible for redefining the music of the Church of England through his English Hymnal with Tunes (1906).

Vaughan Williams's music was founded on an indigenous mixture of spiritual and inspirational poetry and vernacular rural lore, but it lacked parochial intentions. The period of his artistic coming-of-age was marked by a jingoistic war of words between England and Germany - the composer Joseph Holbrooke, for instance, published articles on the superiority of English music over Germany's in the New Age magazine in 1914. By contrast, Vaughan Williams believed in "nationalism as a spiritual force in art" and longed for a "united Europe and a world federation" - but stressed that meaningful internationalism meant nothing if one had no understanding of local culture to bring to the table. This was a form of nationalism that fed into an expansive, borderless utopianism, rather than Little England insularity; a nuanced view that has lost nearly all traction in our time. "If the roots of your art are firmly planted in your own soil," he wrote, "and that soil has anything to give you, you may still gain the whole world and not lose your own souls."

Folk songs were kept alive in seclusion for centuries as an unofficial, vernacular culture, until antiquarians and archivists became anxious that they were about to die out and went in search of the villagers and labourers in whose memories they were preserved. The music of Vaughan Williams and other English compo­sers - such as Gustav Holst, Ernest Moeran, Frederick Delius, Ivor Gurney, John Ireland, Rutland Boughton and Cyril Scott - drew a particular melancholic bliss from the sense of exile from an Edenic, pre-industrial golden age. It harked back to a pagan Arcadia and the overlapping mythologies of the isles, from Arthurian legend to the Christian mystics, and was animated by a transfusion of folk music. While the spirit of Ned Ludd is to be feared whenever folk is on the table, this music never lapses into sepia-toned nostalgia but remains a utopian vision, a parallel dream-Albion, criss-crossed by pilgrims in search of private celestial cities.

Appropriately, it was the author of a book called The English Utopia, Arthur Leslie Morton, who in 1939 introduced one of the most important folklorists of the 20th century, A L Lloyd, to the singers at a tiny pub in Suffolk called the Eel's Foot. This led to the first BBC broadcast of a real, unscripted and spontaneous come-all-ye session. Lloyd went on to connect the old guard with the 1960s folk-rock movement, compiling a book of folk songs with Vaughan Williams in 1959 and acting as a musical consultant for the likes of Fairport Convention, Shirley Collins and Steeleye Span.

These younger artists emerged from the musical underground with an innate feeling for English music, resetting traditional songs in an electric idiom and composing their own. Fairport Convention's "Meet on the Ledge", released in 1968, is the inverse of "Auld Lang Syne", a melancholic gathering of departed souls rather than a joyous reunion. Collins's
album Anthems in Eden (1969) - a collection of rural songs recorded using period instruments - is haunted by the ghosts of the First World War dead, as village maypoles are replaced with war memorials. The string arrangements on Nick Drake's superlative debut, Five Leaves Left, recall Gerald Finzi or Frank Bridge. The folk-rock singer-songwriters of the 1960s and 1970s were modern equivalents of the rich seam of English art song that dates back to the Tudor and Elizabethan lutenists.

In their electrification and use (abuse, for some) of folk music, these artists seemed to have unconsciously arrived at a similar conclusion to Sharp: that folk "comes to us destitute of association, unlinked with the past - like an ancient building newly restored, with walls scraped and cleaned and stripped of their moss and fern". Such language invokes the writings and beliefs of William Morris, a conservationist and lover of the ancient English landscape as a repository of myth and as a sanctuary against the "scrape", or the thoughtless, destructive effects of Victorian capitalism and industrial progress. A folk song, newly minted in the mouth of anyone who sings it, carries within it the potential for a new beginning.

Any music that involves the word "folk" is, at some root level, inherently democratic and concerned with the Morrisian dream of the classless society: the expression of the rural or urban mass whose voices, until 60 years ago, were seldom if ever heard in the public sphere. Its counterpart - the folk-pastoral strain in English art music and folk rock - may not have resolved the contradiction between conservatism and radicalism, but that only reflects the contemporary condition of Englishness itself. As Peter Warlock once said of the music of Delius: "It brings to mind an echo of an imminent beauty greater than the ear can hear, that whispers to us of an unchanging garden from which we have been banished for a season: and we feel that all the sorrow of the world springs from this sense of exile." l

Rob Young's "Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain's Visionary Music" is published by Faber & Faber (£17.99)

This article first appeared in the 04 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Who are the English?