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At the heart of English folk
A.L. Lloyd

Folk song, radical?

by Dave Arthur, author of Bert - The life and times of A.L.Lloyd, former editor of English Dance and Song, musician and storyteller.

Dave ArthurIt’s ironic that in the late 1940s and early 1950s, just as the second English folk music revival was getting under way, the American urban folk scene (the inspiration and model for the nascent English movement) which had been promoted throughout the 1940s by a group of mainly left-wing activists such as Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Alan Lomax, Lee Hays, Millard Lampell, Cisco Houston, and others, was in retreat.

After the Second World War, with Fascism ostensibly defeated (that is if you don’t consider Capitalism to be merely Fascism with the gloves on) the Iron Curtain came down across Europe, and the Allies erstwhile bed-fellows, the Russians, were once again seen in their old role of Communist provocateurs hell-bent on the destruction of the western capitalist system. Nowhere was this more so than in the United States, where right-wing politicians were on their knees looking for Reds under their beds.

Seeger and Guthrie and many other folk musicians, intellectuals and fellow-travellers, who in 1945 set up the New York based People’s Songs, had been conspicuous Russophiles and supporters of the Russian Communist party from the early 1940s from when, as the Almanac singers, a number of them toured the country performing at union meetings and supporting striking workers on picket lines. Along with some traditional songs these young radicals were also writing and singing topical political versions of the easily played, easily remembered and catchy folk songs. Songs like Woody Guthrie’s ‘Union Maid’ set to the popular tune ‘Redwing’.

There once was a union maid, who never was afraid
Of the goons and ginks, and the company finks
And the Deputy Sherriff who made the raid.
She went to the union hall where a meeting it was called,
And when the company thugs came round,
She always stood her ground.

Oh you can’t scare me, I’m sticking to the union,
I’m sticking to the union, I’m sticking to the union,
Oh you can’t scare me, I’m sticking to the union,
I’m sticking to the union, till the day I die.

By the 1950s in America Communism and folk music were synonymous with anti-Americanism. And even the innocuous term ‘hootenanny’ - a musical and social get-together - was deemed by many on the Right to represent a covert proselytizing occasion for converting susceptible young (and not-so-young) people to Communism. To claim to be a folk singer sounded a virtual death-knell on one’s public performing and recording career. Some, like Seeger, refused to bow to the interrogation of the Un-American Activities Committee and suffered the consequences for many years, some dropped the word ‘folk’ from their publicity, others, like Burl Ives intent on keeping his own career on track as a singer and actor, denounced one-time folk-singing friends to the Committee. Yet more, including Alan Lomax, left the country and fled to Europe where, despite being under the somewhat amateurish surveillance of Britain’s MI5, Lomax spent ten profitable years collecting folk music around Europe, producing records, and writing and presenting dozens of folk music programmes for the BBC. 

While all this had been going on in America, and before left-wing singers became bogey-men, word of the ‘people’s song movement’ had travelled across the Atlantic and reached the ears of the English Communist composer Alan Bush who, in 1936 under the auspices of the Communist Party of Great Britain, had founded the Workers’ Music Association, the aims of which included, presenting to the people ‘their rich musical inheritance’, to ‘utilise fully the stimulating power of music to inspire the people’, and to encourage the composition of music ‘appropriate for our time’, all in the belief that the art of music can ‘move people to work for the betterment of society.’ A socialist society, naturally.

The WMA produced a series of modest educational paperback-books on various aspects of vernacular, classical and Soviet music. One of the titles, The Singing Englishman (1944), which they hoped would help in the re-discovery of their own lower-class people’s song traditions, was commissioned from the communist journalist, script-writer and folk song enthusiast A.L. ‘Bert’ Lloyd. The Singing Englishman examined English folk song from a Marxist standpoint; from the economic, social and cultural perspective of the ‘common people.’ Until then folk music had been the province of middle and upper class Victorian and Edwardian folk song collectors, publishers and arrangers such as Cecil Sharp, Lucy Broadwood and Vaughan Williams, and had been presented to the world through the prism of their class assumptions and prejudices.

Not much more happened for three or four years until Lloyd was lent copies of the Alamancs’ albums, bought in New York and brought back to the UK by a merchant seaman friend. The same albums were also lent to the young communist physicist John Hasted who, in the late 1940s, after leaving Oxford, came to work at University College, London.

For both Lloyd and Hasted, who knew each other through the WMA and the left-wing Unity Theatre, this was a revelatory moment. Here was an example of their two interests, folk music and Communism, brought together to create a cultural experience greater than the sum of its parts. Although they didn’t know it, across the Atlantic Alan Lomax was realizing the same thing. Before escaping to Britain he had recognized ‘a new kind of human being, a new folk community composed of progressives and anti-fascists and union members. These folk, heritors of the democratic tradition of folklore, were creating for themselves a folk-culture of high moral and political content. These home-made songs of protest and affirmation shared the permanence of the people’s tradition, but were most positive and more sharply critical than the familiar [folk] ballads.’(Robbie Lieberman, My Song Is My Weapon. U of Illinois Press, 1989, p87).

In 1949, fired with enthusiasm, over one of their weekly Soho lunches, Hasted asked Lloyd if he would like to start a political folk music group, based on the Almanacs. Lloyd leant forward and said, ‘Passionately!’ This was one of the defining moments in the birth of the second folk music revival. Soon Hasted and Lloyd along with classical guitarist and research chemist, Ernest ‘Nesty’ Revold, and Jean Butler, a banjo-playing American London University student, had formed arguably England’s first modern urban folk group, The Ramblers – named after the Woody Guthrie song ‘As I Go Rambling Round’.

Taking their cue from the Almanacs they soon put together a repertoire of American and British traditional songs and their own self-penned topical songs based on traditional models, and started performing all over London and the home counties at union meetings, CPGB fundraisings and WMA events.

By 1951 Ewan MacColl and Alan Lomax had arrived in London and had met up with Lloyd and Hasted and they set about creating a political musical movement, partly as an antidote to what the Brits saw as the swamping of British musical culture by American popular music on record and on the screen, and partly as a left-wing proselytizing exercise. As Alan Bush once said to Lloyd and Hasted when they were talking about the popular song ‘I Don’t Want to Set the World On Fire’ – ‘That, Comrades, is exactly what we do want to do’.

The folk revival kicked off led by the nose by Lloyd, MacColl, Lomax and Hasted, and north of the border by the likes of left-wingers Norman Buchan and Hamish Henderson. Although in Scotland and Ireland it wasn’t so much a ‘revival’ as a mere raking of the ashes and fanning of the musical flames.

The movement gathered impetus in the mid-1950s thanks to skiffle; an off-shoot of the trad jazz craze, from whose ranks came jazz banjoist Lonnie Donegan with his international hit ‘Rock Island Line’. Thus began a truly democratic nation-wide musical movement, few of the participants and audiences of which knew anything about ‘folk music’. This would come a few years later when the skiffle craze vanished as quickly as it had sprung up, leaving a lot of young people clutching guitars and banjos, wondering what to do now, and delving into the roots of the skiffle repertoire – the blues and folk songs. Their natural home being within the folds of the folk revival and in the burgeoning folk clubs.

Ultimately the Left lost control of the folk revival as it split up into a number of disparate factions – the traddies, the urban cowboys, the ‘entertainers’, the navel-gazing singer-song-writers, the blues players, the electric folkies, and the committed political writers and singers such as Leon Rosselson, Roy Bailey and Dick Gaughan (all three still going strong after several decades), and joined more recently by a growing number of new folkies, many of them virtuoso musicians who are taking the old folk songs and tunes onto a new musical level and appealing to a young urban, nu-folk, festival audience who know little or nothing about folk music and the rebel origins of the folk revival, they just like what they hear. And much of it, frequently performed by ethereal young women with schoolgirl voices, is pleasing on the ear, non-threatening, non-challenging, and asks for nothing but one’s money and devotion. For certain young people, adrift in uncertain financial, social and political times the music represents some sort of anodyne connection to cultural (and in some cases, Tolkienesque, magical) roots and maybe adds a dash of humanity to contemporary, electronic, computerised, society. A society that increasingly mistakes social networking, conducted in isolation via a computer screen, for a living, breathing, relationship with real people – a real society, a community.

It’s all a far forlorn cry from those early attempts to wrest British culture from the influence of the USA and the grasping hands of the big money boys in the entertainment industry, when folk music was rebellious and edgy and young people didn’t come out of a folk music degree course expecting an instant record deal, an agent, a diary full of folk festival bookings, and fawning, non-critical, effusive blather from folk magazine ‘critics’, and a gullible broadcast media that often seems to promote the folk musical equivalent of the Emperor’s New Clothes.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of EFDSS.



#1 Tim Stansfeld 2015-05-13 15:30
So I'm guessing you won't be buying the Unthanks next album then...

But seriously - a great blog post, but there are plenty of thoughtful and politically progressive young singers out there with new songs.

Lucy Ward's song "Lion" is one of my current favourites.
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