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At the heart of English folk
John England

"We should all be folk singers"

by Fay Hield, folk singer, ethnomusicologist and lecturer at Sheffield University.

Fay HieldWe all know John England – England’s first folk singer – what a romantic story.  Cecil Sharp heard him in the rectory garden and heard his first folk song – the seeds of love – and the revival grew from there.  Rather glorified, but a nice story.  So who was John England, and why don’t we all go about our work singing as he did?

We have a shared common musical culture in England. It is in serious decline, but as a society we do ‘do’ singing. How many of us sing at church? At football matches? At birthday parties? In recent history we had pub sing-alongs round the piano, but before the industrial revolution we had much more music-making within communities. People playing for dances, singing in the pubs, at fairs and at family celebrations.

John England
John England

When industrialisation changed the landscape of Europe, altering people’s working and recreational habits, a way of life was lost. Corresponding nationalistic tendencies were rife and a movement to preserve national identities was instigated. Music was central to this. In Germany, the term ‘volkslieder’ was coined – and a movement to capture and record the songs of the folk began. This concept of preserving the music of the common people spread throughout Europe and many were inspired to collect remnants of a dying tradition here. To what extent these collectors were seeking to present a romanticised version of a rural peasantry is open to debate, but it is clear that a large repertoire and the practice of social music-making had previously flourished.

The work of these collectors has recently been made available online by The English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS) as The Full English, a digital archive containing over 58,000 scans of music, song and dances, journal entries and the scrap books of some of the most important collectors of this movement.

Their motivations were varied, and the types of materials they collected diverse. Ralph Vaughan Williams used tunes to inform classical compositions, Broadwood and Kidson made systematic collections of song materials, Sharp and Karpeles wanted to integrate music and dance into the national education system.

There are broadside collections, but mostly this is the raw data, scribbled work noted down in the field.  A lot of the material is in fragmented form, words separated from their tunes, and the ambiguity of the music shines through.  There’s none of the definitiveness of published volumes here.  Transience and fluidity of telling and re-tellings, multiple versions of the same songs appearing all over the country, re imagined to suit local contexts - the adaptability of the music really shows through.

Brigg Fair

At this point I must emphasise that this is not, as some may have it, a tool to discern some essential Englishness, a method of tracing the root of our culture to the exclusion of external influences.  It rather provides a fascinating patchwork of lived experiences and perspectives on life – a celebration of our nations’ diversity.

Commonalities do surface though, and the archive throws out time and again songs relating to the universals of love, death and drinking – songs of people making sense of the fundamental aspects of life. 

There are local songs talking of village life, hunt activities, re-tellings of battles, or ships at sea, pastoral romances, otherworldly ballads concerning fairies and magic.  This scope - spanning factual to fantasy - gives us space to play, and explore.

Moral issues are raised – songs of cuckoldry, infanticide, cannibals, lawyers...

The Hornet and the Beetle

I can’t possibly comment on my perspective, and indeed, singers themselves don’t necessarily align themselves with the characters in songs, we’re not all singer songwriters pouring out the details of our personal experiences, but we do have to position ourselves in relation to the issues to make sense of the performance. 

These performances are received, and moving beyond the individual singer’s morality, serve to reinforce community values. In this way, songs serve to test, and to an extent construct, the boundaries of societal morality. Whether we present a character as good or bad, shows our perception of the phenomenon being sung about.

We sing to share experiences, to position ourselves against atrocities – all are bonding and affirming of place.  This is something we are losing we are losing as a society – that sense of connection with the world.

We don’t have many songs in common any more, I’m hard pushed to find an example of something that the majority of people are familiar singing (beyond Happy Birthday and the odd Christmas carol).  And we don’t have many places left to go and sing.  There is a network of folk clubs, but this is attended by such a narrow section of society to make it specialist practice.  Now that beards are becoming ubiquitous again, perhaps it’s time for a folk singing uprising too?

In contemporary English society, music is created by the experts and consumed by the masses. X Factor style celebrities are voted out leaving the few to succeed.  In schools, musical education favours the elite through training high quality players for professionalisation – now Education Secretary Nicky Morgan suggests even this distracts from ‘core’ subjects and the inclusion of the arts in our education curriculum limits children’s ‘career’ choices.

People use the arts to make sense of the world and position themselves within it.  It strikes me that this life skill is lacking in the contemporary world leading to a disconnection between the individual and civic society.  Rather than removing opportunities to develop individuals’ creative capacity, the arts should be mobilised to embrace this. And this is important.

Through exploring the great questions of life the sociological imagination is awakened, individuals perceive themselves and their life struggles as part of a larger whole, a connected structure of being in this world.  Issues concerning daily life can be understood in broader terms, helping empower people to be the agents of their own change.  Connecting the local to the universal, bringing people and communities together, sharing concerns and ideologies, conceiving change…

In The Full English, EFDSS have gathered together a massive resource which can be used to explore the past and reflect on the present – it’s not about teaching a class to sing ‘Hey Nonny No’, (though there are huge therapeutic benefits from just singing raucously together) but people should also be considering the communities these songs grew from, using their structures and ideas to build new songs, new communities - contemplating their position in the world and telling it through these magical stories. 

The important element is active participation, not passively receiving the artistic vision of the few, but creating a societal reflection of the many, as represented in The Full English archive.

The Full English

Though our album was a huge success (and you all should definitely go out and buy it!) as Jon Boden recently said at the English Folk Expo (EFEx), society will probably be fine if it lost its professionalised folk music industry. If we lose the skill of social-music making, we are deeper trouble.

We should all be folk singers, and EFDSS’ archive - both as raw materials and as a snapshot of a communal expressive art form - should be mobilised and used creatively to confront the issues of our fragmented society head on.

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


#8 Ruth Wild 2015-06-07 10:44
For a very interesting look at current folk music education activity (including in music hubs and schools) see the recent EFDSS survey.
#7 Owen Ralph 2015-06-04 09:41
I'm not sure it has disappeared, Ruth. It sounds like you do some amazing work with exactly the right approach, which is fantastic, but that doesn't mean every establishment is like that. I left secondary education five years ago, and was told numerous times by my classical violin and bassoon tutors to stop messing around with that silly folk music hobby and concentrate on the proper classical music, or I would never be a concert violinist...
#6 Ruth Wild 2015-06-03 21:54
You say: 'In schools, musical education favours the elite through training high quality players for professionalisation.' I'm not sure what evidence you have for this. I have taught music in schools for over 30 years (Calderdale Music Service, Wakefield Music Service and now ArtForms, Leeds City Council). My colleagues and I strive to be inclusive and to teach in a variety of genres. The attitude you refer to largely disappeared from schools a long time ago. Please come and see us work - you would be welcome to visit ArtForms.
#5 Helen Mann - Ray 2015-06-02 19:19
I work in a Nursery and enjoy singing daily with these children. We sing nursery rhymes that their parents and grandparents learned and these have regional variations. However as children grow older and for us adults too, the opportunity to sing shared songs together declines and mostlpeople get embarrassed.
#4 Gavin Atkin 2015-06-02 07:59
Exactly right Fay. I have had a life long interest in this material and in the old singers, and for the reasons you've discussed here have for the last couple of years been running free monthly evenings where we sing through a version of a folk or occasionally an old fashioned song. I talk to the group about different versions and singing styles, and about using different sources with the aim of encouraging workshop attenders to develop their own take on a song, if they wish to. We're not a choir, but the workshops turn out to be a great sing as well - certainly it's the most concentrated two hours of singing that even I get each month. I'd even like to suggest that it's the kind of initiative that should be taking place everywhere. If anyone is interested in joining us, you can see what we've worked on and find out more about our workshops here: ng-workshops/
#3 Allan Cairns 2015-06-02 07:52
We should all be so true. The feeling of community when a group sing together is a wonderfull feeling a real experience. The rise in choir singing popularity gives stregth to this. Many times I've been at concerts and joined in with the masses as we have sang along to a popular tune. Our folk song tradition is vast and getting bigger as each generation adds thier own songs not just the rich folk/ songwriter catalog but also the equally as rich vein of songs the populace like to sing.
#2 David Knibb BA 2015-06-02 07:42
I fully agree with the article; it expresses what many of us "on the fringes" of music have always believed - there is nothing so uplifting as joining in with music and song, whatever your personal standards are. More people should be encouraged. To this end, we have refused to advertise as a "Folk Club" even though we really believe that we are a club for folk; we are an acoustic night - music, song, poetry all accepted and in any of the so-called genres.
#1 Mark Hingley 2015-06-01 20:40
An interesting read.
You're of course correct, and there does not seem to be songs passed through generations (except in the form of record collections), and so many of the songs sung by our family are lost to us. I love the idea of singing songs from the mid-lands and west country and wonder if my ancestors sang them centuries ago.
It's a strange thing to note that when people ask what music I listen to and I mention folk, they always ask " but what do they sing about?" I tell them that they sing about the world that they lived in, of violence, war, love, working the land, etc.
Many seem confused, I think because they can't connect to it-- like country dancing. Perhaps with the right song a connection could be made.
National Youth Folk Ensemble

National Youth Folk Ensemble


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