by Owen Ralph, musician and composer.
One of the most daunting things when setting out to build up your repertoire as a folk singer or musician is working out how to go about sifting through thousands of songs and their variants to find the right ones for you. How do you even spot the right song when you find it? Here are a few tips to get you started.
It really doesn’t matter what it is; the important thing here is simply to have something to jump off. An obvious one could be songs from your locality. Maybe songs on a theme or mentioning a particular word. The Full English Archive is a great place to go in these cases; the advanced search feature allows you to find songs using a range of different criteria. The Bodleian Library’s online broadside collections are also worth a trawl; as with The Full English, you will often find several versions of the same song to give you more to play with and they too have a comprehensive advanced search feature.
The great thing about searching in this manner is you will almost certainly get side-tracked. You might start off looking for songs from Guildford, but something may well jump out at you and lead you off in a completely different direction. That’s fine! Go where the songs lead you.
Another good starting point could simply be to pick up a particular book and have a browse. Again, it really doesn’t matter what the book is; often the best songs turn up in unexpected places. If you don’t have any songbooks to hand, pick a collection at random on The Full English and have a browse. You could even switch off the computer (shock horror!) and take a trip to a physical library – the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library obviously being a great choice if you’re in the area!
This is a really important stumbling block to move past right at the start. Worrying about the extent to which your material possesses this vague ‘traditional’ or ‘folk’ quality is going to really limit you. Apart from anything else, the whole idea of folk-ness is a purely imagined concept; it exists only in the mind, so isn’t really a testable notion by most definitions (and all such definitions tend to be rather problematic).
The important thing is finding a song over which you feel some sort of ownership, where there is no firmer reference point than the enjoyment and creative impulse the song inspires in you. That’s the big difference between folk singing and ‘covering’ a pop song, where there is a definitive recorded version. The same applies to a composer’s score in the Classical music world; that piece of sheet music is gospel, change it at your peril! Conversely in the folk music world (where the ‘definitive version’ is a non-existent concept), when you find a song in a written source, it’s yours. Whether it’s “older than Jesus Christ”, as Cecil Sharp’s source singers supposedly claimed, or if it’s what Sharp would have passed off as a rubbish ‘modern’ song, it makes no difference. If you like it, sing it.
Well okay, maybe not everything. You probably ought to stop singing and do the laundry at some point. But don’t wait until you find something that makes your concertina physically gasp in wonder before you open your mouth (maybe get your bellows checked if that does happen). When you come across something even a little bit interesting, give it a go! It doesn’t even matter if there’s no written tune or your sight-singing isn’t up to much; just warble something that sounds vaguely like a tune. Sometimes the really special moments don’t hit you until you run the words over your tongue. When I first learned Erin’s Lovely Home, I wasn’t that impressed until I sang through the line
“…That night being bright with moonlight we both set off alone…”
Seriously, try saying that out loud - what a fantastic line! There are a couple of other similarly delightful moments in that song for me, which is why it’s become one of my favourites. If you do have a written tune and the means to try it out, so much the better. It’s often an unexpected melodic inflection or a beautiful implied harmony that really makes a song shine.
Remember, the singing is just as important as the song; maybe even more so. If you don’t love the experience of singing it, maybe it’s not the right song for you (at least in its current form).
In your travels through old song books and manuscripts, you’re inevitably going to come across some things that make you flinch. Maybe it’s a bit too explicitly sexual, maybe it’s just incredibly twee, or maybe it’s the position in which I found myself when I first came acrossThe Man of Burningham Town in The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs.
I was immediately hooked by the excellent tune and began singing through the somewhat uncomfortable words, finding myself less and less keen the further I got. Martin Carthy used to sing that particular song, but according to the sleeve notes of the Selections compilation album, he
“…subsequently renounced and refused to perform [the song] again after realising the full horror of lyrics that appeared to condone wife beating. Being traditional doesn't excuse its nastiness, says Carthy.”
The lyrics really are quite uncomfortable, but that shouldn’t condemn an excellent tune to be forever unsung. When I interviewed Fay Hield back in May, she gave the perfect advice for this situation.
“Just change it. Turn it into something else. Rewrite it.”
From changing the odd word here and there, to adding and removing to entire verses, to divorcing the words from the tune entirely and setting different lyrics, you have the right to do what you like with a ‘folk song’. It’s a vital aspect of folk singing; not that you should rewrite absolutely everything you perform, but that you should feel entitled to do so if you feel so inclined.
There’s nothing wrong with singing a song everyone knows; that’s how these songs were passed through history in the first place. It’s great to bring a lesser-known gem back into being, but there’s more to folk singing than that. The singing matters as much as the song.
Everyone knows The Larks They Sang Melodious, but they may not have heard it from your mouth, filled with your personality, adorned by your subconscious creative impulses, learned in the way that you learned it. It’s the thing I find most exciting about folk singing; when a singer and song come together, playing off each other’s creative impulses and natural qualities, they create something greater than the sum of their parts. People may know the song, but a song in the abstract is nothing; it’s that moment of singing that matters.
The singing is just as important as the song. So get singing.
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of EFDSS.