Report from Georgina Rowe re Estella Canziani Bursary 2022
I was delighted to receive the Estella Canziani Postgraduate Bursary for Research this year, which facilitated an archive visit I took in mid-July to the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library at Cecil Sharp House. My PhD thesis explores the influence of the old songs upon newly composed traditional folk music in the twenty-first century, with tropes and genre conventions of centuries past being carried through to newly composed songs of the present.
My view is that these artists are as, if not more, involved with the old songs than the artists who simply cover them, due to this intertextual relationship between the new compositions and the old songs that came before them: the new are indebted to the old in that they created a genre from within which their descendants were crafted. In order to outline this genre, I first needed to conduct some primary research into the old songs and their conventions, and as such a trip to Cecil Sharp House was inevitable.
While there, I spent a day looking at some hektographs of Percy Grainger’s folk song collecting. Grainger’s collection was of particular interest to me given how his methodology – recording the singers on wax cylinders and then repeating the recordings upon transcription – allowed him to ‘gain a much more accurate idea of the relationship of notes’ (Pegg, p.17). Grainger was concerned with accents and dialects, transcribing the singers as directly as he was able, as shown through the ‘explanation[s] of signs’ (below), and a system very similar to the International Phonetic Alphabet pertaining to how he transcribed vowel sounds.
While looking through the hektographs, I was examining them for genre markers of English traditional songs, such as the phrases “pretty fair maid” and “as I was a walking”, and the use of rhetorical devices like isocolon – the use of parallel structures, like “I came, I saw, I conquered” – as well as repeated refrains. Conventions such as these will be the glue that holds my arguments together when I reach the close reading and analysis stage of my project, and I have already begun some preliminary close readings into songs by artists like Trials of Cato, Edgelarks, and Greg Russell.
For example, a point of interest in Danny Peddler and Greg Russell’s ‘S.K.Y.’, from the album Field and Dyke, is when they begin the second verse with:
More faces I don’t know
Less tongues I understand
Less communal work
Less living off the land…
This is a great example of isocolon, which can be seen throughout the old songs, such as in the last lines of each stanza in ‘The Lowlands Low/Golden Vanity’ [Roud 122]:
1: As she sails in the Lowland low.
4: I’ll sink them in the Lowlands low.
7: And I’ll drown you in the Lowlands low.
Both songs use the same structure in each of the lines of isocolon, foregrounding the differences between them for narrative effect, but in different ways. In ‘The Lowlands Low’, these lines become synecdoches for the narrative progression of the song, summing up what has occurred in each of the stanzas. In ‘S.K.Y.’, the repetition of ‘more’ and ‘less’ add an anthemic quality to the lines, as if they are being chanted by workers at a union rally.
Through searching these old songs, as collected by Percy Grainger, for tropes and conventions typical of the form, I quickly found similarities between traditional folk songs of the past and present. While the specifics of topic and word choices have evolved throughout the centuries, the themes and conventions used to convey them remain consistent, and it is my contention that this is what makes modern day folk sound recognisable to fans of the genre. Modern practitioners echo the old songs of generations past through these tropes and syntactic customs, writing back into the traditions that characterise folk music in England.
The theme of leftist politics and workers’ rights brought out in Danny Peddler and Greg Russell’s work is of particular interest to me, and I was thrilled to explore the secondary materials available at Cecil Sharp House, which were too specialist to be held at my home institution. Of particular interest was Robin Ganev’s Songs of Protest, Songs of Love, a book which ‘examin[es] the relationship between historical change and popular songs’ (Ganev, p.2).
I was particularly taken by Ganev’s concept of songs about ‘complaining’ (Ganev, p.42): it has advantages over the starker concept of “protest songs” as it describes a subsection of songs which similarly take issue with a singer’s circumstances, but without a direct call to action, making it a far more inclusive category. It reminded me of an interview Sam Kelly (of the Lost Boys) did with Mark Radcliffe, where he stated that the song ‘Nature’s Law’ was ‘as close to an angry protest song as we will get’. The song itself is the epitome of a song of ‘complaining’ – meant in the most neutral way, with Ganev adding that the form allows singers ‘to express dissatisfaction with the prevailing social relations’ – as it discusses the problems of capitalism without offering a solution, besides “wake up”:
You pay to live, you pay to die
And while you’re paying for each breath, there’s no time to wonder why
Strung and bound by others’ greed
And the hunted never hunt, and the butchers never bleed,
And the butchers, the butchers never bleed.
Not only does this fact mark ‘Nature’s Law’ as a ‘song of complaining’; it also fits within the notion of capitalist realism, as outlined by Mark Fisher: ‘it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism’ (Fisher, p.1). But as Ursula Le Guin is often quoted as saying:
We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable — but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.
Folk songs have the capacity to exact change, or at the very least influence listeners’ opinions, so by challenging capitalism as Sam Kelly and the Lost boys, as well as many others, do, we may begin to exact change. After all, as Robin Ganev asserts, ‘like riot, protest songs could be a powerful form of protest’ (Ganev, p.45).
Fisher, Mark, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? London: Zero Books, 2009.
Ganev, Robin, Songs of Protest, Songs of Love. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009.
Kelly, Sam, from ‘Sam Kelly and the Lost Boys’, The Folk Show with Mark Radcliffe, BBC Radio 2, 1 September 2021.
Le Guin, Ursula, ‘Speech in Acceptance of the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters’, Ursula Le Guin (2014) <https://www.ursulakleguin.com/nbf-medal>
Pegg, Bob, Folk: A Portrait of English Traditional Music, Musicians and Customs. London: Wildwood House, 1976.
‘The Lowlands Low/Golden Vanity’ [Roud 122] from The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs, edited by Ralph Vaughan Williams & A.L. Lloyd. London: Penguin, 1959.
Kelly, Sam, and The Lost Boys, ‘Nature’s Law’ from The Wishing Tree [CD], Pure Records (2021).
Russell, Greg, ‘Field and Dyke – Lyrics’, Greg Russell (2019) <http://www.gregrussellfolk.co.uk/field_dyke.php>