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Library Lecture: Invisible Music: Angela Carter and Folk Song by Polly Paulusma

  • Date: 20th Mar 2019
  • Cecil Sharp House
  • Organiser: EFDSS
  • Website

“It is a surprisingly little-known fact that the novelist Angela Carter was a folk singer in the 1960s second-wave folk revival. A newly unearthed archive reveals that she not only co-founded a folk club in the 1960s with her first husband, folk producer Paul Carter, but that she also sang there fortnightly for several years.

This lecture will firstly collate some of the evidence of Carter’s folk singing praxis through revealing some key details from the newly-discovered archive, as well as passages from Carter’s 1960s diaries, the album sleeve-notes she authored for Topic releases and recordings of her singing and playing.

We will take a look at some extracts from her undergraduate dissertation on folk song’s relationship with medieval poetry, and her 1964 student article ’Now is the Time for Singing’ which was published in Bristol University’s student magazine Nonesuch, to get a picture of how she felt about folk song at that time, and how highly she regarded it as an art form.

We will then go on to analyse some key extracts from her novels and short stories, to discuss how her intimate knowledge of folk song seeped not just into the subject matter of her writing but right down into the structure of it. We will pay particular attention to the short story ’The Erl King’ which appears in the collection The Bloody Chamber, looking at how the greenwood is re-rendered there through rhythm and prosody, and will look at ways in which her pronoun and tense shifts might correspond to perceived modal shifts in the folk songs she loved. We will also, if there’s time, take a look at some key passages from her first novel Shadow Dance, to propose that Carter was inspired by folk song’s acceptance of men being able to sing women’s songs, and vice versa, to write herself into the life of a man – a cruel man, at that.

This paper represents a small part of my ongoing PhD research at the University of East Anglia, which is asking questions about ways in which Carter’s folk singing praxis affected her imaginative output, in a bid to ask wider questions about ways in which musical performance imbricates itself in literary production more generally.

Polly Paulusma read English at Cambridge University and graduated with a First in 1997. In 2003, she signed a record deal with One Little Indian (home to Bjork), and publishing to Sony/ATV in Los Angeles. She has released seven indie-folk albums to date, and has toured the USA, Europe and the UK, supported Bob Dylan, Jamie Cullum, Coldplay and Marianne Faithfull, and played festivals including Glastonbury and Cambridge Folk Festival. In 2012 she founded indie-folk label Wild Sound, releasing the work of nine other artists including Maz O’Connor, a label which is now a folk imprint at One Little Indian. She is currently working on two new releases, an album of traditional folk songs which inspired Angela Carter, and a new studio album of original songs. She began teaching Cambridge English undergraduates in 2013 and subsequently returned to study, receiving a distinction for her MA in Contemporary Literature at King’s College, London in 2016. She is now a CHASE-funded PhD student at UEA, researching Angela Carter’s influences from folk song performance, under supervision from Dr Stephen Benson, and she continues to teach for the Cambridge English Faculty, specialising in song studies. In academic circles she goes by and publishes under her full name, Hippolyta Paulusma.”