Sing-Folk-Speak 2013 is partly a gig and partly a conversation. This year, at the Greystones pub on the 23rd July (8pm), we’ll be talking about the city, the countryside and South Yorkshire in folk song. Nancy Kerr and Ray Hearne will play songs that reflect the many faces of urban and rural life, and, in between the performances, they’ll be joined in conversation by academics from the Universities of Sheffield and Liverpool. They’ll also be joined in discussion by you: that is, the good people of South Yorkshire (and further afield). If last year’s event proved anything, it’s that a conversation at Sing-Folk-Speak can head off in any number of unexpected and interesting directions. You don’t need to be from South Yorkshire and you don’t need to know anything about folk music to join in. All you need is an ear for hair-raising music and a stomach for hearty discussion!
What do folk songs reveal about the places we inhabit? They show us what town planners, tourist boards and travel guides rarely do: the city and the countryside as they are lived in, struggled with and reimagined by the people. The city and the countryside of folk song are places with long memories, where deeds overlooked by historians are not easily forgotten. But they’re also places of wild transformation, where holidays, disasters, riots and miracles can turn old ways of living on their head.
In this entry, I’m going to talk a little bit about what I’ve learned about the city, the countryside and South Yorkshire from folk song. On the evening of 23rd July, I hope you’ll come down to the Greystones (or rather, up to the Greystones – it’s at the top of a steep road) and let us know what these issues mean to you.
The roots of British folk song are in the countryside and the lives of the agricultural working class. But it wasn’t until people began migrating en masse to the cities that folk songs began to be systematically written down and collected. You only have to look at the title pages of early eighteenth-century collections of folk song on Google Books, such as Allan Ramsay’s Tea-Table Miscellany, which was published in Edinburgh in 1824, to find evidence of this. Partly, this was because more printing presses, shops and readers were located in the urban centres. But it was also because the hardships of the city made ordinary people long for an idealised rural past like never before. The desire to escape the city has been a common theme of folk songs for centuries. As Joan Beal points out in English in Modern Times, ‘The Dalesman’s Litany’ is a classic example of this urban nostalgia (click here for more information). A more recent take on the subject can be found in Ewan Maccoll’s well-known and frequently covered song, ‘Dirty Old Town’ (copyright Maccoll):
I found my love by the gaswork’s croft
Dreamed a dream by the old canal
Kissed my girl by the factory wall
Dirty old town, dirty old town
I heard a siren from the docks
Saw a train set the night on fire
Smelled the spring on the smoky wind
Dirty old town, dirty old town
Clouds are drifting across the moon
Cats are prowling on their beat
Spring’s a girl in the street at night
Dirty old town, dirty old town
I’m going to make a good sharp axe
Shining steel tempered in the fire
We’ll chop you down like an old dead tree
Dirty old town, dirty old town.
The really interesting thing about this song is that it doesn’t offer the usual stereotypical images of a dirty old town: apart from the smoke there isn’t actually much dirt or decay here. Certainly, there are predators in the form of the policeman-like cats (or cat-like policemen), while the siren reminds us of the impersonal and unvarying nature of work in the city. But the singer still seems to find hope in the spring that he detects in the smoky wind and that embodies itself in the form of a girl up to unspecified business at night. Despite the title of the song, there are moments of beauty in Maccoll’s vision of the city, albeit beauty of a hard-to-find variety.
In the final verse, Maccoll offers us a powerful image of destruction, but also one of creation. The singer forges the axe to tear down the city, just as Maccoll wrote songs to fight the iniquities and injustices of urban life. It’s in the steelworks of the city that the singer finds the means to overcome it, and it’s through Maccoll’s imaginative reaction to the dirty old town that he resists it. This has little to do with the kind of top-down urban rebranding favoured by councils and corporations, and much more to do with the agricultural perambulators of the eighteenth century and the Occupy movement of the present day.
The songs of Ray Hearne, who will play at Sing-Folk-Speak 2013, are very much in this tradition. Take ‘Thurnscoe Rain’, from the album, Broad Street Ballads. In this song, set in the South Yorkshire mining town of Thurnscoe during the pit closures of the 80s, Ray describes seeing a woman standing in the middle of a rainstorm with an expression of what he calls ‘bleak end-of-tetherness’. Here’s what Ray had to say about the poem in a recent email:
Where was that woman going to go? What was that community going to do? What were those people meant to think and feel? How were they going to endure?
That was the word that resolved it for me – if they survive the rubbish that is heaped upon them, folk ‘endure’ – they gird their loins and battle on, usually un-dramatically – especially if you’ve got kids – and that’s what happened.
In the final verse of the song, Ray brings this to life in a profoundly moving way:
Now the broken shopping trolley’s still there waiting
The kids are laughing, splashing everything
She turns the corner, calls and they come running
And they walk home hand in hand in the Thurnscoe rain.
What I especially like about this verse is the disjuncture between the environment, which is embodied by an abandoned and broken trolley – that universal symbol of urban decay – and the children’s reaction to it. Their point of view allows them to transform and overcome their environment, and I wonder whether it is that which gives/gave the woman the strength to endure it herself.
Both Ray and Nancy Kerr have been influenced by the writings of Joseph Mather, a Sheffield-based file hewer and song-writer who lived between 1737 and 1804. Mather was a radical, whose songs lambasted magistrates and employers alike. His compositions enjoyed tremendous popularity in South Yorkshire throughout the nineteenth century, and not just because of their inspiring political message, but also because of the vivid picture they painted of the places and people of old Sheffield. The following are two verses from ‘Shout ’em down’s barm’, a song about the dubious pleasures of Yorkshire ale:
In Knock-’em-down Alley
I saw Tom and Sally;
Both lay senseless, as if they had been slain;
I could not help thinking
But they had been drinking
Too freely of smit’em, cut-throat and tear-brain.
I told our old woman
Her drink was uncommon,
Since two of her customers thus were done o’er;
One quart of her stingo
Would make the dumb sing-o,
The man that falls with it will never rise more.
(from John Wilson (ed.) (1862) The Songs of Joseph Mather)
In the 1862 edition of Mather’s songs, the editor notes that Knock-’em-down Alley was ‘the narrow passage opposite the top of Townhead-street’ and that ‘Shout ’em down’ was the local’s name for a ‘the “Norfolk Arms” public house, at the bottom of Norfolk street’. As this song makes clear, Mather found poetry in the nicknames, in-jokes and local turns-of-phrase of his native city and used them to fashion an uproarious vision of urban life in eighteenth century South Yorkshire. In March of this year, Nancy took part in ‘Mather’s Offspring’ an event dedicated to Mather which ran as part of the Sheffield Folk Festival. At Sing-Folk-Speak 2013, if we’re lucky, Nancy will play some of the songs written by Mather that she performed in March.
But enough about the city: what about the countryside?
The countryside of folk-music has many faces. Most familiar is the idyllic pastoral realm of songs such as ‘As I walked through the Meadows’, a song collected by Cecil Sharp (1859-1924), the man who arguably kickstarted the British folk revival of the twentieth century. Here is one version of the song:
Young Johnny was a plough boy, so fresh as a rose
And so sweet-a-lie sang unto his plough
While blackbirds and thrushes on every green bough
While the dairymaid sat milking her cow
He took this fair maid by her lily white hand
Through the meadows they wandered away
He placed his true love on a green mossy bank
While he gathered her a handful o’ sweet may
And when he returned to her she gave him a smile
And she thanked him for what he had done
He spreaded the sweet may on her lilywhite breast
But believe me Sir there never growed no thorn
’Twas early next morning he made her his bride
That the world may have nothing to say
The bells they shall ring and the birds sweetly sing
While he crowned her the Queen of sweet may.
(in James Reeves, ed. (1961), The Idiom of the People: English Traditional Verse from the MSS of Cecil Sharp)
This is the countryside of British folk song at its most idealised. The meadows of this song are seemingly populated by one woman and one man, like the paradise of Genesis. While Johnny and his maid have jobs, there is seemingly nothing to stop them putting down their plough and cow when the mood takes them and courting one another. There are no famines, enclosures or crop failures in this particular version of British rurality. There is, however, a slight tension between the uninhibited sexuality of the lovers, and the repressive expectations of ‘the world’ which demands that they marry. But this is overcome through a cheeky and obviously insincere aside concerning the state of Johnny’s ‘thorn’ and, more symbolically, the transformation of a Christian ritual (the wedding) into a ceremony with more pagan associations (the crowning of the May Queen) in the final line.
Such representations aren’t all that folk songs have to offer where the countryside is concerned however. More often than not, the countryside is embodied by the chaotic market, or the dark and dangerous rural highway. It’s a place of riotous fairs, freewheeling strangers and dark deeds – of precisely the sorts of environments, experiences and encounters that we usually associate with the city. Take for instance the song ‘Copshawholm Fair’, which is set in a Scottish border village. This song has been recorded by a number of artists, including Steeleye Span and Maddy Prior and Tim Hart. Quoted below are some of the verses from a version recorded by Willie Scott (with thanks to the Mainly Norfolk website, from which these lyrics are reproduced):
Tis a day when courtships are often renewed,
Disputes set aside or more hotly pursued;
What Barleycorn Johnny sees fit tae declare
Is law for he’s king at the Copshawholm Fair
There are lads for the lassies and toys for the bairns;
There’s blin ballad singers and folk wi no airms,
A fiddler is here, an a thimbler is there,
Wi nutmen and spicemen at Copshawholm Fair.
There’s pethers an potters an gingerbreid stans,
Peepshows, puff an darts an great caravans;
There’s fruit frae aa nations exhibited there
And kail plants frae Hawick at the Copshawholm Fair.
Everything changes at the rural fair. It’s a place where desire – for food, love, toys, novelty – runs unchecked. As is made clear by the presence of ‘Barleycorn Johnny’, the old folk personification of beer and whiskey, it’s also a place where drunken chaos gleefully prevails over the laws of society or decency. ‘Copshawholm Fair’ reminds us that the oft-reproduced image of the British countryside as a stronghold of stable, unchanging values and traditions is a fiction. Here the local and homely meets the international and the exotic, and the domestic merges indistinguishably with the foreign. Of course, the fact that ‘fruit frae aa nations’ have made it as far as Copshawholm reveals quite how ubiquitous the effects of British colonial expansion were from the eighteenth century onwards.
Some folk songs have lived double lives, beginning in a rural setting and then being recast in an urban context. Jon Boden has recorded one such composition, ‘The Recruited Collier’, as part of his Folk Song in a Day project. According to the website of the project, the collier of the title was, in an earlier version, a farmer (more information can be found here).
That both versions of the song protest against the same problem – the heavy-handed ways in which the army has historically recruited soldiers – shows us that, in spite of their differences, the city and the countryside have always been sites of injustice and struggle for working people. Folk song allows us to view present-day struggles through a longer historical lens. But the really interesting ones, I think, show us that the outcome of those struggles is never a foregone conclusion.
By necessity, this has been somewhat of a potted and subjective account of what folk songs tell us about the city and the countryside in South Yorkshire and elsewhere. On Tuesday 23rd July, I look forward to hearing what Ray and Nancy and the other participants have to say. As I mentioned before, the conversations at Sing-Folk-Speak have a way of taking off in unanticipated directions, but here are some of the questions that we’ll be addressing:
· Do the places where we live affect the sort of music we listen to?
· How does the music we listen to affect the way we view the places where we live?
· What do folk songs tell us about the places where our ancestors lived?
· Is folk music a rural thing? Or does it come from city-dweller’s nostalgia for the countryside?
· Does folk music have anything in common with twenty-first century urban music in the way that both approach the city?
· Do folk songs reflect differences in the way that country and city people talk or think (in South Yorkshire and further afield)?
· Does South Yorkshire folk music have a distinctive identity that sets it apart from the folk music emerging from other places?
If you can’t make it on the 23rd, let us know your thoughts in the comments section.