Talking about dialect, place and identity in folk song

Teachers, Ramblers and Spectres – a brief note of thanks June 28, 2012

A massive thanks to everyone who came to the Rude Shipyard on Sunday and helped to make Sing-Folk-Speak a success. Dr Fay Hield and Dave Burland were on brilliant form – both in their singing and in the insights they shared into the world of folk clubs and the role of dialect in folksong. It was clear from the start that the folkies who turned up on the day had a deep love of the music and had fascinating dialect-related observations and memories to share. One folk fan from Barnsley remembered a schoolteacher with a strong Ilkley accent informing him that Barnsley dialect wasn’t proper dialect, but slang. I suspect the same schoolteacher would have struggled to stick to that position after hearing Dave’s rendition of ‘The Barnsley Anthem’.  Professor Joan Beal, Dr Rod Hermeston and Dr Barbara MacMahon were also present to offer an academic perspective on some of the issues. Joan reflected on the appeal of local ways of speaking and songs about specific regions in an increasingly homogenised world, while Rod shed light on the relationship between music hall and folk songs in Tyneside. Regular folk-club goers will be unsurprised to learn that no one missed an opportunity to join Fay and Dave in singing the choruses of the better-known tunes. I’m sure I wasn’t the only person present who was delighted to hear the good people of South Yorkshire trying on the Lancastrian vowels and consonants of ‘The Manchester Rambler’.

In due course I’ll upload a more detailed account of the event, along with selected audio excerpts (courtesy of Joe, who did a fine job of recording it) and photographs. Suffice it to say at this stage that the highlights for me were Fay singing a ‘Tha’ Lowks a Proper Swell Lass’, a song based on a Derbyshire dialect poem, and Dave performing a new version of ‘The Dalesman’s Litany’, set to the melody of ‘The Lakes of Pontchartrain’, a number thought to have originated in America. Indeed, the theme of cross-cultural meetings was a recurring topic of discussion. On more than one occasion the spectre of the great Salfordian Ewan MacColl passed through the room, as people recalled his infamous edict to the turns at his 1960s Singers Club that they only perform songs from their native regions, as well the numerous occasions on which he chose not to heed his own advice, by singing American and Scottish songs. Due to the efforts of everyone there, I’m glad to say that it was not the spirit of MacColl the inward-looking traditionalist that prevailed on Sunday, but rather MacColl the enthusiastic explorer of dialect songs from around the world. Thanks again to everyone who participated.


‘The Dalesman’s Litany’ and Joan Beal on the Urban Context of Folk Song June 22, 2012

Filed under: Songs and Texts — alexbroadhead @ 3:24 pm

On Sunday, Dave Burland will play ‘The Dalesman’s Litany’. This song has long been a favourite at folk clubs and has been recorded by Christy Moore and Tim Hart and Maddy Prior, among others. Dave has hinted, however, that on Sunday he will put a new spin on the song by setting it to a different melody.

The song seems to have been first published in F. W. Moorman’s collection, Songs of the Ridings (first published in 1918), although Moorman includes no notes regarding its authorship. The text of the first stanza of Moorman’s version is as follows:

It’s hard when fowks can’t finnd their wark

Wheer they’ve bin bred an’ born;

When I were young I awlus thowt

I’d bide ‘mong t’ roots an’ corn.

But I’ve bin forced to work i’ towns,

So here’s my litany:

Frae Hull, an’ Halifax, an’ Hell,

Gooid Lord, deliver me!

Compare the above with Dave Burland’s version, which reflects more faithfully his own accent:

It’s hard when folks can’t find their work

Where they was bred and born;

When I was young I allus thought

I’d bide midst rooits and corn.

But I’ve been forced to work in towns

So here’s me litany:

From Hull and Halifax and Hell,

Good Lord deliver me!

In English in Modern Times (2004), Joan Beal suggests that it was precisely the urbanisation against which ‘The Dalesman’s Litany’ protested that, paradoxically, created a demand for songs such as this:

This song […] is typical of a genre of popular writing in urban dialect which emerged from the late eighteenth century. The growth of the urban population in towns and cities such as Newcastle, Manchester, and indeed Halifax, led to the creation of a market for popular forms of literature in dialect. This took forms such as almanacs, columns in local newspapers, and songs and “recitations” in the mechanics’ institutes and music halls that were opened for the entertainment of the urban populations. (p.204)

If anyone has any further information concerning the authorship of this song or versions by other performers, I’d like to hear about them (in the comments section below).


Fay Hield

As a solo performer, Dr Fay Hield has recorded two albums, namely, Looking Glass (2010) and Orfeo (2012), the first of which was nominated for a Horizon Award at the 2010 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards. In both albums, Hield draws on songs from a dazzling variety of sources, including ‘Kemp Owen’ (on Looking Glass), a Scottish song that she adapted from a text in the Oxford Book of Ballads (1910), ‘Serpent’s Tail’, an eighteenth-century American song (on Orfeo) and ‘The Old ’Arris Mill’, a traditional song in Lancashire dialect (also on Orfeo). Fay has also intimated that, on Sunday the 24th, she will play a comic song in the Yorkshire dialect, entitled ‘The Cat, the Mouse and the Cask of Ale’ , which she has not to date recorded, and which, she has intriguingly suggested, contrasts in an interesting way with her better-known work.

Hield’s work as a professional performer feeds into and is fed by her work as a teacher and researcher in Ethnomusicology at the University of Sheffield. Her research encompasses the ways in which folk clubs and circles define themselves as communities and the formal elements of the folk singing style. She is interested in the points where these two topics meet: namely, the relationship between the style of a singer (including their accent) and the networks to which they belong. One of her areas of specialism lies in the prevalence of regionalism in folk music, and the role that accent plays in this. For that reason, along with the regional eclecticism of her repertoire, it is difficult to think of anyone better suited to shed light on the subject of folk song and dialect.

For more information about Fay Hield, see the link to her homepage in the right-hand column.


Dave Burland

Dave Burland has been performing and recording since the late 1960s. He has ten albums to his name, some of which are the fruit of collaborations with other musicians. On the Songs of Ewan Maccoll (1978), for instance, Burland teamed up with Dick Gaughan, from Leith, and Tony Capstick, a fellow denizen of South Yorkshire. Like Burland’s debut solo album, The Dalesman’s Litany (1971), the Songs of Ewan MacColl includes tracks set in a variety of regions and dialect from different areas. Most notably, in Maccoll’s composition ‘Schooldays End’, the dialect shifts between Scots, Yorkshire dialect and Welsh English as the narrator of the song addresses miners in Scotland, the north of England and Wales respectively.

On Sunday, Burland will perform the title track from The Dalesman’s Litany, a nineteenth-century song in Yorkshire dialect that protests against the uprooting and displacement caused by industrialisation and urbanisation (follow this link for more information about the song). Dave will also perform ‘The Barnsley Anthem’, a text that he discovered in a chapbook and set to music. Like ‘The Dalesman’s Litany’, ‘The Barnsley Anthem’ combines Yorkshire dialect with a defiant attitude towards the iniquities of life in the industrial north. Burland doesn’t just play British folk songs however, but often includes American songs in his set. His work to date testifies to a longstanding interest in songs from different regions and a readiness to explore different voices and places through his music. It is this that singled him out as an ideal performer to play at Sing-Folk-Speak.

For information about Dave Burland, see the link to his homepage in the column to the right of this entry.


Dialect in Folk Song June 21, 2012

Sing-Folk-Speak is partly a gig and partly a conversation. Dr Fay Hield and Dave Burland will provide the music, in the form of dialect songs from the British Isles and beyond. The conversation will be supplied by you: that is, the public, alongside Fay, Dave and academics from the University of Sheffield, including Professor Joan Beal. The event itself has been funded by the University of Sheffield.

Folk music and dialect have always gone hand in hand, like Ilkley Moor and hatlessness. Eighteenth-century anthologies featuring folk ballads, such as Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765) and the Scots Musical Museum (1788-1803), edited by James Johnson and Robert Burns, are some of the best repositories we currently have of dialect words, idioms and grammar from before the dawn of recording and broadcasting. Take the following passage from the Scottish song ‘Waly, Waly’, for instance, versions of which have been recorded by folk artists including June Tabor and John Jacob Niles:

Now Arthur-seat sall be my bed,                                                              [shall]

The seats sall neir be fyl’d by me:                             [shall never be defiled]

Saint Anton’s well sall be my drink,

Since my true love has forsaken me.

Marti’mas wind, when wilt thou blaw,                                                [blow]

And shake the green leaves aff the tree?                                                [off]

O gentle death, whan wilt thou cum?                                                  [when]

For of my life I am wearìe.

(Percy’s Reliques, 1765, vol. II, p.114)

Here, in what Percy describes somewhat vaguely as an ’ancient song’, we find a combination of Scots terms, such as sall and blaw, and Scottish points of reference, such as ‘Arthur-seat’. Of the latter, Percy elaborates: ‘Arthur’s-seat… is a hill near Edinburgh; at the bottom of which is St. Anthony’s well’ (p.114). The song offers a record of the features that made up the topographical and linguistic landscape of a particular time and place.

But folk song isn’t just a museum for old and obsolete ways of talking. As far as many of the folk revivalists of the 1950s and 1960s were concerned, folk song was part of a rich and vital working-class culture. For those who were sympathetic to the radical left, it provided an alternative to the perceived elitism of classical music and the profit-oriented mass entertainment of the hit parade. From this point of view, dialect words and expressions in song can be seen as a celebration of working-class ways of speaking that in other contexts (high culture and the mass media) might be stigmatised or suppressed.

Sometimes folk performers sing dialect songs as an expression of their own regional identity. At the Sing-Folk-Speak event on Sunday 24th, Dave Burland, a native of South Yorkshire, will play ‘The Barnsley Anthem’, a song that he discovered in a chapbook and set to music. But some folk singers also perform songs featuring dialect from regions besides their own, as a way of playing around with persona and voice. In fact, the motivations for folk performers to sing dialect songs are too numerous to list in a single blog entry, which is all the more reason why an afternoon should be dedicated to the exploration of this topic!

Although there is no way of wholly predicting which direction the conversation will take on Sunday, it is likely that the following four questions will rear their heads:

(1) What makes a folk performer sing in their own dialect?

(2) What makes a folk performer sing in the dialect of a region besides their own?

(3) If you take the Yorkshire dialect (for instance) out of a Yorkshire song, in what ways can it still be described as a Yorkshire song? Is there such a thing as a Yorkshire melody or typically Yorkshire subject matter? (Dr Fay Hield will explore some of these issues through her adaptation of the Scottish song, ‘Kemp Owen’).

(4) What is the relationship between American dialect songs and British dialect songs? Is the use of British dialect in song a reaction against Americanisation? Or has the use of dialect in American folk song historically provided a precedent for British singers to use their own accents and dialects?

Over the course of the next few weeks, I’ll upload further information about some of the topics discussed in this entry, as well as biographical information regarding Fay Hield and Dave Burland. In the meantime, we look forward to seeing you on Sunday 24th (see About Sing-Folk-Speak for details of the event).