Talking about dialect, place and identity in folk song

Listen to Sing-Folk-Speak 2012 April 15, 2013

Here are a series of recordings made at Sing-Folk-Speak 2012, which took place at the Rude Shipyard, Sheffield. Sing-Folk-Speak 2012 focused on the theme of dialect in folk song. Dr Fay Hield and Dave Burland were on hand to provide songs and insights into their thoughts on the role of regional language in traditional music. They were joined in conversation by Professor Joan Beal, Dr Rod Hermeston, Dr Barbara McMahon and myself, as well as those Sheffield folk fans who turned up on the day and were eager to get involved. The recordings, made in June of last year by Joe Glentworth, feature all of Fay’s and Dave’s performances as well as a good deal of the discussion.

I would like to thank Fay and Dave as well as the other participants, who kindly permitted these recordings to be made freely available via this blog. I would also like to thank Joe, who did a tremendous job of recording the event and mastering the audio files. If anyone knows of any reason why any specific recording should be removed, please get in touch with me at the following address:

In the case of each recording, I’ve added a few introductory notes. If you have any further questions or thoughts on the subject, please share them via the comments section below.



Here Fay and Dave explain how they got involved in the world of folk music.



In this recording, Dave sets the lyrics of this widely-loved Yorkshire folk song to the melody of an American traditional song: namely ‘The Lakes of Ponchartrain.’ This adaptation, I think, offsets the themes of displacement and migration explored by the lyrics in a highly compelling way. For more information about this song, have a look here.



Here Dave discusses his first encounter with the song and explains his choice of melody. Joan Beal reflects on alternative versions by other performers, including the Irish singer, Christie Moore.



Here, and not for the first time, the dominating presence of Ewan Maccoll on British folk song is considered. Dave, Fay and other participants discuss whether performers should attempt to sing in their own accents or replicate the dialects of songs from other places, and consider the comedic possibilities of this sort of mimickry.



In this version of a Scottish song, Fay discusses the differences between songs of Scottish and Yorkshire origin, and explains her decision not to adopt the Scots dialectal elements of the source text from which it was drawn.



Fay gives a wonderful unaccompanied performance of Kemp Owen, a track that also appears on her debut album, Looking Glass.



Here Dave performs Ewan Maccoll’s The Manchester Rambler. Following the performance, he reflects on his experience of recording an album of Maccoll’s songs with Dick Gaughan and Tony Capstick in the 1970s, and the ways in which their different accents and voices complemented one another.



In this recording, Fay reveals the nineteenth-century American origins of this song, and explores the issues that arise when songs from one country are adapted for the voice and accent of a singer who hails from another.



Here the audience and the performers ruminate on a veritable cornucopia of questions, including the following : how consciously do folk singers use dialect? How and why do singers change the ways in which they sing songs over time? How have recording and mass media affected the way that we absorb and learn folk songs? Do audiences at folk clubs change their voice to match the accent of the singer? Do we acquire our singing accents and our speaking accents in different ways?



Dave performs the Geordie song ‘Rap ‘er t’ bank’. This is not the only Geordie song in Dave’s repertoire (see The Tender Comin on his debut album, The Dalesman’s Litany).



Fay discusses the history of this Irish tune and explains some of the editorial decisions she made in adapting it.



Here Joan discusses the relationship between globalisation, nostalgia and folk revivals.



Dave recounts how he discovered The Barnsley Anthem, a song much loved by the natives of the eponymous town. Those seeking to learn more about the life of the song might be interested to know that Dave’s granddaughter, Christie Burland-Upton has produced a series of graphic works based on The Barnsley Anthem which can be found via this link.



Joan Beal and Rod Hermeston discuss the relationship between community and dialect, and consider the following questions: why did a boom in folk song and dialectology occur in the nineteenth century? Why do some places (for instance, Yorkshire, Tyneside and the Black Country) have a stronger regional identity than others? Why do some singers and speakers switch their dialects on and off to include (as well as exclude) other people?



Fay Hield and others consider the definition of folk music, and ask: at what point do songs become traditional folk songs? Who decides?



Joan Beal discusses the difference between dialect and slang. An audience member unfondly remembers a teacher who dismissed Barnsley dialect as slang.



Joan Beal explores the ways in which songs help to bring the idea of a dialect into being, citing the example of the Arctic Monkeys whose music has raised global awareness of the Sheffield dialect.



Here Fay discusses and sings a Derbyshire folk song she first heard performed by Keith Hendrick. Fay’s partner, Jon Boden, has also recorded this number as part of his ‘A Folk Song in a Day’ project. His thoughts on the song can be found via this link.



Dave describes how he first encountered this tune through the Elliots of Birtley, a family of folk singers and miners based in the North-East. For more information about the family, follow this link.



Fay sings a comedic Yorkshire song and recounts how she discovered it in the Huddleston collection.


I hope you’ve enjoyed these performances and discussions as much as I enjoyed experiencing them first-hand. I’ll shortly be releasing the details of Sing-Folk-Speak 2013, which will also take place in Sheffield. Thanks again to all who participated.

Alex Broadhead


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).