SING – FOLK – SPEAK

Talking about dialect, place and identity in folk song

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).