English folk music on the edge of an abyss

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I took this photo next to a cashpoint in the centre of Oxford a few weeks ago.  A few days later I saw another fascist slogan by another cash machine on the outskirts.  In the past I might have occasionally seen a fascist slogan scrawled on the door in a public toilet, but never out in the open like this.  And one week ago today, in what I imagine will prove to be a historical date, England and Wales (but not Scotland and Northern Ireland) voted to leave the European Union, and since then there have been enough news stories a spike in racially motivated attacks for the Prime Minister to comment on it.

Today, these are the pages that Facebook suggests I might consider joining:

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Now, I apologise for writing something overtly political here.  Generally speaking, I don’t feel my political opinions are interesting enough or relevant enough to share with the wider public.  That said, I have done so on this website from time to time, when a topical issue relates to the history of English culture, and particularly English music.  Which is an area that I do feel I know enough about to comment on.

I believe that neo-fascism is on the rise in England.  And if that sounds like too vague a statement, what I mean by that specifically is that years of media hate propaganda aimed primarily at one particular religion, combined with a financial crash and its economic fallout, have created a cultural climate in this country in which national identity is increasingly expressed in terms of hatred: of foreigners, of elites and above all of Muslims.  And I believe that the recent news stories haven’t even scratched the surface of how deep this hatred, and the problems that have caused it, goes.

Many people are expressing similar opinions in various forms of media at the moment, and plenty disagree with these opinions, but I don’t want to debate this here.  I only mention it because I believe that for anyone specialising in historical English music, as I do, this changes everything.

I’m presumably not alone in this, as I see that the Folk Against Fascism movement has started up again.  To quote their most recent post:

[Folk Against Fascism] started as a response to the appropriation of folk music and “Englishness” by the BNP [British National Party]. That’s not what’s happening now. It’s far worse.

In the wake of the referendum vote, the open hostility towards immigrants has become truly frightening. This is not the country many of us thought we knew.

I believe that we need to wake up to the fact that there are problems in English folk music (and for once I do mean ‘folk’) that make it ripe for being appropriated by racist hate groups.

I believe English folk music is on the edge of an abyss.  Thankfully, based on past experience it doesn’t seem very likely that it will fall into this abyss.  But then again, if you smell burning from the kitchen the chances are pretty high that it’s just a bit of toast stuck in the toaster.  Every once in a while, though, it’s the kitchen burning down.

English folk music has tended to seem pretty harmless culturally, particularly compared to punk or hip hop or pretty much any modern popular music genre.  English folk music is a niche within a niche (i.e. folk music), and the last place any modern critic would expect to find anything truly challenging to modern liberal values.

But I hope to demonstrate that folk music has been an important tool of fascism in the past, and to suggest that English folk music is currently susceptible to it in a way that, say, Scottish folk music is not.

One of the factors that makes folk music unique is that it is not defined by an artistic philosophy or a collection of popular artistic devices: it’s defined by region.  The whole point of Polish folk, for example, is that it’s Polish.

This proved a useful tool in Germany in between the two world wars, when ‘German-ness’ in folk music was used to justify a claim to rule over neighbouring countries:

On joining the United Kingdom, Ireland and Scotland (Wales is a slightly different story, and I hope I’ll write about that some other time) found that their culture was actively repressed by their jingoistic neighbour, and I think this peaked in the early part of the 20th century.  (I’m massively simplifying this, I know, but you sort of have to when you’re using hundreds of years of national history to make a point.)  In popular culture, Scottishness and Irishness were mocked and patronised with the broadest of Music Hall stereotypes, and little effort was made to preserve or encourage their culture and art.  ‘Why encourage backwardness?’  The best that could be done was to teach them to become more English.

However, poets like W.B. Yates in Ireland and Hugh MacDiarmid in Scotland rejected this idea of English cultural supremacy and created a new national style that I believe inspired the folk music of the 20th century.

But how do you do this – celebrate the art and culture of your past – when it has been deliberately ignored and forgotten for so long?  It would be like growing up in a house where your sibling, with the (perhaps even sincere) intention of ‘improving’ you, threw away or belittled every letter or story or page of diary that you ever wrote.  How you do this is you take whatever pieces remain, and you weave them together to create something new.  And I believe that’s what 20th century Scottish and Irish folk music was: a very modern artform that was preoccupied with the future of a region, rather than its past.

But then England joined in.  Why shouldn’t England also have an artform like this, that explores its roots and culture with a depth and an earthiness that other artforms somehow fail to achieve?  After all, the folk collectors of the early 20th century (Cecil SharpMaud Karpeles etc) had found this music which sounded similar: it was rural, it was unspoilt by the world modern world (so much so as to seem pagan), and it was the music of the poor, the oppressed.

There were two big problems with this.  The first is that England had been the culturally dominant one – the interfering nanny at best, and frequently the snobbish bully.  It had been England that had belittled these cultures, and done its best to see their cultures forgotten.  Wasn’t it rather hypocritical to suddenly claim to have a very similar tradition – and a tradition of the oppressed?

But the second problem, I believe, was bigger.  England couldn’t hunt out those few remaining threads* of its musical culture and weave a beautiful cloth out of it: because it already had tons of the stuff.  Tapestries, rugs, clothes, you name it.  (* I’m perhaps exaggerating the sparseness of recorded Scottish and Irish music, but hopefully you get the idea.)  England couldn’t reimagine its national popular culture, because it was already stuck with one.  Broadside ballads, poetry, church hymns, Music Hall, operettas, musicals… it couldn’t just pretend that they didn’t exist!

Except, it could.  And it did.  These forms of words and music are still performed by English ‘traditional’ musicians today, but they’re done in the style of European (particularly Scottish and Irish) folk.  They’re reproduced as if they’re fragments of a repressed culture, instead of either commercial popular music or, in the case of the folk collector’s findings, music from small communities that was probably deeply influenced by commercial popular music (but too far away from the action to really influence it).

Why did English musicians do this?  Are they liars?  Is this a form of nationalist propaganda?  I don’t think so.  We all just copy our influences, and a lot of English musicians love non-English folk music, and grew up loving it, and they just want to make something that makes you feel as good.  I’ve railed against English music that I feel misrepresents its history, but really, I’ve done so from a place of profound geekery.  It’s something that I’ve found to be an annoyance, but I get it.  And I recognise that, it’s not them, it’s me.

But now…

Here we are in a climate of rising extreme nationalism.  Nationalists need suitable heroes to champion, dragons to slay, national stories to repeat.  And they need a soundtrack.

And here is this music, which repaints England as a small rural community in which everyone knows each other, with its songs supposedly handed down the centuries in an aural tradition, in which the elders are frequently grumpy old baby boomers who have no time for the nonsense of the modern world and the city slickers.  We have a music which flaunts its distinctive Englishness, and which has rules about the right and wrong ways of doing it.

Now I feel I know the folk scene pretty well, and I know that the vast majority of the scene is horrified by the prospect of fascism (hence the Folk Against Fascism movement).

But the sad truth is that Nigel Farage could walk into this scene and feel perfectly at home. Maybe the occasional Afro-Celt musical crossover might make him head to the bar, but apart from that…

And what I feel the English folk scene doesn’t understand is that if neo-fascism keeps rising in this country (no one believes it could happen here, but they never do, do they?) then they’ll just fucking take this music.  They won’t care if we approve or not.  They’ll burn their own meaning onto it.  Like an innocent old Sanskrit symbol that is now forever remembered as the Nazi swastika.  And there’s a lot of English music that can be misinterpreted.  In fact, that there’s a fair bit that can be interpreted straight, without the comment on it that people like me feel the need to do.  This music is the complex social history of people over centuries, and not all of it is pretty.

So now I find myself saying the same old thing, only this time a bit more insistently.

I think now is a good time for English traditional music to be very wide, very inclusive, and very accurate.  To root itself in its real history, messy and ugly though it often is.  But I also think there’s now another priority.  I’ve personally been preoccupied with what the ‘English sound’ is for the past few years.  Now I feel it’s very important to put that on the backburner, and to show, through historical English music, how this country has always been connected to its neighbours, and the world beyond them.  How it has been influenced, shaped and inspired by these connections.

Otherwise I just get the feeling that, like Sally Bowles in Cabaret, I’ll be in some little dive somewhere belting out ‘Life Is A Cabaret’ at the top of my lungs to a packed house that only wants to hear the guy sing the song about the gorilla that ‘doesn’t look Muslim at all’.