Australian Folk Songs
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This interview was first published by Musical Traditions
Folk songs, industrial songs, the folk revival and other musics
Mark Gregory recorded this interview with A L Lloyd at his home in Greenwich: 20 September 1970. The fifty eight minute recording is preserved in the Oral History section of the National Library of Australia [ORAL TRC 2949]
1972 "In Bert's garden" by Mark GregoryMG: Why has folk song not died out and what part have collectors played in its regeneration?
ALL: Well, it's a complicated problem isn't it? It is our experience in the West that as society alters its culture alters too, and as Western society has developed on the whole there has become less and less necessity and less and less opportunity too for a specifically home made form of song, because more and more people both under force of circumstance and on account of what is provided for them have become passive listeners to popular song prepared for them by specialists, by professionals. And sure enough that has brought about a climate that isn't conducive to the continued creation of folk song in its classic form. Of course always and anywhere as a creative culture is dying its products go on being performed long after the active creation of it has ceased. So it happened with our classic kind of folk song, rural folk song for example, it's gone on being performed up to this day in an attenuated way in its natural condition, but it's no longer created. On the other hand of course there's any amount of performance now in Britain of folk song in its second existence - that is folk song whose function had, it seemed, withered away with the passing of the old agricultural society, but which has come back to life on a second existence in urban circumstances now, performed and listened to by people for whom it's not the only form of culture. That is, in a classic folk song condition the song makers and the song performers and the listeners too, their horizon is in the main bounded by folklore, and their contact with other cultures, with urban commercial culture, with fine art or pop is very limited. That circumstance of course ceased to exist in England at least a couple of centuries ago. Nevertheless we have the phenomenon with us of a revived folklore. But perhaps the question is best answered by looking at societies, European societies, accessible societies, where folklore is still rich and vital, such as in the Balkans where life has altered very drastically for peasants, for example - the classic creators and bearers of musical folklore - their life has altered in the last couple of decades, out of all recognition, but their folk song still is vital, at least in many parts of the Balkans. Whether that vitality will maintain itself is quite another matter; it's quite possible that this is the last fling of classic folklore in Europe, and that even the near future will see quite a different form of popular culture than folkloric forms. But just at present for a number of reasons folklore seems to flourish in certain parts of Rumania, certain parts of Bulgaria, throughout Albania for example, which I suppose is in a way the ... well I was going to say the least altered country of all. It's not the least altered country at all - it's very drastically altered - but as it's altered from an original that was so primitive, even with the immense alterations in Albania, the situation is still mainly one that resembles a classic folklore situation. Although it's altered greatly it hasn't assumed a form which is so industrialised, so urbanised, that commercially created culture begins to swamp home made folklore. One of the factors of course that has meant - that has contributed to the continuance of folklore in places like the Balkans - is in a way an artificial factor. That is that as this was the common man's creation - not the creation of privileged members of a bourgeois class like a great deal of fine art production - as this was common man's creation it has had an enormous prestige with various socialist regimes in that part of the world, and that prestige has helped to keep it alive and indeed to revitalise it even in certain areas where it was already strongly on the decline in the period between the wars. There are many parts of the Balkans, I suspect, where folklore was rather rapidly on the way out by 1939, but since World War Two has rather strengthened itself. Whether that's a temporary rallying I wouldn't like to say for sure, but that seems to be the situation nevertheless. As to why, in certain parts of the West, there has been a revival of folklore ... that's another problem and a slightly mysterious one. The revival has shown itself to be a many headed monster, and some of its heads are turned towards the world of commercial popular music - even of strongly Americanised popular music - and some of its heads have turned rather doggedly to an old classic rural Eighteenth Century or early Nineteenth Century pattern, and are obstinately clinging to that pattern on grounds of purity, authenticity, this that and the other.
MG: Would you say that that revival is connected with other revivals like revival of dialect and regional languages like Welsh?
ALL: The regional language thing is fairly strongly nationalistic, isn't it. The Scotch Gaelic enthusiasm, the Irish Gaelic enthusiasm, which is mainly the enthusiasm of the establishment, not of the lower orders, and the Welsh language thing, that is nationalism. Well there is a connection, perhaps ... the folk song revival in England was not without a certain nationalistic tinge, but the nationalistic one was less important perhaps than another one. The nationalistic one showed itself in an anxiety after the Second World War, an anxiety that showed itself around 1950, not to be swamped by American culture, but to put up a defence for British culture. That was part of the motive of the folk song revival, but there is a closely connected reason which was even stronger. That was the desire not to accept too passively what the entertainment industry provided for you, the popular pap as it were, but to look for, to try to find a popularly accessible form of song, for instance, which was independent of that. And indeed the result was rather more successful than the promoters of the idea had ever dreamed, I think, so that in a relatively short time the very purveyors of the popular pap were themselves so impressed by the successes of the folk song revival that they annexed the term 'folk song' to their own particular and peculiar ends. Which confused people no end because it meant eventually that performers like Bob Dylan or Donovan or Julie Felix were being accepted by the industry, which includes BBC and all, as folk singers even though their products, their repertoire generally, had much more to do with the world of the night club and the cabaret and the popular concert hall than it had to do with musical folklore.
MG: This business about the mass media, especially radio and TV; I think they have been looked upon as possible forces of destruction for folk music and folklore, but is it possible that in fact these media themselves have done something to strengthen the revival?
ALL: Strengthen the revival enormously actually, sometimes despite themselves. The question is an interesting one on two counts, on account of the revival as you suggested, and also on account of the authentic thing. As far as folklore proper in its classic form is concerned, whether the mass media have a destructive effect or not depends mainly on the strength of the tradition at the time when the mass media are assaulting it. Because there is absolutely no doubt, for example in the United States, classic folklore in the mountains was declining very, very rapidly - going out of sight almost by the end of the First World War, and it was giving way to kind of hybrid, part popular culture, part folklore, a hybrid represented by the very people whose names we were mentioning a while ago, Clarence Ashley for example, Charlie Poole, Wade Ward - performers of that kind - and later the Carter Family, Jimmy Rogers, who were already heading fast towards the prefabricated commercial products. That is, the Carters had much less of folklore and much more of show biz, of commercial stage consideration, than Clarence Ashley had, and Jimmy Rogers more still. Carson Robison and performers like that more still, until towards the end of the line you get performers who are almost entirely show biz, performers of the Elvis Presley, Everly Brothers kind, who have a little folklore in them still, but nevertheless much more of commercial pop. Mass media did however - that is early radio and early 78 discs - have I think a vitalising effect on that hybrid while it was still quite folkloric, particularly in as it encouraged a lot of musicians to practice and perfect that sort of hybrid, encouraged them because it gave them an economic opportunity. They didn't make much from those little radio stations or from the records that they made for OKay and Brunswick and Victor and so on - few of them made very much out of it - but nevertheless it was an alternative source of income from their own very poor one in the mountains. The hybrid was just about strong enough then to be vitalised to some extent. In the Balkans there's not much doubt that the country music, rural music, which was very strong, has since the possession of radio sets and record players, for example, become more common, and after all, it was only there in the countryside over much of the Balkans since the late 1940s. There, on the whole, it certainly has amplified, or helped to amplify the village repertory. A whole lot of areas of Transylvania for example, which - when Bartok was there in 1914 seemed to be absolutely on their last legs - are now enormously flourishing in the production of folk music; but not necessarily of an exclusively local kind. They've absorbed, digested influences from other localities, so that one finds over big areas a generalised sort of folk song being produced instead of a specifically local one. That was the situation in England probably already in Shakespeare's time, that we had very little specifically local music styles for example, very few, but that over the greater part of England the style had become general. That's only now happening in the Balkans - that a style is becoming general. It doesn't necessarily mean any artistic loss, incidentally - sometimes it means rather an artistic gain. So the situation with folklore in a classic condition is that if it's weak, the mass media can destroy it. If it's middling strong, the mass media can at least delay its destruction for a while by giving certain kind of musicians encouragement. If it's very strong then the mass media can at least temporarily considerably enrich it. As far as the revival is concerned there's no doubt that records much more than radio have been enormously important. There are a large number of performers who appear at the six hundred or so folk song clubs that exist in England at present. It means a lot of musicians and a lot of singers, but ninety percent of them have learnt ninety percent of their repertory off records I would say. Radio and television as a whole have given the more rigorously traditional aspect of the folk song revival very little support. They've almost consistently encouraged the kind of performer whose face is turned firmly towards the more commercial music and the graces of pop, than those who have ploughed a more classic traditional furrow. Partly, of course, because that kind of music is on the whole more immediately pleasing to the widest possible audience. Often too, because that sort of music is better performed than the other, partly because it demands certain professional graces which the performers of more traditional music feel they can dispense with, but in dispensing with it they haven't very much to put in its place.
MG: It seems to me that in this question of hybrid formation, some of the hybrids don't seen to work at all well - like orchestration and mass choir arrangements of folk song and also the slick harmonisation of some of the American performers of folk music.
ALL: Well, as far as the conventional orchestration and the mass choir thing is concerned, as you say that practically never works. It seems to be too severe a wrench to lift folk song, folk melodies and folk poetry, out of their lower class frame into the specifically bourgeois frame of the concert platform. It's likely to impose a kind of sheen on the music which we associate with fine art music and which doesn't fit, doesn't suit folk melody. It's likely to impose - with the choirs for example - not merely that smooth bel canto voice production, but also what is a great destroyer of the sense of folk song somehow, an elocution teacher's pronunciation. In fact, as I say, the general conventions of fine art music including the grandest kinds of music, nevertheless have specific bourgeois and polite society connotations, and folk music is ill at ease in that kind of atmosphere. It's a bit like the farm hand or factory hand in evening dress; it doesn't sit very well on his physique somehow. As far as the other end of the thing is concerned, the arrangement of folk song that is too poppy, that's seldom quite such a gross distortion as the fine art one, but nevertheless a distortion it is. It usually means that the subtleties and depths of good folk pieces - not all folk stuff is subtle and deep of course; some of it is very superficial and shallow - but it often means that good songs treated too poppily become impoverished somehow, they become overloaded with show biz convention and that's very considerably impoverishing. On the other hand there are I'm sure ways, modern ways of treating folk music, modern ways evolved first of all with stage performance in mind, that aren't necessarily so impoverishing.
MG: Would you say that these come rather from inside the revival than from outside of it?
ALL: They come mostly I think from people working outside the revival who have nevertheless had, to a certain extent, a finger on the pulse of the revival. Some of them have worked inside the revival too, but who even if they are working outside the revival have quite often a very good appreciation of what's been happening inside of it. A performer like Bert Jansch for example - one may or may not agree with what Pentangle do with folk song - at the same time folk song has certainly enriched their approach to music. And a performer like Jansch was never exactly a part of the folk song revival, but he was never very far off it; he was in close contact with and had a very good appreciation of the better performers in the revival and has a good understanding of folk music. And then some of the people in outfits like Fotheringay or Fairport, again may or may not ever have played any part in the revival but have maintained a close watch and a keen appreciation of the best of what happens in the folk song revival.
MG: To what extent would you say that folk music could be considered a culture or the culture of the working classes in societies?
ALL: When we say the working classes we usually mean the industrial proletariat.
MG: Well including peasant classes, for instance.
ALL: Depends where you are really, doesn't it? Our peasant class in England particularly, much more so than in Scotland or in Ireland, has had a fairly close contact with urban, popular, individually produced music for three hundred years or so. Others, in Scotland less so, in Ireland less so still, in Spain less so yet again. In Southern Italy much less so than in Northern Italy, in Northern Italy the situation was rather as in England. In the Balkans of course, until very recently the peasants relied almost entirely on what they produced themselves in their village for musical accompaniment to their life. So it really depends where you are. Folk song in its classic form has certainly not been the music, the great popular music, of the industrial proletariat in England, although in certain areas and in certain industries, alongside their reception of what was provided for them by stage professionals and so on, the workers maintained a certain enthusiasm for producing their own song material, especially at critical moments like strikes or mine disasters or such, but not only at those critical moments, for fun too. They maintained rather well right up to the present time a certain capacity for song making. Our investigation of that sort of thing is awfully superficial and very scrappy, and it's hard to say whether that only applies to one or two areas and to one or two industries, or whether it was much more general than we suspect. We know that the textile industry and the mining industry were rather strong and have remained until now relatively strong in the production of such songs, and we suspect that most other industries are very weak in that production and that some of them may be totally deficient in that production. The strongest of them, the miners, are not all that strong. It may well be that the total repertory of home produced miners' song that has survived up to the Twentieth Century there or four or five hundred pieces, which is a small part of a repertory. But still and all, the phenomenon is there; the creation the home made creation of a song has gone on among them more or less up to now. Not always uniformly - if one drew a graph it would have to be fairly hypothetical, but still we have reason to imagine a graph of production of song, say among Durham miners, from say the year 1800 to now, we would probably find that the graph rose between 1800 and 1850 and from 1850 to 1900 it maintained a fairly healthy steady level and that between 1900 and 1920, it showed a fairly steep decline, and between 1920 and 1950 an enormous decline - a very steep fall off - and then from 1950 to say 1969, a not unhealthy and indeed rather surprising rise. Not to a great height, true, but nevertheless a rise just when the graph seemed to be falling off the bottom of the diagram.
MG: Would these ups and downs coincide with conditions in the industry or rather with changes in means of communication?
ALL: Began with conditions in the industry. I would say the rise of the material between eighteen hundred and eighteen fifty was almost surely due to the fact that during that period the mines were becoming considerably deeper and the work was becoming considerably more intense, which was causing the miners to become very anxious to combine in order that they could have some defense against the owners, because the work was becoming too hard and also too dangerous, and that combination, that growth of militance for example, as well as an intensified sense of communality between miners, led to an increase in song production. It was a period that threw up a great many strike songs, for example, and it was a period when miners seemed to be extremely conscious of their group identity, so a lot of songs about the miner as a character and his work were also thrown up. So that was due to conditions in the industry, and it was the extension of those conditions that led to the production of miners songs remaining on a fairly high level from 1850 to 1900 say. But the decline during the Twentieth Century was the product of the general cultural situation of an increasing lack of prestige as far as the home made product was concerned. A growing sense that these home made products perhaps were not so important as the products that were being projected to the miner and his wife from the music hall stage and so on, and it was the general cultural situation that presented us with the remarkable phenomenon that at a most dramatic time in the history of the miners economic life - that is, the depression time - the production of songs was minimal. Although you would have thought that he would have been forced by drama to produce songs for himself because nobody else was producing songs for him that would express his plight adequately. Nevertheless it didn't happen. On the other hand the revival of the creation of miners' songs after 1950 I think is probably connected with the phenomenon the folk song revival itself, that first of all young colliers became acquainted with styles of song concerning trades for example which were an interesting reflection of the life of people working in those trades, and so one or two songwriters like Johnny Handle for example were encouraged through contact with the folk song revival to make that sort of song, and older colliers too found that that kind of song had a certain prestige. After being despised for so long they found that the songs they had stored away in their memory from past years were suddenly being asked for as prized objects by young colliers, for example, and folk song collectors, amateur folk song collectors inspired by the folk song revival. So they began to rake around in their memories for songs of the past and also of course their memories were being jogged by the fact that due to this investigation a number of manuscript songs, almost forgotten, came to light or old strike broadsides and things like that. And the result was, during the 1960s for instance, it seems that quite a number of middle aged colliers whose contact with the folk song revival was only very tangential, only very remote, who never went to a folk song club, but nevertheless knew that there were folk song clubs that were attended by miners such as the club in Birtley, and heard a number of the songs being sung at work for example by young colliers and who were inspired, to their own astonishment I'm sure, to create for themselves and for their workmates songs of a thoroughly traditional pattern, like Farewell to Cotia for example which was made by a mine deputy George Purdon who never went to a folk song club. It was made about the gradual closing of the Harraton pit called Nova Scotia or Cotia pit, because so many colliers in the early part of that century had gone from that part of Durham around Washington to in the mines at Glace Bay Nova Scotia, and then after a few years had returned home again and many of them found work in the Harraton Colliery which was just expanding at that time. So many indeed, that the pit was called Nova Scotia, or Cotia, because it had so many ex-Nova Scotians in it. Well, when, in the early 1960s, the pit was gradually closed and the workers were gradually transferred, old George Purdon made this song, Farewell to Cotia, which is an important song for colliers because it has got sung as a kind of ceremonial song at the farewell parties when a group of colliers, say twenty, are being transferred to the Midland coalfields or South Wales. It's usual for them to have a party and their workmates come and it's quite common now for the song Farewell to Cotia to be sung at the end of the party in the same way Auld Lang Syne is sung at New Year.
MG: To see the new mine in.
ALL: Yes, if you like. So there's a piece of song making in what one can only take as classic folkloric circumstances and assuming the kind of powerful social function that in fact very few classic folk songs had the honour of receiving.
MG: Is it possible, do you think, to distinguish or separate art song, pop song and folk song from the point of view of their social roles?
ALL: Now less than formerly. Formerly it was easy because throughout Europe, let's take Europe, there was such a division between the various cultures, and the fine art song was so specifically a bourgeois preserve that the working classes had very little contact with it. The working classes had the parlour ballad, the hymn book hymn and folk song if they had folk any, and music hall song, popular song. Nowadays, partly due of course to the as it were democratisation of education, that class thing is no longer so strict as it was, it still operates, but its barriers are very much eroded now, they're no longer the Great Wall of China that they used to be. Still and all, it's possible to distinguish the one from the other, even if they merge into each other, if you consider them in the form of a spectrum with say peasant music at one end of the spectrum and fine art music at the other end of the spectrum and popular music somewhere in the middle of the spectrum - all those colours will merge into each other and at the same time in their central areas be distinct. It's as possible to distinguish between them as it's possible to distinguish between what we call progressive pop and the Eurovision Song Contest kind of popular music which almost inhabit separate cultural worlds, the one being the entirely passive consumer world and the other being a much a more questioning, much more non conforming world, a much more radical world. So too, it's perfectly possible to distinguish between popular commercial music and fine art music, at least as I say in its central areas, although some forms of pop are so progressive and so fragmented that they come to resemble the fragmented kind of fine art music just as some kinds of far out modern jazz for instance come to resemble some kinds of far out fine art music. Still and all, the division is perfectly possible given that the distinguisher has certain standards and certain ways of interpreting the spectrum.
MG: Concerning function and role, it seems that the different kinds of music we've been talking about require different ways of looking at them. In other words, one person can appreciate all these kinds of music by dealing with them from different viewpoints.
ALL: Yes, the same person listens one way in a folk song club and another way at a pop music concert and another way at a symphony concert on the whole, it's partly a matter of social sanction. I guess that the usual way of listening at a symphony concert is in dead silence with your eyes shut and with an analytical mind as possible, musical analytical mind as possible, whereas at the pop concert the same bloke is observing an experience that is perhaps more physical than anything else, that is he's lifted out of his seat by the experience of and the pounding of the electronic sound, and very likely he's hardly hearing, for instance, the words that the singer is singing. The melody he will be hearing a bit more than the text, but even the melody will hardly be registering compared with the surge of sound as sound and of rhythm as rhythm. In a folk song club he's listening differently again, not with same sort of reverence on the one hand, and not with the same sort of physical surrender on the other. It's at once a more modest and a less passive way of listening, I suppose, the usual way of listening at a folk song club. Many people for example listen awfully attentively because they hope to memorise something if a song takes their fancy particularly. Generally speaking, I suppose what they're listening for in a folk song club is something they can relate to their life more directly, logically, than the thing they hear at a pop music concert. At a pop music concert you get sometimes the atmosphere of an age, a reflection an artistic reflection of certain aspects at any rate, of the contemporary climate, and you receive it impressionistically. From a folk song club on the whole you get a more reassuring message because the greater part of the repertory was created by people who were leading socially rather well integrated lives, even if they were poor people, even if too, certain of the songs, particularly the ballads were created in societies that were by no means secure. At the same time they give the impression of being songs created by people who understood their times rather well and didn't feel isolated in any way, nor for that matter alienated from their surroundings. That's reassuring for people, you get youngsters who can only go for the insecure thing, for whom only the desperate has very much appeal, and they have no patience with anything which shows that a human being doesn't have to be necessarily to be lonely and desperate, doesn't necessarily have to be disillusioned in love all the time etc. You get such people, but they are generally speaking rather incomplete people - the completer person is encouraged and consoled by the integrated thing that folk song represents - responds to the impressionistic reflection of the modern world around us that he gets from certain kinds of pop music and also can absorb and find profit in the ingenious refinements of certain kinds of fine art music. I suppose that sort of catholic person is much more common than the entertainment industry gives us all credit for. But there are of course still plenty of people who despise any other music except fine art music or who feel they can't approach any other kind of music except pop music, or who feel that fine art music is bourgeois music and so not for them, that pop music is all a commercial con and so not for them, and who look for the most rigid kind of traditional folk musics to provide some kind of model for modern creations, but those people are few, they exist and sometimes give themselves rather spiky titles like Critics Group, but those exclusive blokes are very few really.
MG: Do you think that this division of music into the three streams that we've talked about is just a passing phenomenon in a society that has a great amount of division of labour and division of class and so on?
ALL: Yes I think it is, and indeed, as class boundaries become blurred and the division of labour itself becomes blurred, the distinctions between those three streams of music become blurred too. I suppose it's a mechanistic way of looking at it to consider it in three layers, but it's rather convenient for schematic purposes, for arguing purposes. Just as class differences are blurred, yet class differences and class conflicts still exist, so too with the form of culture, it may be difficult to separate one form the other at points where they meet but nevertheless the differences are there. Ultimately, whether it's utopian to not I'm not sure. Ultimately I would have thought just as distinctions between classes should disappear so distinctions between musics should disappear. One should have one class, one human race and one music too. Just as the one class one human race would be a multiplicity of individuals, so too the one music doesn't imply uniformity at all, but I suppose with technical advance ultimately such a thing is not necessarily utopian. After all the difference between one class and another depends on the kind of work they do, not the kind of money they get for it because it's not necessarily an economic thing. A clerk may be firmly lower middle class in his outlook, his accent, his manner of dress, his whole way of life, and still be earning much less than say a worker in a car factory whose outlook, dress and all is as proletarian as can be, even though he may nowadays spend his holidays in Spain and owns a motor car, still by virtue of the way he works he is a working class person and his class is decided for him by the character of his work. But of course working ways are altering very rapidly and we may find that both clerk and factory worker themselves are relying on much the same sort of computer to carry out their trade, and when one gets that sort of situation then there is very little difference between one sort form of work and another. Very little difference untimely I suppose between the kind of work that the management does and the kind of work that the employee does. If indeed that happens then I suppose quite confidently one can look forward to a world of one music, just as one can look forward to a world of one class. Until the world of one class arrives there won't be the world of one culture, that's for sure.
Transcribed by Mark Gregory, 1 September 2009
australian traditional songs . . . a selection by mark gregory