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This article is taken from PN Review 164, Volume 31 Number 6, July - August 2005.

'The Water is Wide': Did English Folk Song Sink? (1: Poets) Alison Brackenbury

Part 1: Poets

You are a Martian. Your draft thesis (Earth/Culture/ England/Folk song) has been hummed into your silver laptop. (Martians have surprisingly sweet voices.) But you must do some fieldwork to fill that awkward gap, the late twentieth century. Since 'Brigg Fair' is your favourite song (Martians are surprisingly sentimental) you train the computer on Lincolnshire. A few miles from where Joseph Taylor, startlingly youthful at 72, climbed on to a festival platform and sang to Percy Grainger, it finds your ideal village. Even in the 1960s, this remains an estate village, full of farm labourers. Its speech, haunted by Norse, still calls a cattleyard a 'garth'. Grainger's 1906 recordings of Taylor, perhaps England's finest traditional singer, are worn by use, but you have your indestructible laptop. Off you go, to complete Grainger's work.

No one told you about the fog, or the monstrous vegetables. (Martians are surprisingly small.) Yards from the main street, you find yourself in a sulphurous forest, which your laptop authoritatively identifies as 'cabbages'. You settle down, beneath the drips. The postman arrives, whistling Sinatra. At mid-morning, in one of the few surviving stone cottages, you spot a woman in an apron suddenly whirling round a kitchen to the strains of a radio. It is playing 'The Blue Danube'. As the fog thickens, and children straggle home, a small bespectacled girl hurries with a friend into one of the brick cottages. The cabbages shake to the latest Beatles single. In ...


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