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This article is taken from PN Review 165, Volume 32 Number 1, September - October 2005.

'The Water is Wide': Did English Folk Song Sink? (2: Singers) Alison Brackenbury

Part 2: Singers

A poet complains that 'old and beautiful' songs have been eclipsed by 'senseless balderdash'. Is it Hardy, in his old age? Edward Thomas, in conversation with Cecil Sharpe? A Guardian reviewer, sent to slum it with Lloyd Webber? None of these. It is John Clare, in the 1820s, eagerly planning a collection of folk songs, for 'those who knew fragments seemed ashamed to acknowledge it, as old people who sing old songs only sing to be laughed at' (Jonathan Bate, John Clare: A Biography, Picador, 2003, p. 348). Yet Clare acknowledged that country people could be moved to tears, by stories sung by an experienced ballad singer. Percy Grainger, who visited Lincolnshire almost a century later, was equally moved by the skill of singers and shocked by their lack of status: 'most of them died in poorhouses or in other downheartening surroundings'.

What caused this (evidently long) decline of the English folksong? Clare blamed fairs. Hardy blamed trains. Hardy's biographer, Robert Gittings, thinks that respectable Victorian entertainments helped to elbow disreputable folk singing aside. The singer Martin Carthy believes that the English folk tradition was displaced by an imperial 'idea of Britain... that the Changing of the Guard is England'. (I have some sympathy with this notion. My grandmother reported marching round the playground on Empire Day, waving flags and singing patriotic songs.)

I would add to this brew a mixture of history and ...


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