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Gordon Jackson Good advice: Arthur Somervell's advice (3) RE: Good advice: Arthur Somervell's advice 06 Nov 19

I’m not entirely sure it is good advice. I have a few thoughts on the matter …

For a start, national song is not folk song; the composers of national songs – primarily from a classical or quasi-classical background – had a different agenda to the singers of traditional songs. According to Steve Roud, the English Musical Renaissance movement

“… did not turn to ‘the folk’ for them [national songs] but were content with composed songs of previous generations which had, in their view, stood the test of time through repeated middle-class reprinting. Or they took traditional tunes and wrote new words” (Folk Song in England, p 117).

Examples include The British Grenadiers and Men of Harlech, rather than, say, The Outlandish Knight or Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard. If Somervell’s instruction at (1) means that the singer should know what the song is about, I don’t many would argue with that.

The instruction to keep ‘such strict time and rhythm, that a village audience could stamp its feet to the tune’ (or perhaps march to it?) is, I feel, overstated. Many traditional songs – as sung by traditional singers – do not necessarily keep to a metronomic beat at all. This could be because of pauses – whether for effect or to take a breath – the addition of ornamentation, or to accommodate additional words or syllables. In folk song rhythm is subservient to melody. As Harry Cox said, “You must get the tune first” (spoken on The Bonny Labouring Boy CD).

The instruction at (3) is a little woolly. If he means tune and words are of equal importance, then I would agree. If he is saying the tune is secondary to the words, I would disagree: Child believed the words were poetry and the tunes not really worthy of being recorded; others, e.g. Kidson, Sharp, considered the words pretty much doggerel, and were only really interested in the tunes. Surely, they all missed the point? A song is a gestalt entity: words and music, and a folk song is, more specifically, words and tune – any accompaniment must serve the requirements of the song (i.e. words and tune).

The dictum, ’put into your singing all the expression or feeling you can give’, is not how most of the great traditional singers (or those recent enough to be recorded) sing their songs. Listen to, e.g. Harry Cox, Walter Pardon, Sam Larner, Cyril Poacher, Joe Heaney and, among revivalists, Martin Carthy, Nic Jones, Christy Moore; for the greatest part they are content to let the songs speak for themselves, with the expressiveness contained within the songs, rather than added by the performer. I would have loved to have seen WG Ross’s rendition of ‘Sam Hall’ in a Victorian music hall for its entertainment value, but I wouldn’t have confused it with a genuine folk singer’s singing of ‘Jack Hall’, or Christy’s ‘Little Musgrave’. To be fair, Somervell argues against extremes of expressiveness, presumably because on the one hand that would lead to the music hall approach, and on the other, his warning against a ‘violent emphasis of unimportant notes or words’ suggests he had a prophetic dream of the X Factor!

On the whole, though, Somervell’s strictures may be appropriate for some musics (classical, national etc) but not, I think, for folk.

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