Mudcat Café message #3892793 The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #162666   Message #3892793
Posted By: Vic Smith
08-Dec-17 - 09:04 AM
Thread Name: New Book: Folk Song in England
Subject: RE: New Book: Folk Song in England
As long ago as 05 Sep 17 - 12:07 PM, I posted a link to the first published review which appeared in a rather unlikely place - in The Economist. I commented on the review that it was a factual account and a precis of the contents rather than any statement about the value of the book or a comparison with anything that has been published in the past.
Steve Gardham reacted to this in a rather wise way writing, As you say, Vic, a fair precis, but no critique. Part of the problem we face is there are not many people about who are truly qualified to criticise what it has to say. Where were going to find a person with such qualifications? Well, I think that this person has been found!
Here is the lengthy review published in the Folk Music Journal (Volume 11 * Number 3 * 2018 - pages 127-130).
I ought to point out that in separate conversations with both author and reviewer that both have expressed strong mutual admiration for the work that the other has completed and that they have both been members of the Editorial Board of the FMJ, Britain's foremost academic folk music journal for many years. I do not feel that this in any way invalidates the review:-

Folk Song in England

Steve Roud. London: Faber and Faber, 2017. 764 pp. Bibliog. Index. ISI5N 978-0-571-30971-9. ?25.00 hardback, ?14.99 ebook.

This is the most significant, important, and interesting book on English folk song published in my lifetime. The book is well presented, well organized, and written in a clear and accessible style. Some themes recur in the book, but I never feel this is wasteful. I like Roud's writing style, which is very down to earth, and he has a knack of throwing in pithy comments which are both arresting and get to the heart of the point he is making. Julia Bishop contributes two excellent chapters on the musical aspects of folk song, avowedly not Roud's own area of expertise. Anyone with the slightest interest in the subject should buy a copy immediately, read it at leisure, absorbing its wisdom and reflecting on its contents. Do not let the size put you off - it offers a rich and fascinating body of material that can be returned to again and again.
Let me preface the rest of the review by saying that any disagreements I have with Roud are of meagre significance when balanced against the book's virtues, for they are many. In terms of the broad thrust of the book I am totally with Roud, who has done the folk song research community a great service by pulling together a lot of the ideas and critical points that have been debated over the last few decades. Nor can even a long review compass the richness of his book, so my comments are selective.
Discussing Sharp's 1907 Some Conclusions, Roud comments, 'we must guard against easy assumptions' (p. 444). This is something Roud studiously observes. He is scrupulous in finding and considering evidence and generally coming to well-reasoned conclusions. After an introduction and an introductory chapter, the book is organized in three parts which deal with the history of scholarship and collecting, the ways in which folk song is part of a wider musical world from which it derives .and which contributes material, and a final part that considers how folk song lives in different musical contexts. The book constitutes a very good history of the folk song movement in this country, asks profound questions about the nature of folk song and contributes a whole range of interesting insights.
Unlike some writers who have tried to move away from the term 'folk song' because of its problems with definition and ideological baggage, Roud embraces but radically redefines it. Central to the book is the notion that folk song is not a particular genre but a practice. "It is not the origin of a song that makes it 'folk', but what the 'folk' do with it", he remarks (p.23). For some, wedded to older notions, Roud may seem iconoclastic; to those who have kept pace with changing approaches to the subject, he provides a timely account of where the centrality of the study of traditional song in this country is now located. For Roud, 'the social context of traditional singing is the key to understanding its nature, but is also precisely the component which has often been neglected in past discussions of the subject' (p. 4). To him, it is 'the process through which songs pass, in the brains and voices of ordinary people, which stamps them as "folk". Therefore, songs that the common people have adopted as their own, regardless of origin, constitute in some way or another their collective voice and are "folk songs" (p. 22).
Roud is not interested in condemning the collectors of the past for their shortcomings, though he is critically aware of them; rather, he assesses their strengths and weaknesses without judging them in an ahistorical way. Early in the book he writes, 'they were not interested in documenting the whole range of songs sung by working people, nor were they particularly concerned with the social context of that singing, or the lives and opinions of the singers. But we are' (p. 7). 'The early collectors set us on the wrong track by stressing origin as the main definitional characteristic of folk song, but we now have serious reservations about this approach' (p. 21). '[T]he collectors were so selective that the picture of "folk song" they left us is extremely partial' (p. 23). It is this partiality that Roud strives to correct.
His account of the history of collecting and scholarship comes up to the third quarter of the twentieth century. It is an informative and lively account and I will focus on it in this review. Generally, Roud deals fairly with significant figures in the history of the gathering of English folk song. I was amused by his description of Joseph Ritson as 'the original Mr Angry', but he gives a good appreciation of his contribution to scrupulous editing. At times Roud can get exasperated with some more recent writers: 'Unfortunately, it seems to be de rigueur to take a side-swipe at the early folk-song collectors and to castigate them for not providing what we now wish to know' (p. 530). He describes Harker's work as 'facile bourgeois bashing' (p. 177). Early on he writes, 'we do not hold with the facile notion that the men and women featured in this book operated as a group and worked to expropriate the culture of the working class for their own class purposes, and we believe that the evidence does not support this interpretation of events' (p. 45). What he most resents is the lost opportunity as such negativity 'became the new orthodoxy, and the early collectors came under fire from all sides' (p. 8). This orthodoxy 'is only now showing signs of losing its grip' (p. 177).
I have much sympathy with this assessment, having had barely digested Harker fed back to me by academic colleagues looking for a reason to write off folk song studies. Nevertheless, I think it is a shame that, perhaps so put off by Harker's style and manner, Roud cannot see the good analysis and pioneering nature of some of his work. It is true that later in the book Roud writes appreciatively of Harker's extensive work on Tyneside song. But it should be remembered that Harker was one of the first to deal critically with some of A. L. Lloyd's 'editorial tinkerings and sleights of hand' (Roud's words, p. 21), and to deliver an iconoclastic blast against the almost religious awe in which Cecil Sharp was held in many quarters. Apart from some contemporary critics of Sharp, the only people I know of to have previously attempted any significant (though not extensive) critique of Sharp were those gathered around the magazine Ethnic in the late 1950s, notably Mervyn Plunkett and Reg Hall. The circulation numbers of Ethnic were tiny, but its influence on thought on the subject among a few people was profound. I could be wrong, but I think the influence of these activists was an important element in Roud's intellectual make-up.
Compared to his treatment of Harker, Roud is much kinder to Chris Bearman, who (in the context of criticizing the Grainger biographer John Bird) is said to have led the charge against such myth-making, and in the process swung the pendulum a little too far in the other direction' (p. 145). I think this is rather gentle: Bearman was not beyond making some myths of his own. It is sad that we will never know how Bearman would have reviewed this book, but it is interesting to think about it!
A. L. Lloyd's 1967 book is described as 'highly readable, genuinely inspiring, and admirably fulfilled its purpose as an introduction for beginners', and Roud recognizes that 'those who finally get to the stage of expertise required to offer a valid criticism have invariably got there because of that earlier work' (p. 180). He acknowledges the rising tide of criticism against Lloyd and with a convincing demonstration comes to the view that Lloyd 'is too willing to extrapolate from little or no evidence, which is where the journalist and the romantic take over from the scholar' (p. 181). As someone deeply indebted to, but also critical of Lloyd, I feel Rood pulls off the difficult task of appreciation and necessary criticism very well.
Rood approaches the idea of overlapping multiple musical traditions when he writes, 'there will be more than one tradition within most communities, which can be seen as the individual threads in a woven fabric. Any one person will belong to several groupings, and many allegiances will change over time' (p. 35). This is a fruitful idea, but one that seriously challenges ideas of authenticity, the 'otherness' of folk music, and what being traditional means, as does the whole thrust of Rood?s work.
There is much else I could discuss - unevenness in the ways class is discussed in the book, Rood?s interesting views on folk revivalism, the inevitable emphases and seeming gaps that will exist in any account of the subject, but I must respect editorial limits. Rood really supplies that 'measured and insightful assessment of the history of our field' (p. 177) that he craved in the past but found absent. His achievement is to have written a sort of alternative history of music which is very different from almost everything that has come before. Generally speaking, it is the openness of his approach that I find particularly admirable. Unlike many previous writers on the subject, he asks the questions and considers the evidence before he comes up with answers, and the answers are themselves sometimes quite provisional in nature. There are many passages in the book where he delivers excellent assessments of areas of debate: for example, on Grainger's relationship to the Folk-Song Society, or the nature and quality of Alfred Williams's work.
This is a large book, but no space is wasted. There is some cross-referencing, but this multifaceted subject is dealt with in enough detail to explore different and often fascinating aspects. Readers are guided towards deepening their understanding of the subject through further reading. If I were still teaching university courses on folk music I have no doubt I would make it a set text. I would take a whole academic year over studying it and allow time for students to investigate the primary and secondary material to which Roud refers. Students would be greatly enriched by the experience and emerge with enhanced critical abilities and a good grounding and understanding of the subject. Each individual who delves deeply into a field develops a unique understanding and appreciation of that field; we should be grateful that Roud has shared his with us, for it is rich and enriching. I cannot see the book being matched or surpassed in the foreseeable future.
Vic Gammon