Mudcat Café message #3946245 The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #162666   Message #3946245
Posted By: Brian Peters
25-Aug-18 - 06:22 PM
Thread Name: New Book: Folk Song in England
Subject: RE: New Book: Folk Song in England
Pseudonymous wrote:
"I could not tap my feet to much of what Walter Pardon sang, and I found myself thinking that the strong sense of rhythm in USA folk versions of British originals must have come from African influences. Am I incorrect in noticing a lack of rhythm, and how typical in your view is that relatively rhythmless delivery of 'traditional' English singing?"

Good question. Walter Pardon was probably the least toe-tapping singer you could find in recorded English traditional folk song. He consistently broke up his rhythms, to the extent that a dogma, based on his singing, became established to the effect that British folk singers characteristically used broken rhythms. Like most dogmas, this one fell apart as soon as you listened to a few other singers. I repeat, there is no single traditional singing style!

Willie Scott's 'Banks of Newfoundland' on Topic's 'Voice of the People', for instance, is set in a driving, bang-on-the-beat 3:4 time. Other singers like Joseph Taylor and Phil Tanner, as Vic Smith has already pointed out, could be very rhythmic most of the time but still break the rhythm in places. We know that collectors of the Sharp era often struggled to render the rhythms they were hearing in conventional music notation, hence the startling changes in time signature observed in their renditions of a single verse.

My opinion on this rhythmic irregularity is that it wasn't a matter of consistent 'broken rhythm', but more a case of single phrases sung in consistent rhythm, but with extended gaps at the ends of the phrases. These people weren't accompanying themselves with guitars or other rhythmic instruments, so they paused at the end of the phrase only for as long as it took to inhale. Though you do also find instances where the pause at the end of the phrase is shorter than modern ears expect because, again, there is no guitar to fill in a couple of empty beats in the 'regularized' rhythm, and the singer moves on halfway through the bar.

Going back to Pseu's original comment, American singers began using rhythmic accompaniment on banjo or guitar a lot earlier than English ones, for reasons at least partly connected with the recording industry. The rhythm they used was largely 4:4 (which is the characteristic time signature of a frailed banjo) or 3:4. This sort of thing didn't start to happen in England until skiffle and the second folk revival.

I think there is some discussion of the need not to apply the values of 'art'music to folk in Julia Bishop's chapters in Roud, but surely people liked to tap their feet. Traditionally, rhythm and metre were supposed to be part of the ways within the oral tradition that supported memory?

Again Vic has beaten me to it on this one. I would say that rhythm and metre were largely subservient to storytelling in British Isles folk song, although songs used in a social setting like a pub sing might acquire some regularity owing to the need to sing the chorus in time. Vic's quote from Hamish Henderson ["Listen to Jeannie (Robertson), to Jane (Turriff) and you will find that the words that they need to tell their story are what comes first.... the tune just has to fit in with what the words demand."] is very telling, although I would add the caveat that, to singers like Walter Pardon and Joseph Taylor, melody was clearly very important as well as the words.