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Contemporary song in folk music

21 Jan 05 - 07:02 AM (#1384126)
Subject: Contemporary song in folk music
From: MurkeyChris

Hi all,

As you may know I'm a Music & English student at Reading uni, and am doing my dissertation on the role of contemporary song in folk music. By this I mean I will be looking at modern songwriters such as Richard Thompson, Kate Rusby, Eliza Carthy, Leonard Rosselson, Billy Bragg, Bob Dylan, Steve Knightley etc. etc. and analysing how far traditional musical styles feed into their songwriting, and equally how much these songs can be viewed as an element of 'folk music'. I'll be sticking to the English language songs and traditions, and focussing on British music, but feel free to bring up anything from elsewhere you think might be relevant.

As there is little academic literature on the subject, a vast part of my work will be based on the opinions of you lot, the musicians, supporters and fans of the folk music scene. Whilst I'll probably have some more specific questions for you at a later date, I thought it would be a good start to throw the topic out to you all and hear what you have to say.

All comments are welcome, but here's some ideas to think about:

1) What songwriters that I haven't mentioned should I look at?

2) Do you know of any specific books, articles, websites etc. that would be of use?

3) Are you a songwriter yourself? How do you relate to traditional song styles?

4) Are modern 'composed' songs (as opposed to anonymous 'traditional' songs) a part of the folk repertoire and should they be?

5) How important/relevant are 'pastiche' styles of songwriting, e.g. Kate Rusby using antiquated language in her modern songs?

6) Do you have any specific comments on how certain songwriters utilise traditonal styles?

7) Anything else to say on the matter?

Please feel free to ramble away in as much detail as possible, it will be of invaluable help to me. By replying this post I am assuming that you give your permission for me to use your quotes in my dissertation (which will hopefully be reworked into a magazine article for fRoots or the like at a later date). If you don't want me to quote you please say so in your post.

Thanks, Chris

21 Jan 05 - 07:14 AM (#1384131)
Subject: RE: Contemporary song in folk music
From: Leadfingers

Dave webber is worth inclusion - He writes songs that sound traditional and about traditional subject matter for the most part !
And Music Hall had a lot of influence on later trad song , and hence on people who were writing for the Folk scene .

21 Jan 05 - 07:45 AM (#1384152)
Subject: RE: Contemporary song in folk music
From: muppitz

Jez Lowe's songwriting is worth a mention, he has an inimitable style, and makes the full use of his heritage and personal history, also, he never tries to cover up his own accent, the likes of Ronan Keating, who always sings like he is an American, when he is in fact Irish, could learn from him.

I have written a few songs in what I would call a folky style, they are either about my own life experience or related to my life, or about English history in general.
What I have learnt from writing songs for a Folk audience is that you are free to write about whatever you please, if it is a good song it will be appreciated.

An interesting question has just popped into my head, how many songs do you know that have been in the charts about Mining that aren't to do with the Miner's Strike? I can't personally think of any.

Most folk songs Traditional or otherwise, I have found, tell a story.

A lot of abstract thoughts, I apologise, but hopefully you can pick something constructive out of it.

muppitz x

21 Jan 05 - 09:17 AM (#1384231)
Subject: RE: Contemporary song in folk music
From: Freso

  1. One of my favorite song writers, from Scotland: Andy M. Stewart
  2. Sorry, no.
  3. No, I'm not. Yet? :p
  4. The old folk musicians of Denmark have always (well, from we know from interviews with the ones that were about since we got out and interviewed them some fifty/fifty+ years back) used pop(ular) songs from revues and, later on, the radio - they weren't even written to a traditionally inspired tune! What do I want to say with this? Good question ;)
  5. Well, depends on what you want with the song, but I don't think it's a necessity. Some of the contemporary Danish folk songs use words that are fairly modern, but the tunes are still hopsas, polkas, waltzes, polskas, and so on and forth.
  6. Søren Korshøj, from Denmark, generally writes songs for either traditional melodies and contemporary ones with traditional 'rules'. Such as hopsas, schottisches, and so on. I think this is where I would probably set the limit. If one wrote a song for a tune which has next to none resemblance to anything known in any tradition, and called it a 'folk song'... well, I wouldn't agree with them ;)
  7. Not right now, no :)

21 Jan 05 - 09:26 AM (#1384239)
Subject: RE: Contemporary song in folk music
From: MurkeyChris

Thanks guys. BTW that's Leon not Leonard Rosselson, thought I'd get that in before someone else catches me out!


21 Jan 05 - 10:33 AM (#1384301)
Subject: RE: Contemporary song in folk music
From: SarahNash

I'd also recommend Ewan MacColl - a bit earlier than the people listed so far - but I've mistaken at least one of his songs as trad.

21 Jan 05 - 10:48 AM (#1384315)
Subject: RE: Contemporary song in folk music
From: GUEST,Sooz (at work)

Writers of contemporary songs (Jez Lowe, Brian Bedford, Anthony John Clarke) are not the same as contemporary writers of traditional style songs (Kate Rusby, Ewan MacColl and even myself although in a remedial class). Does that make sense? I find the latter is much easier.

21 Jan 05 - 11:08 AM (#1384337)
Subject: RE: Contemporary song in folk music
From: PoppaGator

Well, they're American rather than British, but the Grateful Dead songwriting team of Hunter/Garcia ~ especially lyricist Robert Hunter ~ are a pretty unique in how they wrote songs drawing upon American folksong traditions. While most of the arrangements and performances were more "rock" than "folk" in terms of overall sound, the melodies and lyrics were in many cases *very* traditional.

Many of Hunter's song titles either duplicated titles of traditional songs or quoted memorable lines of traditional songs, e.g., "Shake Sugaree," "Mississippi Uptown Toodleoo," to name just two off the top of my head.

The above, of course, may be more pertinent to readers of this thread than to MurkeyChris, who is concentrating on British song.

In the Brit universe, I would second the nomination of Ewan MacColl, many of whose most famous songs are *often* mistaken for traditional folksongs. You *can't* leave him out of that dissertation!

21 Jan 05 - 11:33 AM (#1384383)
Subject: RE: Contemporary song in folk music
From: breezy

Jez Lowe is trad influenced and takes his inspiration from his environment
Brian Bedford writes songs that I would not classify as Folk, more philosophical,very little fact.

George Papavgeris has written 'Folk' songs and has been praised by the ilk of Andy Irvine - O K he's not English--Vin Garbutt and Cyril Tawney of whom you must realise wrote folk songs since the 50s

We can discuss Harvey Andrews later.

If you believe that folk song is about lives and events, documentaryism and narratives then you will understand my concept

ChecKed out Stan Rogers yet? one true writer from Canada, sadly killed in 82 at an early age.Influenced by Archie Fisher as well as his own background if you look at his earliest album before Fogarty's cove. Dan Mckinnon is another Canadian who comes over here in April from Nova Scotia and sounds like Rogers.

St Albans tonight with Mike Deavin who writes about contemporary issues in a contemporary way and was influence by the trad, at the Royal British Legion, Verulam Road, St Albans.
Devils Elbow on Sunday same venue

21 Jan 05 - 11:46 AM (#1384396)
Subject: RE: Contemporary song in folk music
From: breezy

every 2 years the Maidenhead folk club hold a song contest
This year it will take place on the final thursday in March, I think.
Entry forms and rules are now available.
Last time there were 18 entries. this will be the nth time its taken place the club has been in existance for over 32 years.
If you aint acquainted with it maybe its worth getting to know
Jez was there recently
The winning song 2 years ago was a fantastic Folk song called The Bevin Boys narrating the story of life as a Bevin Boy, written by Tony Geen who has other songs of quality, but getting to hear him is avery rae treat. Extremely well researched and cleverly written with a 2, 2, chorus.!
I'm lucky to know it and to perform it.
Anyone can enter
There is a web site.
its on the A4 7 miles east of Reading,at the 7 stars
Be there on that night and se what turns up, I know I will incase there are other class gems to hear.

21 Jan 05 - 12:09 PM (#1384424)
Subject: RE: Contemporary song in folk music
From: Richard Bridge

In order to clarify your frame of reference you need to think about your definitions.

I'll be back when I have scanned a presentation I listened to at Nottingham University in about 1967. Alas I have lost the name of the singer/scholar who presented it.

21 Jan 05 - 12:36 PM (#1384450)
Subject: RE: Contemporary song in folk music
From: Richard Bridge

OK, here it is. Not sure how the indentations will come out. PM me and swap emails if you want it as a word document.

Folk Song in England

In 1954 the International Folk Music Council adopted this definition:—

"Folk music is the product of a musical tradition that has been evolved through the process of oral transmission.

The factors that shape the tradition are:
(i)         Continuity which links the present with the past:
(ii)        Variation which springs from the creative impulse of the individual or group:
(iii)        Selection by the community, which determines the form or forms in which the music survives.

The term can be applied to music that has been evolved from the rudimentary beginnings by a community uninfluenced by popular music and art music, and it can likewise be applied to the music which has originated with an individual composer and has subsequently been absorbed into the unwritten living tradition of a community.

The term does not cover composed popular music that has been taken over ready—made by a community and remains unchanged, for it is the refashioning and recreation of the music by the community that gives its folk character.

'Conclusions', by Cecil Sharp~

A folk song is always anonymous.
Modal melodies, set to secular words, are nearly always of folk origin.
Song tunes in the minor mode are either composed tunes, or folk airs that have suffered corruption.
Folk tunes do not modulate.
Folk melodies are non—harmonic: that is to say, they have been fashioned by those in whom the harmonic sense is undeveloped. This is shown:—

a.        in the use of non—harmonic passing notes.
b.        in a certain vagueness of tonality, especially in the opening phrases of modal tunes.
c.        in the use of flattened seventh, after the manner of a leading note, in the final cadence of modal airs.
d.        in the difficulty of harmonizing a folk tune.
e.        Folk melodies often contain bars of irregular length.
f.        Prevalence of five and seven time-measures in folk airs.

In giving evidence in 1835, Francis Place reported that ballads sung about the streets during his youth could not be adequately described in present company. 'I have given you in writing words of some common ballads which you would not think fit to have uttered here. At that time the songs were of the most indecent kind: they were publicly sung and sold in the streets and markets: no one would mention them in any society now!

Another consideration.

"The mind of the folk singer is occupied exclusively with the words, with the clearness of which he will allow nothing to interfere. Consequently, he but rarely sings more than one note to a syllable and will often. interpolate a syllable of his own rather than break this rule.

"O abroad as I was wordelkin'
I was walking all alone
When I heard a couple tordelkin'
As they walked all along"

The Greek/Mediaeval/Folk Song Modes ~

The scales on which many English folk tunes are based are not the same as those with which we arc familiar through classical music.
The Greeks were the earliest musical grammarians in Europe and laid the foundation of the scientific system which was to be, in a modified form, our inheritance for plainsong and folk song.

        There were seven Greek Modes        (The white notes on a piano).
Dorian (Plato considered this the strongest)        D to D
Phrygian.        E to E
Lydian        F to F
Mixolydian        C to C
Aeolian        A to A
Locrian        B to B
lonian (our major modeNodus lascivus)        C to C

"Sumer is a--cumen in", our oldest Mss is in the Ionian Mode.

English folk tunes are most frequently found cast in the Dorian, Phrygian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Ionian modes. Occasionally in the minor: Cecil Sharp wrote: "The majority of our English -folk times, say two~thirds, are in the major mode. The remaining third is fairly evenly divided between the Mixolydian, Dorian and Aeolian modes, with, perhaps, a preponderance in favour of the Mixolydian,

The pitch of the mode may of course be varied, the relationship of the notes being constant.

The Pentatonic_Scale

The pentatonic scale (five notes to the octave) is widely distributed in folk music and is found in the traditional music of many oriental countries. We also know that it was practiced in ancient times in China and Greece. It is common in Scotland and Ireland.

In its most common form it possesses no semitones, the intervals between the notes consisting of whole tones and one—and—a—half tones. It can be played on the black notes of a piano, or on the white notes, omitting B and B.

According to the relative position of the tonic, there are five pentatonic modes, though some scholars prefer to regard them as segments of the same scale.

English songs also show a number of Hexatonic (six—notes) tunes, usually with the sixth missing.

Sharp held the theory that the present seven—note diatonic scale is a development from the pentatonic scale,


"'Therefore,' while each ballad will he idiosyncratic, it will not be an expression of the personality of individuals, but of a collective sympathy: and the fundamental characteristic of popular ballads is therefore the absence of subjectivity and self—consciousness. Though they do not ~"write themselves" as Grimm has said - though a man and not a people has composed them, still the author counts for nothing, and it is not by mere accident, but with the best reason, that they have come down to us anonymously." Child.

Romantic Ballads        Child Waters, The Gypsy Laddie, The Maid Freed from the Gallows.

Tragic Ballads        The Two sisters, Lord Randal, Barbara Allan.

Historical Ballads        Sir Patric Spens, Mary Hamilton, Queen Jane, The Hunting of the Cheviot.

The Outlaw Ballads        Robin and the Three Squires, Johnnie Cock.

Supernatural Ballads        Lady Isobel and the Elf—Knight, The Unquiet Grave, The Demon Lover, The Wife of Usher's Well.

Humorous Ballads        Our Goodman, The Farmer's Curst Wife,

Conventional Elements

Conventional_diction        cerbain archaisms not found in common parlance — a song about lords and ladies will use "steed", "morrow," etc.

.Conventional Epithet        "milk—white steed," "Lily—white hand," "Fair Margaret."

Conventional Phrase        Tears "blind the eye," blood 'trickling down the knee."

Commonplace        e.g., the rose—briar stanza.

They buried her in the old churchyard (epithet)
They buried him in the choir
Out of her grave grew a red, red rose (epithet)
And out of his a green briar. -

Opening/Ending Formula         "As I walked out one Nay morning,"
        'It fell upon a..        
        "Come all you young fellows and listen to me.

"Voice and ear are left at a loss what to do with the ballad until supplied with the tune it was written to go with…. Unsung, it stays half—lacking.'

Robert Frost.

21 Jan 05 - 12:54 PM (#1384463)
Subject: RE: Contemporary song in folk music
From: George Papavgeris

You cannot have Leon Rosselson in your list and miss out Robb Johnson - the pre-emninent contemporary songwriter in England. He operates in three genres, only one of which is folk, but - what material! And Graham Miles has to be there too - people forget him because he no longer performs, but others do dozens of his songs.

Breezy, your answer was partly skewed, because you thought Chris was looking for English songwriters - in fact he states that he's focusing on the British isles and in the English language and traditions. Also, it will be part of his study to research to what extent the writing is influenced by traditional forms, so we shouldn't pre-judge and miss on writers that are contemporary or not "folk" in our individual view, we would be skewing his stats.

To recap the list of those mentioned so far, working in the British isles, adding a few as they come to mind. These are in a (personal) order of importance/influence for British folk (not based on personal preference or amount of traditional influence):

Ewan McColl
Robb Johnson
Dave Webber
Harvey Andrews
Graham Miles
Keith Scowcroft/any (he writes lyrics, others like Derek Gifford write the music)
Jez Lowe
Andy Stewart
Brian Bedford
Anthony John Clarke
Tom Bliss
Mike Deavin
George Papavgeris

(I excluded those you mentioned yourself already, Chris).
You will have also to consider two categories in your work:
a) Those performers that write the occasional song that becomes a "classic"
b) the US-Canadian-Australian writers' influence. Particularly now that media accessibility and international touring have become commonplace. Eric Bogle and Stan Rogers for example, but also Andy Irvine, Christie Moore....

21 Jan 05 - 01:04 PM (#1384476)
Subject: RE: Contemporary song in folk music
From: George Papavgeris

Richard, the presentation you shared is very useful - and I am sure Chris will be pleased to refer to several of its elements. It focuses on traditional folk song/music. Chris' work is of course on the "role of contemporary song in folk music", i.e. contemporary song is the centre of his study, and its role in (and influences by) folk is his research area. What you laid out provides several hooks and ways of identifying and measuring such influence. Very good!

21 Jan 05 - 01:25 PM (#1384486)
Subject: RE: Contemporary song in folk music
From: Bert

role of contemporary song in folk music...

I would have thought that it should be the other way around. Contemporary song cannot influence what has happened in the past.

1. All that you can find - Tom Paxton, Lionel Bart (that great song thief), Harry Lauder, Marie LLoyd, Lonnie Donnegan and Gordon Lightfoot come to mind.

2. This is the best place there is.

3. Yes, but I don't often use traditional styles or themes.

4. They should be. It's all part of a cultural continuum.

5. What is important is instinctively using your own cultural background. Any attempt at copying a particular style or tradition is pretty pathetic unless you have a specific point to make in an individual song.

21 Jan 05 - 01:41 PM (#1384494)
Subject: RE: Contemporary song in folk music
From: George Papavgeris

Bugger it, I missed SYDNEY CARTER!

OK, to tackle some of Chris' other questions:

3) Are you a songwriter yourself? How do you relate to traditional song styles?
Yes "George Papavgeris" of above. I am - often unwittingly - influenced by traditional songs that I admire. But (and I think this would be valid for most contemporary songwriters), being a child of my times and having a lot more access to music of other geographies and periods than "anon" ever had, am influenced by so many styles that it is frequently impossible to pick out a single influence in a song. Occasionally I set out to write a particular type of song (drinking, industrial/trade, anti-war, hymn etc) and there the influences will be clearer.

4) Are modern 'composed' songs (as opposed to anonymous 'traditional' songs) a part of the folk repertoire and should they be?
Undoubtedly yes, IMHO. The fact that many of the folk songs are anonymous has more to do with the poor recording (and reading & writing) practices of yesteryear. If we followed exclusively the "anon" definition for folk, or even for trad folk, then there can never be another song in that category, ever again - silly! (Sorry Cecil, but "a folk song is always anonymous" doesn't cut it any longer). But if we follow some of the other definitions set out by Richard above, all of the writers in the list further up this thread have created folk songs - you might argue about the extent of folk or trad influences, but you can have contemporary folk songs with few such influences.

Why? Because you should look at the influences in context. For example, most of the folk songs of Cecil's collections might not be influenced by the Music Hall style - that was still "contemporary". But Music Hall has meanwhile entered itself the realm of folk itself, and so is by now a legitimate "folk influence" on today's songwriting. You could stretch the point further - why should not a Beatles or Dylan influence of 40 years ago be a legitimate "folk influence" in a contemporary song now?

And so, folk, and with it trad folk, evolve to include more and more influences as we move along the time line. By now, one might even question the "purity" of folk, as more international influences are included - but in my view, that would be a wrong and futile question: the world moves on, international travel and MP3s are all part of the folk process now, and any "purity" one might strive for would be false and fictitious.

5) How important/relevant are 'pastiche' styles of songwriting, e.g. Kate Rusby using antiquated language in her modern songs?
I see them as irrelevant, simply some contemporary writers' trick to dress up a song in older garb, in an effort to make it more palatable to those of more traditional tastes. It does NOT constitute "writing in a certain style". If I wanted to be really bitchy about it, I could say that such writers are missing the point: A style is defined by the musical forms and do's and don'ts therein, and by the subject matter of the lyrics, and not by tricks like finishing every line with -oh. Such songs MAY be mistaken for traditional in years to come - but traditional of a different period to the one they were written in. How much better to be writing a song of one's own times, in an older style if so wished, but speaking of the trials and tribulations and stresses and fears of one's own period! And if THIS song might one day become "traditional", it will be clearly identified with the period it belongs to - because it speaks of it.

Enough - Snorbans Windward calls...

21 Jan 05 - 01:45 PM (#1384498)
Subject: RE: Contemporary song in folk music
From: George Papavgeris

And Linda Kelly.....

21 Jan 05 - 02:16 PM (#1384513)
Subject: RE: Contemporary song in folk music

I second Guest Sooz's suggestion to focus either on contemporary song/singers/writers, which doesn't have a whole lot to do with traditional music, or focus upon traditional singers who write traditional songs in the traditional context.

I find the need to put Jez Lowe under "traditional" (just as an example) to be a BIG mistake in an academic context. Too much danger of your dissertation meandering meaninglessly across time, place, style, etc etc

Better off to use the bleeding obvious examples, and go from there, as Sooz suggests, for the dissertation anyway.

21 Jan 05 - 06:56 PM (#1384766)
Subject: RE: Contemporary song in folk music
From: Richard Bridge

1. Pete Coe ( author, I think, of most of "The Gay Fusilier")
2. Lloyd "Idiom of the people"
3. Rarely, but sometimes. My songs are not (usually) written intentionally to sound traditional. They come out sounding the way they come out - the thought of the moment. I have one work in progress that is particularly intended to sound traditional, telling the story of Long Lankin from the point of view of the defrauded stonemason.
4. No. There is nothing wrong with them, and they may perfectly well be sung in folk circles, but they are not folk songs, at least until (as per the 1954 definition) they have been handed down by, and modified by, oral transmission. Even then they must be rooted in the tradition. It is not a matter of preference, but of definition.
5. A contemporary song is a contemporary song no matter how it is worded (cf. the Gay Fusilier, and to take another example D'Arcy Farrow). Homage is fine, but a homage is not the original.
6. Homage is also distinct from fraud. (cf. the Piltdown Man and other mock fossils).
7. Endlessly, but not right now!

21 Jan 05 - 07:27 PM (#1384787)
Subject: RE: Contemporary song in folk music
From: goodbar

alistair hulett is amazing.

21 Jan 05 - 07:27 PM (#1384788)
Subject: RE: Contemporary song in folk music
From: GUEST,Russ

4) Are modern 'composed' songs (as opposed to anonymous 'traditional' songs) a part of the folk repertoire and should they be?

In your dissertation what will you mean by "anonymous traditional songs" and "folk repertoire"?

Your definitions will make the answer to the first question clear.

Your second question is prescriptive. Is such a question appropriate for the dissertation? Will you adviser(s) let you get away with it?

21 Jan 05 - 08:12 PM (#1384814)
Subject: RE: Contemporary song in folk music
From: GeoffLawes

Look at Jim Eldon both as a songwriter and as someone whose fiddle style , firmly based in the English tradition as it is , brings a new dimension to the performance of classic songs from other, contemporary, genres. His versions of Dancing In The Dark and Bat Out Of Hell are extraordinary.Don't forget Si Kahn and John Conolly who have both written some good contemporary songs widely sung in the clubs.

21 Jan 05 - 09:29 PM (#1384859)
Subject: RE: Contemporary song in folk music
From: M.Ted

It is important to remember that folk music is always contemporary--it can draw on traditional material, it can be based on traditional material, and can even be traditional material, but it is always played in the present, to please a contemporary audience--

If I were you, I would start in a rather different place--I would take a group of contemporary folk performers, and I would collect their set lists and analyze and classify what is there--"what pleases the contemporary folk audience, and where does it come from?" Youre first job would be in defining the audience and its performers, and differententiating it from all the other contemporary audiences--That would even be a dissertation in itself! Then start collecting set lists--

23 Jan 05 - 05:31 AM (#1385896)
Subject: RE: Contemporary song in folk music
From: Richard Bridge

I think this may be the most omportant thread here so it is sad to see so little contribution.

Why don't we all answer the questions MurkeyChris asks?

MurkeyChris, why don't you tell us the actual question or title of your dissertation as it seems there is some confusion what you are really seeking?

M. Ted, if the title is "Contemporary song is Folk music" then the question demands that the parameters of "Contemporary song" and "Folk music" be understood. Whether one likes it or not, the definition of folk music (I am not denigrating other music, merely saying that it is not within the definition, no matter how excellent it is) is as above. If you start using the term for other things, then you alter the question.

The definition as such precludes singer songwriter or other contemporary material from being "folk" until through assimilation it meets the definition. Such assimilation alters the body of "folk music" by expansion. In that way the parameters observed by say, Sharp will not be truly definitive, but will be characteristics of som folk song, from particular roots.

Of course, it may be that MurkeyChris has not asked us the same question that was asked him, or he may be trawling for thoughts before he commits to a final title for his dissertation.

23 Jan 05 - 07:22 AM (#1385955)
Subject: RE: Contemporary song in folk music
From: greg stephens

Why, out of contemporary writers, are you picking on people like Kate Rusby or Ewan McColl or Bob Dylan or Richard Thompson particularly? Why not Ray Davies of the Kinks, Ash, the Manic Street Preachers, Oasis, Beatles ot whatever? Why are people in the first category "folk" and those in the second aren't? I hope your tutor demands a little rigorous argument.

23 Jan 05 - 07:36 AM (#1385962)
Subject: RE: Contemporary song in folk music
From: George Papavgeris

Richard, I don't really want to sidetrack this thread, but I just want to point out that definition of "folk" above is just that - one definition, which has to be seen in the context of the times it was put together. While I agree with most of the elements of Cecil's definition, I venture to suggest that the requirement for anonymity specifically be waived in these days of widespread literacy and multimedia record-keeping. In Cecil's days things were very different, and a song could become "anonymous" within a few years, as it spread further afield and out of reach of a possibly illiterate originator. I wonder if Cecil simply took anonymity as an indicator that the song had been "sifted" enought through the folk process. If so, the metric was unfortunate and applicable only to his own era.

Take John Connoly's "Fiddlers Green" as just one example. It has been going round from singer to group to instrumentalist and it already exists in several versions, none of them John's own. Words have been added in some places. Parodies have been written. It is often mstaken for an "Irish traditional" song (Irish? for crying outloud!). Is it a "folk" song?

According to Cecil's full definition, the answer has to be "no", simply because we know that John wrote the original version. I think the definition here needs updating.

23 Jan 05 - 07:39 AM (#1385964)
Subject: RE: Contemporary song in folk music
From: George Papavgeris

By the way, Richard, I agree with you about the dearth of participation in such a thread as this. Perhaps if we change the title to include "Hull" or "a***hole" or something like that, it might attract some more views.

On second thought however, perhaps it's better kept bereft of the contributions of some fellow members...

Elitist? Who - me?

23 Jan 05 - 08:08 AM (#1385972)
Subject: RE: Contemporary song in folk music
From: Don(Wyziwyg)T

Richard Bridge makes the point of the full official definition of folk music very well, and is counted among my many good friends in the folk community. He also will readily confirm that we disagree (amicably of course) about what folk music should be. I believe that a word was left out of that definition, which altered the essential meaning of the whole, that word being "traditional". The definition is complete and cohesive for "traditional folk music", but does that necessarily preclude the existence of "contemporary folk music". I think not.

Folk music has always reflected the life and times of the composers, their joys, sorrows, work, leisure, in short, their history. If current compositions on the same subjects, by individuals living in modern times are not folk music, WHAT ARE THEY?

Folk music, to me, is much like a language. It expands and evolves over time, or it dies, and I don't want to be part of a tiny minority who speak the musical equivalent of Latin. So, for me "traditional" and "contemporary" will remain two equally important facets of what I know and love as Folk Music.

Pompous or what? (before anyone else gets the chance to say it).

To get back to MurkeyChris:-

1.All of the above, and also gather some from the floor spots when you visit clubs. There are some gems to be found at local level

2.Can't help there. Too busy making musical noises to pick up books for lo these many years.

3. My writings are heavily influenced by traditional form and tempo, as Richard B would confirm, and most sound traditionalish. It can occasionally backfire. I sang, at a very well known London venue, a song with my original words, and tune, and was loudly interrupted by a local accusing me of bastardising a traditional song.

4. See above.

5.I think of such things as performers tricks, applied for effect, and though I don't do that myself, who am I to castigate others for their opinions.

6. That's one I'd rather leave to the many others who know a lot more about it than I.

7. Long may folk music continue to evolve and expand, and may all those contemporary writers be more appreciated by the traditionalist old guard. After all, surely it's time to stop relying on a century old authority, who was so concerned about keeping the tradition pure, that he bowdlerised most of it.

23 Jan 05 - 09:06 AM (#1385999)
Subject: RE: Contemporary song in folk music
From: breezy

Keith Marsden use Music hall style as well as Trad

Les Sullivan

Steve Tilston

23 Jan 05 - 09:11 AM (#1386004)
Subject: RE: Contemporary song in folk music
From: breezy

Lynne Heraud

got to get the balance right!!!

Julie Ellison

Ralph Mctell

Dougie MacClean

Ian Campbell classic 'The OLd Man's Tale'

Robin Laing

Lester Simpson

john Kirkpatrick

Allan Taylor

23 Jan 05 - 11:47 AM (#1386110)
Subject: RE: Contemporary song in folk music
From: thespionage

Although it is meant for comedy, The Folksmen's rendition of the Rolling Stones' "Start Me Up" from the soundtrack to the movie A Mighty Wind is both great and funny.

Practitioner of Thespionage and Folk Music

23 Jan 05 - 12:17 PM (#1386140)
Subject: RE: Contemporary song in folk music
From: George Seto -

MurkeyChris, are you limiting your contemporary songwriters to Britain?

If you are considering outside of Britain, you might include

Hank Williams
Jimmie Rodgers
Pete Seeger
Bob Dylan
Dan McKinnon (as mentioned above)
Dave Stone (Halifax, Canada)
Fred Eaglesmith
Gordon Lightfoot
James Keelaghan
David Francey

Plus many others too numerous to mention right now.

All of these people write and sing songs about common every events which the average people can relate to, or feel that the song is about them.

23 Jan 05 - 12:41 PM (#1386158)
Subject: RE: Contemporary song in folk music
From: s&r

Alan Bell
Ed Pickford
Ron Baxter


23 Jan 05 - 03:00 PM (#1386272)
Subject: RE: Contemporary song in folk music
From: M.Ted

The problem with academic definitions of folk music and traditional music is that folk and traditional musicians don't abide by them--

23 Jan 05 - 03:03 PM (#1386274)
Subject: RE: Contemporary song in folk music
From: GUEST,Frank

Tommy Sands
Steve Earle
Don McClean
Chris Christopherson
Tom Lehrer
Jean Ritchie
Tom Paxton
Pete Seeger
Eric Bogle
Stan Rogers
Woody Guthrie
Ewan McColl

Just some of the good ones.

23 Jan 05 - 05:08 PM (#1386411)
Subject: RE: Contemporary song in folk music
From: Susanne (skw)

1. Chris, seeing which names have already been suggested, also consider Brian McNeill, a great storyteller in song and definitely influenced by tradition.

2. There is a whole thread dedicated to relevant books on Mudcat under Basic Folk Library. Might be a start.

3. No.

4. I definitely think they should be, as they are.

5. An interesting sideline, I think.

6. No.

7. No.

Richard, as I understand it part of the purpose of a dissertation is a) to show that you are up in accepted definitions of your subject and b) to demonstrate that you are able to think for yourself and depart from them if you can give good enough reasons.

23 Jan 05 - 05:18 PM (#1386426)
Subject: RE: Contemporary song in folk music
From: Linda Kelly

Vin Garbutt, Dave Evardson

23 Jan 05 - 06:27 PM (#1386500)
Subject: RE: Contemporary song in folk music
From: Richard Bridge

A dissertation should demonstrate both knowledge and understanding, contain a rigorous analysis, be supported by appropriate citation and evidence, and above all answer the F*** question. Originality is not necessarily a virtue if the above foundations for it are not presnet. Or so I tell my students.

C'mon Chris, what's the question?

23 Jan 05 - 07:02 PM (#1386534)
Subject: RE: Contemporary song in folk music
From: breezy

George and Frank

English and British appear to be the parameters.

but thanks

24 Jan 05 - 09:38 AM (#1386902)
Subject: RE: Contemporary song in folk music
From: GUEST,Pat Cooksey.

Every folk song considered traditional by the purists must have been written by somebody, however long ago that may have been, they didn't just fall from the sky. If we excluded everything written in the last 50 years from folk music it would be pretty dull, the days of the Farmers Boy, Jolly Jack Tar, etc, are long gone, and modern folk songs simply reflect life as it is today, just as the old songs did in their day.

24 Jan 05 - 11:50 AM (#1387033)
Subject: RE: Contemporary song in folk music
From: shepherdlass

Murkey Chris - you could do a lot worse than taking a look at Allan Taylor's PhD thesis on a similar subject:-

PhD Thesis, Queen's University of Belfast, May 1993

It's an examination of how a contemporary songwriter works and, of course, touches on the authenticity of contemporary songwriting in the context of the folk revival.


24 Jan 05 - 12:01 PM (#1387050)
Subject: RE: Contemporary song in folk music
From: shepherdlass

By the way, if you want my personal two-penn'orth - tradition has always thrived by absorbing what suited from contemporary material.

When that material actually becomes traditional is far trickier - perhaps when a few alternate versions start to appear, showing the kind of adaptation that happened as a matter of course in oral tradition? But you could stretch that definition to state that Will Young's version of "Light My Fire" demonstrates that song to have become traditional: in the words of Private Eye, "SHURELY SHOME MISHTAKE"?!? How, in the age of recordings, can we distinguish between a commercial cover version and oral transmission at work? It's a tricky one, isn't it?

I'm doing a similar kind of research myself at University of Northumbria, so if you ever feel like just having a good moan about trying to fit reality to theory, etc, feel free to PM me. Doubt if I'll have any answers, but at least a sympathetic ear can help.

24 Jan 05 - 01:33 PM (#1387181)
Subject: RE: Contemporary song in folk music
From: GUEST,Russ

The important question is NOT "what is the folk repertoire?" (MC's original characterization) but "What will MurkeyChris mean by the term in his dissertation?"

One of his jobs will be to review the literature and present a working definition for the purpose of the dissertation.

Note the two parts: 1) present the most important of the various definitions of folk music that have been floated, 2) present a clear working definition for the purpose of the definition and the reasons for using it. The first part will be descriptive. The second will be prescriptive in a mildly academic sort of way.

How can one answer MC's questions if one does not know what HE means or intends to mean by the terms?

04 May 05 - 09:27 PM (#1478393)
Subject: RE: Contemporary song in folk music
From: MurkeyChris

Just some belated thanks to everyone that's contributed to this thread. Useful stuff all. Dissertations due in Friday so manic writing going on!


05 May 05 - 02:59 AM (#1478564)
Subject: RE: Contemporary song in folk music
From: Keith A of Hertford

"Pastiche" songs is an interesting concept.
Why do people write fake old songs, excellent though many of them are (and I sing a few.)?
Cyril Tawney wrote incomparable songs in the traditional style, but drawing on themes from the world he knew.

05 May 05 - 05:20 AM (#1478605)
Subject: RE: Contemporary song in folk music
From: Big Al Whittle

kinda makes you grateful you're not important enough to be studied

05 May 05 - 06:50 AM (#1478633)
Subject: RE: Contemporary song in folk music
From: Dave'sWife

I seem to be outing myself as a closet-springsteen fan all over the Mudcat! So....

I do believe that Springsteen has been heavily influenced by Trad Folk, so much so that his strongest songs and CDs are often those that stick to the 'Woodie Guthrie' end of things.

When NEBRASKA came out, it shocked many of his fans but won over a lot of others who hadn't previously given him the time of day. My father used to steal my casette of NEBRASKA right out from under my nose and make off with it to listen to in his car! He was especially moved by the songs that spoke of a working class upbringing and the longing with which Springsteen would sing about wanting to never have to buy a used car again or looking up at the gates of the big mansion on the hill. The references to econmic hardships rang especially true for our family at that time, during the dawn of the Reagan years. I believe that my Dad, hearing those things sung about, that he was experienceing himsef (Unemployement, financial ruin, desperation) found in those songs, something to help him feel less alone.

All of Springsteens albums contain songs with a heavy traditional influence, some more than others. THE RIVER has a few significant ones and then of course, there are is all of THE GHOST OF TOM JOAD and the new CD, Devils & Dust.

I'd say NEBRASKA more than any other stays with me. The song 'My Father's House' is the one that always gets me where I live, that and 'Used cars' because my family lived that song, every word.

You may want to make some mention of Springsteen, but since he's been covered in at least 6 PHD dissertations which were later published as books.. you might not want to go very far into it.

05 May 05 - 09:36 AM (#1478704)
Subject: RE: Contemporary song in folk music
From: GUEST,nutty

DON'T FORGET ...............

Rab Noakes
Bill Staines
John Renbourn

05 May 05 - 03:21 PM (#1478873)
Subject: RE: Contemporary song in folk music
From: alanabit

I agree with Dave's Wife that Springsteen is very much a folk singer within the definition I would use. He has always sung songs about people you might meet in a cafe or waiting for a bus. Above all his songs are there to connect you, which I think is the beauty of the best of the older folk songs.
Good luck with the dissertation Murky Chris.

06 May 05 - 06:25 AM (#1479256)
Subject: RE: Contemporary song in folk music
From: Santa

Too late, I guess, but I'm surprised that Steve Tilston wasn't mentioned.

As others have said, perhaps better, it is a matter of definitions. There is a purist view of folk music, held by many on this board, which may not be as strict as Cecil Sharp's but holds true to the spirit of same. There is the wider view of folk music being anything you might find under that heading in HMV. In that sense contemporary writers are important, and there is a spread in that contemporary writers do not restrict themselves to contemporary subjects. Do we actually need another song telling us that WW2 was bad? Not really, but they keep coming and some of them are damn fine songs. We've already got Tommy Armstrong's mining songs, do we need Johnny Handle and Jez Lowe's reworking of similar material? Well, yes, where they give a fresh view and a some wonderful additions.

Some of these (and many others) will prove to be ephemeral and fade, others will stick around, as Shoals of Herring and Fiddlers Green have stuck around. Much as I love the traditional songs, any good working definition of "folk music" has to be wide enough to include these others.

Another point not discussed above is how a contemporary approach to arrangments can change the older songs. Here it is impossible to avoid mentioning Steeleye Span and Bob Dylan: how many times are their versions of traditional songs sung in folk clubs rather than the older versions? All part of the folk process, methinks. It is perhaps in this area that avoiding outside influences on British folk music is impossible. Not that anyone would, of course, it would certainly be the Last Thing On My Mind.

06 May 05 - 04:08 PM (#1479594)
Subject: RE: Contemporary song in folk music
From: GUEST,Allen

Breezy, Andy Irvine is British. Scottish father, Irish mother, but born and raised in London.

21 Oct 05 - 01:53 PM (#1587871)
Subject: RE: Contemporary song in folk music
From: John Routledge

Thanks for all the names guys - and the debate.

Now the difficult but fascinating bit of selecting songs to learn :0)

21 Oct 05 - 05:26 PM (#1587952)
Subject: RE: Contemporary song in folk music

Two unhelpful 'definitions' of folk song:

(i) "I like folk song, I like this song - therefore this song must be folk song".

(ii) Anything in the 'Folk' section of HMV - by this definition Welsh Military Brass bands are folk song.

Personally, I quite like Sharp's idea that to be accorded the label 'folk song' a song must have been through some sort of process involving oral transmission etc. - but there are so many if, buts and maybes that my head starts hurting.

Oh go on then ... if you like it it's a folk song! what's the harm?
I know, let's replace folk music with rock music and call it 'folk music' - now we're all happy aren't we? I and a few other 'purists' are a bit pissed off but 'folk music' is a lot more commercial now and we don't have to think anymore, do we?

21 Oct 05 - 07:58 PM (#1588048)
Subject: RE: Contemporary song in folk music
From: GUEST,wld

please pm me when you've all sorted this one out.

Remember the meaning of life is 43 and work backwards.

I think by AL Loyds description of the creation of a folksong, most of the stuff herein discussed wouldn't really rate as folksongs.

As I remember you had be to talking about YOUR life, and then holding the words to your bosom and honing them to perfection.
And then your local community should be going, bugger me he's immortalised us in song, or some such.

I think maybe songwriters should try and write something which they find satisfying, and hopefully which entertains - but that second bit is optional. If someone is ungenerous enough to award it the status of folksong - it usually just means how ever popular it is, you won't get paid for it.

22 Oct 05 - 03:58 PM (#1588565)
Subject: RE: Contemporary song in folk music
From: growler

Surely Folk songs are songs about folk. I dont know what traditinal has to do with it. I happen to move in the same circles as Richard Bridge and Don Thompson, both of whom have contributed to this thread. They can both perform ' traditional songs ' or their own to the same effect. For God's sake, let us do what we are good at, that is transcribing life into song

22 Oct 05 - 04:26 PM (#1588573)
Subject: RE: Contemporary song in folk music
From: nutty

Don't forget Archie Fisher

23 Oct 05 - 02:00 PM (#1589066)
Subject: RE: Contemporary song in folk music
From: Big Al Whittle

Okay I'll remember him.

any particular reason?

23 Oct 05 - 02:20 PM (#1589084)
Subject: RE: Contemporary song in folk music
From: Richard Bridge

Look, distinguish definition from virtuousness or value.

What's a "folk song"? I've told you. The definitive meaning of the term is above. If you don't like it, tuff. Those are the formal bodies entitled to set out a definition. There it stands. Anything else is just sloppy thinking.

What's a song that is worth singing, or a song that has merit, or a song that can be sung in a folk club? Different question. I sing plenty of contemporary songs (interestingly, I only just found out that Step it Out Mary is contemporary, but I'll still play it from time to time so long as I feel like playing something Irish). The Gay Fusilier is not a folk song, but I'll still play it. "Sweep" is a folk song and I'll still play it, in my own rather modifed way. But for FourEcks sake remember it is a different question.

23 Oct 05 - 06:50 PM (#1589257)
Subject: RE: Contemporary song in folk music
From: Barry Finn

What a refreshing thread, thanks

I've always loved some of the songs of Laura Nyro & considered her to be an inner city folk singer & songwriter. Being born & raised in an inner city myself she sang directly to & of my environment. To many, by any description, she probably wouldn't be considered a folk singer (when was the last time you heard any of her songs being sung at any form of folk venue, outside of NYC) but she is to we. She had her own style, didn't try to conform herself, sang & wrote meaningful songs of her times & her environment & I watched as she got herself booed off the stage at a 60's Newport Fest, so there you go. Then you're got some one like Martin Graebe who's all but unknown (as far as I know, anyway) outside of Britain who wrote "Jack In The Green", taken by many (including myself) to be a traditional song & is IMHO headed to drawer marked Traditional Songs. A few reasons 1) his name, sorrowfully, is becoming forgotten as the writer (see Sharp on this issue) 2) it's spawned a few different versions since it was first collected from it's (known) writer (see Child, Bronson & again Sharp) 3) it's a song that's BY THE FOLK (maybe only 1 folk, but isn't he of THE FOLK?), FOR THE FOLK & OF THE FOLK (see agricultural songs in the collector's files). Then there's Ewan MacColl/Peggy Seeger, A.L. Loyd & Pete Seeger (among others) all collectors of traditional songs & writers of contemporary folk songs whose had a song or 2 mistaken as traditional music & MacColl accordingly to himself collected a song of his own writing. My thought is that folk music is so vast in it's definitions in to today's folk world that to pin it down is futile & would think of it in terms as a universal & at the same time a communal entity. Maybe a combination spirit & mind maybe guided by a feeling if you will. I'm not trying to put a label on something that (IMHO) can no longer be labeled except for commercial purposes. Today someone could be considered a trash collector or an environmental engineer or a sanitary worker or some else that would cover the distance in between. Here in the US the last of the traditions that spawned traditional music died off in the 1960's. The prison work songs, the songs from the Menhaden Fishing, the West Indian whaling songs & the Georgia Sea Islands songs (surprisingly all from the black tradition, gives reason to ponder, eh?) which are purposefully being kept alive rather than continuously living for the sake of necessity' (at this point I'd to thank A Lomax for his collections in some of these areas). So I guess it boils down to is what one or all would consider a folk song? What makes a contemporary song a folk song as opposed to say Nancy Griffths songs which maybe falls under an umbrella of C&W, Pop/Folk/Rock or just under some label like just singer songwriter? I'd tend to follow history as the judge on what enters the traditional repertoire. With folk it's likely that there will be only opinions. Mine of which would be tend to go heavily with trying to keep a finger on the pulse of both the past & the present folk community's spirit & on their universal DNA code & to try to stay in tune with that same spirit that has guided us from the birth of folk music to the present & if acknowledging that we may find the same benefits that will continue to keep contemporary & traditional folk music alive into the future. A bit more than my 2 cents worth's but surly enough already from me.


23 Oct 05 - 06:52 PM (#1589259)
Subject: RE: Contemporary song in folk music
From: Richard Bridge

I think tha tmight be interesting, btu can we have it in English please?

04 Apr 06 - 03:43 AM (#1709994)
Subject: RE: Contemporary song in folk music
From: Pauline L is taking orders for We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions" by Bruce Springsteen. I love Seeger and I love Springsteen. Speaking about this dual disc recording, Springsteen said "So much of my writing, particularly when I write acoustically, comes straight out of the folk tradition. Making this album was creatively liberating because I have a love of all those different roots sounds... they can conjure up a world with just a few notes and a few words." It sounds good to me. Any comments?