Thursday, 14 August 2014

Aaand, I'm back after six months or so in near-hibernation. So, back to the Child Ballads. Yesterday, I investigated Little Sir Hugh, or The Jew's Garden (Child 155), initially from the Peggy Seeger arrangement The Fatal Flower Garden, then versions by Cecilia Costello, Sam Lee and Steeleye Span. The macabre Lincoln-set tale of the murder of a child, there was far more to this tune than one might initially think - a bit of background reading reveals that this song was depressingly symptomatic of anti-Semitic sentiments around about the 13th and 14th centuries - these feelings reaching their apotheosis in the Edict of Expulsion of 1290. The story goes thus: a bunch of young children lose their ball in a nearby garden, and one of their number is sent to retrieve it. When in the garden, the young boy is lured inside the house by the daughter of the titular Jew (or the gypsy, in the case of the Peggy Seeger version) by the promise of fruit and jewels, and is promptly stabbed to death when he falls asleep. After death, and after having Bibles placed at his head and feet, he sends a message to his parents to reassure them. This is apparently based on a true story, whereby a young boy (Little Saint Hugh, whose sainthood has apparently since been revoked) was either stabbed by a Jew and dumped down a well, or simply fell down a well and was subsequently used as a pawn by several anti-Semitic factions who went on to implicate several dozen local Jews in the boy's murder, claiming larger involvement in ritualistic killing. It may be coincidence that when Jewish people were convicted of any crime, their assets immediately went to the state, and that the evidence was specious at best. Nonetheless, the first man arrested (Copin) was later put to death, and of the ninety or so Jews implicated and held in the Tower of London, eighteen were hanged for refusing to co-operate. Plus ├ža change. The melody I added to the tune (after hearing several wildly differing interpretations) was a simple descending, hymn-like figure in B major, the sense of dread and foreboding hopefully being accentuated by the gravitational pull of the melody.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Today, I watched the first half of the BBC documentary 'Still Folk Dancing After All These Years', a documentary about English calendar customs.  The programme looked at various folk traditions which generally welcome in the spring and the summer, including the May Cart procession in Moulton Northamptonshire (featuring a May Day queen and king), Padstow May Day celebrations (where two hobby-horses parade throughout the streets, vying for the crowd's attention), and most intriguingly, the Britannia Coconut dancers from Bacup, Lancashire.  Every Easter Saturday, a troupe of male dancers take to through the streets of Bacup to the accompaniment of a marching brass band.  What is unusual about them, though, apart from their outlandish garb, is the small wooden discs they have strapped to their thighs, which form the basis of an elaborate tap-tapping ritual not dissimilar to a children's clapping game but apparently based on  various semiotics and gestures from rock quarrying, especially the banging of water pipes.  Oh, and they're blacked up.  Hmm.

Several explanations for this were offered in the programme; one participant claimed that blacking-up wards off evil spirits at the beginning of a new season, another said it (and the dance) is based on imitations of Moorish pirates who washed up in Cornwall several centuries ago (lest we forget, the name 'morris' has been ascribed to being a bastardisation of the word 'moorish').  

The order of the day for all of these customs is fairly simple: a chance for the laity to let off steam by participating in carousals and drunken revelry.  Competition seems important - in Bampton, Oxfordshire, the Morris dancing on display was surprisingly vigorous and a good-natured sense of oneupmanship was woven into the fabric of the dance itself, with young tight-trousered (coincidence? I doubt it) dancers competing with each other to jump the highest and to dance the furthest outside the perimeter and the closest to the crowd.  This related to the one and only time I have seen rapper dancing, which was given a certain frisson of danger due to the fact that the dancing took place in a pub, in an area of no more than a few square feet.  On that occasion, I was hugely intrigued by the 'Tommy' - who, after introducing the dancers with a song, provided a running commentary throughout in a manner highly reminiscent of an old-time carnival barker. 

The folk tradition is by definition a repository for art and customs of the peasant classes, and the origins of many of these customs are therefore unverifiable in the conventional sense.  Movements such as Victorian puritanism also bowdlerised many of the customs, thereby further muddying their history.  One thing which *is* documented about a lot of folk traditions such as mumming plays, Wassailing and clog dancing is the fact that they would generally be performed for some sort of reward, be it food, drink or simply a few coins.  When the aforementioned Tommy goes into his fast patter, he is not only enriching the dance by making it 'larger than life', he is also helping to invigorate the crowd and whip up their excitement, presumably all the better to make them part with their cash when the hat is passed round afterwards.  Perhaps, in our pursuit of the semiotic and spiritual histories of these customs, we are in danger of overlooking their immediately practical uses.  I shall no doubt have more ill-informed opinions on this subject when I've watched the latter half of this show.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

And so to the Child Ballads.  Despite my initial idea that I might systematically work through them from #1 (there are 305 in total), I have decided, in typically perverse fashion, to start at #100 (Willie of Winsbury, chosen totally arbitrarily) and see where things go from there.  Before any analysis (be it textual or musical), I began by simply listening to a recording, in this case by Anais Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer, from their recent album 'Child Ballads'.  The first thing I noticed was the musical arrangement, and thereby I may have hit my first snag.  The accompaniments - in this case a slow-building affair in which the guitars are slowly (and often barely perceptibly) joined by other instruments - have a story of their own to tell, which may well be at odds with the tale actually being told in the lyrics, not to mention providing a fresh contender for the listener's attention.  This is further compounded by the fact that the verbal arcania contained within many folk lyrics can often be obscured both by vocal gymnastics and the addition of harmonies.  (If this seems picayune in the extreme, please forgive me - all I am really trying to do is to put myself in the position of someone hearing the ballad without recourse to lyric sheets or notes, and to judge it purely temporally, as these ballads' first audience would have had to.)

The ballad itself seemed fairly symptomatic of not only Child's collection, but perhaps also of folk song itself - it tells a simple tale in which a king returns from captivity in Spain to discover that his daughter Jane seems to be sickening for something, or someone.  After questioning her and forcing her to strip naked in order that he should verify her chastity, she confesses that she has been impregnated by one Willie of Winsbury, whereupon her father dispatches his men to find him and bring him back, where he will be summarily hanged.  When paraded at court, the king is astonished to see a man before him clad in red silken clothes, with tumbling blonde locks and milk-white skin; so astonished, in fact, that he immediately offers him not only his daughter's hand in marriage, but the heirdom to his entire kingdom.  Willie accepts his daughter's hand but rejects the kingdom, the final scene being of the lovers disappearing on horseback to enjoy the presumed riches of nature.  So already we have morality coming into play (Willie, who is apparently neither wealthy nor powerful, refused riches and a title), judgements based on appearances (a favourite Shakespearian device when all else fails) and the heartwarming old saw of 'love conquers all'.

By way of contrast, the other version I listened to (Anne Briggs, from her eponymous album) seemed to be less musically interesting (the accompaniment of two chiming bouzoukis provided a solid, if somewhat workmanlike underpinning), but focused the listener far more on the story being told. 

The construction of the melody (at least by Western 'classical' standards) is somewhat backwards - normally a melody would spend several phrases working its way up to its highest-pitched note, better to give an overall shape and sense of progression.  However, this melody starts off in its highest register, hitting its highest note halfway through the first phrase before gradually descending.  Perhaps this is another (subconscious) technique to focus the listener more on the tale rather than the telling, by removing any superfluous overarching dramatic arcs.  Brecht did much the same thing, after all. 

The acid test for me was when I actually came to sing the song in question (and no, you're not getting to hear any of them, thanks).  Despite my earlier protestations that the melody be as uninflected as possible, I immediately found myself lapsing into certain folk-singing tropes ('leaning into' the last note of a phrase from the note below, arcane pronunciations such as 'oyy' instead of 'I', adding passing notes where none were needed).  It was therefore with a heavy heart that I realised how much I crave ornamentation and overarching dramatic thrust.  To be alone with a single melody, without any other voices, instruments or gimmicks, had the strange effect of making me feel somewhat vulnerable, especially when I attempted to sing in my natural (un-folkie) voice.  One wonders whether this is an inevitable by-product of entertainment changing (not to mention attention-span), or whether we can in fact lose ourselves anew in something so simple, unpretentious and above all, stark.  I for one sincerely hope so. 

Monday, 10 February 2014

Okay, I suppose I'd better start somewhere.  I've been a musician in some form or other for over twenty years, playing various instruments and almost every imaginable kind of music.  However, the life of a musical gadabout is not necessarily charmed, and for the last few years I have felt a certain frustration in my musical life, perhaps borne of the very flightiness which has always been my apparent unique selling point.  This manifested itself as something of a musical identity crisis - although I play drums in a rock band, I don't consider myself to be a 'rock drummer'; ditto keyboards in a ska band, bass in a Sixties tribute band, etc.  I have recently found myself looking upon musical specialists with no little envy, despite several of these musicians' assertions that they would give anything to possess my versatility.  Many of my friends and contemporaries chose their instrument at a relatively early age, gradually honing their craft over many years of frustrating practice sessions and soul-destroying public performances.  Although I began as a percussionist (and later drummer), the occasional successes I achieved in various performances and grades were not enough to convince me that I had a right to be in that particular world, hence my lifelong tendency to migrate to other instruments when things get too intimidating.  Whether this approach is viewed as the restless search of someone innately curious or as the constant prevarications of an impatient musical drifter, I have certainly acquired a (perhaps enviable) overview of the subject, but it does not change the fact that, when it comes to musical experiences, quantity is not equal to quality.

Almost accidentally, over the last couple of years I have started to take something of an interest in folk music.  Although I'm not entirely a stranger to the genre (in addition to having briefly played in an Irish ceilidh-style band, I have also attended many folk singarounds, although only to sing comedy songs), I must admit that in recent years there has been many aspects of folk which have both intrigued and puzzled me; indeed, several of the ideas expressed have almost led me to question my entire system of musical values.  Therefore, by way of providing at least some depth to my knowledge base, I have decided to undertake an investigation of this music, to whit: examining it from musical, cultural and historical perspectives.  I do not do this in order to discover what constitutes 'folk' music (I fear a strict definition of such a term is beyond the scope of this blog), but rather to look at whether my findings are in direct opposition to the values inherent in various other strands of my musical life, or whether they can, by showing me new approaches to learning and performing, actually enhance them.  I want this journey to be an end in itself; not only to open my mind (and ears) to new concepts of beauty and expression, but to teach me about myself; to rid me of my magpieish tendencies and instil in me a discipline that has so long been lacking. 

I have two ostensible starting-points for this - a book of the so-called 'Child Ballads' (songs originating from the British Isles but collected in America by the scholar F.J. Child) and A.L. ('Bert') Lloyd's 'Folk Song In England', a tome which several people have assured me is fascinating but deeply flawed, apparently due to Lloyd's tendency to over-politicise (not to mention over-simplify).  In setting out any programme of musical study, it is important to properly balance the academic with the practical - I highly doubt that my singing or playing through whatever piece of music is under scrutiny will award me many great insights into it, but it is an act as essential as the background research into the song's context.  As we say in my part of the world, it all comes in.

Starting tomorrow, I will report my progress.