‘One Morning in May…’

I have been investigating English Folk Music recently. This spate of interest is mainly inspired by seeing the awesome Rachel Unthank and the Winterset playing recently in Oxford, and becoming somewhat obsessed with their CD. As well as reconnecting with my latent Geordie tendencies* and singing along to the CD on all my car trips, I have been trying to pinpoint what it is beyond the luscious vocals, the careful piano arrangements and the integration of shoes into the rhythm of each piece that holds such allure for me in their music. It is an allure which is missing for me from the vocals of New Folk musicians like Sufjan Stevens, Joanna Newsome, Devendra Bandhart et al. Now I really, deeply, truly *love* New Folk but many New Folk artists borrow the musical skin and aesthetic of traditional folk tunes and wrap them around much more contemporary lyrics, and this is really different somehow to what Rachel Unthank and the Winterset are up to.

Take Joanna Newsom, for instance. It is undeniably evocative when she asserts that ‘It is terribly good to carry water and chop wood, streaked with soot, heavy-booted and wild-eyed,’ but this tastes and feels like Folk Music as Lifestyle/Idea rather than Folk Music as an expression of lived experiences. I think that in the past when people wrote songs about chopping wood and carrying water, the songs were mostly developed to lighten the tedious, chore-like qualities of the task in hand rather than to remark upon the virtuous aspects of the work. Now there’s nothing wrong with that. I probably aspire to having a Folk Lifestyle myself, and I certainly think that we should do more chopping of wood and carrying of water in relation to the carbon footprint etc. But these concerns and perspectives are contemporary and do not, arguably, touch on ancient nerves of human truth in the way that some of the older folk songs do.

For instance I have never had a child or cows or a husband, but when I listen to Rachel Unthank and the Winterset singing the song of a worried mother whose baby hasn’t returned at the end of the day, I am inexplicably moved. My reaction is quite complex. I find I am slightly nauseated by the sexism of the song (the lost child is almost certainly a Son) and the lack of economic realism inherent in the idea that it would be better to lose all the cows (and the income they bring) than to lose the precious boy; but at the same time there is a feeling – a mythic thing to do with love and loss and defiance – that gives this song epic powers. It isn’t really a song about the cows or agricultural economics; it is about a mother’s love and about the dignifying powers of hanging onto these emotional values ESPECIALLY in times of dire poverty and economic strife. Contextualised as it is by a tangible landscape and by actual history, it holds a different kind of allure to many contemporary New Folk songs which frame love in other ways, using other connections and contexts.

Likewise, Blue Bleezing Blind Drunk (a revenge song) is the tragic song of a woman whose main response to her husband’s violent behaviour is to go on wild drinking binges. Rachel Unthank and the Winterset present this song with real ambivalence; the protaganist of the song is difficult to like and somehow in the way the song is presented, we end up feeling sorry not for the fact that she married an arse, but for the fact that she doesn’t have a more empowered strategy for dealing with him (like leaving him.) This is certainly not as comforting in the feminist sense, as, say Diane Cluck’s beautiful contemporary song about her taste in men;

Did I tell you how I like to see a man submit to ecstasy? All loose and warm as he can be, and moaning like his mother?

But the Rachel Unthank song holds a connection to historical reality… to the dire situation and lack of freedom for women in previous eras when there were no women’s crises lines, no women’s support centres, no coalitions against domestic violence etc. I’m not saying that the issue of domestic violence is solved now, (far from it) but the connection to real histories offered by these reworked songs definitely brings some grounding and necessary context to what happens in the world Now. In fact that is maybe the whole allure of old songs.

Rachel Unthank and the Winterset talked at their gig about their process of keeping old songs alive, of sharing regional songs and preserving dialect in their performances. I was deeply impressed by the Folk Geekery they displayed. It seems to me that they hold true to the idea that folk songs come from people’s lives and stories, lived in very real places, connected to actualities that weren’t recorded anywhere in words or pictures, and that their stance in this regard is refreshingly unsentimental and realistic. With a generous truth-margin given to the process by which reality becomes immortalised in song, they seem to earnestly see the songs as a kind of real description of events, and to take it with a massive pinch of salt. So I love the sense of difficult and real history in the old songs they sing, and the way they make those things contemporary. I love their insistence on the relevance of past tales for contemporary audiences.

Inspired by all this I have thus been diving into many folk song books and looking for music that I can rework. I am puzzled by the number of songs which seem to recount events in May. Well, I was puzzled until I worked out that there are really very few good rhymes for April, March, or January. I am certain that some of the chance encounters recounted in the songs probably took place during other months, but I guess that tying the song to real places, real situations and real feelings doesn’t need to get bogged down in specific dates.

I am not the first person, however, to somewhat miss the mythic truth of the folk-song; the person who previously borrowed this book from the library appears to have taken exception to the geographical discrepancies in the song, scribbling curtly in the margin beside the lyrics, ‘Dundee? Berkshire? Not really…’

So first, I have to discard a tendency to stickle around the facts somewhat. Next, I have to work out what the copyright laws are around recording and adapting Folk Music for broadcast… does anyone else know? If I can figure out these details, hopefully I can make something which will evoke my burgeoning love of history and my need to know more about this country that I’m from.

* I lived in Newcastle-upon-Tyne until I was four and apparently uttered my first sentences with a whopping great regional accent. Sadly this has been since lost through various moves. By far the worst side-effect of losing my formative dialect, is that my Ross Noble impersonations are unpredictably hit and miss.

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