Thursday, March 26, 2009


I've just gotten back from seeing Martin Carthy play at my local folk club. He's probably not a well known name to most, but to a select few, the man's a big deal. I was right at the front, in a venue that holds no more than 100 people, so I could hear his guitar playing and singing more clearly from the man himself than I could from the PA system.

He finished with this song -- which namechecks Shooters Hill (which is where I grew up, and about a mile from where I'm currently sitting) in the context of its former fame as a hangout/execution place of highwaymen.

Given what I've been working on, and what I've been talking about with my other half of late, I couldn't help but sit there and ponder the presentation of gender roles and sexuality in traditional folk music. Folk music is a form of cultural expression which has always existed largely out of the reach of censorship and authority. As such, the views expressed in these songs are arguably a more accurate reflection of social attitudes and behaviors than the forms of expression that were permitted in printed books and authorized plays.

It would be a stretch to far, I feel, to claim that the actions described in folk songs were ever the social norm, but they are examples of narratives which have been passed on from singer to singer for generations, which implies that the audiences liked them enough for them to stay on singers' repertoires. The events described in these songs therefore could be said to illustrate what attitudes the audiences of the time had on a number of subjects, from war, to casual sex, to domestic violence, to abortion.

Unsurprisingly, the songs written by those who were traditionally the poor buggers standing on the front-line with halberds or muskets don't have a particularly rosy view of war. Interestingly it is almost never depicted from the point of view of those who were sent off to the battlefield, but from the perspectives of the women left behind (or who chose not to be left behind). War, rather than something noble, is something that takes the martial aspirations of easily led young men and turns young men into corpses, children into orphans, and wives into widows.

Similarly, the delicate social niceties of Jane Austen's courtships are absent from from the lives of common people in folk music. Love and lust dictate who ends up with who, unless a meddling party gets stabby (which does happen a lot). People are fucking in fields, barns, the homes of sleeping parents, and the marital beds of neglectful absent husbands. Women who terminate pregnancies are treated with sympathy, abusive husbands get their comeuppance, and rapists rot away and die, punished by a vengeful god.

One particularly interesting song (which is crying out for some seriously pretentious literary analysis) involves a woman who, after enduring her drunken, abusive husband for as long as she can, stitches him--bedsheets, clothes and all-- into the bed while he sleeps off another bender. When he wakes, she beats seven shades of shit out of him with a frying pan, a cooking pot, and a rolling pin, then tells him that he ever hurts her again, she'll make sure he doesn't wake up the next morning. I think there's definitely something to be said about the use of implements traditionally associated with the subjugation of women to brain a shithead, but it's late and I can't be bothered to give it much thought right now.

There is one factor, however, that makes me rather loath to embrace the apparent consensus of these songs as evidence of a matriarchal counterculture in pre-modern england. The sort of people who sing folk music are, as a general rule, a bunch of stinky lefties (not that I have anything against stinky lefties, I'm probably one myself). I think this is probably due to the link between folk music and communism in the 1950s -- singers like Ewan McColl believed that this proletarian music would inspire working-class solidarity and lay the foundations for revolution. This is relevant because there are literally thousands of traditional folk songs out there, collected by people like Cecil Sharp and Francis James Child, so what we hear are the songs that modern singers choose to sing. I don't think that it's a major factor -- the songs are genuine, after all -- but I think that you could probably find songs to support the argument that just about any political ideology was the traditional mindset of the british people if you looked hard enough.

I expect it's already been done, but I would have thought that a comprehensive analysis of attitudes to race, gender, and sexuality in folk songs would be an interesting portrait of the prevailing social attitudes in different times and different regions.

Anyway. I'm knackered, and I should have gone to sleep a long time ago.