Folksongs don’t always get the facts right. In folksongs, the rain always falls softly and the rambling sailor goes whistling on his way without a care in the world.
The truth that music tells is an emotional one. The middle classes of the Victorian era created a Merrie England of maypoles and jolly ploughboys because that is the world they wanted to inhabit. The middle classes of today’s Britain have very similar ideas, using their money to ‘escape’ to the country, do a bit of hobby farming or ‘get involved in the community’. They too like children dancing round maypoles with pretty ribbons, and don’t have a clue that this version of maypole dancing is their own tradition, not that of the historic agricultural workers.
Does it matter?
Not really. We use music to express what we care about, what we are passionate about. Much popular music (traditionally the province of young folk) is concerned with young people falling in and out of love, and all the associated heartaches, thrills, drama and deceptions associated with that most basic of human passions.
Little surprise then that the popular music of the past – the songs sung in pubs, parlours, barns and foc’s’ls – covers the same territory. The abundance of songs about women ‘marrying for gold not for love’ – sometimes under duress – remind us how newly-won are the freedoms women have in Britain. Other cultures still strongly pressurize their young people to make “suitable” matches.
Likewise, songs about poverty, industrial accidents, and long separations due to work, show us how people felt about the lives they led. What mattered to them is pretty much what matters to us; we can see the motivation for the rise of the Labour movement in the angry polemics about mining disasters, young men pressed into the army and navy, and the grinding poverty of the disenfranchised. We can also see the roots of working class conservatism, in the songs of grateful and contented farm workers toasting the health of the “squire”. No need to upset the applecart, the lord of the manor will see us right.
Songs tend to be about people, but in the rural areas – where most people lived before the Industrial Revolution – they are laced with the images of the world in which those people lived. Images that show not only how much people who lived and worked on the land knew about the natural world but also how they felt about it. The poacher stealing the rich man’s game is a folk hero. Magpies may be the enemy of the gamekeeper, but in folklore they are messengers those in the know can commune with. The link between the peasant’s understanding of the natural world from which he wrestled a hard-won living and today’s environmental science is only just beginning to be explored.
I was into Trad. Arr. from my teenage years. Rock’n’roll just sounded like noise, and taking drugs seemed like a stupid thing to do. I never felt any great need to rebel against my parents – or anything, really. I was one of those middle class people dreaming of my own “escape to the country.” But I have recently been listening, for the first time, to a lot of what is actually the popular music of my youth – blues music and Americana, from my husband’s extensive collection of vinyl.
It would be stupid not to acknowledge that there are unquestionably some great songs in the American canon. Some of them in particular resonate with me, depicting as they do a gritty reality of 20th century American culture. The directionless quest for personal freedom expressed so well in songs like “Me and Bobby McGee” was one of the sentiments that did register at the time – I just love the lines:
‘Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose
Freedom ain’t worth nothin’ but its free’.
That, to me, is so quintessentially American.
Many songs from the blues stable are of course the usual fare of young lovers, tales of bliss and heartbreak with the emphasis on heartbreak, but I have to say that much of the later stuff, particularly the singer-songwriter genre, sounds to my ears incredibly self-indulgent. Perhaps its because there is just so much of it, navel-gazing lyrics which wallow in an emotional angst of impossibly unrealistic romantic expectations and implausible alliances. Its blues by people who really have no business having the blues – people who think the world revolves around them and their personal desires, and are plunged into despondency when reality smacks them in the face.
I guess all of us who have benefitted so much from the inexorable rise of capitalism in the 20th century are a bit guilty of such a complacent presumption of privilege. We’ve grown up in a world where we kind of could have everything we wanted, and with the increasing use of credit, we could have it now.
Its how we respond to adversity that is the acid test of post-war Western civilisation – and its not looking good. We are supposed to learn as children that life is not easy. You don’t get everything you want. Its not someone’s fault, it’s the way it is. You pick yourself up, dust yourself down and find another way. These are lessons so many of the generations between the baby boomers and the millenials have not had to learn. So many people with this privileged mindset have developed a habit of denying responsibility and looking for someone else to blame for what they perceive to be their misfortunes – whether that’s the guy or gal who “done them wrong”, or the man down the road who looks different and follows a different religion.
Sufficient numbers of people seem sufficiently immune to self-doubt and objective examination of the facts to vote in a President of the USA who agrees with them that all their problems are someone else’s fault. If they just “Make America Great Again” everything will be fine. Closer to home, millions of Britons have been persuaded that Europe is the source of all the ills besetting our country, and we have to leave the European Union to “Make Britain Great Again.”
These are all simple answers based on an immature emotional response to adversity. Simple answers mismatched with complex questions will set us on the road to oblivion. If ever we get out of this prickly bush, we must never get in it any more.