THROUGH the doorway of a Cotswold church, the sound of mandolins
and fiddles rippled out past yews and gravestones. When the
folk-music veterans Fairport Convention performed at St Mary's,
Chipping Norton, last year, as part of a restoration appeal, the
event recalled the part played by parishes in the past in fostering
folk traditions in England.
As a new folk-revival is now under way, some observers think
that churches should be showing an interest, both for the music's
intrinsic social and cultural value, and as a source of much-needed
"Music in churches has always formed part of the folk heritage,"
Malcolm Taylor, the librarian at the English Folk Dance and Song
Society at Cecil Sharp House, in London, says.
"Much of the folk music that's come down to us has been cleaned
up from its bawdy, earthy beginnings. But there's real depth in
many of these songs, and plenty of crossover between their secular
and religious contents."
Folk music apparently originated as a source of news before
broadsheets and newspapers. While definitions of the genre vary,
most experts agree that, as an artistic currency for ordinary
people, it was, and remains, an area of national excellence.
The folk tradition is littered with frivolous songs for drunken
evenings, often featuring violence and sexual innuendo; but many
songs contain complex and moving messages about life and death,
love and hatred, truth and falsehood, and success and failure,
which offer food for reflection today as much as when they were
IT CAN be argued that folk music first gained cultural
respectability a century ago, thanks to pioneering collections by
Cecil Sharp (1859-1924), and Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958). It
was, Sharp insisted, "music of the very highest quality", which
alone was "sufficient justification for advocating its
But folk songs had influenced great writers long before, from
Shakespeare to Thomas Hardy, whose early novel Under the
Greenwood Tree described folk tunes played in churches. Its
survival had also owed a good deal to Church of England priests who
had helped to document and preserve it.
The Revd Sabine Baring-Gould (1834-1924), from Lewtrenchard, in
Devon, was assisted by clerical contemporaries in compiling a book,
Songs and Ballads of the West, which included the classic
"Widecombe Fair" (Faith, 20/27 December).
Although "disparaged and jeered at", Baring-Gould insisted that
his sympathy for the culture of ordinary people was religiously
motivated, and defended his efforts to pass on "a whole body of
precious melody" that would otherwise have been "absolutely and
He wrote the hymn "Onward Christian soldiers", using a
traditional folk tune - just as Vaughan Williams would incorporate
folk tunes when he was musical editor of The English
Some priests found a political purpose in folk songs. The Revd
Charles Marson (1859-1914), a close friend of Sharp and an
architect of the Christian Socialist movement in east London, later
moved to Somerset, where, with the help of other clerics, he
collected more than 970 songs.
Another enthusiast, the Revd Conrad Noel (1869-1942), has been
described as having turned Thaxted Parish Church into a centre of
"folk dancing and radical politics". Noel influenced the composer
Gustav Holst, who wrote the first draft of The Planets
while living in his parish.
He and others looked to the oral folk-tradition as a source of
simple morality, which taught lessons, brought people together, and
provided insights into the joys and sufferings of past
HOWEVER true that may still be, today's aficionados also point
to folk music's commercial potential as a growth industry, which
has already helped to make Britain the second largest exporter of
music worldwide, after the United States.
A report last year by UK Music noted that music festivals as a
whole now attract 6.5 million "music tourists" annually, sustaining
more than 24,000 full-time jobs and contributing £2.2 billion
annually to the economy.
As for folk's contribution to these figures, research by the
Association of Festival Organisers has provided evidence that
investment in the proliferating folk festivals in Britain - now
totalling more than 400 - would produce "an excellent return on
public funding" by creating jobs and markets.
Significant government support has yet to materialise - a fact
that may partly reflect personal preferences. Back in 2001, the
Labour Culture Minister Kim Howells famously remarked that folk
singers in a pub formed part of his "vision of hell".
Although Mr Howells later apologised, the disparaging epithet
provoked a riposte, the song "Roots", by the award-winning trio
Show of Hands, setting out a counter-vision, in which cultural
identity in England had been supplanted by "overpaid soccer stars,
prancing teens, Australian soaps, American rap".
Mr Howells was moved to another department, but the song, by
Steve Knightley, was nominated as best original song at BBC Radio
2's Folk Awards.
EFFORTS are now being made to promote the growing
folk-phenomenon by an All-Party Parliamentary Folk Arts Group,
chaired by a Labour MP, Kevin Brennan, and folk-music courses are
being offered at the universities of Newcastle and Sheffield.
A Folk Educators Group is working to integrate folk music more
closely into the arts establishmentin England, and the English Folk
Dance and Song Society, founded by Sharp in 1911, recently helped
to launch a free digital archive of traditional folk
Churches and parishes could also tap into the folk revival. At
Cecil Sharp House, Mr Taylor acknowledges that tastes vary, but
thinks that most churchgoers are steeped in folk culture without
fully realising it.
Before organs came into general use, he argues, music was
supplied by groups with traditional instruments in the west
galleries of parish churches, who would have sounded
indistinguishable from other folk performers.
This helps to explain why, when Sharp began collecting folk
songs, he wrote to hundreds of clerics requesting help.
"We hardly need to point out the historical and antiquarian
importance of folk songs," Sharp told them. "Their intrinsic
musical beauty makes it imperative that they should be preserved.
You would do a great national service by helping."
The parish folk-tradition has been revived recently by the West
Gallery Music Association, whose 400 singers and instrumentalists
have sought to repopularise the music performed in village churches
during the 18th and 19th centuries.
THE potential involvement of churches in folk music has also
interested some of its current leading performers. Eliza Carthy,
who became a professional fiddle-singer at 17, and teaches at the
Sage Centre, Gateshead, thinks that the current surge of talent
would find a natural outlet in them.
Ms Carthy works with religious performers, and believes that
such groups have a natural affinity with songs which "speak to
their own lives and interests".
Jon Boden, a 36-year-old multi-instrumentalist, whose 11-member
band Bellowhead has become folk's nearest equivalent to a
super-group, points out that church services still provide a
regular opportunity for organised, uninhibited singing, at a time
when the advantages of singing for health and well-being are well
Many folk songs originated before the Bible was translated,
Boden says, when ordinary Christians tried to understand the faith
in their own way. Curious popular narratives emerged, often
envisioning the Gospels' central figures as characters in the
rustic medieval society in England.
One of Mr Boden's favourites, "The Bitter Withy", collected by
Vaughan Williams, imagines the child Jesus chastised by his mother,
after causing three haughty lords to drown. It is a theme drawn
from ancient Christian texts such as De Infantia
Salvatoris, which found its way to Shropshire from Asia Minor
- a sign of the extraordinary richness that makes up the folk
"Folk music offers a window into the human psyche, and reflects
the collective consciousness of societies which have passed it on",
Mr Boden says.
"As a historic art-form, it has a distinctive place in our
national heritage. It'll be a great pity if it doesn't gain the
acknowledgement it deserves."
Jonathan Luxmoore is a journalist who reports from Warsaw
and Oxford. Christine Ellis is a librarian at the University of