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Folk music is in tune with church

23 May 2014

We already use it, but there could be more recognition of its spiritual resonances, cultural richness, and renewed popularity, suggest Jonathan Luxmoore and Christine Ellis


Shared heritage: Bellowhead performing in Manchester last month

Shared heritage: Bellowhead performing in Manchester last month

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 revenue.

"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 first sung.

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 revival".

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 irretrievably lost".

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 Hymnal (1906).

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 generations.

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 manuscripts.

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 documented.

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 tradition.

"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 Oxford.

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