‘It Ain’t a Real Folk Song Unless It’s a Hundred Years Old!’

This dapper-looking gentleman is Francis J. Child, a nineteenth century American scholar with a particular interest in traditional folk music. Between 1882 and 1898 he published a ten-part work entitled ‘The English and Scottish Popular Ballads’, one of the earliest and most influential collections of traditional folk music, usually referred to nowadays simply as ‘The Child Ballads’. A selection of them are online here.

There are problems with Child’s work, not the least being the fact that he did not include tunes, and so many of the ballads he collected have become separated from the original tunes. Nowadays, of course, the Internet is a powerful tool for this sort of collection. Two of the most useful sites are the Mudcat Café and the (related) Digital Tradition. Some of their songs do include musical notation as well.

In recent years, inspired by the music of people like Martin Simpson, Kate Rusby, Nic Jones, and Martin Carthy, I have become increasingly fascinated with these old songs. The title of this post comes from my friend Andrew Legg, who, when asked to define how he and I were friends when he wanted to add me to his Facebook list, said that we were both members of the ‘If it ain’t at least two hundred years old it ain’t a real folksong’ society. Well, I think two hundred years is a bit much (some of my favourites, like ‘Lord Franklin’ and ‘Bonnie Light Horseman’, aren’t that old!), but I love the sentiment behind the phrase. I mean, we all know that there are as many different definitions of ‘folk music’ as there are folk musicians. Who’s to say which of them is more or less valid? But there’s something special about the traditional music which has been handed down through the years, shaped and moulded by countless singers and instrumentalists, sometimes drastically re-shaped as the old stories are retold in cultures far away from the places where they were first created.

What makes these old songs different? I think there are a few things I can identify.

First, a lot of contemporary music tends to take the form of emotional autobiography – and the story is often left out altogether. In contrast, the traditional folk song is almost always in narrative form. Emotion is often present too, but it’s understated – the story itself is meant to evoke the emotion.

Second, these old folk songs are primarily for singers. They have tunes which must often have been originally created by people singing with no instruments at all. Consequently, the tunes are memorable even when sung unaccompanied.

Third, these are ‘everyman’ songs, telling stories of ordinary people and their struggles with life and death, love and betrayal, bloodshed and war, class struggle and injustice. Their authors felt no compulsion to give the songs happy endings – in fact, the majority of them end sadly.

Fourth, these old storytellers were not in a hurry – none of this ‘if the song isn’t over in three minutes people will switch stations’ stuff. Many of these songs have twenty or thirty verses or more, and no one minded that it was the same tune, over and over again – because the story was the main thing, and the song wasn’t over ’til the story was done.

Don’t get me wrong – I love writing my own songs. But I have to admit that I get even more pleasure out of selecting an old folk song that has touched me deeply, examining the different versions of the text (many of them exist in dozens of different versions), choosing the one I like best, creating an arrangement to play on my guitar, and then presenting the song at a gig or open stage and watching people’s responses to it. When I’ve done my job well, those songs just seem to sing and play themselves, and I have the sense of being part of something much bigger and older than my own ego.

‘Singer/Songwriter’? Well, yes, but it’s not the musical description I treasure the most. ‘Lover and arranger of traditional folk songs’ – now, I’m ‘dead chuffed’ about that one!