I couldn’t attempt to write a comprehensive essay on the relationship between folk, art and pop songs. I’m sure thousands of PHD theses have already been written on the overlapping influences of such music. And after a careful detailed consideration of musical forms post graduates, of a media studies thrust, might concur that to play high art off against popular culture is unnecessary for there are just well written songs and badly written songs. I don’t want to get into the cultural relativism of matters of taste, fashion and tradition. My aim is to more modestly talk of five folk or folksy sounding songs whose honesty and directedness created for me a personal ‘epiphany.’
Epiphany? That’s a debased term these days with publishers screaming titles at you like 1001 movies, music, paintings etc that I must experience before I die! (I’ve already experienced a large percentage of what you publishers say I ought to consume, and they were discovered on my own, with some suggestions of friends, long before being viewed as marketable items on some culture assembly line.) So I’ll drop the single inverted commas, hide “epiphany” and insert the word “grace.” I’m taking grace to mean a beauty and form of movement that’s also an unmerited gift, not from God, but from all of us, back to ourselves – acting as a salutary reminder that we can be spiritual beings.
My 1st grace experienced through folk song came with Kathleen Ferrier’s version of Blow the Winds Southerly. She recorded it in London in 1949. Aged 10 in 1959 I heard her singing unaccompanied on the radio. Two things knocked me out.
Apart from a drunk in my street I’d never properly heard singing without an instrument. It was a classical singer (I’d no idea what a classical singer was then) with a unique mezzo soprano tone. I made have heard a nursery tune with the word “wind.” But a wind that blew southerly? Anything South was then associated with London – so far away from my home in Toxteth, Liverpool. It’s a Northumberland folk song. I remembered being told at school that Hadrian’s Wall was in Northumberland. So did that wind hit the wall after blowing against the coastline? Yet the line “Blow bonnie breeze my lover to me.” really threw me of kilter. Its three B’s being Scottish at heart! A memory of a Liverpudlian Scottish aunt sweetly calling me, on a winter’s night, a “bonnie” child was now in a song of passionate longing.
I did hear the announcer say the song title but the singer’s name was hit by radio interference. All I knew was that an operatic woman named Kathleen… sang of a mysterious wind and she might, you never know, have corresponded with my aunt for the words. It was such a great breeze of security: warm, bonnie and protective circulating through me. I never got my parents to buy the recording. I didn’t need to. An idea of the South had been firmly planted into a Northern kid.
Grace 2 appeared in the form of Benjamin Britten’s arrangement of the melody, as transcribed by Cecil Sharp, of a 17th century Scottish folk song. O Waly, Waly (Wail, Wail). This is one of the most beautiful examples of a folk song becoming an art song due to the alchemic partnership of Britten and Peter Pears, especially in the last two verses.
A ship there is, and she sails the sea.
She’s loaded deep as deep can be,
But no so deep as the love I’m in.
I know not if I sink or swim.
O love is handsome and love is fine,
And loves a jewel when it is new,
But when it is old, it growth cold,
And fades away like morning dew.
Their performance is a plangent lament for lost, un-renewable and dying love. I first heard the song on a second hand LP called Folk Songs straight after listening to Britten’s Serenade for tenor, horn and string orchestra. I was seventeen and exhilarated by Britten’s sensitive ear for poetry. (Just a few years before there’d been the ‘folksy’ single Island of Dreams by the Springfields plus the regular thrill of each new Beatles 45rpm release. Not forgetting my first classical music buy – a ten shilling version of Beethoven’s Fifth symphony.)
I left school at sixteen, started work as a shipping clerk and began to have my own money. Yet by seventeen I felt pretty lonely. I’d broken off seeing my school-friends (bar one) and was yet to make new friends at work. So into this vacuum came the song O Waly, Waly. My over-intense adolescent view of things as an emotional either/or was apparent. I was in love with a self-conscious picture of myself as unloved, unlovable and stuck between the world of boyhood and emerging manhood. I was in my own delicate, unseaworthy ship sailing into the adult world where not even a kind word from my dad or hug from my mum could help.
But not so deep as the love I’m in
I know not if I sink or swim.
Peter Pears singing is wonderfully hushed in the last verse and heartbreakingly intense. Yet when I saw a repeat of the BBC TV transmission of the Pears/ Britten folk song recital and observed Pears’s expression I glimpsed, through the pathos of its lyric, an eventual acceptance of things whilst the subtlety of Britten’s arrangement created a sea-like ebb and flow – a barcarolle of emotional intelligence where art and folk song fused absent of creative tension. It both moved me and helped to move me on in, not “the world of work” (I hate that term) but my new life experiences in the world of a young man.
Grace number 3 arrived through Paul McCartney. I could have chosen The Beatles Penny Lane as it’s a genuine folk song that still reverberates in my personal time and space. I knew the real Penny Lane (in neighbouring Wavertree) with its barber shop, fire station, real coffee shop etc as part of my local furniture before it was transformed into a vinyl myth.
However I’d choose Blackbird, from The White Album. When asked about the meaning of Blackbird McCartney has spoken of the watching of TV reports, concerning racial tensions in America, having possibly influenced him.
Yet I feel the song is apolitical and more generally about internal states of mind. Its imagery consists of sunken eyes that want to learn and see as they wait for the right moment for freedom. Despite the very active social life of my late teens I had moments of depression proving unaccountably black for me. I functioned, held down a job, had friends and found my own bed-sit in Liverpool. Yet I could be prone to fall, as the lyric says, “Into the light of the dark black night.” However a way out of such introspection came in the lines, “Take these broken wings and learn to fly.” For me the broken wings became my hand holding a pen over paper then writing. Through my imagination I wanted insight, from the light, as I went further within.
I’ve often thought that Blackbird is the counter opposite to Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending. Where that piece soars upwards in flight, Mc Cartney’s song has a metaphorical blackbird wishing to escape yet before it can do so has to descend, at the right moment, to discover a meaning to validate itself: hard to find when things appear so dark, stuck and difficult. A violin and orchestra imitate the soar of a singing lark. Vaughan Williams was inspired by George Meredith’s poem containing the lines,
The better heart of men shall see,
Shall feel celestially as long
As you crave nothing save the song.
I feel McCartney’s blackbird, unlike the lark of Vaughan Williams and Meredith, that craves its song, endures its own singing because it’s all it’s got to get through the dead of night. This composition takes folk song imagery and psychologises it into something not quite a pop song, never an art song but more a therapeutic tune for a therapy session song book. Yet this is McCartney the song smith without the solo John Lennon of the later mind games songs gestating out of his Janov primal therapy sessions. Lennon’s re-birthing agony LP left me cold but Mc Cartney peaked with this deeply compassionate song preferring a troubled sanity to madness. Whether it was my personal sober gloom or bad hangovers, attempting to block out the blackness, Blackbird triumphed.
For my 4th grace I look toward the Basque region of Southern France and Cantaloube’s Songs of the Auvergne. And not just any recording of these two songbooks but the Netania Davrath version with orchestra conducted by Pierre De La Roche. The second song of the first series captivated me. Bailero or Shepherd’s Song.
Shepherd across the river,
You don’t seem to be afraid,
Sing the Bailero,
Indeed I’m not, and you too
Sing the Bailero.
Shepherd, the meadow is in bloom,
Come over here to
Sing the Bailero
The grass is greener on this side,
You come here, Bailero.
Shepherd, the stream separates us,
And I can’t cross it,
Then I’ll come and get you further down, Bailero.
In the 1970s singers where falling over themselves to record this song. I’m glad I discovered Davrath’s version first. Her purity of diction, artless approach, folk charm, young girl sound, matchless intimacy and tenderness of voice made her, for so many listeners, the benchmark interpreter of Bailero and the other songs in the collection.
The Basque language has no translation for the words “bailero lero.” I’ve never felt the need for an explanation. They become a call to cross the river where the meadow’s grass is greener on the other side: an invitation to Eden, paradise and the ideal. If I were to suddenly switch playing CD tracks then Blackbird would be replaced by Bailero. Into the sunlight, out of Mc Cartney’s black night, come the Auvergne Hills. Hope and assistance to see you over the water. Of course it’s a magical pastoral dream. Yet its idyllic promise always stops me dead in my tracks; as transformative as a Ravel or Schubert song and a wonderful cure for the blues.
My 5th grace arrived roundabout my twenty first birthday. It was at the Bluecoat Chambers in Liverpool where I went to my first classical song recital. A singer was going to perform a folk and lieder recital. Lieder sounded very authourative – as if it were some sort of head teacher of song watching over ‘lesser’ pop songs. Yet I needn’t have been afraid for it was merely German for song.
A tall elegant man with wavy dark hair (replete with a silver-grey streak) sang his heart out. He was the Liverpool baritone John Shirley-Quirk. In my mind I can still see him singing The Vagabond, the first song of Vaughan Williams’s Songs of travel (A setting of poems by Robert Louis Stevenson).
Let the blow fall soon or late,
Let what will be o’er me:
Give the face of earth around,
And the road before me,
Wealth I ask not, hope nor love,
Nor a friend to know me;
All I ask, the heaven above,
And the road below me.
Perhaps romantically I felt the opening song to be a calling. That it was asking me to leave Liverpool and go it alone. And Vaughan Williams caught the vagabond urge to cast of uncertainty, doubt and despair; overcome adversity and undergo the journey. Of course I could never in a pastoral sense walk the country roads without a care in the world (Though I was friends with a hippy couple heading off to live in a furniture van and an Indian tepee in Hereford.)
Such passionately sung vagabonding unconsciously revealed my wanderlust for foreign travel and higher education. Two years later came travels in Greece followed by Sussex University. Though I did visit the van and tent but the idyll came with too much damp for me! I was more a mod than a rocker in dress: a bit hip, with the kaftans and beads, but never becoming an over-active hippy. Always dropping out and dropping in for inspiring songs at the beginning of my writing career.
Today, folk/art songs still impinge on me but perhaps in a less redemptive and graceful way than when I was growing up. Their healing power is apparent but my imperative to be healed by them has lessened. Yet in poetry the grace factor still operates. I read American, English and other European poets in translation. Here grace comes alongside of ideas, arguments and images. Reading poems out loud returns me back to song. The music of poetry matters like breathing. Yet all kinds of songs can disarm you before you properly take in the words, possessing an Orphic power to transfix you in the moment.
In Monteverdi’s Orfeo (regarded as the first complete opera) the Prologue has a musica ritornello with these words.
Lo la Musica son, ch’ai dolci accenti
So far tranquillo ogni turbato core,
Ed or di nobil ira ed or d’amore
Poss’ infiammar le piu gelate menti.
(Music am I, who with my soft accents
Can bring tranquillity to troubled hearts,
And kindle in the deepest frozen soul
The flames of noble anger or of love.)
I’d go with that last line translation as “The flames of noble anger or love.” For it suggests a powerful and insistent ardour for the rightness of its cause: that music brings solace, justice and peace.