When faced with a book about folk songs that appeared to contain almost no examples of this musical style, I was at first keen to ask what the motivation was for publishing such a lengthy volume about the subject. The answer is clear from the opening pages. This work begins to fill in the gaps around the songs, establishing a context for the tunes and words. By blurring the lines that have hemmed in the genre, it goes some way towards improving the accuracy of its definition even as it questions it, but it is much more than an exercise in defining folk song.
As Roud says early on, Instead of asking: 'What folk songs did people sing?', the aim is to consider 'What songs did the folk sing?'. This book is a social history of folk songs, going beyond the sometimes short-sighted questions about where the songs came from and who sang them.
The book considers the wider context of folk music whilst freely admitting that defining this genre is a slippery concept from the outset. It is a difficult task to choose whether to address the issues thematically or chronologically, and the structure of each chapter is a remarkable compromise. The book examines folk song in England from the 1500s to the mid 20th Century and looks at contemporary musical forms in chronological order, whilst the different contexts in which songs may have been heard and performed are arranged by area. Separate again is an account of the work of the early collectors and the limitations of those pioneers.
In the first section of the book, Roud is objective from the outset and acknowledges the challenges and limitations of the work, some of them inherited from the folk song collectors of the early 1900s. It is refreshing that whilst the flaws in their methodologies are raised and discussed they are not demonised and dismissed. Instead, the fruits of their early collecting labours are carefully examined, considering where there may be gaps and why these may have arisen.
The second section looks in greater detail at the 'other musics' that existed alongside the tunes we recognise as folk songs. The material is slightly more scarce in the earlier periods and this is acknowledged and worked into the structure. It's interesting to consider that the convenient wall we have constructed to protect the genre was once a much more open border. Ideas percolated with greater freedom and influenced each other far more readily. This of course leads to deeper questions about the validity of the definition of folk song and puts the bias of the early collectors under the microscope.
Roud writes that "it is not the origin of a song that makes it 'folk', but what the 'folk' do with it". The third section of the book examines this in depth, looking at the natural habitat of folk songs and the singers themselves. We get a glimpse beyond the collected repertoire into deeper questions such as when, where and why the songs were sung. It is also interesting to see that the style of performance is commented on here, bringing together written reflections of the quality of singing and general delivery of the tunes by often untrained singers. Where today we are often concerned with dressing the melodies and lyrics to suit a modern audience it is fascinating to have an insight into the way the songs were presented to the early collectors.
The book is insightful and accessible and should offer a great deal to both enthusiastic amateurs and those with academic interest in the genre. Roud's style and tone are straightforward and the book paints a rich picture of the past without oversimplifying in a way that would alienate more knowledgeable readers. Roud also takes a moment to look forward and consider what might be possible with the breadth and depth of knowledge now available to us, especially with the accessibility of digitized records.
On reflection, the author suggests that the book is a grand exercise in gathering evidence to give the reader the resources to answer fundamental questions about folk music, from considering if it evens exists as a definable genre, to the importance of social context over origin. It certainly provides a wealth of food for thought and adds a new dimension to the songs that we have inherited from the collectors, helping us to understand the journey that these songs have taken to reach us.
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