Clinton Heylin

Folk music is still very much alive and kicking

Michael Church imagines a pure tradition preserved unchanged down the centuries, but the folk music emerging from dissidents worldwide tells a different story

A folk performance in Telouet, Morocco. [Getty Images]

As a writer who obsesses over the right title to grab a target audience, seeing a book subtitled ‘Song Collectors and the Life and Death of Folk Tradition’ I say, count me in. It’s a challenging subject, not often trodden with aplomb. I wasn’t even dissuaded when the first line on the inner jacket — ‘This is the first ever book about song collectors…’ — caused me to wonder what those multiple volumes cluttering up my groaning shelves were.

Michael Church could have started with Mary Beth Hamilton’s admirable study of blues collectors, In Search of the Blues (2007), an excellent template. Instead, the five-book checklists at the end of all 27 chapters of Musics Lost and Found contain few of the books I would have expected to see, given that enticing subtitle and the (mostly 20th-century) collectors Church has cherry-picked to exemplify what is a somewhat tendentious thesis: ‘We may be seeing folk music’s “end of history”.’

Where have I heard that idea before? Perhaps in multiple folksong collections over the past 250 years, such as Reliques of Ancient English Poetry and The Last Leaves of Traditional Airs. So, not an original proposition. Nor is it one that chimes with the facts, even if it’s been the constant concern of singers down the centuries, borne out by the most famous put-down of a song collector ever uttered: James Hogg’s mother, Margaret, to Walter Scott, after he presented her with his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border:

Ye hae spoilt them a’thegither. They were made for singing and no’ for reading, but ye hae broken the charm, and they’ll never be sung mair.

Michael Church seems to imagine there’s a pure folk tradition preserved unchanged down the centuries

That was two centuries ago. And yet here we are, full to the brim with familiar ‘keepers of the traditional flame’, such as Béla Bartók and Alan Lomax, scooping up the last jewels of oral tradition.

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