Thursday, May 19, 2011


"Roots" annotated

OK. Let's knock this thing on the head once and for all.

Here is a clip of a song by Mr Steve Knightley and Mr Phil Beer, collectively "Show of Hands".

Here are my comments on what I think the lyrics mean.

If anyone says that the lyrics are entirely transparent, and that any annotation is quite unnecessary, then it is quite likely that I will whole-heartedly agree with them.

Now it's been 25 years or more
I've roamed this land from shore to shore
From Tyne to Tamar, Severn to Thames
From moor to vale, from peak to fen
Played in cafes, pubs and bars
I've stood in the street with my own guitar....

This is literally true, in the sense that Steve Knightley and Phil Beer served an "apprenticeship" in pubs like the Albert, and still play small venues from time to time. But it's also appealing to the romantic image of the folk-singer as wandering minstrel. Steve's songs often mythologise a relatively mundane "life on the road": fights he almost got into; road accidents he narrowly avoided. Criss-crossing the UK in a touring van is the modern English equivalent to being a "ramblin' boy". The video which goes with the song shows the singer walking into the sunset with an acoustic guitar slung across his back, which isn't something professional musicians do very often in the real world.  

Any first-year English student can tell you that the "I" who speaks in a poem is not necessarily identical with that strange but uninteresting person "the author". [*] We should not assume that every line in the song is a simple statement of the writer's private opinion, any more than we should assume that he really has a younger brother who injured his hand in a farming accident: he's giving voice to an everyman English folksinger. (On the other hand, in performance, Steve sometimes changes the line to "stood on the street with my first guitar", which is quite specific.)

But I'd be richer than all the rest
If I had a pound for each request
For 'Duelling Banjos', 'American Pie'
It's enough to make you cry

The Singer complains that audiences would rather listen to artificial, inauthentic music than the English folk-songs which he loves. (This is a fairly clear example of the Singer being a persona, rather than Knightley himself: it is hard to imagine a request for American Pie at a Show of Hands concert.)

It is perhaps not quite fair to use American Pie as a by-word for plastic artificiality. Don McLean intended the song to be a cry for musical authenticity: he felt that John Lennon and Bob Dylan had ruined popular music by pretentiously pretending that it could be Art. But rock n roll isn't meant to be art: rock n roll is meant to be something you dance to.

But perhaps the Singer doesn't object to 'American Pie' as a song, but merely wishes that the the English would sing English songs and leave American songs to the Americans? Ewan MacColl famously set a rule that singers in his folk club could only sing songs in their own accents and from their own backgrounds. However, the song can hardly be a cry for purity in this sense: Show of Hands themselves are perfectly happy doing excellent covers of songs by Springsteen, Dylan or Earle. Eliza Carthy, in reaction to the Guardian's appalling remark about folk music being "arthritically white", said that she regarded English folk as part of "world" music (England arguably being part of the world) in which people from different backgrounds said "You show me yours and I'll show you mine".  

Rule Britannia, Swing Low
Are these the only songs the English know?

The Singer complains that the only time you hear English people singing together is at football matches ("Swing Low, Sweet Chariot") and Last Night of the Proms. ("Rule, Britannia!"). This is pretty uncontroversial. (He might have added "church services" to the list. Cynics have suggested that old-time revivalists like Billy Graham met with such success in England because people just kinda enjoyed belting out Blessed Assurance with five thousand other people)

Rule Britannia worked its way into Last Night of the Proms because it formed part of Henry Wood's Fantasia on British Sea Songs. It could therefore be said to be part of the late 19th century notion that Home Sweet Home and the Sailor's Hornpipe weren't quite respectable unless they were dressed up as "classical" music.

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot is a church song (I looked over Jordan and what did I see?), but rugger players used to sing it in the changing rooms for reasons we probably don't need to discuss while there are ladies present.

For the last 300 days, Mr Jon Boden has been engaged in the "A Folk Song A Day" project, so called because each day, he sings a folk song and releases it for free on the interwebs. Some of the performances are very good indeed ("The Mistletoe Bough", "A Chat With Your Mother") some are frankly rather poor (his version of "The King of Rome" was a particular disappointment). Part of the purpose of the project is to encourage social singing. Boden thinks that everyone can, and should, sing, even if they can't do it in tune; and wants to offer a body of songs suitable for singing together. Mr Cecil Sharp, the inventor of folk music,  entertained a hope that the Olde Englishe songs which he was "collecting" would one day be taught to school children.  

After the speeches, when the cake's been cut
The disco's over and the bar is shut
At christening, birthday, wedding or wake
What can we sing 'til the morning breaks?

The Singer thinks it is a shame that the tradition of social singing has died out in England, and asks rhetorically what songs could fill the hole. The answer, obviously, is going to to be English folk music because he is an English folk singer. This appears to be the  primary point behind the song. Knightley has introduced "Roots" as being a plea for the English to rediscover a vast repertoire of songs that they could sing together.

With the Indian, Asian, Afro Celts
It's in their blood, below the belt
They're playing and dancing all night long
So what have they got right that we've got wrong?

This appears to be the offending verse, which has caused some people to question the Singer's credentials as a card carrying muesli quaffing Guardian-reading liberal. The plain meaning of the verse is that some cultures seem to have a greater tradition of communal singing than we do; and a greater sense of connection to their heritage. The Singer doesn't resent, hate or feel superior to these other communities: he specifically says that he thinks they are better than us in this regard and wishes that we could learn from them. This is a rather small peg on which to hang an accusation of racism.

It seems quite unexceptionable to say that you are more likely to hear singing in an Irish pub than an English one. And it certainly looks to me as if, over the festival weekend, the black British population of St Pauls, Bristol get into a spirit of carnival which I've never seen in Barnet or Coventry or York. They also hang out an awful lot Jamaican flags.

What is the white British equivalent of St Pauls or Notting Hill? A church fete? Last Night of the Proms? Morris dancing? Or having a riot after a football match?

Assumptions, as a very great man once wrote, are things that you don't know you are making. During the World Cup, British football commentators were inclined to describe South Africa as a "vibrant" country. This could (if you really wanted to be touchy) to be seen as betraying unexamined beliefs that Black Chaps aren't very clever but do have a wonderful sense of rhythm. (This doesn't mean that the football commentators were themselves racists: only that racist assumptions swim in the lower reaches of many a liberal subconscious. If you'd pointed out the buried assumption, they'd have been embarrassed and corrected it.) The phrase "in their blood, below the belt" could (if you want to be very touchy indeed) be taken as betraying primitivist assumptions: a belief that minority communities know traditional music because they are in some sense "closer to nature" than the majority culture - and that their music comes from their testicles, rather than their little grey cells. The implication that Celtic people are somehow intrinsically different from Anglo-Saxon people would, if pressed, contradict the main thrust of the song: that the English chose to stop singing for historical and sociological reasons and could choose to start singing again if they wanted to.

It could also be seen as implying that Steve was having difficulties thinking of a rhyme for "Celt". We are drilling awfully deep into four lines of song-lyric in the hope of finding something to be offended by.

Now the minister said his vision of hell
Is three folk singers in a pub near Wells
Well I've got a vision of urban sprawl
Pub's where no-one ever sings at all...

In 2003 Nulab passed legislation which required all institutions to seek licences before music could be performed on their premises (along with with possibly nit-picky fire regulations and other rules about health and safety). When it was pointed out that this would apply just as much to informal folk sessions as to actual concerts, Blair's culture minister, Kim Howells, who had previously described modern art -- all modern art -- as "bullshit" remarked that informal folk sessions were his idea of hell. (Did you get that? The bastard thought that his taste in music and his taste in art were somehow relevant to arts policy; just as Michael Gove thinks that his memories of being a schoolboy have some kind of relevance to education policy. That's why democracy is such a flawed system. You end up with lunatics who think that their opinion counts for something just because people voted for them. Gut feeling is not a good basis for law making. Ever.)

In performance, Steve sometimes changes the line to "some minister said" or even "Kim Howells said". He often states that Kim Howells' remark was the trigger for the song. He seem to want to tie the lyric to the 2003 licencing act very directly.

....and everyone stares at a great big screen
overpaid soccer stars, prancing teens
Australian soap, American rap
Estuary English baseball caps...

The Singer contrasts the vibrancy of live music (even if it is only three folk-singers) with the passivity of going to a pub in order to watch TV. He also contrasts a "bottom up" participatory approach to folk-music with the "top down" world of billionaire footballers and daytime TV stars, who are presented to us as godlike "celebrities". The professional folk-singer very likely started out as a busker or performing open mic nights; and people in the audience can think, without too much absurdity "Maybe I could learn to do that".

Since Pop Idol, it has been clear that anyone with reasonably androgynous good looks can be packaged and presented to the public as a "singer", regardless of talent. Even good looks aren't strictly necessary: a fat lady who could sing a mediocre karaoke version of a song from Les Miserables was briefly the most famous human being on the planet. (Nothing against Les Miserables. Nothing against fat ladies, come to that.)

Boy-bands are therefore a by-word for artificial, inauthentic music. In the rather maudlin song Hard Shoulder, Knightley recalls finding an old school friend he'd lost touch with performing in a pub. "But hearing you play all that boy-band cover trash / Now that's what really hurts me the most." It will be remembered that the full title of Chumbawamba's first folk album was "The Boy Bands Have Won, and All the Copyists and the Tribute Bands and the TV Talent Show Producers Have Won, If We Allow Our Culture to Be Shaped by Mimicry, Whether from Lack of Ideas or From Exaggerated Respect. You Should Never Try to Freeze Culture. What You Can Do Is Recycle That Culture. Take Your Older Brother's Hand-Me-Down Jacket and Re-Style It, Re-Fashion It to the Point Where It Becomes Your Own. But Don't Just Regurgitate Creative History, or Hold Art and Music and Literature as Fixed, Untouchable and Kept Under Glass. The People Who Try to 'Guard' Any Particular Form of Music Are, Like the Copyists and Manufactured Bands, Doing It the Worst Disservice, Because the Only Thing That You Can Do to Music That Will Damage It Is Not Change It, Not Make It Your Own. Because Then It Dies, Then It's Over, Then It's Done, and the Boy Bands Have Won."

I don't think this is entirely fair. I myself have recently come to a place where I value "authenticity" in art above almost any other quality. Not only in music. I will happily work my way through 2,000 pages of 1950s Superman comics printed on blotting paper, but can't quite be doing with the modern graffix novels, with its cinematic construction and decomposed story telling and newfangled good artwork. Jolly clever, of course, but no substitute for the real thing. I have even caught myself using "artless" as a term of approval. But there can be different forms of authenticity. I once had to write a review of a local reggae / hip hop band called "Laid Blak". (The reggae bit was the songs about every little ting turning out to be all right; the hip-hop bit was the performance poetry about teenage pregnancy in Totterdown, I believe.) It was clearly done very well indeed, and I rather enjoyed it, but it didn't speak to me because I'm not a sweary black teenager, and probably never will be. I'm not sure I should dismiss it as artificial because it happens not to be addressed to my condition. Even watching "your" football team play a game in the company of a large group of fellow supporters could be a life-affirming experience.

and we ought to be ashamed before we walk
of the way we look and the way we talk

Up to this point. The Singer hasn't strayed very far from his stated theme. It's been a song about folk singing, and he's in favour of it. However, in the last stanza the theme broadens out: the English who have decided that mindlessly watching Neighbours is more fun than singing songs become a sort of metaphor for a more general national impoverishment.

This is the only line in the song that I wouldn't be prepared to defend. I agree that the X-Factor and Neighbours are inauthentic; I agree that it's curious to go to a pub in order to watch television; but I don't feel particularly ashamed if young people adopt American fashions or American slang. They always have done. I'm not ashamed that white kids from Brizzle end sentences with "innit", any more than I'm ashamed that a previous generation ended every third sentence with the word "man", or that people used to describe things as fab, groovy, cool, wicked, safe, sound, mint or lush. Introducing American and Asian words into English doesn't destroy the purity of the language, any more than putting a funky beat behind "Keys of Canterbury" destroys the purity of the folk music.

UPDATE: Apparently, I've been hearing this line incorrectly all these years: what Steve sings is not "we ought to be ashamed" but "we're taught to be ashamed...". The printed lyric says "we learn to be ashamed". I understand that the have also killed the Earl of Moray and laid him on the green.

without our stories and our songs
how will we know where we came from?

I began by asking who the "I" was who speaks in the song is? Steve Knightley himself? A fictionalized version of him? An entirely imaginary singer?

This verse raises a much harder question "Without our stories or our songs how will we know where we came from." 

Who is "we"? And who is not "we"?

If "we" are yearning for the heather and the bagpipes, and wishing "we" hadn't been cleared off the highlands, then it's pretty clear that "we" excludes everyone living south of Dumfries. But -- it's and old question, and much more interesting than the one about West Lothian -- does "we" also include the young dark skinned man whose grandfather came over from Pakistan in 1950, who goes to Mosque on Fridays, and who makes his living selling deep fried Mars bars in a chip shop in Glasgow? (And who will certainly sound indistinguishable from light skinned people of the same age in the same area. When I first came to Bristol, I swear I caught myself thinking "Freaky! An Indian guy with a West Country accent! I thought Indian guys all had south London accents!" Assumptions are things you don't know you're making, innit?) Is he Scottish, or a British Asian who happens to live in Scotland? Is he part of the "we" that defeated proud Edward's army at Bannockburn? Can he pretend that he is if he happens to like Rugby Union? If not then should White British people living in Scotland suppress any nostalgic or romantic feelings they may entertain towards any great chieftains of pudding races that they may come across in their day-to-day lives, because of the non-inclusiveness of that pesky "we"?

I think that this question of nomenclature has troubled the song since line 12, and is never satisfactorily resolved. If the Indians, Asian and Africans and Celts who celebrate their own traditional culture are people who live in India, Asia, Africa and Celtland as opposed to the people who live in England, then all well and good. If they are British Indians, British Asian, and British Africans as opposed to White British, then also all well and good: only the person most determined to take offence could take exception to "some of Britain's minority cultures sing better than the majority culture". The difficulty is that "Indians, Asians, Afro, Celts" are contrasted throughout the song with "the English" and "the English" are referred to as "we". This opens the Singer up to the accusation that he thinks that Indians and Asians living in England are not "English": that, indeed, English has been conflated with White People.

Actually, I could live with this: I'd be very happy to say that the black kids in St Pauls who fly Jamaican flags once a year are "Black British" or "Jamaican British"; the people north of the border who put salt on their cabers are "Scottish British" or "Celtic British" and I am "English British". But it's a tendentious terminology that shouldn't be allowed to slip under the radar without examination.

Some minister said that he doesn't mind Muslims living in this country, provided they think of themselves as British first and Muslim second. I immediately felt jerking sensations in my knee: "Well I regard myself as Christian first and British second..." And then, on slightly less pious reflection: "I actually regard myself as human first, Christian second, Doctor Who fan third, Wagnerian fourth, folkie fifth, Marvel comics fan sixth, half-Cornish on my father's side seventh (**), adopted Bristolian eighth, European ninth, English tenth and British eleventh."

I was brought up, implicitly, to think that I didn't have a national or regional identity. Middle-class English was just English, which poor people and yokels got told off for pronouncing incorrectly. English food was just food, to which crazy foreigners sometimes added garlic or spice. Foreign children had something called "national dress"; we just had "clothes". I was also brought up, pretty explicitly, to think that I didn't have a religion: the English Church was simply a baseline of acknowledging a deity and doing what was right, without all those annoying holy books, coming of age rites and extra days off that Jewish children insisted on adding. (Muslims had not yet been invented.) Culture is what Johnny Foreigner has: we don't need one.

I was about to type that Nick Griffin and David Cameron and Jack Straw and David Blunkett have succeeded in making nationality a toxic subject: so that if I say "I would quite like to have a nationality, if only to find out what it feels like" you will hear "I am going to march into Native villages, tear down their shrines and force them to wear clothes, go to church, watch Doctor Who and paint their maps pink."

Why pink, by the way?

But that would sound altogether too similar to the paranoid fantasy about "political correctness". "You aren't allowed to fly the Union Jack in case it offends queers. They've banned Christmas, you know." And that isn't what I mean at all. What I mean is really much weaker and less interesting. We've allowed nationality to become an embarrassment. Countries are like bottoms. Everyone's got one, but we don't like to talk about them in public. I am really, really, reluctant to type "I like the stories of King Arthur and Robin Hood (and Doctor Who, and Eric & Ernie, and Middle-earth -- especially Middle-earth) because I feel a kind of ownership in them: a kind of ownership I obviously can't feel about Woody Guthrie or the Ring Cycle." Not because people will think I'm a B.N.P supporter, but because they will think I'm a sentimental twat. They'll probably start whistling "There'll Always Be An England", ironically. 

I lost St George in the Union Jack
It's my flag too, and I want it back

The Singer wants the St George Cross back from the Conservative Party, who have declared that England, and Britain and the Monarchy are their personal property. And from the fascist Daily Mail and the hooligan white van soccer supporters. But also, I think, he wants the St George Cross back from the Union Jack: he feels that the country of England has been lost in the corporate branding of Britain.

I find this idea very attractive. I think that "Britain" means, at best, an admirably dull political system, constitutional monarchy, a flag representing a corporate merger, and the dullest national anthem ever devised by man. Nor woman niether. On important matters, we're all equally voters and citizens and consumers: there is no Muslim "they" to steal the Christian Christmas from the British "us". But if you are allowed your haggis and your leaks and your red stripe larger and your shamrocks is there really any harm in me having my fish and chips and my warm beer and my hey nonny no?

Seed, bud, flower, fruit: never going to grow without their roots
Branch, stem, shoot: they need roots

Football, I am told, is like marriage: you have to cleve only to one team, forsaking all others. You have to pretend that Bristol Rovers are always and in all respects better than Bristol City. In extreme cases, you might be expected to try to physically maim City fans.

I don't think that poems and songs and books are like that. I think that you make a contract to believe in a particular story-world while the singer is creating it, but that you are fully empowered to put it away an inhabit a different world when the next singer, or the next song, begins. I believe in Steve Knightley's angry, radicalized England while I'm in it; but I also believe in Martin Carthy's gentle old England and Bellowhead's radical subversion of it. In the right mood, I can lustily join in with both Land of Hope and Glory and Imagine. I find
Mr Chris Wood's Come Down Jehovah deeply moving, although I don't agree with it (or at least, I don't think it means what he thinks it means). 

But "agreeing" with a song seems like a category mistake, like trying to determine if the jelly in the trifle logically entails the choclate sprinklies. 

I also reject the theory that there are only two kinds of art: the perfect and the evil. People embark on Moby Dick expecting it to be a perfect book: when they discover it has ideological flaws (it's about KILLING WHALES for godsakes) or even artistic ones (it sometimes wanders off the main point, a bit like this essay) they thrust their harpoon through the chink in its ideological armour, and never look at it again. If I ever interview Steve Knightley, I may well say "So, what about your definition of English, then?"; but that won't stop me joining in with "haul away!" bit at Glastonbury next month; but then. (I also intend to sing along loudly to Remember Your a Womble.) By all means place Roots alongside, say Dick Guaghan's No Gods and Precious Few Heroes and note that one singer offers a definition of personal identity rooted in a collective past; while the other snarls that we should dump that past altogether -- that it's precisely our stories and our songs which are holding us back:

I ask you, will we never hear the last
Of Prince bloody Charlie at Coludden field again?
Though he ran like a rabbit through the glen
Leaving better folk than him to be slaughtered
Are you sitting in your council house, dreaming of your clan?
Waiting for the Jacobites to come and free the land?
Try going down the dole with your claymore in your hand
And count all the princes in the queue...

And by all means chuck John Lennon into the mix as well

Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too

I can romantically and sentimentally enter into all three world views (Lennon's nihilism takes a bigger leap of faith, I must admit). Songs are funny place to look for final truths.  

Haul away boys, let them go; out in the wind and the rain and show
We've lost more than we'll ever know round the rocky shores of England

It may very well be that our roots don't go quite as deeply as we think that they do: that the songs we fondly believe are "traditional" are actually fairly new. Is there really an English tradition which has been thrown overboard? Or is that a nostalgic fancy? And if The Tradition is only a story, is there any good reason why it shouldn't be one of the stories we choose to tell ourselves about ourselves, like the one about the knight who killed the old lady's spotted pig, which very likely isn't true either? 

John Lennon said "imagine there are no countries": that's realtively easy. The difficult thing is imagining that there are. That's why William Blake's poem works so will as an English national anthem: it takes it for granted that England is an imaginary place, and then wonder if we might not make it real. (I'm going to live as much like an Englishman as I can, even if there isn't really any England.)

"Only back United if / It's where your from, or where you live" says Steve Knightley in a different song. That makes some sense to me. I feel some sort of special affection for Bristol (particularly Stokes Croft) because it's where I live; I'm free to arbitrarily decide that Cornwall is where I'm "from" because that's where my father grew up, even though quite clearly I'm actually "from" London. 

One last thing is worth mentioning. I have liked the song "Roots" ever since Mick and Lester played it on their St George's Day special (along with King of Rome and Place Called England and a Morris-y thing about St George by someone like Ashley Hutchings) when I was first getting into folk music. The strangeness of the melody; the fact that it's three different songs; the fact that the second chorus is being sung communally; the romantic idea of a past that's been chucked away; the sense of fury and committment in the singer's voice, the absolute contrast to politician and other professional decievers who use language only to obscure their true meaning. I can't get behind an idea of Britian based on the Queen and the Conservative Party, or on Fair Play and Being a Good Drone or whatever it was that Gordon Brown thought we were about; I can't get behind an idea of England based on kicking balls into nets or putting three sticks in the ground and defending them with a fourth; but I could, I thought, feel comfortable with this idea of an England based on gentlemen offering ladies the keys of Cantebury and men hunting bonny black hares (fnarr, fnarr) on the fourteenth of May. But I don't really think that any of it actually matters very much.

An Ambivalently Patriotic Play List

[*] Maybe the person who says "When I consider how my light is spent..." is John Milton; maybe the person who exclaims "Bright star would I were steadfast as thou art..." is John Keats. Maybe they are imaginary people that the respective poets have invented. Maybe they are imaginary people who happen to be a lot like the authors who invented them. The titles "On His Blindness" and "His Last Sonnet" (it wasn't) were invented after the fact by English teachers who didn't really like poetry and thought that good writing had to be Factually Accurate.

[**] Whatever the hell "Cornish" means. Daddy could point out RIlstone gravestones in Perranporth parish church going back several hundred years, but the family name presumably has something to do with Rylestone in Yorkshire, now famous for middle aged ladies taking their clothes off on calendars. So presumably, at some point in sixteen or seventeen hundred some Yorkshire people must have upped and moved West and there is no more Celtic blood in me than in Barack Obama. It's remains true that my granny made saffron buns and pasties and called people "my handsome" and that "Cousin Jack" is a wonderful song.


NickPheas said...

Never heard them. Assume from your piece that they're the extreme wing of the po-faced section of English folk and therefore I wouldn't want to.

Unknown said...

There are two lines where I hear different words to you, which rather changes the meaning. I haven't got an official set of lyrics (sleeve notes?) to consult, so am willing to defer to your version. However, this is what I've always heard ...

"And we're taught to be ashamed before we walk
of the way we look and the way we talk"

which I've always thought of as the embarrassed post-Empire Englishness, especially as viewed by Americans. On reading this and your version "And we ought ..." I find another interpretation: perhaps it's about how people growing up with regional accents and "chavvy" dress are delivered a London-middle-class view of how they should speak and look.

"I lost St George and the Union Jack, it's my flag too and I want it back"

which is just a fairly simple response to racists nicking the use flags. One of the things I remember kindly about the summer of 2002 is that between Jubilee and World Cup, it became acceptable to wear/display the national flags (English and British) without it being assumed you were a BNP member.

Your interpretation and consequent analysis is much more interesting though.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Nick: Not sure of the relevance of this comment. Provided you tube links and a spotify play list if you were interested. Wouldn't describe them as "po-faced", no, not at all. "Angry folk rock" would be my characterisation. But hey, we don't need to listen to music before judging it, really do we?

Rachel: You are absolutely right. Gosh. I stand corrected and embarassed. The sleeve notes on "Best of" say "We learn to be ashamed before we walk..." It is "I lost St George in the Union Jack, though.

Unknown said...

Thanks for checking! Ok, so I'm going to think a bit more about "my flag too and I want it back".

I thought of another interpretation of "learn to be ashamed before we walk" : the huge marketing effort aimed at children, and how so much marketing is based on "you are worthless, but our fabulous product will make you better". You've got a hilarious West Country accent and you're chubby, but at least you can buy our bling.

Sam Dodsworth said...

the po-faced section of English folk

I should probably resist the temptation to say this but... weren't you at a Rush gig the other day?

Phil Masters said...

Mandatory nitpick: I'm afraid that Barack Obama does have Celtic blood. Great-great-great-grandfather on mother's side. Ireland. 1850.

(So the joke about Irish ancestry being mandatory for US presidents still works.)

But let's face it, people like Obama and Halle Berry are stuck with "ethnic identities" that ignore 50% of their genes because people want this stuff to be simple. It's easier to preserve racist 19th century categories than to deal with complexity.

Gavin Burrows said...

“The Singer doesn't resent, hate or feel superior to these other communities: he specifically says that he thinks they are better than us in this regard and wishes that we could learn from them.”

“The implication that Celtic people are somehow intrinsically different from Anglo-Saxon people would, if pressed, contradict the main thrust of the song: that the English chose to stop singing for historical and sociological reasons and could choose to start singing again if they wanted to.”

I quote your second point to show I am not riding over it. However, your first kind of reminds me that we could do with a term for quasi-positive stereotyping. There’s a type of white person who tends to think all black or Asian people have it all sorted, just like there’s a rather type annoying type of male who will insist all women have it all sorted.

It’s common in folk music but even more common in punk, which tends to be just as white a scene as folk but even more avowedly PC. The Clash sang “black man’s got a lot of problems, but he ain’t scared to throw a brick.” Crass sang (if that’s the word for Crass) “black man’s got his problems and his ways to deal with it, so who do you think you’re fooling with your white liberal shit?” (Yes, they were poets in Crass indeed!)

I think these romantic notions about ‘the oppressed’ are terribly convenient if you’re not in that minority group yourself, as it tends to suggest the whole situation is in some way okay. I always want to ask, then how come they’re still oppressed? It’s like the way women often say they don’t like blokes in the street shouting things out about their appearance, and don’t particularly distinguish ‘positive’ from ‘negative’ comments. Either way, it’s a case of why should I get defined by you?

”I myself have recently come to a place where I value "authenticity" in art above almost any other quality.”

At great surprise to nobody at all, I side with Chumbawamba. To me any genre of art is like a language. And, like any Guardian-reading type, I do not like the way so many languages are dying. You sometimes hear of an unseemly rush to record the last native speaker of some language or other. Which is better than nothing of course. But the language is then only preserved, not kept alive. Living things change and develop.

Moreover, when folkies talk about “preserving the tradition” I always want to ask “which tradition?” Those songs always varied from place to place, from time to time. There’s no single authentic text to file in a library.

Incidentally, based on your previous postings and clips, I went to see Show Of Hands last night. Had I read the comments here earlier, I would have been able to inspect their faces for signs of po-ness. I don’t remember anything particularly po, though. Mostly just an enjoyable way to spend an evening. The audience formed a discussion group after 'Roots' was played. (They didn't really.)

Louise H said...

Sam; the Rush gig featured random sausages without any explanations and is therefore formally exempted from po-facedness (unlike many of the fans...)

Not a folk fan (possibly more accurate to say have heard very little folk, unless Billy Bragg and Frank Turner count, which I've never been sure about) but I would rather listen to people expressing opinions even if I don't much agree with them than to seventeen verses about parson's pigs.

Gavin Burrows said...

I fear I have been spam-filtered again.

(I also fear a collective cry of "Hey, a spam filter with taste!"

Andrew Rilstone said...

Yes. I think it sometimes filters someone out to relieve the monotony. The Fortune Cookie man went away months ago.

Andrew Rilstone said...

In fairness to myself, what he sings on the video is "We borrgh to be ashamed before we morrgh.

Gavin Burrows said...

"The Fortune Cookie man went away months ago."

Maybe if I posed as him the Spam Filter would like me better. "You will accidentally swallow a small, greasy piece of paper encased in monosodium glutamate." How's that?

"In fairness to myself, what he sings on the video is "We borrgh to be ashamed before we morrgh."

And who hasn't thought that at one time or the other?

Joseph Manola said...

As an individual of mixed Scottish - English - Jewish descent, who loved English folk music in general – and Show of Hands in particular – deeply as a teenager about twelve years ago, but has since moved on to other things, I'm sufficiently interested by this topic to attempt a response.

A nation is its people. Morris dancing isn't an important part of Englishness because it's not very important to most of the people who self-identify as English. That could change: kilts used to be marginal to the Scots, as well. But, right now, it's a simple fact that most of what's identified as 'English Folk culture' is not, in truth, part of the day-by-day cultural life of most actual English folk.

The English do have a national mythology. It's the royal family and Henry the Eighth and Queen Victoria and the World Wars and Churchill and D-Day and the London Blitz and winning the World Cup in 1966. They have a national music that stretches from the Beatles and the Stones up through Punk and Britpop and on into the contemporary Post-Punk Revival. One can object that English national mythology and national music used to be something different, that it used to involve more sea shanties and Morris dances and England Expects Every Man To Do His Duty and whatnot. But times change. Nations enter into different relationships with their own history and cultural heritage. Lily Allen tells me more about what being English means right now than Steve Knightley ever did. (She also, unlike him, sings in a genuine contemporary folk vernacular. Real, living, 21st-century English people don't spend a lot of time talking about tall ships and preachers on islands, but they say things like 'It's not fair, and I fink you're really mean!' all the time.)

I sympathise with Knightly's plight, with his cultural predicament, as the practitioner of a form of folk culture in which the folk themselves no longer have very much interest. But to turn, as individuals in such situations almost always do, to the dream of a past whose cultural plenitude is imagined to be capable of healing the lacerations of the present is seldom very helpful. That past died for a reason. It's not coming back. The historical conditions that created and maintained it are gone with the wind. We barely even have a navy any more, for God's sake! It may well contain cultural resources very well worth mining out; but they will have to be, as the man said, renewed, transfigured, in another pattern. I retain a lot of fondness for English folk music, and for English folk culture in general, but its current cultural trajectory is not promising. It spends far too much time looking inwards and backwards.


Joseph Manola said...

Knightley's lament is a perfect example of this. He writes off everything that actually constitutes contemporary English popular folk culture, the actual lived experience of being English in 2011, and as such he guarantees his own irrelevance. Folk revivals come through fusion with the present, through engagement with the way people actually live now, the music they actually listen to, the way they actually sing and dance; not the way you think they should, or the way that you imagine they once did. A musician contemptuous of the music his audience actually want to hear him play has little to look forward to. When I lived in East London, people – ordinary, working-class people, who almost certainly considered themselves English rather than British – sang in the local pub all the time. They had a karaoke machine. They used it to sing old pop songs. They sang songs like 'American Pie', and everyone drank too much, and ate burgers, and had a splendid time. It's not at all clear to me that it would have been inherently better if they'd been singing Child ballads instead.

The sacred drumming rituals of ancient West Africa, through which the Ibo and Yoruba would dance their way into ecstatic states and commune with the spirits of their ancestors, still echo through the beat of all of contemporary rap, hip-hop, and R&B; indeed, artists such as Jamelle Monae even specifically refer to their presence within their music, self-consciously employing modern black music as a contemporary way to interact with the ancestral Loa. But it remains a lived tradition, changing with every generation, and thus ensuring its own continuity, as it could never do if it remained imaginatively wedded to the vanished West African cultural world obliterated by British imperialism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Parallels with Batman or Dr Who may be drawn at the reader's leisure.

I like Show of Hands a great deal, but I'm not sure they have any such forward-looking vision; in fact I get the impression they've moved steadily further away from it over the years. (Their first album included a folk cover of 'First We Take Manhatten'!) Such a retreat is imaginatively comforting, but culturally suicidal. A much better method, I'd suggest, is that employed by P.J. Harvey in her latest, highly critically-acclaimed album, 'Let England Shake': music deeply engaged with English history, English national mythology, and English folk tradition, but also recognisably, urgently, of the present moment, and as such capable of reaching a much wider audience than Knightley's. 'Let England shake,' Harvey's helium-voiced speaker declares, 'Weighted down / By the silent dead!' To respect the dead is piety, but side with the dead against the living is ultimately to partake of their silence, and their sleep, when every exemplar of Englishness worth paying any attention to – John Milton, Gerrard Winstanley, John Wesley, Tom Paine, William Blake – has called us, instead, to a great awakening.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Before I say anything else, can I say "Thank you for a very interesting post, and for taking the trouble to respond to what I wrote"?

Helen Louise said...

The way I've always thought of the song is not that it's necessarily against modern English culture, just that it's suggesting there's a way of having an English identity in a fairly inclusive way (ie being English doesn't make you better than anyone else, but it's still ok to be English and to celebrate our own culture just as everyone else is free to celebrate theirs).

I also don't think it's so much about rejecting modern English culture as appreciating our history... Folk songs are very often about ordinary people (hence the name :) ) - it's a different sort of connection to the past from the 'top-down' way history tends to be remembered. I like hearing songs about people who smashed machines or did naughty things in woods much more than hearing Rule Britannia, I identify more with that sort of Englishness than the arrogance of many patriotic songs (Although I do like Flanders and Swann's contribution to the genre...)

I don't think that the song is saying that, for instance, English people shouldn't enjoy 'American Pie', just that it's a little sad if every aspect of our cultural knowledge comes from elsewhere... that we feel we must either nationalistically embrace Englishness, complaining about immigrants and asserting our superiority, or else reject it entirely, so that anything with a hint of Englishness is lost to the mists of time.

I suspect as a folk singer, Knightley is biased towards folk music as an expression of culture, but I don't really see that he is condemning modern culture, just the sense of shame that surrounds Englishness and the English cultural heritage.

Lirazel said...

From a distant shore, she comments...

Mr. Knightly makes me feel a bit anxious. See, I'm an American -- which means that my ancestry is Jewish (from different parts of Europe), my first marriage was to what we here call a WASP, my second is to a gentleman who can walk into Kerry and find a mountain range with his name on it, and the mother of my grandson is a Schmidt, from Germantown, Ohio.

Also, I don't speak Hebrew. And I'm an Episcopalian, which is C of E only shaken, not stirred.

On the other hand, the vast bulk of what passes for "popular" music is mind-numbingly boring and basically unsingable, and even unhummable. So I sing the songs my father sang me -- "Greensleeves," and "The Golden Vanity," and "Oft in the Stilly Night," -- many of the Childe ballads, in fact -- and some American songs you may not have heard -- "Stewball," and "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore," and "Lily of the West."

And quite a bit of the Tolkien songbook.

What I'm not doing is trying to learn Hebrew or German or Yiddish or Polish or Roumanian or Russian so I can somehow sing "my" folk music. I understand the need for roots, but mine are here, where everything is tangled together and you draw from whatever nourishes you.

Gavin Burrows said...

” I understand the need for roots, but mine are here, where everything is tangled together and you draw from whatever nourishes you.”

But of course it’s not just you, even if it might be more obvious in your particular case. I agree with your comments, as I do with Joseph’s (at least his general statements), as I do with Phil Master’s that people want ‘ethnic identities’ which are neat and simple and all boxed up. It’s at times like this, that I tend to cite Yukinori Yanagi’s ‘Pacific’ (currently visible in the Tate Modern), which to me sums up the distinction between what it says on the lid and what actually goes on in the world.

I wonder, however, if we are not a little at cross-purposes in this debate. Once you acknowledge there is a rich tradition of English folk, it seems to me it would be a shame to stop singing those songs. They shouldn’t be reified or set in stone, or sung to the exclusion of other types of music. They should just be kept in the mix, an ingredient thrown in with other ingredients until it throws up more colours and tastes. I grew up listening to English folk, because my Dad liked it. I also grew up listening to American blues, because my Dad liked that. In an immediate sense those are my musical roots.

Of course it’s conceivable to argue that Show Of Hands’ perspective on this is regressive rather than progressive. I incline towards disagreement, but I’d have to know more about the band to properly argue the point.

And of course there is a murky area where celebrating English folk spills over into white English nationalism. Things are not neat, simple or boxed up, as said above. We might debate where the distinction lies. (Personally I would want nothing to do with the flag of the British Empire, while obviously others who post here disagree.) But to suggest celebrating English folk leads inherently into all that Spode stuff would be to agree with Nick Griffin. Which, by and large, we don’t.

Dave said...

I had always assumed the lyric 'Afro Celt' as a direct refernce to the act Afro Celt Sound System who were a world music/electric dance crossover.

But the other thing I'd assumed was that it was a mild dig at the way in which 'Celtic' became a category in music shops, reviews and these days is in the 'genre' on section of the mp3 description.

This seemed to be a marketing ploy designed to sell music that would have been labelled 'folk' to people who would otherwise have been scared to be associated with something so unhip. Folk music has been seen as a bus spotter subculture that would provoke jokes about beards & sweaters from the more fashion concious. By rebranding some of it as Celtic the trendies could enjoy it without having to worry about their image.

Phil Masters said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Phil Masters said...

I'd guess that "Celtic" may also be used as a shorthand for "rather whimsy-ish sounding music sung either in Gaelic or in high-pitched droning English by attractive but slightly consumptive-looking auburn-haired women in long floaty dresses".

Which can actually be quite nice sometimes. But which is in no danger whatsoever of being called "hip" or "trendy".