Arts: Uncle Tom Cobley and All So British Popular Music Began in the Sixties, Did It? of Course Not. A New CD Survey of Original Folk Recordings Shows Today's Pop Groups a Thing or Two about Musical Grit
Greig, Charlotte, The Independent (London, England)
Most people think they know what British traditional music is. It's Celtic, isn't it? There's your Irish Celtic - Riverdance, Enya and so on - and your Scottish Celtic - Runrig, Capercaillie and the like. Then, of course, there's your Welsh Celtic, although nobody knows quite what that is, and anyway Wales has got bands such as the Manics and Catatonia now, so it doesn't really matter. And then there's the English. Sadly, they're not Celtic. So they don't have any traditional music at all. Unless you believe in a Merrie-England- type fantasy of peasants dancing and singing and drinking pints of foaming ale on the village green, which we all know is absurd.
The release of a 20-part series of CDs entitled The Voice of the People and featuring a wonderful variety of British singers, from Norfolk fishermen to Perthshire hawkers, from Clare farmers to Sussex carpenters, may go some way to changing the way people think - or rather don't think - about the traditional music of these islands. First of all, it becomes clear that the term "Celtic" is a dead end, and better describes the kind of New-Age CDs with titles such as Druid Panpipes you see in the easy listening section of record shops. For what emerges from this collection is that the music of these islands, far from being lost in some dreary, mythical spiritual unity of the remote past, is bursting with the raucous energy, vitality and variety of real people in a fairly recent, or at least accessible past.
Here are the voices of "ordinary" people from around Britain, mostly born around the turn of the century; people such as Scan Tester, Lemmie Brazil, Jumbo Brightwell and Wiggy Smith, whose lives were as exotic as their names. Take Minty Smith, for instance (no relation to Wiggy); she was a fortune-teller who, aged 16, ran off with a knife-grinder and ended up as a busker at Epsom Races, bringing up 13 children on the way and living for some years beside a road in Sevenoaks. Not only singers like these, but the songs themselves - on every subject under the sun, from work to sex, from death to drinking, from marriage to exile, from "Hopping Down In Kent" to "The Dowie Dens of Yarrow" via "The Clattering of the Clyde Waters" - bear witness to lives that were often unbearably harsh and miserable, but usually exciting and adventurous as well. The collection as a whole displays a vast, interlocking network of popular songs - among them all the familiar classics such as "The Raggle-Taggle Gypsies", "Barbara Allen" and "John Barleycorn" - developed by the working people of these islands over centuries, which not only survived but thrived until the beginning of our own. What becomes clear as we move towards the millennium is just how close we now are to losing this culture altogether, as we strive to present ourselves as homogeneous, modern-day Britons. The English in particular are for some reason thoroughly unwilling to recognise themselves as having any real cultural traditions at all, let alone the vast array of regional voices and stories that are so evident on this compilation. The average Englishman or woman usually seems extremely embarrassed about being English, possibly because today, the idea of being English in any serious or meaningful way seems to be the prerogative of flag-waving Nazis, from Colonel Blimps to British Movement skinheads. There's perhaps something quite endearing about this refusal on the part of most English people to be pompous about their cultural heritage in the way that the French can be, forever enshrining the language of the nation and presenting their artists and writers with medals and titles. …