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

By Greig, Charlotte | The Independent (London, England), November 4, 1998 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

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.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

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
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?