Academic journal article Folk Music Journal

Five-Time in English Traditional Song

Academic journal article Folk Music Journal

Five-Time in English Traditional Song

Article excerpt

In this paper we explore the history of the emergence of five-time in collected examples of English traditional song and explore the controversy that they engendered in the twentieth century. We define our research questions through this historical enquiry and we try to settle the controversy that emerged. Early in the essay we give a brief account of the place of five-time within the Western classical music tradition in order to create some understanding of the situation in which the idea of five-time in English folk song emerged.

The key research question that the essay addresses is whether five-time is an imposition on the material gathered by collectors (a kind of fiction) or an observable phenomenon in the pofirrnance of English traditional song: was it a reality or some kind of misconception? An answer is attempted through careful listening to a selection of post-1945 recordings of traditional singers, represented as transcriptions.

It is not our ambition to give a comprehensive account of the phenomenon of five-time (or other irregular metres) in English vernacular song, but rather the more modest aim of settling the historical controversy concerning the veracity of five-time in that song tradition. We come to the clear, if qualified, conclusion that a small proportion of songs collected have a five-time base. We are very aware that more research on aspects of this topic is possible and our hope is that the article opens up discussion of an area that has suffered from relative neglect in the past.

When Cecil Sharp published the song 'Searching for Lambs' in his 1916 compilation One Hundred English Folksongs, he remarked: 'Taking words and tune together, I consider this to be a very perfect example of a folksong.' (1) He commented on the song's modal ambiguity--'lacking the sixth of the scale'--but said nothing of its five-four rhythm (Figure 1). It is notable that Sharp's 'perfect example' is in a time signature that many commentators have found at least curious or amusing, and some deeply problematic. It is also to be noticed that five-time has been taken up enthusiastically by some post-1945 folk song revivalists: for example, A. L. Lloyd, Martin Carthy, Nic Jones, and Chris Wood. (2) We will return to 'Searching for Lambs' later.

The history of musical utterances on five-time has not always been as uncontroversial as Sharp's lack of comment might suggest. We commence with a brief look at the use of, and attitudes to, five-time in Western art music, as this is the context into which examples of five-time in English traditional song emerged. Commenting on a brief use of five-time by Handel in the final scene of the second act of the opera Orlando, the eighteenth-century music historian and critic Charles Burney wrote: 'The whole last scene of this act, which paints the madness of Orlando, in accompanied recitatives and airs in various measures, is admirable. Handel has endeavoured to describe the hero's perturbation of intellect by fragments of symphony in 5/8, a division of time which can only be borne in such a situation.' (3)

Burney could tolerate five-time only in circumstances where the music represents madness and perturbation. Burney was an opinion-maker, but, evidence suggests, he may have been reflecting a widespread contemporary view. Although a few earlier examples of five-time can be cited, it is instructive that songbooks of the period between the Commonwealth and the Great Exhibition--a voluminous literature--show no interest in five-time as an ingredient in the making of popular songs, nor do we find much use of it in chamber and orchestral music during the period. There are a very few notable and rare exceptions, but these tend to draw attention to themselves as oddities and are often commented on as such. One example is the theatre composer William Reeve's Gypsy's Glee of 1796 ('sung with the greatest applause by Mrs. Henley, Master Woodham, Mr. Linton, Mr. …

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