The cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason recently expressed a preference for ‘folk tunes’ at the Last Night of the Proms over the singing of Rule Britannia! – and, whatever one may think of jettisoning Thomas Arne’s celebrated anthem of British liberty, Kanneh-Mason’s suggestion raises the question of what exactly English folk music is. England is not the first country that springs to mind when we think of a nation for whom traditional music is central to identity.
The importance of folk music to the self-understanding of many countries in Eastern Europe is so prominent that we encounter their traditional melodies and instruments annually in more or less embarrassing entries to the Eurovision Song Contest. Yet ask the average English man or woman in the street to name an English folk song or folk melody, and you may receive blank looks. And this is a specifically English problem – few Scots, after all, will be unaware of the repertoire of the bagpipes, and most Welsh people will have some awareness of their nation’s great tradition of choral singing – not to mention the crucial role of music in Irish national identity.
One place where people may have come into contact with the English folk song tradition is, ironically, the Last Night of the Proms itself – where Sir Henry Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea Songs kept alive the sea shanty tradition – until its revival as a lockdown TikTok craze in 2021, that is. But apart from a brief period in the 1970s when interpretations of English folk by the likes of Steeleye Span and Fairport Convention were almost mainstream, English folk music has remained on the fringes of Britain’s musical scene.
As in other countries, there was a flurry of folk-song collecting in England in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by composers such as Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst, inspiring a new style of music that evoked the simplicity of rural melodies. But there was no national revival in England underpinned by folk music – for the simple reason that England, as an imperial power and the victor of two world wars, was not in need of a folk revival to bolster, construct or revive its sense of nationhood.In retrospect, we might regret the absence of a great revival of folk culture in 20th-century England, as the redefinition of national identity suddenly came to prominence with the disintegration of Britain’s empire – and, indeed, the desire to recover some sort of folk understanding of Englishness might explain the folk-obsessed 1970s.
Thereafter folk music, song and dance slipped from view – often relegated to educational settings as the domain of children. However, while live folk music in pubs is now something of a rarity, there are other areas of folk music that are experiencing a revival. Morris Dancing is increasingly popular, and drawing the participation of young people as well as seasoned dancers.
The English Folk Dance and Song Society, founded by folk music collector Cecil Sharp in 1911, promotes English folk music through education, workshops and artist development programmes. As the Society itself acknowledges, however, defining exactly what English folk music is can be tricky. Traditionally, folk music consists of music passed on by ear without a known author or notation. But folk music is now often defined by a particular style grounded in traditional rural music. The danger with this perception that folk music needs to have a particular sound is that music remains fossilised in an imagined rural idyll. If folk music remains frozen it is, by definition, no longer of the folk – no longer the music spontaneously made by ordinary people. The ageing tribute band and the barn dance ceilidh band are, on one reading, creating folk music by offering their own interpretations of shared musical traditions – more so, perhaps, than meticulous re-creations of Victorian rural folk dancing.
Choosing which English folk songs we might hear at the Last Night of the Proms would be difficult. But one place to start is with what people know – the sea shanties popularised by TikTok (although the most prominent of those, ‘The Wellerman’, is actually from New Zealand), or perhaps an interpretation of Morris Dancing suitable for the Albert Hall. English folk music is far from dead, but it deserves to be better known.