We need an English folk revival

By Francis Young

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.

Shirley Collins
A previous British folk revivals took place in the ’50s-’60’s led by Ewan MacColl, Martin Carthy, the Watersons, and Shirley Collins (pictured)

 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.

In retrospect, we might regret the absence of a great revival of folk culture in 20th-century England

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.

Desert Island Discs – Shirley Collins, folk singer – BBC Sounds


Shirley Collins, folk singer, shares the soundtrack of her life with Lauren Laverne.

Shirley Collins first enjoyed success as one of the leading figures in the British folk revival of the 1960s. She initially performed with her sister, Dolly Collins, and also collaborated with other folk luminaries to create some of the era’s most beloved albums.

In the past decade she has made an acclaimed return to the concert stage and the recording studio. Shirley was born in Sussex in 1935. She can still recall how her grandfather used to sing folk songs to comfort her while they were sheltering during German air raids in the early 1940s.

Alongside her career as a singer, in the 1950s she travelled to the American South with Alan Lomax, where they made field recordings of blues and folk musicians, helping to create a significant archive.

Later in her performing career, Shirley found that she could no longer sing, following a distressing betrayal in her private life. She stepped away from music and was silent for many years, taking on other work, including a stint in a job centre Then, in her 80s, she found her voice again.

In 2016 she released her first new album after a gap of almost four decades, and she has since released two more albums. Shirley lives in Sussex, not far from her childhood home. Presenter Lauren Laverne Producer Sarah Taylor

LISTEN at  Desert Island Discs – Shirley Collins, folk singer – BBC Sounds

‘I’ve got to stop somewhere!’ How Steve Roud compiled his epic folk song archive

Cecil Sharpe

The former librarian has spent more than 50 years compiling the Roud Folk Song Index, cataloguing 25,000 traditional songs. So how did he do it? And what exactly is a folk song?


By Andrea Valentino

When Steve Roud was young, he began collecting records. Hardly unusual for a child of the 1950s – but this boy from south London was different. Not content with just listening to LPs, Roud began indexing them – his own and ones he found mentioned in newspapers and magazines. He used old shoe boxes as a primitive filing system and wrote the titles on 5×3 inch record cards that his mum bought him once a week. He soon realised his hobby was turning into something more. “Without knowing it,” he says, “I was becoming a librarian.”


Soon enough, Roud would become one for real, working much of his career for the London borough of Croydon. His infatuation with indexing would persist too, those shoe boxes finally swelling into something remarkable. Even as a teenager, Roud had been fascinated by folk music – how across the centuries, dozens of voices could send songs shooting countless different ways, their titles and lyrics shifting even as their cores remained the same. As he grew up, armed with proper training and new technology, Roud took to collating this bounty in earnest, hunting down leads and developing an elegant method to trace a song’s heritage.


The result, the product of 52 years of effort, is the Roud Folk Song Index. Including hundreds of thousands of references to tens of thousands of songs, Roud’s work spans the anglophone oral tradition, taking in English villages, Appalachian hilltops and harbours in the Caribbean. The index has become indispensable for folk fans worldwide, bolstering genealogy projects and inspiring musicians. In its size and ambition, Roud’s project speaks to the challenges of constraining such a varied tradition – and even to deciding what folk music actually is.

People have systematically collected traditional English music for more than a century. In the years before the first world war, enthusiasts such as Ralph Vaughan Williams and Cecil Sharp scoured country lanes and village inns for people to record, worried that industrialisation and urban life would soon wash traditional tunes away. Musicians both, Williams and Sharp also wanted folk melodies to inform English classical music, just as Sibelius did in Finland or Antonín Dvořák in Bohemia. Visiting King’s Lynn, in 1905, Vaughan Williams spent time at the Tilden Smith, a pub where local fishers were sheltering from January storms. The songs Vaughan Williams heard there may have influenced some of his most famous compositions, appropriate for a man who once called music “the expression of the soul of a nation”. These early English collectors, for their part, were shadowed by colleagues across Britain and Ireland, and in the New World.

Continue reading