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.
The British countryside has inspired many of the great classical composers. Jeremy Pound from BBC Music Magazine selects his five favourite pieces that evoke the atmosphere of nature and landscape
By Fergus Collins
Music has a unique power to convey emotion and atmosphere. It can summon the imagination, stir the soul and evoke memories. For centuries, great composers have walked in the countryside to find creative stimulation and many have been inspired to capture and evoke the mood and the feel of the places they encountered. Birdsong, wind in the trees, a river running – all these have been the source of many wonderful compositions. And music also has the power to transport us, the listeners, to sweeping downland, meadows of wildflowers or a storm in a woodland.
In a recent BBC Countryfile Magazine podcast – the Plodcast – Jeremy Pound of BBC Music Magazine took Plodcast host Fergus Collins for a walk in the Cotswolds to talk about which composers’ works were the most evocative of the British countryside. The Cotswold Hills and the nearby Malvern Hills were, it seems, particularly fertile landscapes for composers such as Ralph Vaughan Williams and Edward Elgar. You can listen to this podcast episode here.
Five great pieces of music inspired by the British countryside
So when you can’t get out to the countryside yourself, why not tune in to stunning music that brings the natural world into your living room? From the song of a skylark above the downlands of southern England to the ancient brooding presence of a Dorset heath, these five works – selected by Jeremy Pound of BBC Music Magazine – summon uplifting and mood-changing visions of the green outdoors. But let’s add to this list – please do tell us of your own
Ralph Vaughan Williams
The Lark Ascending
In this gorgeous work written in 1914, a solo violin represents the lark, spiralling and soaring ever upwards into the sky. It is accompanied by a subdued and almost ominous orchestral backdrop – does it represent dark clouds gathering? Much of Vaughan Williams’ work was inspired by rural folk songs and settings – another wonderful piece to enjoy is Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tullis.
On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring
Another bird, this time in the Bradford-born Delius’s short work for orchestra. In this instance, the call of the cuckoo is heard in the oboe and, later, the clarinet, while a soft, gentle melody in the strings promises sunny days ahead.
Bax’s 1917 symphonic poem for orchestra has, as the title suggests, a wonderfully autumnal feel. A storm gathers in the first half but eventually the music subsides into a calmer mood. Few works conjure up the British weather so deftly.
Though the title of Holst’s 1927 orchestral work comes from a fictional location depicted by Thomas Hardy, the composer was initially inspired to write it by long walks in the south of England. The musical landscape here is rugged, and sometimes even foreboding.
Is an ageing Elgar looking back over recent global and personal trauma in this majestic but mournful 1919 work, or expressing the beauty of the British countryside? A bit of both, one feels – he himself associated a passage from it with the Malvern Hills.
This place feels very important, but I don’t know why yet,” said Billy Bragg, wandering into Cecil Sharp House in 1986. Many of us have felt something similar, slipping from busy north London, though
his place feels very important, but I don’t know why yet,” said Billy Bragg, wandering into Cecil Sharp House in 1986. Many of us have felt something similar, slipping from busy north London, though the English country garden, into the UK’s first dedicated folk arts centre.
First opened in 1930, the building holds all the tension of the 20th century’s battles over the definition of “folk music” and who it belongs to. Visitors will feel it in the architectural push-pull between blunt, right-angled utilitarianism (formal rectangular halls for dancing, rectangular windows for light) and mystical curves of wooden carvings of green men, dragons and bawdy Morris men. For at Cecil Sharp House (CHS), town meets country, academia jostles with vernacular tradition and all three classes collide.
On its 90th birthday, CSH’s chief executive, Katy Spicer, reminds me that we can trace those tensions right back to 1898, when the middle-class Folk-Song Society was founded to collect and preserve folk songs and tunes primarily from Britain and Ireland. They found and filed songs for the nation’s cabinet of curiosities just as other Victorians collected shells, ferns and fossils. Prominent members included Lucy Broadwood, Frank Kidson and Anglican priest Sabine Baring-Gould. Letters stored at CSH reveal the fierce rivalry between many of the collectors as they competed to discover the best, oldest or most obscure “peasant” tunesIn 1903, Cecil Sharp joined the fray, recording material from “the old singing men and women of the country villages”. Now widely acknowledged as the founding father of the folk revival, Sharp, the son of a slate merchant, became interested in folk tradition after observing a rare group of Morris dancers performing at the village of Headington Quarry near Oxford at Christmas 1899.
The composer Ralph Vaughan Williams began collecting songs the same year. “There is a feeling of recognition, as of meeting an old friend,” said Williams, “which comes to us all in the face of great artistic experiences. I had the same experience when I first heard an English folk song, when I first saw Michelangelo’s Day and Night, when I suddenly came upon Stonehenge or had my first sight of New York City – the intuition that I had been there already.”
Ralph Vaughan Williams (12 October 1872 – 26 August 1958) was an English composer. His works include operas, ballets, chamber music, secular and religious vocal pieces and orchestral compositions including nine symphonies, written over sixty years. Strongly influenced by Tudor music and English folk-song, his output marked a decisive break in British music from its German-dominated style of the 19th century.
Considered to be among the best-known British symphonists, Williams is noted for his very wide range of moods, from stormy and impassioned to tranquil, from mysterious to exuberant. Among the most familiar of his other concert works are Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1910) and The Lark Ascending (1914).