English Folk Culture (and a bit about Napoleon)

After my recent post on defining Englishness I’ve just come across the work of Sarah Barber who is developing research on defining English Folk Culture addressing some of the methodological issues in defining what we mean by ‘folk culture’. I am not sure I entirely agree with some of the working definitions she is using, but its useful to see someone attempting to define ‘folk’ as cultural category of analysis(as opposed to what has now become an aesthetic genre). I think her attempt to define ‘folk’ as a relationship between the individual and the collective is a useful approach and avoids sterile arguements about what is inside or outside the folk tradition.

Its important to distinguish the search for a working definition of ‘folk’ as different from a working definition of Englishness (if such a slippery subject can be defined). There is no direct or easy equation of English folk culture with ‘Englishness’, which is often defined using exampla drawn from a range of sources from Imperial History, the Anglican church (bells and smells or happy clappy) and other criteria derived from middle class culture. Indeed the search for Englishness might be defined as a particuarly middle class neurosis. Folk culture, however, makes an overt reference to national identity and in many cases, particularly in the musical tradition, drawns on radical and republican discourses that are inherently anti-Nationalistic. For example, there is a fascinating tension in the depiction of Napoleon and the French Revolution in English folk song; compare the words of The Liberty Tree

It was the year of ’93
The French did plant an olive tree
The symbol of great liberty
And the people danced around it
O was not I telling you
The French declared courageously
That Equality, Freedom and Fraternity
Would be the cry of every nation


Come listen every lord and lady, squire, knight and stateman,
I’ve got to sing a little song about a very great man;
And if the name of Bonapart should mingle in my story,
It’s with all due submission to his honour’s worship glory.
He fell in love with Egypt once because it was the high road
To India for himself and friend to travel by a nigh road,
And after making mighty fuss and fighting night and day there,
‘Twas monstrous ungenteel of us who wouldn’t let him stay there

Though to be fair, I wonder how many of the pro-Boney songs are from the Irish rather than English tradition. Its also worth mentioning my favourite lyric

My uncle, Captain Flanigan,
Who lost a leg in Spain,
Tells stories of a little man
Who died at St. Helene;
But bless my heart, they can’t be true,
I’m sure they’re all romance;
John Bull was beat at Waterloo!
They’ll swear to that in France

ANYWAY….coming back to Sarah Barber’s work, on far more trivial matter, I was pleased to see that one of her interviewees was on Joseph Porter drummer, lead singer and song writer of one of the words greatest bands, Blyth Power (named after a Class 56 diesel don’t you know), possibly the only band to have ever written song about Graf von Tilley, the 30 Year War and the Battle of Breitenfeld!

Published by David Petts

Assc. Prof Archaeology, Durham University - landscapes - old music/books - folk traditions - early med Britain - community heritage - post-medieval - views own @davidpetts1 outlandish-knight.blogspot.co.uk

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