The roots of the English Folk, Dance & Song Society (EFDSS) can be traced back over 100 years to the original formation of the English Folk-Song Society in 1898; Cecil Sharp founded the English Folk Dance Society in 1911. Following Sharp's death in 1924, the members of the English Folk Dance Society set about a fundraising campaign to provide a memorial building and a headquarters for the society. Cecil Sharp House opened on London's Regents Park Road in 1930; the two societies merged two years later, to form the English Folk, Dance & Song Society. Undoubtedly, the most valuable asset of the organisation today is the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, containing an unrivalled collection of material on traditional dance, music and song -- a collection that comprises in excess of eleven-thousand books, three-thousand recordings and further films, manuscripts and photographs.
What relevance might this collection have in the modern day? What sort of influence might this resource have on the younger generation of aspiring folk performers? Recent years have seen something of a resurgence in the number of young folk artists whose repertoire has been enriched by thorough research into the genre -- many of whom will have passed through the doors of Cecil Sharp House on their journey of discovery. We are seeing not just a revival of the revival, but young, intelligent and inquisitive individuals, driven by a passion for folk music, returning directly to source material -- the results of which have borne some thoroughly engaging and invigorating albums. Take your choice from any number of Eliza Carthy's recent albums, the extravagant and edgy "Burlesque" from Bellowhead, the techno melodrama of Jim Moray's "Sweet England" or the exquisitely ethereal "Wild And Undaunted" from Lisa Knapp -- just a few examples where well-researched traditional music and song has been unleashed to great acclaim, sparking interest beyond the habitual genre boundaries.
If the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library is the jewel in the EFDSS crown, then the jewel in the library's own crown must be its librarian, Malcolm Taylor. Were enthusiasm and articulation measured in pounds sterling, this man would be a millionaire, several times over. I was fortunate enough to catch up with Malcolm at Cecil Sharp House to listen to his take on the current renaissance of the English tradition and the laudable work they do in the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library to keep the flame alive.
The Vaughan Williams Memorial Library is hardly a new phenomenon and was instrumental in the folk revival of the 1950's and 60's, as Malcolm keenly pointed out: "that has been the touchstone for the folk revival, in many ways the folk revival has come out of that room." This is an argument with which it is hard to disagree, when one considers the names that have passed through the library's somewhat unassuming doors, such as Shirley Collins, The Watersons and Martin Carthy, to name but a few. Malcolm went on to emphasize the uniqueness of the collections housed within the archives: "It's the national repository of the folk arts of England, although it's not officially recognised as such… we have the original papers here of most of the golden age of folk-song collecting. Anybody who wants to find out about the folk revival will come here, because this is the place where the repertoire is." There is much focus on the folk revival of the 1950's and 1960's, and there's a palpable fervour in the present decade: "there's been a generation, definitely gone missing, that wasn't interested in this… it seemed to go into decline in the late 1970's but now something's happened and people in their early twenties are coming in to do the same thing that they did in the 1960's."
So, what of this missing generation? Why did they go missing, who might they have been and why now, have later generations returned to the tradition? Malcolm feels that part of the explanation may lie with the folk scene itself: "I think the folk scene can be its own worst enemy… sometimes the clubs can be a little bit exclusive, you may have to conform to a certain thing. Dylan had the same problem when he came over in the 1960's, he got heavily criticised by certain people on the folk scene at the time." The obvious direction for this conversation to go, was to speculate who from this lost generation might have found themselves in the folk scene had it been a little more accepting. Malcolm suggested one excellent candidate, Billy Bragg: "Some people, like Billy Bragg, would have gown up with folk clubs, had he not felt uncomfortable or been made to feel uncomfortable." An interesting proposition, and one that carries some weight when you consider some of Bragg's recent exploits that have included singing with the Copper family at a tribute to Bob Copper, held at Cecil Sharp House. Of course, Bragg took the opportunity with relish and at one point, segued from the traditional "John Barleycorn" into his own composition, "England, Half English." This is exactly the sort of thing that may not have gone down so well in a more purist folk environment. Malcolm clearly recognises the value of Bragg's attention: "Billy is very interesting, because he is now one of our biggest spokespeople, he'll go out and talk about English culture. People like Billy have come out and said this is alright, there's nothing to be ashamed of." It's endorsements like this that prove invaluable in breaking down the barriers that people have in connecting with the tradition: "Folk is a very interesting thing… people purport to have no knowledge about it… but they've all got an opinion about it." In recent times, it appears that these opinions are changing, and a renewed curiosity is apparent.
"I don't really know what's happened out there. All I know is that a new generation have come in and looked at the source material." It appears to be an interesting case of history repeating itself, and as to why interest is being reignited, Malcolm can perhaps provide a good explanation based on his own experiences in discovering the library, back in the 1970's: "I came here as a student… my idea of folk music was having heard Fairport, Martin Carthy, Steeleye Span and all those kind of people and when I came here I was exposed to the source material and my mind was blown. I started to realise that this folk music was not about recording studios, it's about communities, it's about social history." Malcolm sees a recurrence of this with the younger generation discovering the library now: "what's really nice now, is twenty-five years later, a lot of the people walking through the door are like me walking through the door twenty-five years ago."
The Vaughan Williams Memorial Library provides a catalyst to those that seek to further their knowledge of the tradition: "Often, people come in… and what they ask for is not exactly what they're looking for but they won't be aware of the field recordings, they might know about a certain recording artist." The importance of these field recordings can't be stressed enough, as it is through these that people can make a connection back to something much more organic: "They can listen to this old fellow singing unaccompanied… and all of a sudden their lives change, because it touches on something, and it seems to be touching a lot of people." It's a tempting thought that in this day and age of political correctness, there is a refreshing truth and directness to be found in traditional song, and this would certainly ring true with Malcolm's observations: "The question that I always ask of the younger people is why are you interested in this… they often say it's because all the themes are the same; it's love, sex and death. They might not be ploughboys now, but the themes are there. It's not as if wife beating is a thing from the past. It's not as if murder and war have gone away… they're still here and those trials and tribulations within those songs are still relevant. What people can do is add another verse, that's all part of the folk process." Malcolm also feels that the growing popularity of folk festivals has a lot to do with the recent escalation of interest: "There's been a shift away from the folk clubs, which I think people found a bit claustrophobic. You go to the folk festivals, and you go to see bands like Bellowhead and the audience is in their twenties, and they're really going for it, they love it, they're dancing and they're singing along."
"What has been fantastic about the young people coming in, like Lisa Knapp, Sam Lee, Tim Van Eyken, Boden and Spiers, is that they're going to the source recordings, the field recordings that we have here." Giving these curious musicians the freedom to make their own discoveries and forge their own path appears to be at the heart of the library's ethos: "One of the things that we never do is to say, you can only do it this way and everything else is wrong." Malcolm then recalls some noteworthy advice from Shirley Collins: "she said, what she'd like young singers to do, is not to copy, but to be informed by the tradition. So, in other words, you go and listen and then you do what you do." This seems to be sensible advice, and advice that has been followed with great success by Lisa Knapp, who arrived at traditional music totally of her own volition: "that's what Lisa did… she's come in here and she's done her time, she's listened… and she's spent hours in the sound library doing this."
The challenge presented by these raw source recordings has seemingly been taken on with great relish: "What I really like about the younger people coming in, is that they're not going for the easy stuff, they're going for some of the harder stuff like the traveller's music. Interpreting field recordings is not always easy… they've been picking out the kernel of brilliance that's there." It's the access to these archive performances that appears to be the fundamental hook: "It's not the songs you collect, it's the performances you collect and the style, and they are as important. If you saw a traveller's song on a printed page, you would never get any notion of what that performance is like." There is a notable sophistication in many of the contemporary interpretations of traditional music and song that is further blurring the boundaries and stretching the definitions of the genre. Malcolm would seem to suggest that this is quite natural and wholly expected: "Folk is seen as quite a simplistic subject, often, people think it's simple to understand and that it's a simple thing to define, but it's not… you can't."
There are further benefits of this recent explosion in young interest, stretching beyond the record-buying folk community. Malcolm introduced me to Sam Lee, who has taken his discoveries from Cecil Sharp House out to a wider audience: "Sam is a classic example of a young bloke who's walked through this door… he became a volunteer… he got involved, he got to know us all and then the next thing you know, he's running a folk club in Islington, which has done really well." Sam speaks about folk music with a genuine passion and commitment, mockingly describing himself as a folk evangelist! Sam told me a little more about his first encounter with Cecil Sharp House: "I really got into the music of the source singers, the real traditional singers, having listened to the revival music and not been quite satisfied enough, and wanting to know where it all came from." A period of volunteering at Cecil Sharp House ensued, helping to catalogue some of their material, whilst continuing his own research into the tradition. At the same time, Sam was to start up his own folk club, The Magpie's Nest in London, with the specific aim of reaching out to the young music community: "I like to think of it as the only young person's folk club in the country that really puts out traditional music alongside non-traditional singer-songwriters." Sam's involvement with Cecil Sharp House puts him in a unique position to promote the tradition, a task that he takes on with great vigour: "I feel that part of my job is getting the songs out there… I book artists that I feel can carry the tradition admirably." It sounds like quite an impressive melting pot, down there in Islington and one that might help to negotiate the folk club obstacles that Malcolm alluded to earlier: "you do get the old folkies coming down and they sit side by side with the younger ones with their guitars, who sing their love songs that they've written in their bedrooms… that dichotomy, the way they meet is fabulous." This is one great example of how somebody has been enthused by what they've found at Cecil Sharpe House and is now busy getting it 'out there' and spreading the word. In the corporate world it could well be referred to as viral marketing!
(This article was published in issue 75 of The Living Tradition Magazine)