What about England?

I am supporting England in the World Cup this summer. As an Irishman, that is easier to write than it will be to act upon. There is history, and the Irish are traditionally sensitive to the English imperiousness that tends to appear on football occasions. But I want to think about our two islands differently. England is our close, island-dwelling neighbour. In the new peacetime that has been created, can the Irish learn to love it? Sporting and cultural events may offer us that chance.

In July, it will be five years since the IRA announced an end to its paramilitary activities, closing a chapter on hundreds of years of violence between these two islands. There has been just one cultural occasion which has marked this new era: in 2007, at an Ireland–England rugby international in Croke Park in Dublin, ‘God Save the Queen’ was sung to a respectful and touching Irish silence. During the subsequent passionate singing of the Irish anthem, one Irish player openly wept.

The Croke Park moment was significant because the ground was the site of a massacre in 1920, when British forces opened fire in retaliation to the earlier killing of British agents by the IRA. The rugby match in 2007 was seen as a milestone for Irish and English people, the beginning of a better relationship between the two nations, but as is natural, a deep pause has followed, allowing the dust to settle. Nonetheless, Croke Park showed us how the amorphousness of music can point us a way past our man-made boundaries. Where can we look to for other gaps in the political hedge?

In 1997, I attended a concert in the Irish World Music Centre in Limerick that featured Irish traditional musicians based in England, but that also took the innovative step of including English folk artists. A then relatively unknown Chris Wood bewildered the audience by singing in 5/4 time while accompanying himself on fiddle. A twenty-something Eliza Carthy silenced the room with her tender and honest singing, and then joined in on Irish fiddle tunes with vim. I interviewed Carthy a year later, and I can recall her determination to bring English folk to a much wider public than it was then receiving. She commented on the folk festivals up and down England, which consisted mainly of traditional groups from other countries – Irish artists were a heavy presence. Fine, she said, but what about England? What about English music?

Over the last ten years, Carthy’s question has received its reply. Through the work of a new generation, with her own extraordinary output at the helm, English folk has broken through to the mainstream. The result of a new energy and creativity in recordings and performances, it is augmented by a grassroots movement of folk clubs and festivals accommodating the new audiences being created. Carthy’s output of over twenty albums since 1993, when she was eighteen, not only illustrates her own musical development, but practically provides a narrative to the entire movement, climaxing with Rough Music (2004), which magnificently stretches the aesthetics of English folk. So too do Chris Wood’s eighteen recordings since 1990, with Anthology and Handmade Life (both 2009) containing an astonishing balance between tradition and invention. Exceptional artists and groups such as Kate Rusby, John Spiers and Jon Boden, Bellowhead, Nancy Kerr, Spiro, the Unthanks, Bella Hardy and Andy Cutting are creating music and song as diverse as England’s population while at the same time maintaining an unmistakeable Englishness.

The state is now beginning to get behind them: the Arts Council of England has in the last year allocated £400,000 to the English Folk Dance and Song Society (founded 1932), allowing it to become a national development agency for folk music. In May, it ran a campaign to increase the amount of English folk on BBC radio. In October 2009 the Arts Council and fRoots magazine produced a CD showcase, Looking for a New England, which was promoted at the Womex music fair in Denmark. In March 2010, the first ever English folk showcase appeared at the South by Southwest music event in Texas.

English folk music’s resurgence is partly a response to the devolving of political powers to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in 1998, and also, arguably, increased immigration. At the turn of the millennium, the English were forced to consider their identity beyond the traditional notion of the United Kingdom. The folk resurgence was already under way but it subsequently grew in popularity. From 1998, BBC Radio 3 began to play more world music, with Late Junction a particular champion of English folk, while Mike Harding’s programme on BBC Radio 2 also drew attention to the new strength of the genre. In 2000, the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards were established and English artists have cleaned up regularly. In 2006, BBC Four television produced Folk Britannia, a major three-part series tracing the evolution of British folk from the end of World War II to the present day. And a twisted compliment came with the rise of the far-right British National Party from 2005, which encouraged its members to to become more involved in the English folk scene. This in turn led to the establishment of Folk Against Fascism in 2009, a movement that aims to repel the BNP’s manipulation of the music for racist, political means.

Yet for all its current vitality, English folk still remains apart from the Scottish and Irish scenes. One explanation is the still relatively small number (in comparison to Ireland and Scotland) of recordings and contemporary editions of music collections that non-English traditional musicians can tap into. While Ireland and Scotland can draw on hundreds of publications and thousands of widely available recordings, as well as a range of online resources, England, despite the size of its population, has not reached that level of publication and dissemination.

But there is a political dimension to it also. Irish traditional musicians have for decades been exploring the folk musics of the world, collaborating with musicians from Galicia, South America, Appalachia, Norway, Cape Breton, Sweden, Bulgaria, Romania and North Africa – anywhere but England. Collaborations between Ireland and Scotland have always been pursued, and the connections between them in repertoire and style are emphasised in the album titles: Andy Irvine and Dick Gaughan’s Parallel Lines (1982), Kevin Burke and Johnny Cunningham’s Celtic Fiddle Festival (1993) and Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh and Julie Fowlis’ Dual (2009). (‘Dual’ in both Scots Gaelic and Irish means to twine, braid or interlace.) In Northern Ireland, there are often efforts to bring together musical representations of unionist and nationalist communities, but there it ends.

The traditional music scene on the two islands has developed more or less as if England wasn’t there. Celtic Connections, the international folk festival in Glasgow, implicitly overlooks England in its title (because it is not ‘Celtic’). The major television programme, Transatlantic Sessions(1994–) regularly brings together Ireland, Scotland and America, but ignores England. English singers and musicians can be regularly found in these festivals and shows of course, but the genre does not receive the same prominence. Its lack of a diasporic identity plays against it. Wales too is missing, but the reasons for its absence are different – an emphasis on religious choral singing over folk music through Welsh history has meant that its traditional music is still developing, and its artists have yet to impact on the international scene. That too, however, is changing, driven by organisations such as Trac and the record label Sain.

An interview in April of this year with Eliza Carthy on BBC Radio 3’s Music Matters illustrated how the battle for recognition goes on. As she explained her research on English folk music, the presenter overly complimented her on doing such valuable archival work, stressing how important it was. But Carthy could read between the lines. Her voice tensed up: ‘It’s not research for the sake of it, you know. It’s also good music.’

One of the ironies is that English folk musicians pay staunch homage to the music of its neighbours. At a festival concert in Dublin in 2008, which I programmed, the English duo John Spiers and Jon Boden seemed genuinely humbled to be on the same bill as Irish fiddle-player Paddy Glackin. Similarly, the British Folk Awards have handed out lifetime achievement awards to Christy Moore, Paul Brady and the Chieftains, Best Group awards to Altan and Danú, and best instrumentalist to fiddle-player Martin Hayes (eight years before he received a similar award in Ireland). A reciprocal award for an English act by the national traditional music awards of Ireland – the TG4 Gradam Ceoil – would be almost unthinkable.

We have arrived at a moment in which the stunning music of the English folk scene cannot be ignored any longer. Its strength and depth means collaborations between new young generations of English, Scottish and Irish musicians are surely around the corner, a cultural development that can only bring the traditionally acrimonious divisions between the peoples of these two islands forward. It hasn’t happened yet in any high-profile performance, nor is it evident in recordings, but for how long can the major festivals in Ireland ignore the English group Bellowhead, which has consistently won best live act at the British Folk Awards? And for how long can the programmers and promoters of major state venues in London, Edinburgh, Dublin and Belfast ignore the potential of a major, peacetime celebration of the folk musics of all of the peoples of these two islands?

10 thoughts on “What about England?

  1. An excellent article – struck lots of chords (no pun intended!) with me. I love the Transatlantic Sessions, but find the exclusion of English musicians increasingly irritating.


  2. A courageous, accurate and truthful article which, I suspect, could only have been written by a Celt. In my recent experience, the Anglophobia that the writer describes extends far beyond folk music, and in so-called multi-cultural Britain, the majority of ordinary urban English people (both inside and outside the folk scene) whom I have met over the past four years do not feel it is safe to openly celebrate their English culture or express their Englishness in public. Small steps do make a difference, and more articles like this one can only help to change things.

  3. I meant to leave a postscript to mention that things are indeed changing. This year I performed five concerts in Scotland, and I suspect that my strongly ethnic English repertoire was the key to being included in what is a fairly select band of English artists. The audiences were superbly receptive and interested, understanding fully what it means to proudly celebrate one’s own folk-culture. I also found tremendous respect for the differences between our two cultures and I had such a great time that I feel I should mention the lovely folk at Girvan, Glenfarg, Dunfermline, Quarter and Rosehall Folk Clubs, many of which will be familiar to Scottish Kiwis. I already have six gigs booked in Scotland next year too. Thanks for allowing me to comment as a guest.

  4. Brian Vallely, Director of the Armagh PIpers Club, also emailed me a response at the time and illustrated how the Club is very much an exception to the rule. He gave me permission to publish his email online.

    Dear Editor,
    I was introduced to the Journal of Music through coming across the occasional copy brought into the house by one or other of my family and finally became a subscriber for a number of reasons not least the sheer quality and the often thought provoking analysis and juxtaposition of a huge variety of musical genres. Having grown up in the ‘mutual exclusion musical era’ and lived through the dying gasps (I hope) of that culture I do appreciate the existence of a magazine like the Journal of Music. It’s not that long ago a magazine such as yours would have been unimaginable despite the efforts of innovative geniuses along the way to make the connection between the various musics. However we do still have vibrant survivors on both the classical and traditional side who feel a great need to emphasise differences and separatedness.
    However I was extremely interested in your piece entitled ‘What about England?’ and that’s really what I want to say something about. As Director of the William Kennedy Piping Festival I’ve been conscious that our Festival has been the first to put a huge range of piping traditions on stage in Ireland including previously unheard of, not to mention unthought of, traditions from places as diverse as Algeria, Iran, Belarus and Sweden none of which would immediately suggest piping traditions. A replica of the 2500BC ‘Silver pipes of UR’ unearthed in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) has been played at our festival. We were also the first to bring the piping traditions of the Mediterranean islands Sardinia, Corsica, Sicily and Mallorca to Ireland in a WKPF concert entitled ‘Piping of the Mediterranean Islands’. Sardinia was particularly interesting in that their national instrument the Launeddas is the triple mouth blown pipes to be found on the High Crosses at Clonmacnoise and and Monasterboice. In between we have had the piping traditions of Portugal, Galicia, Asturias, the Basque country, Brittany, various French piping traditions, the Czech Republic, three contrasting Italian piping traditions, Bulgaria, Hungary, Scotland, Wales and of course England. This year from 11th to 14th November the 17th William Kennedy Piping Festival will bring some new piping traditions to Ireland including Croatia, Greece and Belgium.
    Irish musicians and their music have long enjoyed a respect and recognition in England, Scotland and Wales that has rarely if ever, as you point out, been reciprocated. I can recall sessions in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Manchester, London etc where you wouldn’t have heard a note of Scottish or English music despite the fact that few if any of the musicians were Irish and I’ve no doubt the same applied in many other countries despite the living traditions still extant in those countries. As an example of how thoroughly Irish music had ‘colonised’ European countries I vividly recall the hearty laughter of a prominent Italian folk music promoter when I asked about Sardinian music and the Launnedas with a view to bringing a player to the WKPF.
    Throughout the early and later years of the Fleadh competitions you had/have still a strong selective cull of supposedly non Irish traditional music which was/is at times quite ludicrously contradictory i.e.., the music of Neil Gow is totally accepted by adjudicators who at the same time also denounce other Scottish tunes in competitors’ repertoires. The history of various Irish revival movements since the 19th Century has been notable for this sort of nit-picking to establish some notional concept of ‘ethnic’ purity.
    Coming back to the title of your article I’d have to say that our club the Armagh Pipers Club doesn’t subscribe to this National non recognition of English music traditions. Through the William Kennedy Piping Festival we have sourced and brought to Armagh many fine English musicians playing English music either traditional or recently composed and this year’s festival November 11-14th is no different featuring as it does the piping of Jon Swayne from Somerset and his group Zephyrus. It’s not Jon’s first visit to Armagh and his pipes quartet Moebius features on the 10th Anniversary compilation CD of live recordings from the WKPF. The piping of north-east England i.e.., Durham and Northumbria has been central to our festival since our small beginnings 16 years ago in 1994. We have featured the music of Kathryn Tickell many times both as a solo piper and with her group. Andy May has played several times – we’ve had Matt Seattle a musician many of whose English tunes on both border pipes and fiddle have found their way into the Irish repertoire largely unheralded. Then we’ve had Pauline Cato who played a couple of years ago with a quite amazing piping group that brought together Northumbrian pipes, Uilleann pipes, Scottish small pipes and the French Musette de Coeur under the direction of Barnaby Brown. The group also included a quite amazing harp player.
    Through her experiences at the WKPF Kathryn Tickell formed another multi-National piping group that included Galician pipes and a duet between Kathryn and Galician Anxo Lorenzo features on our 10th Anniversary compilation CD. Kathryn Tickell reciprocated her invites to Armagh by bringing a group of young Armagh musicians to play at Rothbery Folk Festival where they experienced the live music of Northumbria and the wonderful living music and dance tradition of the area.
    However I have to agree that recognition of an English tradition is largely ignored in Ireland and this is a great pity because it doesn’t reflect the historic debt owed to the English through their contribution to the development of bellows blown pipes in general and the uilleann pipes in particular through much of the 18th and early 19th Century. A study of the development of the instrument we know as the uilleann pipes can’t ignore the English connection but you rarely if ever get any reference to this easily researched aspect on the origins of our ‘National’ instrument.
    I’ll end on that note.
    Brian Vallely
    Director Armagh Pipers Club

    17th William Kennedy Piping Festival
    11th – 14th November 2010
    BT61 9DT
    tel/fax: +44 (0)28 37511248
    email: info@wkpf.org
    web: http://www.wkpf.org

  5. Hi. Sorry about the length of this piece, but parts of it may be useful to you in future and may answer some of your contributors’ misconceptions. I met Christie Moore in the 60s and our memories of the (Northern) English folk scene differ slightly. Certainly around Manchester it was difficult to escape Irish artists but apart from instrumentals the songs performed were more of the rebel/ nationalist protest kind than traditional. Christy’s list should have included himself, Finbar & Eddie Furey and Davey Arthur, The Beggarmen, The Grehan Sisters and others.
    It is interesting to read the comments from Irish artists, and particularly, to hear as an Englishman, non-English people opining on what the English are and are not.
    What Irish and Scottish people (folk musicians in particular) fail to grasp is that theirs are not the only cultures to suffer from British cultural oppression.
    I understand that the focus of your article is purely musical, but I must point out that there would be no folk music, no folk performers, and no folk scene were it not for the ‘folk’ in question.
    The simple fact is that, while Eliza, Kate, Martin and others may bemoan the lack of musical collaboration, in England the vast majority of ethnic English people, particularly urban English people have been almost completely detached from their own indigenous English folk song, music and dance traditions.
    English folk artists frequently trot out the banal truism that “Traditional folk music is the music of the common people”. To me this means not that it is just about common English, but that it actually belongs to the indigenous common folk of England – our ancestors.
    They wrote it, they performed it, and often they were the subject matter of the piece, yet the sad fact is that for the past 200 years, the English common people have been progressively disconnected from their national folk-treasures with incessant wars and the Industrial Revolution seriously reducing the English population and their enthusiasm for song and dance. This was compounded early last century by the English middle-class fascination for finding and collecting things that were never really lost, such as the folk-traditions of the common people. And so it was that countless thousands of songs, music and dance material was ‘saved’, stored and hoarded in private, academic collections and scholastic institutions.
    In the ensuing years, while Irish and Scottish working folk have been properly singing, playing and dancing their folk tradition, in England the British middle-classes have been endlessly analysing, studying and hoarding it.
    So I would point out to Christy, Dierdre, Fiona, and Olaf that the major reason that English musicians have always played mostly Irish and Scottish tunes is that they had little choice – they could not get their hands on English tunes, and to a large extent they still can’t.
    If anyone doubts this, ask Dave Swarbrick, who when performing in Cambridge Folk Club in 209 said this “I will now play you an English tune that no English person has heard for around 300 years because some decided to hide it away in his private collection, and that’s why I’ve had to play Irish and Scottish tunes all my life”.
    Dave was not being disparaging about Irish or Scottish music, but he is more forthcoming with the truth than many English folk musicians.
    Historically, gaining access to traditional English manuscripts has been akin to pulling teeth – just ask people like Nic Jones who used to have to camp out in Cecil Sharpe house for days on end searching and researching songs. There is still an unknown quantity of English music residing in private and academic collections.
    The indigenous folk music of England will perhaps one day be fully ‘freed’ and returned to the people to whom it rightfully belongs – the ordinary, common, ethnic English people, but few of the influencers in the English folk scene appear to be actively involved in trying to achieve this.
    And what of the English common people?
    For the past 20 years, English traditions including indigenous song, music and dance have been banned in many schools in England (but not in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland), most noticeably in urban English schools.
    In addition, many typically English religious celebrations and traditions have also been banned by British politicans at (English) national and local level.
    Unlike their counterparts in Scotland, several English Tradition Folk Festivals have been refused funding by the English Arts Council unless they commit to changing to a more multi-cultural festival.
    This is the reason why so many traditional English folk festivals have been changed to ‘world’ music, and once more, unlike Festivals in Scotland and Ireland, indigenous English folk culture has been seriously disadvantaged.
    The British cultural oppression that the Celtic peoples suffered is alive and well once again in these islands.
    A people and their folk-culture are inseparable.

  6. Wow… And here was me thinking that Celtic Connections rose because of NOT having a folk voice within the ENGLISH media …BBC and otherwise.
    I never thought the English were not putting on Scottish acts or their london broadsheets NOT Reviewing the likes of dick Gaughan AND my Robert Burns album because (as my manager was informed) ‘this is JUST a Scottish thing. I am a regular invitee go the BBC folk awards two days after Celtic connections finishes and it struck me many times, how one would think that the amazing collection of music ive just witnessed performed by english/ irish/ welsh/ american/canadian galithian/ french / breton musicians was COMPLETELY Ignored by those NATIONAL Radio two awards. One year ‘someone’ had a word with ‘someone’ and suddenly myself, karine polwart, aly bain, phil cunningham were up for awards.. Karine and ally and phil won something. How cambridge folk fest CONSTANTLY has the support of the BBC when Celtic Conn (the bigger fest) gets ZERO coverage.. And in fact the company that makes the TRANSATLANTIC SESSIONS try EVERYTHING to get National coverage and funding. Always being refused..!!! Man o man how in anyway does that turned into English acts being ignored???? All of us love each other by measure of or playing abilities .. It’s the great leveller.. But this nonsense about poor England when ALL the coverage on our NATIONAL media ignores everything north of the border is ridiculous.
    Love in music
    Eddi (scots/Irish/English/Prussian descent ) Reader

  7. Eddi – with great respect – there’s far more folk music programming in Scotland by the BBC than in England, and traditional Scottish music has a far higher profile in Scotland than traditional English music has in England. A cursory look at the BBC iPlayer and BBC Alba demonstrates that. There’s comparatively little English folk music on TV and radio in England. This is going to get worse as, with the latest BBC cuts, local radio stations which have done sterling work for English traditional music, will probably get the chop. That the Transatlantic Sessions exists is wonderful, and I look forward to each new series with huge anticipation. What irritates me – given the historical and melodic connections between traditional music in England, Scotland and Ireland and America, is that the Sessions producers have made a conscious decision to omit English music and (with one or two exceptions) English musicians from the mix. This is a series that has a high profile among lovers of traditional music in England, yet excludes the connections between – for example – American and English tunes.

    Will (English, Scottish & Irish ancestry) Fly

  8. Very interesting article . My sources tell me that the Carty family were very entertaining when they played as support act to Peggy Seeger in Waterford. I was very impressed with Ralph McTell on a recent bbc4 doc Looking forward to seeing more English folk artists touring here.

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