Ringing out the old, blogging in the new

Jan 05, 2017

Welcome to my first ever blog post.  This is going to be an experience for us both.  I have been meaning to do this for a while and I’m sure you have no idea what to expect, so I’ll start by telling you why I’m doing this and what sort of things I envisage writing about.  Firstly, it is not going to be about my navel or what’s growing in the garden.  Neither is it going to be about life backstage.  I want to share some ideas in the work I come across in the course of my research and teaching at the University of Sheffield – this will often involve music making and touring, but I’m trying to approach it as opening questions for discussion and debate rather than purely giving you gossipy tit bits.  Sorry if that’s put you right off!

I’ve just finished reading a book I think many of you would enjoy by Carolyne LarringtonThe Land of the Green Man.*  Carolyne is an academic at Oxford St John's and this book is chock full of her research into the folk legends tales and songs of the British Isles.  You'll find lots of background to familiar legends here along with new interpretations about what they all mean and she has such a beautiful way of writing, it is very accessible to anyone interested to read it.  It particularly interests me because I have just been thinking about why we still sing about all these old themes, and how we tap into stories and characters in traditional song to draw on bigger frames of communal knowledge.  That was a strong focus when I was putting Old Adam together, and this book touches on a lot of those same questions. We have such a long and deep heritage to draw on and this book really digs into them.

There are chapters involving giant legends, black dogs and death omens; love and lust, which particularly focuses on the characters in ballads and the different kinds of love relationships there are.  Fairies and otherworldly matters crop up frequently and an indepth discussion of Orfeo sheds new light for me onto my version of the song. Contemporary references are given too, with a lot of Tolkien, Garner and Harry Potter showing clearly how fantasy writers draw very heavily on old beliefs, something which perhaps gives their stories such resonance.  But, as Carolyne says, these authors ‘not only bring to light; they reinvent and reshape them in the course of their writings‘ – so while there are deep connections with past traditions, there is a real sense of a living tradition, a developing narrative that people still become enthralled by and become engaged with – no-one can say The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter are anachronistic relics enjoyed by marginalised audiences.

But that is how some people view folk singing. 

So how does this relate to tradition in song? We know there is a really dedicated fan base for traditional songs (if you're one you should join this group), and a lot of people are doing it in singing sessions around the country (if you want to find one, start looking here), but what does the wider world think to it all?  How do singers and audiences relate to the stories? How do contemporary songwriters tap into these concepts and weave them into their music – Tom Waits is one musician not obviously associated with a traditional genre, but he has many songs that utilise traditional themes, not just the Briar and the Rose…  Other singers like Nancy Kerr and Karine Polwart write with firm roots in traditional repertoires. Many of my songs on Old Adam are built from fragments, with new tunes and lyrics added here and there, but I would firmly call them trad even though they wouldn’t exist in that form without my compositional, or editorial hand… Where is the line in the trad. - singer songwriter divide? Should there be one?

Carolyne’s knowledge of folkloric legends is incredibly deep and the book can be enjoyed on that level, but the interesting questions, for me, come in her closing chapter where she states ‘these stories still give us so much to think about and to think with; ways of asking and answering questions about what it means to be human’.  How do we use our traditions? What do they do for us in performance today? This is a line of research I am hoping to follow soon, so your thoughts on it would be very interesting.

Well that’s it #1 down – let me know what you think about this, and what sort of things you’re interested to hear about in future. I can’t promise to respond to everyone, and I might curate the posts if discussions get a bit out of hand, but I am interested in genuine debate and ideas, so please do share your thoughts.  Over and out – I’m off to tick one off the new year’s resolution list…

*Before you berate me for pushing Amazon, I would have linked to the publisher's website but they say out of stock... 

  • Jane Reed

    Really enjoyed the blog Fay. Good to here about books you are reading and your reflections on traditional song and its origins. Thanks

  • Linda

    Intriguing looking forward to future blogs and maybe joining in the discussions

  • Mairi

    More please! You had us at "it is not going to be about my navel or what's growing in the garden" - but now I definitely want to read the Carolyne Larrington. Just to add that Tolkien, Garner and Rowling aren't the only ones drawing on old beliefs - my 14-yr-old daughter chomps all things fantasy, and I can tell you there's a strong strand of YA literature that's busy revisiting the mythology: Neil Gaiman, Holly Black, David Almond, Francesca Simon and plenty others. Sometimes I can hardly get downstairs for slippery Tam Lin reworkings... but I think it's a price worth paying.

  • Maureen Musson

    Very interesting first blog, Fay - I look forward to reading more and to the ensuing discussions.

  • Don Joyce

    Thanks for the blog I enjoyed the read. I have just discussed it with my wife and she has bought The land of the Green Man on Kindle, (sorry if that is an amazon ad ) I look for ward to reading it soon.

  • Alison

    Very nicely written ,must have taken you a while planning and setting out this blog

  • Paul Smith

    Thank you for the first blog. So refreshing to read a blog which instantly sets you off with a range of ideas and exploration to investigate. Looking forward to future writing and debates.

  • Carolyne Larrington

    Thanks for these thoughts, Fay; you elaborate key questions for me about the emotional work that past traditions are still doing for us. While I was in Australia I read Randolph Stow's novel, A Girl as Green as Elderflower which makes wonderful reuse of the medieval weird for contemporary healing. Our tales have resonance across the English-speaking world.

  • David

    Interesting read...you touch on some folk cliches and give them an airing -I was only thinking today that I am not a folk musician but enjoy singing and am a member of a people's choir and go to a monthly folk club-and oh yes,organise Christmas singing in the tradition...and althoug I love all genres of musuc including Philip Glass,classical and pop and folk I dont think there is anywhere as innovative yet misunderstood as folk music.

    • David Wright

      Sorry justbreviewed my comments. Thanks for doing the blog Faye .I didn't want to sound negative at all. It is a good thing to discuss and also very much enjoyed your PhD dissertation.

  • Rob Davenport

    Thank you for the blog, it's a very interesting read, Land of the Green Man is now on my list of books to get.

  • Anna

    Enjoyed your first blog post, Faye. Looking forward to reading more.

  • Rob

    Fascinating read, and I'm very glad you've started a blog - hope you have the time to keep it up! With regards to the question of 'how do we use our traditions' have you read the book 'Uprooted: On The Trail Of The Green Man' by Nina Lyon? Whilst it doesn't relate specifically to music it does have some very interesting and quite idiosyncratic things to say about myths and traditions, how they form and how they get renewed over time (there's an excellent review of it here: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/feb/24/uprooted-on-the-trail-of-the-green-man-nina-lyon-review). Thanks again for the blog, looking forward to the next instalment.

    • Fay Hield

      Thanks I'll look into it...

  • Bridget MC Clure-Jones

    Happy New Year Fay! And a lovely way to set it off with a fabulous blog!
    I have to say the topic you have chosen as your first blog is very dear to my heart. I am Irish descent and grew up with singing, dancing, poetry and story telling. I also have a vivid imagination and totally believe in 'another world' that inhabits our own ie fairies, pixies goblins etc. So the two areas I would like further discussion are the continuance of traditional folk lore/music and it's relation to mental health and well being. I have resonated with many songs and folk traditions over the years that have helped with my own mental illness. Research has proven the positive effect that music and dance has upon a persons mental as well as physical well being. I would be interested in your thoughts and some pointers of songs, authors that you are aware of that tackle mental illness/wellness.
    Lovely to have this blog and looking forward to more
    Kind regards

    • Chris

      Thanks too Fay for the bringingtogetherness of this blog. So many questions! Picking up on what Bridget says... I personally feel an extraordinary disconnect with the modern world; this is pretty normal for those who, like me, find it hard to interact with people and modern norms due to what is somewhat euphemistically called 'depersonalisation and feelings of unreality' - the enormous paradoxical advantage of which is a clear perspective on the (greater!) disconnect of the rest of our society to its wider historical and specifically folklore past! As a very recently enchanted coat-tail-hanger-on of 'folk music', who loves the warmth and music and people of the 'folk' world; I would certainly say that there is something in this feeling of what I would now call being 'earthed' by the yellow and green 'bonds' to the past (rather than just 'grounded').
      Bridget, if you don't know these texts re music and the brain, check 'em out... And if you don't want them from Amazon, get the ISBNs from these and buy from your local bookshop or library:
      This is your Brain on Music (Daniel Levitin); Musicophilia - music and the brain (Oliver Sacks).

  • Fil Tebbutt

    Reading your blog sparked me into looking back at some work I did at Sheffield University in 1996 on the continuing significance of children's playground games. As well as the well-known work by the Opies and Alice Gomme the University has copies of theses written for the now defunct M.A. in Local History, Literature and Cultural Tradition that examine the way in which these games have always reflected folkloric legends as well as historical events and how they've become embedded in what can loosely be termed the 'folk memory'. The games can be seen as a very basic but very real manifestation of such tales in 'performance' and perhaps any examination of this can start here.
    Worth looking at: Willa Muir, 'Living with Ballads'
    Dianne Jewitt, 'It's only a game'- M.A.Thesis, Sheffield Univ. 1989
    Andy Sluckin, 'Growing up in the playground'

    Thanks for getting me thinking about it again!

    • Fay Hield

      Thanks Fil, lovely to hear, and I'm sure they are feeding into Julia Bishop's work on playground games more recently. Indeed, a really ripe breeding ground for folk memory, and do check out Julia's work, if you're still interested...take a look here: http://www.opieproject.group.shef.ac.uk/about-project.html