Michael Brocken’s The British Folk Revival, 1944-2002

51rlgqvywzlLiz Milner penned this review.

The British Folk Revival is often overlooked. It is mostly viewed as the pale, plain stepsister to the flamboyant American revival of the late 1950s and ’60s. Michael Brocken seeks to redress this imbalance with what his publishers say is “The first historical and theoretical work to consider the post-war folk revival in Britain.” By Britain, they seem to mean “everything with the exception of Ireland, Scotland, Cornwall and Wales,” because Irish folk music is barely touched on, and the rest of the Celtic world isn’t mentioned at all.

Despite his publishers labeling the book as a historical work, Brocken’s focus is on politics rather than history or musicology. The leaders of the British folk revival tended to view folk music as a redemptive force that could revitalize Britain and save it from an outmoded class structure on the one hand and soulless commercialism on the other. Folk songs, they believed, were the last remnants of the simple, satisfying village life that had been destroyed by the industrial revolution. Folk songs were seen as reservoirs of alternative, organic values that could be drawn on to create a more satisfying, truly English society. Initially this view was advanced by romantic conservatives, such as the great folksong collector Cecil Sharp. In the 1940s and ’50s, however, folk songs were co-opted by the English Left and Brocken sees three men as responsible: musicologist and journalist A. L. Lloyd, American folk song collector Alan Lomax and singer Ewan MacColl.

Brocken intends this book to be “an illuminating political history” of the revival in England. In the style of 1950’s sociology, he focuses on the writings of “opinion leaders” Lloyd, MacColl and Lomax, though, as he himself points out, very few folkies were in lockstep with them. I think he may be confusing an atmosphere with an organization.

I better come clean from the get-go: Brocken’s book is a prolonged attack on A.L. Lloyd, a revival singer and writer whose work I love and revere, although I never had the good fortune to meet him.

Lloyd, who was a musical mentor to Martin Carthy, Peter Bellamy and Jennifer Cutting among many others, wrote Folk Song in England, a book whose account of the evolution of the English folk song tradition blended E.P. Thompson-style Socialist historiography with William Morris-style romanticism. It was a heady and intoxicating brew and Lloyd’s compelling prose sparkled with the sort of genial humor that is seldom found in socialist polemics. Brocken, however, writes in the clotted jargon of Sociology. It’s sad that the British Folk Revival should be chronicled in a welter of academese when the men Brocken identifies as its leaders — Lloyd, Ewan MacColl, and Alan Lomax — all wrote in a clear, often beautiful, style.

Brocken desperately needs an editor. His prose is flabby; he shoehorns in twenty words where one would have done just fine. His writing isn’t impenetrable; it’s just tedious to wade through — a Great Dismal Swamp of verbiage. Here are some examples:

Importantly, in not being umbilical to a totalising world view (political or anthropological), skiffle’s benign musical and social eclecticism was, in fact, highly radical.

Ironically, both apparent polarities, that is the perception of an experimental lacuna in society and the understanding of mass consumption as a benign influence, can be seen by the historian as being axiomatic of the same context.

Occasionally, Brocken’s writing is completely garbled. He writes of the Pogues, “Their descent into 1990s chaos remains an unsatisfactory chronicle.”

Brocken uses the passive voice to give the impression that his text is separate from his point of view and dwells on some lofty plane far outside the realm of subjective opinion. Instead of saying “I will discuss the British Folk Revival with in the context of broader social and cultural changes,” he writes, “this discussion will attempt to locate itself within broader social and cultural changes.”

Brocken reams A.L. Lloyd on his lack of “historical accuracy.” In doing so, he mistakes a “rallying cry” for a work of scholarship. Brocken’s critique of Lloyd owes much to Dave Harker’s 1985 book Fakesong: The manufacture of British ‘folksong,’ 1700 to the present day. Indeed, it seems little more than rehashed Harker; but Harker is a far better writer. Brocken sees Lloyd’s legacy as “an avenue into understanding how music, for some, provides an alternative route to social and spiritual provision.” Lloyd’s major sin was that “authenticity and purity have become associated with certain types of music as a consequence of his political beliefs.” This distinction is hardly Lloyd’s but goes back at least to Dwight McDonald’s essay on high, low and middlebrow culture. If Lloyd was the grim arbiter of folk purity that Brocken makes him out to be, how can one explain Lloyd’s habit of teasing the purists by writing bogus folksongs and passing them off as traditional?

A sneering and mean-spirited tone is found throughout the book. At one point, Brocken describes the revivalists as having “thinly disguised themselves as the vanguard of a peace movement” without explaining or defending the veiled insinuation.

He also writes that Lloyd, Lomax, MacColl and [Peggy] Seeger gazed “back toward a putative time in the past, merely reconstructing an idealized past history that was once itself a grim present! The monumental hypocrisy of these thinkers was their claim on incipient realism.” To this I reply, what generation doesn’t believe it has discovered truths that eluded previous generations?

Finally, he is the author of what is probably the most unappealing metaphor ever to muck up the pages of Green Man Review: “Both Richard Hoggart and Ewan MacColl were becoming self-imposed rectal thermometers for the cultural temper of Britain. Neither recognized that many young people viewed a great deal of Leavisite-mediated British tradition with a great deal of suspicion.”

I view this quote with a great deal of suspicion — did young people in Britain even know who Leavis was?

Cecil Sharp, A.L. Lloyd and Alan Lomax were romantic visionaries who created a redemptive myth that had tremendous appeal for several generations of Britons and Americans. To condemn them for being commies or lousy social scientists misses the point altogether. I think it would be far more interesting to examine how they managed to cobble together a mass movement using ideas from seemingly conflicting ideologies, and to discover why their vision exerted such a powerful hold on their contemporaries and the grandchildren of those contemporaries. Why did people from Sir Walter Scott’s time to our own perceive folk songs as signposts pointing out the road to a truer, more authentic life?

Brocken’s command of the tools of social science seems shaky. For his analysis of the revival, Brocken relies primarily on written sources and anecdotal evidence and his experiences in folk clubs and festivals. His interviews are limited to “Mother and Wally Whyten.” (Wally Whyten was a member of skiffle group, The Vipers). At one point Brocken writes, “My performance, reception and intertextuality theories are intended to question the rather formalized ideas abounding in folk clubs.” Since he hasn’t done any surveys, how does he know these ideas “abound?” Broken also keeps alluding to “how many people felt.” This seems disingenuous — who are these “many people?” Since he didn’t conduct interviews, how would he know how they felt? Does this knowledge come from literary searches? Past life regressions?

The study of revitalization movements has engendered a vast literature in Anthropology, Political Science and Sociology, yet Brocken doesn’t appear to have read any of it.

Brocken’s study has very little to say about the very distinctive performance style of the revivalists. A comparison of the performance styles of say, Mick Jagger and Martin Carthy or Martin Carthy and Yo-Yo Ma would illuminate the values and boundaries that are integral to folk as opposed to rock or classical performance.

Brocken does little to explain the appeal of folksongs to their audience. He doesn’t seem to have gone up to an actual folk singer and asked why she or he bothered to sing traditional songs when other genres were far more lucrative. He also never asked anyone if they believed that folk music was a redemptive force.

Brocken’s argument also ignores a whole subset of folk songs, the “Big Ballads,” which predate capitalism and class struggle. The oldest of these songs also predate feudalism and are rooted in the Indo-European mythology that is our cultural bedrock. Many folkies were first drawn to the scene by these ancient songs and sing them because they are beautiful and mysterious and incorporate non-standard scales and timing, as well as strange beliefs and customs. Not because they promote a particular political agenda.

Brocken does give a very thorough history of Topic Records, Britain’s first and most influential recording label. The history of Topic serves as a preamble to Bracken’s argument for a “commercial structure” to bring the music to a wider range of people. He writes “The folk music ‘industry’ continues championing, and attempting to merchandise, a way of life that is in several respects whole decades out of date.” This sounds like a definition of folk to me since, folk, by its nature, must be “whole decades out of date.” Brocken believes in salvation by marketing; that folk music can only be saved by adapting the marketing and production techniques of pop music.

This leads me to wonder “What profiteth folk if it gains the whole world and loses its soul?” Folk in the 20th century at least has defined itself as a minority preference, an oppositional music. Folkies have shunned the commercial music industry because it glamorizes values that are anathema to folkies, such as commercialism, militarism, and traditional sex roles. Are numbers really what counts? Brocken writes as though cultural values are a sort of game where all that matters is winning. Folk was never about that. It is, in the words of singer Frankie Armstrong, about keeping the vision of “a deeper, wider, less ego-filled place.”

(Ashgate Press, 2003)

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