The Music of England

English traditional music is often associated with Romantic imaginaries of ‘green and pleasant lands’ and sentimental auto-exoticised visions of ‘the English folk’. Perhaps because of this, English traditional music has had a rocky relationship with its motherland in modern times. The same forces which have propelled the country to a world-leader in ‘Western popular music’ and a pioneering promoter of ‘World Music’ seemed to regard its own folk traditions as outmoded relics of an outdated past and relegated its music and musicians to obscurity. Yet, successive waves of revival have rekindled English traditional musics and, while the position of English folk music in ‘World Music’ is still a far cry from that of its Irish neighbours, it has now claimed a place in a circuit whose cosmopolitans once embraced all the world’s traditional music but their own. In many respects, English folk music today offers one of the most striking paradoxes in ‘World Music’ as ‘the other’ within its own borders, long overlooked by those interested in ‘the other’ abroad and only just gaining ground as converts try to rediscover their own rambling traditions and, perhaps, even reconsider what is means to be ‘English’ again.

Country Profile

Located on the British Isles at the northwest edge of Europe, England is the largest of the four constituent countries that make up the sovereign state of the United Kingdom. It has a population of more than 50 million living in its 130,000 square kilometres and is divided into 48 ceremonial counties. Its ethnic composition is a large white majority, who have a mix of Briton, Celtic, Roman, Germanic, Danish and/or Norman heritages, along with black, Asian and minority ethnic groups who settled through immigration from all over the world, especially from the ‘Commonwealth’ (an intergovernmental organisation comprising mainly the ex-colonies of the dissolved British Empire). Its national language is English, and the vast majority of the population is monolingual, but indigenous Cornish is also a protected language and in practice hundreds of languages are spoken amongst minority groups, including Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Punjabi, Cantonese, Italian, Polish, Greek and Turkish. The ‘established’ religion is Church of England, but there is a significant population who espouse atheism or agnosticism as well as Muslim, Hindu and Jewish minorities. England is a predominantly urban society, with an urban population of more than 80%.

Cultural History

More than 10,000 years ago, as the glaciers of the last ice age retreated, homo sapiens settled in England and, sometime around 5,000 years ago, built the oldest living traces of Ancient England, including Stonehenge. Celtic tribes from Central France migrated into the region, mixing with the indigenous peoples and embedding their distinct culture (2nd-1stC BCE). The Romans took over the isles they called Britanniaand conquered the lands of modern-day England and Wales (1stC CE), with Emperor Hadrian firming its northern border by erecting a long wall to hold back the Picts (in modern-day Scotland). The Romans established a huge number of towns and a network of roads that still underpin most English cities today (including Chester, Colchester, Lancaster, London, Manchester, St Albans, York). As the Roman Empire itself disintegrated (5thC), the Celtic tribes in England descended into civil war and, on the naïve invitation of one Celtic chieftain, Germanic tribes conquered the territory, pushing the indigenous population out into Wales and Cornwall and dividing the spoils into a series of kingdoms (East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Mercia, Northumbria, Sussex and Wessex)(5th-9thC). After this, the Danes took over the northeastern coast, and established their own kingdom of Danelaw, and they also swept through France and founded the Duchy of Normandy. While the forces of Wessex kept out the forces of Danelaw, further successive invasions from the Vikings in the north and the Normans in the south (9th-11thC) culminated in the Battle of Hastings (1066), which crowned Norman William the Conqueror as King of England, instituted Norman French as the de factolanguage and established feudalism that divided the land amongst his nobility, marked by the building of large castles.

Medieval England (1066-1485) was characterised by royal assassinations/usurpations; perpetual conflicts against the Scots; civil wars; outbreaks of deadly Bubonic Plague (which, in its worst form as ‘Black Death’, wiped out around a third of the country’s population); civil unrest (incl. the Peasants’ Revolt (1381)); and draining crusades into the Holy Land. After the ‘Hundred Years’ War’ with France (14th-15thC), English emerged as the official language. The Wars of the Roses brought in the Tudor era and its most famous monarch, Henry VIII (1509-1547), passed the Act of Union (1543), which united England and Wales and brought Ireland under its kingship, and, after the Pope refused him a divorce from the first of his six wives, founded the Church of England. By nationalising all the monasteries, the state became vastly wealthy, and it subsequently launched world explorations and trade beyond Europe.

The next period featured continued tensions between Protestants and Catholics, including a bloody ‘Counter-Reformation’, Guy Fawkes’s failed Gunpowder Plot, an English Civil War (16th-17thC) and a brief Puritan republic under Oliver Cromwell (1653-1658). However, it also brought parliamentary reform with the creation of the Whig and Tory parties and a ‘golden age’ of culture, featuring the literary works of William Shakespeare. A second Act of Union (1707) united Scotland with England and Wales and a third one (1800) brought Ireland into the United Kingdom. Through the East India Company, British overseas territories expanded dramatically (17th-20thC) and, with decisive victories over its rival power, France (incl. the Seven Years’ War (1754-1763) and the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815)), the British Empire became the world’s largest in history, spanning six continents. The empire generated incredible wealth for the home country by plundering natural resources and exploiting a global workforce (most notably through the international slave trade), and the cultures of the subject peoples were studied as ‘primitive’ and were arrogantly traded as ‘exotica’ (e.g. at Orientalist world fairs like the Great Exhibition (1851)).

The Industrial Revolution (18th-19thC) drove the development of modern industrial towns and cities, with the rapid growth of centres in the Midlands and the North, including Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester and Sheffield. The Victorian era (1837-1901) witnessed the most intense industrialisation, which brought about sweeping socio-economic changes that dramatically increased the inequalities between rich and poor and instigated dreadful living and working conditions for the burgeoning working-class, as immortalised in the literary works of Charles Dickens and Friedrich Engels. Yet, this inequality did sow the seeds for the rise of radical socio-political movements (incl. the Chartists, the Trade Unions, the Labour Party, the Suffragettes) who, against brutal and at times deadly suppression (e.g. the Peterloo Massacre (1819)), helped attain social reforms that would establish many of the rights and securities today taken for granted in the UK (e.g. universal suffrage, universal education, worker’s rights, social liberty, social securities, freedom of the press, the rule of law).

Ironically, mass industrialisation co-existed with a rise in literary Romanticism that extolled the beauty of nature, culminating in a turn to English ‘folklore’ (a concept coined by English writer-cum-folklorist W. J. Jones (1846), drawing heavily on German Romanticism and its pastoral conceptualisation of das Volk(‘the people/nation’)). Modern English history is dominated by two harrowing global wars, the Great War (1914-1918) and the Second World War (1939-1945), which, despite finding itself on the winning side, ravaged Britain and its colonies, claiming the lives of millions of people and bankrupting the economy. The wars, however, did bring about further social and political changes reform, including universal suffrage for both genders and calls for de-colonisation. This, along with a number of independence struggles (1950s-1980s), led to the disintegration of the British Empire, though most ex-colonies became part of the British Commonwealth. Since then, England has largely de-industrialised towards a service-based economy and the English cities have diversified rapidly through immigration, mainly from Commonwealth countries, supported by a cultural and political programme of multiculturalism.

Music Culture

Roots, Renewals, Revivals

English traditional music is often portrayed as an unchanging pastoral tradition stretching back hundreds of years, an embodiment of the cultural continuity of an island free from successful invasion since 1066. Indeed, there is an element of truth to this in the sense that, when compared with syncretic traditional musics in many parts of the world, English folk music evidences remarkably little influence from beyond the edges of the British Isles. However, the danger of this narrative is that it risks obscuring the ways that traditional music has changed significantly over time, even without extraneous influences, due to internal socioeconomic changes. It also tends to locate English folk music as an entirely rural and somewhat sentimental phenomenon which, both historically and contemporarily, overlooks a whole range of urban traditional musics (e.g. the bawdy broadside ballads of Victorian street singers) and the political potency of much English folk music (e.g. the rebellious musings of the radical wandering ramblerswho dared to challenge the inequalities of industrialisation). Thus, to understand the development of traditional music in England and to appreciate folk music today, it is essential to recognise not only its pastoral roots but also the ways it was recontextualised in new social contexts and how it was subsequently revived and reimagined in line with nationalist and, more recently, cosmopolitan movements.

Roots: Peasant Folk

The oldest records of traditional music in England date back to the Anglo-Saxons (5th-9thC). Sketchy accounts mention participation in vernacular songs and dances at feasts, accompanied by the harp, and evidence the use of narrative song to spread folklore as well as local news. It is possible that tunes, texts and dances used for these songs were preserved through the Medieval era, especially as the modalities implied by the construction of the harp matched later aesthetics, but, as these traditions used oral transmission without any written-aids, there is no way to corroborate this.

By the late 16thC, clearer impressions of English traditional music start to materialise. This lower-class music was intimately tied to singing and dancing. Folk song and dance were an essential part of all ‘secular’ occasions for peasants, featuring at social gatherings and community events.

Folk music was largely excluded from sacred contexts, as the Church reviled it for its lower-class origins and profane content, although singing did feature in quasi-religious life-cycle festivities (e.g. ‘Harvest songs’ were sung to celebrate an abundant crop) and there are a few archaic religious folk songs (e.g. Christmas carols like the cumulative song ‘The Twelve Apostles’). Informal singing was embedded as a functional part of everyday cultural life, as with work songs: agricultural labourers sang as they worked fields to make the time pass faster; and sailors sang responsorial ‘Sea shanties’ on deck using heptatonic melodies, ‘heavy’ 2-beat (2/4 or 6/8) pulse and idiomatic dotted rhythms, with different repertories for different tasks (e.g. ‘windlass shanties’ with texts related to weighing anchor and ‘halyard shanties’ rhythmically synced for hoisting the sails) to increase productivity and expressing solidarity. Similarly, children’s songs (later referred to as ‘nursery rhymes’) included sung riddles, proverbs, stories and historical narratives, and were an important tool for education and embedding cultural norms (a collection of these oral songs, many of which were regarded as dating from earlier periods, was published in the Tommy Thumb’s Song Book (1744); it includes a great number of tunes and texts still used today including ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’, ‘London Bridge is Falling Down’ and ‘Mary Mary, Quite Contrary’). Formal singing revolved around ballads (narrative poems), which were generally sung in recreational contexts.

Mixed-gender social and country dancing (dances for participation involving mainly line, circle and square formations), and their tunes, came to the fore in social and community settings, especially at community gatherings on village greens and social parties such as ‘barn dances’, where they facilitated group participatory set dancing and fostered an atmosphere of conviviality. Ceremonial single-sex presentational group dancing, especially clog dancing, was prominent in public spaces at community celebrations and festive holidays. Solo presentational dancing, like step dancing, that had a greater degree of spontaneity and improvisation was more common as a form of entertainment in pubs or at private parties. Certain lower-class country dances became popular amongst the upper-class landed gentry, and were even danced in the courts of Elizabeth I (1558-1603), where they were valued as an expression of organic ‘Englishness’.

Indeed, music publishers compiled printed manuals of collected vernacular dances and traditional tunes, which became essential reading for any learned gentleman (e.g. John Playford’s The English Dancing Master: Plaine and Easie Rules for the Dancing of Country Dance, with the Tune to each Dance (1651), which included guidelines for more than 100 dances and tunes). Historians also hypothesise the existence of some forms of ‘absolute’ (i.e. abstract) or ‘programmatic’ (i.e. representational but still not directly functional) folk musics, such as lute melodies for instrumental performance or dance tunes performed without any expectations of dance for the purposes of aesthetic pleasure, mirroring the use of these in art music at the time (e.g. John Dowland’s lute compositions), but unfortunately the evidence is somewhat insufficient to fully substantiate its use in this manner.

Sung ballads were performed in recitative or declamatory singing style. ‘Folksong’, in the modern sense of a musical composition with a set tune and text, most likely did not yet exist, and, if they did, they were certainly only prototypal in practice. To perform a ballad, a singer would develop their own tunes to set the text in strophic form (i.e. where the same tune would be used for all stanzas), spontaneously or in a pre-composed fashion, using pentatonic scales and modal conventions (e.g. idiomatic melodic contours). Compelling tunes and settings would be transmitted and thus preserved orally/aurally, but different communities and certainly different regions would still have performed particular ballads with markedly different tunes based on local tastes and trends. Some singers did often use handwritten memory aids for performance and, by the end of the 16thC, some printed collections of song tunes with texts had started to appear on ballad sheets. Ballads were mostly sung by a solo singer or by a group in unison and were generally performed unaccompanied as they were considered a vehicle for words, specifically for narrative storytelling, rather than for musical performance as such. Yet, the lute was an established instrument for adding rhythmic and harmonic punctuation to the voice and its narrative.

The texts of ballads tended to use quatrains (four-line stanzas) in iambic metre (unstressed-stressed syllables) with rhyming patterns of either ABCB or internal rhyme (AA, B, CC, D). The textual context of ballads was often folkloric; for instance, tales of the deeds of Robin Hood were popular and were also sung by children with themed ‘games’. Others were lyric musings on love and loss, like ‘The Miller and His Lass’, but most related more to everyday cultural life, including reflections on personal experiences, the dissemination of news and events and the spreading of gossip and scandals, often using hyperbole to ridicule. Wandering minstrels, who specialised in the art of performance, would travel the country to spread their stories, tunes and texts. Even in this time, some ballads already had a clear political edge. War ballads detailed and commented on military events, with popular topics including battles against the Scots and naval stories like the Spanish Armada. Yet, functional singing as a tool of combat was also well established in English lore: the minstrel, Taillefer, sang songs to inspire the Norman troops to victory at the Battle of Hastings; and Captain John Gwyn and his Royalist Cavaliers shouted ‘a brisk, lively tune’ while charging the Parliamentary cavalry of Sir William Waller during the English Civil War. Moreover, some allegorical sung ballads seem to even smack of political rebellion. The oldest English ‘protest song’ is regarded as a line taken from radical priest John Ball’s speech that stirred up the Peasants’ Revolt (1381), which was allegedly chanted repeatedly by the peasant revolutionaries as they marched on London (the chant: ‘When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?’; translation: all mankind was created equal and the gentry have unjustly oppressed the people, so ‘cast off the yoke of bondage and recover liberty!’). Though the early Robin Hood ballads tended to appraise Hood simply as a yeoman artisan, the later narratives celebrated him as a heroic outlaw and a champion for the poor.

Dance tunes were somewhat more established by this point in terms of style and structure. For dancers to perform to them and style their movements appropriately, dance tunes had to comply with standard structural layouts and stylistic idioms. This still enabled scope for variation, through spontaneous composition and heterogeneous performances of conventional tunes, but meant that, unlike with song, there were already clearly defined ‘genres’ of dance music by this stage. Dance tunes required only a melody instrument, though often featured some form of accompaniment. The main melody instruments used were fiddle, fipple flute, mouth organ or, in certain areas of the North of England, bagpipes, with percussive accompaniment from tambourines, drums or from participants (hand-clapping, foot-stamping, etc). ‘Harmonic’ accompaniment constituted simultaneous heterogeneous performance of a tune with elements of improvised counterpoint. Generally, English dance tunes tended to be fairly slow with a strong sense of pulse and made use of melodic devices like syncopation and anacrusis.

Widespread folk dances included the hornpipe, the jig and the reel. The stately 4/4 hornpipe, or hornepype, tunes feature straight (quaver patterns) or dotted (quaver-semiquaver patterns) for group step or clog dancing. Despite its nautical connotations, the hornpipe originated as a pastoral dance, particularly prominent in its early days in Lancaster and Leicester; it is only later (18thC) that it became popular amongst sailors and its choreography thus incorporated seafaring gestures (e.g. ‘pulling the rope’, ‘looking out to sea’ and ‘wobbling around in a storm’). The lively 12/8 or 6/8 jig (Old French, giguer, ‘to jump’) tunes consist of constant quavers and were explosively fast, and its hopping choreography included a range of solo, couple, group and circle dances. The jig was particularly associated with the fiddle, and English fiddlers were particularly revered for the dynamism of their jig playing. The whirling 4/4 reel uses mostly quaver movement that stresses the second and fourth beats (giving it a feel of 2/2) for its dynamic step and square dancing. The reel came to England from Scotland, and, for a long time, was only found in traditional musics in the North, but it later became most prominent in the Southwest. Dance tunes in these three genres all take the form AABB, and would either have been played on repeat or as a medley (where multiple different tunes of the same dance type are threaded together) to make up the length of a whole dance. They are testament to both the common cultural roots of England, Scotland and Ireland (the medley approach is a ‘Celtic’ musical technique and is certainly present in the music of most previously ‘Celtic’ cultures) and to the persistent mutual musical exchanges between the three (later collections evidence the use of Scottish and Irish tunes in English traditions and vice-versa). Indeed, English forces, on defeating the Scottish army in the aftermath of the Civil War, brought pipers with them to play dance tunes so they could dance with, and consequently marry, local Scotswomen, facilitated by the commonality in their dance traditions.

Morris dancing (from the Flemish, mooriske danse, ‘Moorish dance’), a tradition developed in the Midlands, is notably distinct from these other folk dances in its style, structure and context and in its unique place in English culture at the time. More than a dance, the Morris was a carnivalesque event involving masquerade (elaborate dress and disguise (e.g. masks or blackface)) and public dance performance. The origins of Morris dancing are highly contested and the tradition is often misunderstood. The dance bears no direct relation to Moorish dance traditions and the ‘Moorish’ label was simply thought to refer to the perceived ‘exotic’ nature of its spectacle. Its tradition of ‘blackface’ is thought to derive from either a pagan practice relating to the ‘disguise’ of spirit faeries or from embodying the grime of peasant labour. Although often misread through the eyes of the postcolonial present as born out of ridiculing of slaves, akin to vaudeville blackface minstrels in the US, it predates European contact with the Sub-Saharan African continent, and so could not have developed as a mockery of black slaves. It is important, however, to recognise that some forms of Morris dancing were later manipulated for this purpose (e.g. ‘Border’ Morris dancing, a branch of the tradition named for its locale in the villages along the border between England and Wales, later (19thC) featured racist parodies of ‘African tribal war dances’ and reinterpreted the blackface in line with the discriminatory ideologies of European colonialism and slavery).

Historically, the dances themselves were line or circle dances, outward facing (often two lines in procession) or inward facing (often two lines facing each other or an inward-facing circle), based on hops, skips and high jumps. Each ‘set’ (Morris dance troupe) had a Squire(who would lead the dance and perform individualised elaborations), a Foreman(who would teach and stylise the dances) and a Fool (a comic performer who would entertain the audience in performances), and many also included a Beast (a dramatic performer, distinctively the ‘‘Obby ‘Oss’ (Hobby horse), who would tease and torment the audience in performance); the dramatic elements are thought to derive from Cornish mumming (folk drama) traditions.

An antecedent to the so-called ‘one-man-band’ traditionally provided the lively musical accompaniment in the form of the ‘whittle-and-dub’ (a whistle (a three-holed pipe) played with one hand and a tabor (a small drum), hung from the same arm, struck with a stick in the other hand), often embellished by the rhythmic jingling of bells attached the dancers’ knee stockings. It spread from the Midlands all over the country, though it exemplifies how common forms were diversified on a regional level: for example, the Cotswold Morris dancers used handkerchiefs and sticks and their musicians, though drawing on traditional material, would spontaneously improvise tunes that responded to the dance itself; while the Northeastern ‘Rapper’ Morris dancers used longswords and vigorous acrobatics (including reverse somersaults) in a small space accompanied by conventional fast jig tunes, often featuring the fiddle.

Renewals: Printing Folk and Urban Ramblings

By the mid-19thC, English oral traditional musics had been significantly renewed through their adaptation to new cultural contexts, especially driven by the growth of mass print media and the radical socioeconomic changes of the Industrial Revolution. The modern ‘folksong’ ascended as the core medium of the rural singing tradition, new urban broadside ballads developed in the burgeoning industrial cities, and an influx of new instruments altered the sounds and repertories of English country dancing and inspired new, purely instrumental, forms of traditional music. Folk song and dance in this time was still largely dominated by lower class men, which was only reinforced by the rise of the industrial working class, but, in the South, some renowned folk singers were from artisanal or even entrepreneurial (e.g. pub owner, shopkeeper) backgrounds and a number of women became celebrated performers across the country, more so in singing than instrumental playing.

The regionalisation of traditional music, though present over the previous centuries, became more glaringly apparent through industrialisation. Narrative and lyric folksongs were dominant in the South. Sussex, in particular, was responsible for establishing the classic style of folksong and was famed for its songs and singers. Folksongs in East Anglia and the West Country were characterised by their tendency to incorporate influences from sea shanties, and the regions became particularly known for making idiomatic use of a whole range of new ‘bellows’ instruments (including melodeon (large bellows with melody and diatonic chord/bass buttons), accordion (large bellows with keyboard melody and chromatic chord/bass buttons), Anglo concertina (small handheld bellows with diatonic buttons on either side) and English concertina (small handheld bellows with chromatic buttons on either side)), both for accompaniment for folksong and for playing solo dance tunes.

In the cities and industrial towns of the North, especially the Northwest and Yorkshire (which had the greatest concentration of mining, cotton mills and factories), new urban working-class creativities and technological advances produced radical recontextualisations of the broadside ballad traditions and the instigation of new music traditions. Rural milieus in the North remained hubs for Morris dancing and for performances of the Robin Hood ballads but they too nurtured new folk dance practices and novel forms of instrumental folk music. The tradition of door-to-door ‘carolling’ also emerged in this period, curiously in both the Pennine villages of the far North and the West Country villages of the far South. Which one of these was the originator is unknown, and it is entirely possible that they developed simultaneously and independently from one another.

Stylistically, most rural folksongs were still predominantly narrative, but, now conceptualised as ‘song’ rather than ‘ballad’, they had their own composed, and orally preserved, tunes with texts purposed for singing, and so many now included full ‘choruses’ or at least short ‘refrains’. Narrative folksongs related tragic stories, historic tales and comic anecdotes, though there were also introspective lyric folksongs (e.g. ‘Seeds of Love’) and some directly functional folksongs (e.g. drinking songs and hunting songs). Textually, folksongs often drew on stock textual phrases and idioms, though their meanings would be specific to the context (e.g. ‘The Highwayman’ as a figure was used in songs with a wide variety of social attitudes and thus had a whole range of different, and context-specific, implications). Folksongs in the rural North also often made use of local dialects distinctive from the standard verse set by the South (e.g. ‘On Ilkley Moor baht ‘at (‘On Ilkley Moor without a hat’) is sung in the Yorkshire dialect and the tune for ‘Friezland Ale’ actually follows the emphases, contours and rhythms of a Saddleworth accent). Metrically, folksongs were mainly 3/4, 4/4 or 6/8, though very occasionally took asymmetrical metres (e.g. 9/8 and 7/4), but were always open to varied pace of delivery and generally favoured vocal freedom over a strong sense of pulse.

Like their ballad antecedents, folksongs were mainly sung in social gatherings, but were also foregrounded at ‘singsongs’ in pubs or at parties, which focused on group participatory singing (with any member of the group contributing a song) but also include elements of virtuoso performance (judged mainly on whether a solo singer sang ‘a good song’ or told ‘a good story’ rather than had ‘a good singing voice’). As such, folksongs were still primarily a vehicle for words, for stories and social comment, and thus singing style was still primarily oratorical, sung unaccompanied with full vocal production and flexible intonation, though they were characteristically stoic and understated. As mentioned above, an enduring cultural tradition that derives from this period is door-to-door ‘carolling’ which is thought to have been incorporated into Christmas folksongs at this time because folksong was often prohibited by stricter Churches from even charity contexts; so singing groups were motivated to go singing door-to-door, or perform in public spaces, in order to raise money for the poor and needy, which constituted the majority of people by the ‘altered’ times of Victorian England. The house-visiting practice itself derives from the ‘wassailing’ tradition, when peasants would visit their feudal lords on auspicious occasions in hope for some food and drink in return for blessings and thanksgiving (hence why there are mentions of food and drink, like ‘figgy pudding’, blessings, like ‘good cheer’ and somewhat forceful pleading, like ‘we won’t go until we get some’, in many Christmas carols). During the 1830s, collections of traditional oral Christmas folk carols from the Pennines and Cornwall (e.g. A Collection of Ancient Christmas Carols, with the tunes to which they were sung in the West of England (1822)) were published in Manchester and London respectively, spreading the tunes, and subsequently the carolling tradition itself, across the country.

However, the biggest difference between the ‘sound’ of sung ballads and folksongs beyond the consolidation of tunes came from the transition from the pentatonic scale to heptatonic modality. The precise modal frameworks that were used in English folksong are still highly contested: early critics emphasised a ‘modal survival’ system based on stable modality (mainly Ionian (major scale) but also commonly Dorian, Mixolydian and Aeolian and very occasionally Phrygian) while later scholars argued for the existence of one radically changeable modal folksong scale (more akin to a heptatonic version of the pentatonic ‘blues scale’ that facilitated altered notes on the 3rd, 6thand 7th). This might appear an arbitrary distinction but, fundamentally, it determines the extent to which tunes were either tied to a specific mode or whether the same ‘essential tune’ could be inflected with different modalities on the whim of the singer. Despite being unaccompanied, folksong singing had clearly started to make strong use of implicit harmony, and even triadic structures, in a novel way from ballad singing and singers integrated a degree of subtle melodic elaboration (e.g. improvisatory passing notes, slides, shakes/vibrato, anticipatory appoggiaturas, malleable intervals) based on modal/scalic conventions. In some regional traditions, the ‘implicit’ harmony became more explicit in the use of homophonic group singing (e.g. ‘glee singing’ and subsequently the ‘Coppersongs’ in Sussex in the South) and, in others, melodic elaboration developed into forms of polyphonic, and even somewhat melismatic, songs.

In the burgeoning industrial centres of Victorian England, broadside ballads were the popular song form. By this time, the broadside press had exploded into a mass print media, and hawkers sold their cheaply printed sheets to working class folk for a halfpenny on the streets, singing them an oral tune that might fit nicely on purchase. The ballads’ primary function was to spread news, with hawkers bellowing their headlines in song on the streets. However, like folksongs, they also served as a form of recreation and entertainment for factory workers, cotton millers and coal miners after a hard day’s graft, sung at home or down the pub; in the latter, they were pinned to the walls and sung by solo ballad singers or in participatory rural-style ‘singsongs’, often to the accompaniment of the new ‘pub piano’ (which became known as the ‘Joanna’ in London based on Cockney rhyming slang). Many of the ballads also included moral advice, gossip (e.g. ‘Fulwood Farmers and Neighbours’lists members of this particular community in Sheffield with satirical anecdotes of their latest scandals), narrative histories, comedy and even ‘erotic songs’, which dealt with ‘indecent’ topics of a sexual nature, employing bawdy innuendos (e.g. ‘The New Bury Loom’ uses weaving metaphors to describe an intimate encounter through insinuations like ‘squaring her loom’).

A great number also engaged with urban life, including narrative ballads about particular occupations (e.g. Collier’s ballads, Weaver’s ballads, even Children’s worksongs) and lyric ballads reflecting on the dirt, the crime, the overcrowding, the poverty and the harsh working conditions (e.g. ‘The Spinners Lamentations’), though there were alsosome glimpses of praise (e.g. ‘London is a Fine Town’) and revelry (e.g. ‘[Manchester’s] Victoria Bridge on a Saturday Night’). Some ballads were even used as functional worksongs: mining and miller songs were often composed to reflect the pulse of the looms in the cotton mills and some were sung to pass the time and sync with the rhythms of work in this context; stallholders in London were famed for their commercial ‘street cries’ which advertised their produce and hooked passers-by through beguiling song and witty verse; and workers in the potteries of Staffordshire sang songs that subtly bemoaned the drudgery of their labour. Political ballads truly came to the fore in the cities during this time. Some remained allegorical like ‘the Cutty Wren’ (ostensibly about the ritual hunting of a wren on St. Stephen’s Day, but that seems to be suggesting that, just as the nobility hunt, kill and eat the wren (the ‘king of the birds’), the poor should rise up, overthrow and execute their oppressors). However, other ballads were composed as undiluted rebellious songs, voicing both indirect political comment by narrating the horrors of suppression (e.g. ‘the Meeting at Peterloo’) and direct political critique that called for social change. These political ballads became the cultural heart of the rising social reform movements: the Chartists and Trade Unionists both used broadside ballads as a tool for disseminating news of injustice, of voicing dissent and of raising class consciousness, as a solidarity symbol for their cause (e.g. ‘The Chartist’s Anthem’ (1840s)) and as a means of recreation and catharsis for themselves after a long day of fighting the good fight.

For dance tunes, the core English country dances remained popular for social contexts, with the addition of new styles and dances from the European mainland such as the flowing 3/4 waltz and jaunty 2/4 polka. However, the sound of the dances had changed dramatically, due to the use of new instruments: not only fiddle, fipple-flute, mouth organ and percussion instruments but also now the bellows instruments (melodeon, accordion, concertina, English concertina), dulcimer (a plucked or hammered stringed zither), guitar, mandolin, a range of new flutes and whistles (e.g. the small piercing pennywhistle) and piano. Additionally, the instrumentation itself more often now included combinations of instruments, rather than solo or heterogeneous tune playing, initiating a greater emphasis on harmonic and percussive accompaniment and on textural variety in performance. Morris dancing also maintained its position in many parts of the country as the chief ceremonial dance form, though it similarly adapted to new instruments and instrumentations. In the Northwest, distinct urban Morris dancing emerged that followed the brass bands (see below), using their tunes and ensembles to develop a new march-based Morris form that was used mainly in parades and processions.

Unprecedented forms of purely instrumental traditional music also developed through the emergence of new instruments during this period. In Northumbria, though the use of the bagpipe for folk dances was long established, a distinct instrumental bagpipe tradition appeared around the late 18thC, revolving around the unique Northumbrian Smallpipes (a small bellows-blown bagpipe with a small cylindrical closed-end chanter of seven melody keys and three-four drones, played with closed fingering (only one sound hole uncovered at a time). The Smallpipes have a much softer and more lyrical sound than the piercing Highland bagpipes and so were conceptualised more like singers than instruments for dance tunes. The repertoire included tunes from Scottish dance reels, melodies from slow sung Irish airsand tunes from English hornpipes and jigs and European waltzes and polkas. A distinctive aspect of Smallpipes playing was a form of tune-and-variation (the statement of a tune which is then systematically elaborated through precomposed sets of variations of increasing complex and virtuosity), and the melodic content evidences strong Scottish influences (e.g. use of the syncopated Scotch-snap (a short accented note followed by a longer unaccented note), idiomatic of the Scottish strathspey country dance). Beyond its aesthetic function, it was regarded nationally as an expression of regional identity, a symbolism that was reinforced through public performances as ‘Northumbrian tradition’ across the country.

Amongst the burgeoning working classes of the new urban cities and towns, another form of instrumental performance arose in the form of the ‘brass band’ tradition. ‘Brass band’, in the context of England, refers not only to an ensemble made up of exclusively or predominantly brass instruments but also to a specific music genre that emerged in the early 19thC with its own distinct musical style and repertoire, performance practices and cultural purposes. The ‘brass band’ style is characterised by dense textures and melodies based on conjunct and triadic movement. The repertoires include commanding musical marches, with military musical stylisations like antiphony, repeated staccato blasts and relentless rhythmic ostinato, but perhaps more famously also features slow ‘pastoral’ pieces with lush, sustained homophonic textures and deep, rich timbres, which exploit the fact that this was the first truly bass-heavy traditional music ensemble. The precise origins of the English ‘brass band’ tradition are somewhat ambiguous, but its roots are clearly military. The use of trumpets by armed forces in England had become commonplace by the 18thC, with British ‘cavalry bands’ of trumpets and kettledrums playing loud military march music, and, during the 19thC, the bright and brilliant ostinato call of the ‘bugle horn’ (a conical keyed soprano proto-flugelhorn) became both signal and symbol for the charge of the cavalry. Clearly, elements of melodic style derive from these practices, but the characteristically dense brass texture is thought to have been inspired by English encounters with Prussian ‘cavalry bands’, which made use of a whole range of valved cornets, trumpets, trombones, euphoniums and horns, while fighting alongside Prussian forces in the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815). In the 1820s and 1830s, private brass bands had started to appear on the British Isles, like the Cyfarthfa Band of industrialist R. T. Crawshay in South Wales (founded 1838), but the 1840s marked the start of the working-class brass band revolution.

This tradition started amongst the nascent urban working class populations of the Northwest and Yorkshire, who set up amateur brass bands as a new nexus for the community, both in terms of place (e.g. the Bolton Brass Band)and profession (e.g. Black Dyke [Millers] Band), and some industrialists even financed their workers’ groups. From here, it spread to the Midlands and beyond and, by 1890, there were around 40,000 amateur brass bands across the country. Technological advancements were amongst the key factorsthat drove this social shift, as the invention of saxhorns (a complete family of treble to bass instruments) and the piston valve (a new accessible system for existing brass instruments) made the instruments easier to play, inherently sustained in their sound and possible to mass produce. This meant that brass band instruments themselves were suddenly cheaper, readily available, required no formal music education and had a new distinctive generic sound. Brass bands primarily performed for the local community and participation in brass bands offered a form of recreation and sociality, a symbol of class solidarity and a new channel for education, self-empowerment and escape from the grind of working life. Historical accounts detail the deep affection and devotion that participants had for the brass bands and the transformative power they had in people’s everyday cultural lives.

Beyond this, working class brass bands also became a serious competitive practice. Following the success of the first national brass band championships at the Belle Vue Zoological Gardens in Manchester (1853), large-scale brass band competitions became an established aspect of the tradition alongside the community-based practices, and, by 1890, there were almost 200 big brass band contests every year. While local community brass bands could, individually, only ever fill small venues, competitive brass bands events could pack out even the largest halls in the country for days. At competitions, bands were ranked into divisions based on quality and longevity so they could compete against others of a similar standing, widening the participation of the events and encouraging and nurturing new brass bands through the system, but the overall winners of competitions were always highly distinguished performers, fighting it out for prize money and to bring glory to their communities/professions. In fact, winning brass bands could build such reputation and prestige that their participants could become semi-professional, gaining themselves some autonomy from the toils of industrial labour, by performing at music hall nights and brass band competitions up and down the country.

Folklore & Folk Revivals

From the late 19thC-early 20thC, the rise of the ‘folklore’ movement and its ideologies of Romanticism and Nationalism marked a significant shift in the discourses surrounding traditional music, and had a significant impact on the music’s development into the 20thC. Following the coining of the term ‘folklore’ and the establishment of the British Folklore Society (1878), the EFDSS (English Folk Dance and Song Society) was founded (1898) for ‘the collection and preservation of Folk Songs, Ballads and Tunes’. Popular perceptions of traditional English music today are still largely moulded in terms of the work conducted by these early middle-class collectors like John Broadwood, James Dixon, Robert Bell, Lucy Broadwood, Frank Kidson, Sabine Baring-Gould and, perhaps most famously, Cecil Sharpe. While these collectors undoubtedly pioneered the preservation and the appreciation of English traditional music, their work did also reify some partial assumptions that, to some extent, persist to this day. For example, the (Romantic) emphasis on pastoralism and anti-commercialism led most collectors to ignore the traditional music of the cities, meaning that these traditions have been long neglected by critics and audiences in favour of rural styles (though working-class collector Alfred Williams was an exception who insisted on the value of urban creative forms (e.g. the broadside ballads) born out of the Victorian cities). Similarly, the tendency to transcribe songs into ‘static’ classical song formats and to mediate folk music as the ‘pure’ expression of ‘the people’ so that it could embody a common national identity somewhat obscured its processual nature, its sociocultural intimacy, its regional diversity and its organic capacity for creativity and adaptation, risking its relegation to something of a frozen artefact. Nevertheless, Sharpe and the other collectors made an enormously valuable contribution to raising the profile of English folk music, bringing traditional singers to public acclaim and even establishing the study of English folk song and dance as an essential part of the national curriculum; Sharpe regarded this last feat as his greatest achievement in ‘giving back’ folk music to the people. Composers of Western classical music also engaged with English traditional music during this time to create ‘nationalist’ compositions, including Ralph Vaughan Williams and Percy Grainger, who both also became notable folksong collectors in their own right. In fact, Grainger, insisting that performance styles were as important as the melodies or texts, pioneered the recording of folk music performance, using new phonographic technology to preserve performances themselves for posterity. 


The onset of the Great War devastated the English folk movement. Musicians and collectors alike were called up to fight in the war and, due to the need to prioritise funds into the war effort, the government was forced to halt the state funding underpinning the momentum of the folklore movement. The modern, topical, patriotic and often comic popular songs of music hall captured the mood of the time and were well suited to new technologies (record, film, radio) driving music dissemination during the war, further marginalising folksong and traditional music. This dire situation for traditional music continued through the interwar years, as many leading collectors and musicians had actually been killed in the conflict and the folksong movement failed to regain its momentum, though folk dances were protected through their continued place in the national curriculum.

However, the situation started to turn around in the late 1940s-1950s. Driven by the sobering horrors of the Second World War and the economic austerity of the post-war period, there was a renewed desire for national unity and, with jazz running out of steam and the absence of a new rising popular music craze in its place, a surging revival movement formed around English folksong and dance music. Institutions and networks were founded to support specific genres, including the establishment of the Northumbrian Smallpipe competitions, which featured pipers performing a tune and then elaborating on it with spontaneous variations, which initiated new performance practices and pushed virtuosity to exceptionally high standards. Folk-music advocates had managed to reposition the genre as a means of national self-(re)discovery and reflection, and this impetus culminated in the Festival of Britain (1951), a spectacle of Britishness in music and culture, implicitly presented as a poignant exhibition of all that might have been annihilated had the Allies not prevailed. Irish traditional music also became increasing prevalent in cities with large Irish communities (especially London, Liverpool and Manchester) and, because the blitz had devastated housing in the cities, their musicians started meeting in the pub to play recreationally with others, which actually gave rise to the Irish traditional pub seisiún, a practice which also has a place in English folk music, the first of which was held in London’s Camden Town in 1947.

The EFDSS, now supported by the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation), launched large-scale field recording projects, which were led by a new pioneer, Peter Kennedy, and were subsequently used for BBC radio broadcasts like ‘As I Roved Out’ (1953-1958) and ‘A-Roving’ (1968) and compilation records (e.g. ‘The Folk Songs of Britain’ (1961)). With the social, cultural and political ‘revolution’ of the 1960s and the success of political American folk singers like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, English folk revival gained momentum in the ascent of folksong, which, through aspects of professionalisation in performance practice and modernisation in musical aesthetics, regained its role as a vehicle for topical social comment, escaping relegation as a frozen embodiment of the mythic ‘folk’.

Songs of political critique from incisive leftist singers like A. L. Lloyd and radicals like Ewan MacColl (famous for ‘the Manchester Rambler’ (1932)) popularised English folk music amongst the rising alternative youth movement, and the ‘ramblers’ (radical activists who roamed the privatised lands of the North as a form of protest) were particularly successful in employing folksong as a political tool to sentimentalise their plight. Through song, they galvanised support and envoiced their demands for change and the ‘right to roam’, which in some respects they achieved with the expansion and protection of national parks in the Pennines and the implementation of public access footpaths even in private lands in the 1960s. Political songs, along with new lyric singers who drew inspiration from lyrical Irish vocality and experimental ensembles that started to perform dance tunes with new popular music-style instrumentation and elaborate melodic, harmonic and rhythmic textures, brought English folk music to its zenith in this period, and a thriving network of pub ‘sessions’, folk clubs and folk festivals (e.g. Sidmouth festival (1955-)), as well as strings of releases in the record industry, helped to support and popularise new and old folk musicians alike. Since then, folksong and traditional dance music have clearly faded from this position of prominence in the English music scene and in the national cultural consciousness, but it is still living in many different forms: in sustained local traditional preserved by rural communities; as source influences for a huge range of popular and art musics; and as a rising form in the ‘World Music’ industry, where it appears in traditional manner and in neo-traditional forms that draw influence from Western popular music or indeed from an eclectic mix of international influences. Despite the intensity of globalisation in England, folk music has found new locales, new roles and new purposes, adapting its sounds and meanings to keep pace with the times without losing its heritage or its sense of continuity, just as it always has done in the past and just as it, most likely, always will, in the future.

James Nissen (The University of Manchester), April 2017

Sources & Reading Suggestions

 Folk Britannia [Documentary Film] (BBC, 2006).

Folkopedia [EFDSS Resource], <>.

Get Folked: The Great Folk Revival [Documentary Film] (Ten Alps, 2013).

The Copper Family [Documentary Film] (EFDSS, 1985).

The Full English [EFDSS Resource], <>.

This is Morris Dancing [Documentary Film] (Garland, 1982).

Boden, Jon, ‘Bob Copper and the sound of old England’, The Guardian Online, 22 January 2015, <>.

Boyes, Georgina, The Imagined Village: Culture, Ideology and the English Folk Revival: 1944-2002 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2010).

Broadwood, Lucy and Alec Fuller Maitland (eds.), English County Songs: Words and Music(London: Cramer, 1952).

Elbourne, Roger, Music and Tradition in Early Industrial Lancashire 1780-1840 (Woodbridge: Brewer, 1980).

Finnegan, Ruth, The Hidden Musicians: Music-making in an English town(Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2007).

Goddard, Sean, ‘The Morris Tradition’, The Morris Ring: The National Association of Men’s Morris and Sword Dance Clubs, 2004, <>.

Green, Tony and Michael Pickering, Everyday Culture: Popular Song and the Vernacular Milieu (Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1988).

Harker, Dave, Fakesong: the Manufacture of British “Folksong” 1700 to the Present Day (Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1985).

Howson, John (ed.), Songs Sung in Suffolk (Stowmarket: Veteran, 1992).

Hugill, Stan (ed.), Shanties from the Seven Seas: Shipboard Work-Songs and Songs Used as Work-Songs from the Great Days of Sail (London: Routledge, 1961).

Irwin, Colin, ‘England’, in Simon Broughton, Mark Ellington and John Lusk (eds.), The Rough Guide to World Music (London: Penguin, 2006).

Karpeles, Maud (ed.), Cecil Sharp’s Collection of English Folk Songs (London: Oxford University Press, 1974).

Kearey, Nicola and Ian Carter, ‘English folk music helps us fathom our heritage of struggle’, The Guardian Online, 17 March 2017, <>.

Kennedy, Peter (ed.), The Folksongs of Britain (London: Cassell, 1975).

Loughran, Anne and Vic Gammon (eds.), Sussex Tune Book (London: EFDSS, 1982).

MacKinnon, Niall, The British Folk Scene: Musical Performance and Social Identity (Buckingham: Open University Press, 1994).

Palmer, Roy (ed.), ‘What a Lovely War!’: British Soldiers’ Songs from the Boer War to the Present Day (London: Joseph, 1990).

Palmer, Roy (ed.),Everyman’s Book of English Country Songs(London: Dent, 1979).

Pegg, Carole, ‘England’, in Bruno Nettl et al., The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music (London: Garland, 1998).

Picking, Michael, Village Song and Culture (London: Routledge, 2016).

Porter, James, Traditional Music of Britain and Ireland (New York: Garland, 1989).

Richards, Sam and Tish Stubbs (eds.), The English Folksinger (London: Collins, 1979).

Richards, Sam, ‘An English Folk Music Anthology’, Smithsonian Folkways Online, 1981, <>.

Rippon, Hugh, Discovering English Folk Dance(Oxford: Shire, 2008).

Russell, Ian, ‘England’, Grove Music Online, 2017, <>.

Sharp, Cecil, English Folk Song: Some Conclusions, 4thedn (Belmont: Wadsworth, 1972).

Summers, Keith, ‘Sing, Say or Pay! A Survey of East Suffolk Country Music’, Traditional Music, 8 (1978).

Sweers, Britta, Electric Folk: The Changing Face of English Traditional Music (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

Thomas, William and Peter Kellner, ‘England’, Encyclopedia Britannica Online, 2016, <>.

Williams, Ralph Vaughan and Albert Lancaster Lloyd (eds.), The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1980).

Winter, Trish and Simon Keegan-Phipps, Performing Englishness: Identity and Politics in a Contemporary Folk Resurgence (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016).

Young, Rob, Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music (London: Faber and Faber, 2011).

Sources of Images

Header Image: Flickr

Map of England: Britannica

Sea shanties: Angmering Voices

Pretty Songs of Tom Thumb: Christian Mother Goose Land

English Country Dancing- Playford 1651: CMU Contributed Webserver

Ballad Singer: James Revell Carr, UCSB English Broadside Ballad Archive

Singing Sam, Derbyshire wandering minstrel: artsderbyshire

Example of a reel: Nick Enge, The Library of Dance

Morris Dancers, c1620: Wikipedia

Adlington Morris Men (Cotswolds): Sean Goddard,  The Morris Ring

Monkseaton Rapper sword dance: Monkseaton Morris Men

Melodeon:A. Prescott & Son, Museum of Fine Arts Boston

Wassailing:Ellen Castelow, Historic UK

The Long Song Seller: Spitalfields Life

Spinners’ Lamentation: Gavin Sharp, Edward II

Northumbrian Pipers Society: The Northumbrian Pipers Society

Bolton Victoria Hall Brass Band: IBEW

Brass Band performing in the famous Kings Hall, Belle Vue: Chethams

Grainger arrangement: Grainger Museum

Dancing in Witham Essex, Festival of Britain: The history of Witham, Essex

Peter Kennedy recording folk singer Edgar Allington: The British Library

Ewan MacColl: TheBalladeers