Review by FRANK SMYTH
THE compound "folk song" is of German origin. It was borrowed from the Germans, and Anglicised, during the latter half of the nineteenth century by English musicians who wished to describe "the traditional music of the common and unlettered classes". It has since become one of the most misused terms in. musicology.
In 1907 there first appeared a book by Cecil J. Sharp, perhaps the most famous English collector of folk songs ever, entitled English Folk Song: Some Conclusions, which attempted among other things to define the phrase "folk song". The book, reprinted recently by Mercury.paperbacks, is still the most definitive treatise on the subject.
In Sharp's time two meanings for the phrase had already become current. One was its original and precise meaning, and the other was its use to describe a Victorian "art" or "popular" song. Nowadays, the original phrase has sprouted even more meanings—with the sudden popularity of the idiom—and the
ENGLISH FOLK SONG: SOME CONCLUSIONS, by Cecil J. Shorp (Mercury Books, 15s.).
BOOK OF AMERICAN FOLK SONG, by Alan Lomax (Penguin Books, 10s. 6d.).
original definition has been all but lost.
Sharp, of course, concerned him'self with the folk music of the British Isles, and to some extent that of the Appalachian Mountain district of the States.
He defined a folk song as being a communal effort, by generations of -unlettered" people to create something of real artistic worth.
A poem naturally presupposes a poet, but the whole point of folk song seems to he that, though a particular song was obviously created originally by one person, a gradual process of attrition has worn ii into a generally acceptable version. Like a pebble on the beach, to use Sharp's own metaphor, its rough edges are worn away and it becomes a thing of natural
and near perfect beauty by cornmunal handling.
Besides defining folk song, Sharp delved fairly deeply into its origin and subsequent evolution, and also made a careful study of the construction and grammar of folk tunes; their use, for instance, of the ancient "Greek" modes, rather than the more modern scales of "classical" music, 'The late Dr. Vaughan Williams, on first encountering folk music sung by a villager, is reputed to have been astonished that an untrained singer could have such complete and apparently natural mastery of the Dorian and Myxolidian modes.
Sharp goes on to deal with folk poetry and the styles and individual techniques of folk singers themselves. He managed, in fact, as complete a hypothesis on folk song as is ever likely to be written; and he did it just in time.
At the turn of the century. improved communications and consequent outside influence — the "lettering" of the hitherto "unlettered"—was making the traditional village folk singer obsolete. His book is invaluable to the modern ethnomusicologist and folk singer, many of whom seem to have lost their grasp on what folk song is all about.
A collector In Sharp's tradition is Texas-born Alan Lomax who, with his father. John A. Lomax, has won international acclaim as a folk song expert. Penguin Books have recently published his Book of American Folk Song presumably as a companion to their earlier Book oe English Folk Song by A. L. Lloyd and Ralph VaughanWilliams.
It consists of the words and music to more than 100 American songs, divided into sections—Negro work songs, Western songs, early pioneer songs and so on—with comprehensive and useful notes to each one, written by the author. All this, and its collection of chord symbols for use with the ubiquitous guitar, makes it well worth the attention of the modern folk enthusiast.