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English Folk Music – Understanding Our Roots

Here at the Music Workshop Company we thrive on introducing participants to an enjoyment and understanding of music. But all our workshops have a deeper purpose and significance too. We look at music from World cultures, and support curriculum topics with team building work, communication skills and experiential learning which builds confidence and facilitates creativity.

In looking at everything that music can bring to education, it is interesting to think about the value of studying the historic culture of the country where we live. Awareness and understanding of British tradition is an important part of relating across cultural lines, as well as direct way to link to your local area and community.

In the first of our series on music from Britain, we celebrate St. George’s Day with an exploration of English folk music.

Our English Song workshops introduce students to the traditional music of England. English folk music is a particularly rich genre that can be really pertinent to a particular local identity as its regional traditions are strong – for example, the music of Northumberland is very different to that of the West Country. Although there has been some interchange with the music of Ireland and Scotland, the regional distinctiveness of this music remains strong, linked to local history, folk tails, industry, instrumentation and even landscape.

Robin_shoots_with_sir_Guy_by_Louis_Rhead_1912Folk music is historically the music of the people; the lower orders of society. It is very different from the Court music that gave rise to what we know as classical music. Its earliest record in English history is about 400CE. This music was passed on aurally from one generation to the next, taught by ear not written down. These days, tunes or songs might be learned from books or recordings, but often the practice of learning by ear continues. Its main form is in music for dancing and in songs and ballads. Ballads are songs that tell stories – often of heroic deeds and local heroes such as Robin Hood. The songs, like those of Ireland and Scotland, have their roots in ancient ballads, popular songs, songs from music halls and songs composed by the person who sang them. There are many rural songs that are of unknown authorship and are considered traditional, but English folk song is drawn from many sources.

English folk music has its own set of instruments too. There are the common traditional instruments such as the fiddle and accordion, but instruments specific to England also exist. The English Concertina, a small, hand-held, bellows-driven reed instrument, was patented by the scientist and inventor Sir Charles Wheatstone in 1829. It has a light, flute-like sound and is a common accompanying instrument in English folk dancing.

Northumberland has its own pipes, the Northumbrian smallpipes, which are driven by bellows held under the right elbow. The pipes have a completely closed end and a tight, keyed fingering style. They have a melancholy and beautiful sound, which is extremely evocative of the wild hills of the area. One traditional band in Northumberland was a group called The Three Shepherds. They were, as you would expect, three shepherds. One played smallpipes, one harmonica and the other fiddle. The fiddle player, Willie Taylor had lost the top joint of his left index finger in a turnip-chopping machine as a boy. The Shepherds often performed Taylor’s own compositions, reels and rants which were all written so it is possible to play them on the fiddle with only three fingers.

Tickell_2004Today the Northumbrian smallpipes are the instrument of Kathryn Tickell, who was artistic director of the Folkworks programme at the Sage, Gateshead until 2013. She has carried on the tradition, extending the range and complexity of the instrument and its repertoire and adding the unique sound to recordings with Sting.

The relevance of English traditional music to understanding our past is clear. Much of the music came from industrial, agricultural, community and even military settings, each of which differs from region to region.

The music has been preserved by various avid collectors, the most prolific of whom was Cecil Sharpe, whose collections are kept by the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS) at Cecil Sharpe House in London. The society has been working to build a huge digital archive of tunes and songs which is available for free on their website, along with a resource bank of free online materials for teachers.

There are strong connections in the music and history with related traditions in the rest of the British Isles, Europe, America and even further afield. Understanding the music also gives a window into some of the most popular works of English classical composers. The composers Ralph Vaughan Williams and Percy Grainger were also keen collectors. Vaughan-Williams’ compositions include many references to traditional tunes, including an English Folk-Song Suite, and Grainger, who made wax recordings of traditional singers, used their songs for choral settings. Frederick Delius used the same songs, having been inspired by Grainger’s arrangements.

If you would like to discover your regional culture and history, learn about English folk music, or explore the potential of using traditional music in composition, contact the Music Workshop Company about a bespoke workshop.


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