Musical Influences & Traditions, and Writing Modern Folk Songs

I’ve long had a fascination with British folk song and balladry.  The English, Welsh, Scottish, and Irish musical traditions are endlessly fascinating to me, being full of history, rebellion, warfare, love, hate, joy, and sadness.  Some of my favorites in this field include Silly Wizard, Alex Beaton, the Corries, the Chieftains, Tommy Makem & the Clancy Brothers, Ronnie Drew & the Dubliners, and the Jolly Beggarmen.

What’s more, many of these songs have had an enduring influence on the American South’s balladry and folk song traditions from Virginia all the way to Florida and Texas, as explained by American folklorist Francis James Child in the 19th century and by English ethnomusicologist Cecil J. Sharp in the early 20th century.

North Carolina Historical Marker on Cecil Sharp

North Carolina Historical Marker about Cecil Sharp

Nowhere has this influence been stronger than in Appalachia, which still has strong musical roots in the Scots-Irish emigrations from the borders of Scotland & England as filtered through the Ulster Scot musical ear. I learned a great deal about these connections, and how difficult they can be to document, from wonderful speakers like John Moulden and Peter Gilmore when I attended the Ulster-American Heritage Symposiums held in South Carolina in 2002 and in Tennessee in 2006.

With these connections and interests in mind, you might understand how ecstatic I once felt to attend a concert by the blind musician Doc Watson, who truly embodied so many of the deepest influences of American roots music. A few of my other favorite American traditional musicians, or musicians working in a traditional framework, include Emmylou Harris, Joe Penland, Allison Kraus, the Kruger Brothers, and Gillian Welch.

Doc Watson

Doc Watson

I was also fortunate enough to attend a conference called “Making Connections: The Celtic Roots of Southern Music at Emory University in Atlanta in 2012, which was organized by Yeats scholar Dr. James Flannery, who also appreciates these British and Irish musical connections to America (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9h_om3JQsIg).

Most recently, having spent the last few years living in Great Britain, I’ve been very fortunate to have had a dear friend who has introduced me to so many contemporary English and British folk singers and groups I never in a million years would have heard of at home.  Just a few of these include Show of Hands, Fisherman’s Friends, The Unthanks, Seth Lakeman, Sunas, Chumbawamba, and Frank Turner.

So as a songwriter myself, and in an attempt to acknowledge this great musical debt, I proffer the following song, with words of my own composition set to the tune of “Down by the Sally Gardens” by William Butler Yeats.  Yeats himself set his own words to the music of “Ye Rambling Boys of Pleasure,” so I guess we are both indebted to the unknown composer of that lovely air.  The version of  “Down by the Sally Gardens” that I had in mind whilst writing it was the gorgeous flute and harp setting by Cormac de Barra and Karen Leitner heard here (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hlo-YmaN7NE).

 

The New Forest Rose

She swings over Everton Grange

And lights up Lymington shore,

The English girl I sing of,

The lady I adore

And Britain’s crowns all bow down to

And Oxford’s geniuses know

The English girl I sing of

The beauteous New Forest Rose

She skips over Portmeadow pasture

And splashes Wolvercote Common ground,

The English girl I sing of,

The belle of Town and Gown

And Britain’s crowns all bow down to

And Oxford’s geniuses know

The English girl I sing of

The beauteous New Forest Rose

She cavorts round Kenilworth Castle

And frolicks on Stonehenge’s plain

The English girl I sing of

And hope to see again

And Britain’s crowns all bow down to

And Oxford’s geniuses know

The English girl I sing of

The beauteous New Forest Rose

“Ballads…contain a refrain; they utilize a detached and impersonal narrator; they frequently have no dramatic nor cathartic climax; and they often employ a device called incremental repetition, which is nothing more than a method of carrying the story along with slight variations in the text, but with a repeated pattern.

June Skinner SawyersThe Celtic Roots of Southern Music, 1994

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Categories: England, Music, Folk Music, Balladry, Scots-Irish, Appalachia, American South, United Kingdom | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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