Reclaiming the English tradition

This article is published also on the Guardian’s Comment is Free website and Dave Hill’s Temperana blog. It was Dave Hill who originally commissioned this piece for a series on impressions of England.

“What is it to be English? It is a very serious question. The English are somehow embarrassed about some of the good things they have done. Multiculturalism has seemed to imply, wrongly for me, ‘Let other cultures be allowed to express themselves, but do not let the majority culture at all tell us its glories, its struggles, its joys, its pains’. A failure to rediscover English culture would fuel greater political extremism.”

Fylingdales Guizers, 2005, © Doc Rowe

These are the words of Dr John Sentamu, a Ugandan-born priest, speaking before his enthronement last year as the 97th Archbishop of York and Primate of England. You need not be sympathetic to the Anglican tradition in order to appreciate the significance of what occurred in York Minster on 30 November 2005. John Sentamu’s consecration – in a joyous and colourful ceremony combining ancient English ritual with African dancing and drumming – was a cause for community celebration, and the imagery displayed on the day a microcosm of England: ancient and modern, white and black.

As a nation, the English have often, in their desire to embrace the new, discarded the old without realising that in doing so they deny in part what and who they are. As John Sentamu understands full well, this can lead to a cultural psychosis that manifests itself in political extremism. But there are positive developments in English cultural life, and the rediscovery of the national flag is a prime example. In 2003, the Mayor of Pendle, Mohammed Iqbal, ran the George Cross up the flagpole of his town hall, saying: “That’ll piss off the BNP!” And Michael Faul, of the York-based Flag Institute, said: “What we are now seeing is the St George’s flag being used as a celebration of national unity by all ethnicities, all types of people…”.

What of the English tradition and its relevance today?

The folk music scene in the 1980s and 90s was pretty much dominated by Irish traditional music, the success of which is down to a rediscovery of the tradition by talented young players and listeners, combined with skillful marketing by the artists’ agents and record companies. Then there are the ubiquitous Irish pubs, many hosting live sessions in which musicians with abilities ranging from beginner to virtuoso come together to play tunes, sing songs, drink beer and enjoy the craic. The flourishing of the Irish tradition had a knock-on effect with other folk styles, and, whether it was called “world music” or “folk”, the young became exposed to tradition and moulded it to fit the contemporary world.

Since the late 1990s we’ve seen a resurgence in English traditional music. BBC radio and television features English music, new pub sessions are springing up, and the festival scene is going from strength to strength. Examples of the younger generation of English folk musicians are the techno-influenced Jim Moray, fiddle and melodeon duo Spiers and Boden, and the “Barnsley Nightingale”, Kate Rusby. One of the best-known groups today is the English Acoustic Collective, fronted by folk veteran and son of Kent, Chris Wood, and among the more well-established artists we have Andrew Cronshaw, Martin Simpson and Waterson : Carthy. For a more comprehensive list, see here. Have a look also at fRoots magazine, and the websites of the Doc Rowe Archive and Collection, and the English Folk Dance and Song Society.

Folk dance in England is represented most notably by Morris, which ranges from the not always genteel Cotswold style, with its white hankies and bells, to the wild and animistic Border Morris and Molly dancing, with blackened faces, colourful dress and sticks. Drama comes in the form of Mummers and Guizers: roving teams of amateur actors who tour pubs and clubs to perform ancient plays which have their origins in the middle ages, and contain references to far-off places and cultures. Traditional English storytelling is also undergoing a renaissance, and one of its most well-known figures is Hugh Lupton.

The English tradition is mostly white in ethnic hue, but at the same time far from monocultural. Folk arts draw readily from different traditions, absorbing, subverting and reshaping them with little regard for stylistic purity. Even those with the deepest respect for history and place are open to influence from outside their own tradition. In the 1990s there existed a multiracial reggae-folk fusion band called Edward II, who lifted the roofs of many a club and student union dance hall, and there are ongoing collaborations between English traditional musicians and artists from across the globe.

Ancient stories, songs and tunes are being continually rediscovered, and while some may regard tales of farming, factory and seafaring life as having no place in the modern world, the old songs speak of a human condition that doesn’t change, no matter how many years have passed since the words were written down by now long-forgotten authors. Along with the countless songs and tunes penned by “Trad. Arr.” come new compositions by gifted young writers and musicians, and all are woven seamlessly into the tradition. Is this a reaction against the ephemerality of contemporary pop culture? Partly, but it’s more a celebration of that which has gone before, and the potential of what is to come.