Let’s talk about folk. Not people, but the folk tradition. My mother loved to sing. She wasn’t as good a singer as she thought she was but she had a fabulous repertoire of traditional songs, many of them learned from her father. She sang while she was ironing, while she was cooking, and while she knitted, and she sang to us. (That wasn’t always welcome and my brother Daniel would burst into tears as soon as she started with ‘Oh Danny Boy’!)
One of my most enduring memories is of a record we had. A proper record it was, on thick vinyl. The records in our house were stacked one on top of the other, many of them sleeveless, yet they were rarely scratched or damaged. They don’t make ’em like they used to. Anyway, one of the records was an LP called ‘Fifty All Time Children’s Favourites’ and it was by Wally Whyton. It had on it all kinds of goodies like ‘Bobby Shaftoe’, ‘Clementine’ and ‘The Rattling Bog’ and it was very well loved.
Another song I remember from that period of my childhood is this:
It sprang to mind this afternoon when I realised that the little bug I’d photographed was a soldier beetle. Funny how one thought can spark another isn’t it? I think the tune was used for the TV series ‘Soldier Soldier’, in the 1990s. Mom loved that too.
Do you remember the TV series ‘A Handful of Songs’? That was one of my Mom’s favourites; it was on in the middle of the day and did exactly what it said on the tin. There was a particularly cheesy couple, with guitars, and they sang folk songs. I loved it, and it must have made a lasting impression.
Throughout my teens, I didn’t give much thought to folk music. I was into Wham! and Aha and Culture Club and all those bands, and if I had have thought about the more traditional I’d have probably been too embarrassed to admit I liked it. I was in my early twenties when we went to a pub one night for my brother’s birthday, and there was an Irish folk duo playing. I fell completely and utterly in love with the music and for the next decade or so went to see them (or other bands they started) play in pubs in and around Birmingham. The passion for folk music has stayed; much of my CD collection is now folkie and I’m excited about going to the Cropredy festival later this month.
And here’s a funny thing. One night, about 12 years ago, one of my friends played a beautiful song called ‘The Dutchman’. It felt familiar and I assumed it was a song my Mom had sung to us back in the days of ‘A Handful of Songs’ and Wally Whyton. The next day I asked her, and sang a few snatches of it. She didn’t know the song well, she said, but her Dad, my Grandad, had sung it. Not so strange, is it, that I’d have learned it from him? Not at all, except for the fact that he died whilst my Mom was pregnant with me! And this is the thing, you see. I think the power of the oral tradition, and of folk music, is not just that songs and stories are passed down by word of mouth, I think they’re in our blood, they are in the essence of what makes us who we are, and they are as much part of genetic memory as they are learned.