Musics can die… a sermon to the converted

Musics can die…

I was born in Conwy, a fishing village in north Wales, and many of my earliest memories are of singing. The Second World War was at its darkest hour, and my father was fighting in France. There was no cinema, and nobody we knew had a gramophone. So singing was an integral part of daily life.

For me it began as my mother sang me to sleep at night, initially with ‘Golden slumbers kiss your eyes’, a lullaby written in the 17th century by Thomas Dekker. The Beatles appropriated it for their Abbey Road album in 1969, and more recently John Lewis harnessed it for a Christmas TV advert.

Other songs I grew up with included A frog he would a-wooing go and The Lincolnshire Poacher – ‘Oh, tis my delight/ On a shining night/ In the season of the year’. We used to sing Ten green bottles when we went for walks, and also that mysterious counting song Green grow the rushes, oh, although we hadn’t a clue what it meant.

Recently I sat down with a friend who’d grown up in the same era as me, but in Cumbria, and we started to swap memories of the songs we’d sung. After 15 minutes we’d jotted down 30, and our memories were still coming thick and fast… D’ye ken John Peel, Bobby Shafto, Greensleeves, Cockles and mussels, and the 17th century marching song The British Grenadiers (‘with a to-row-row’ etc). Sea shanties like The keel row and What shall we do with the drunken sailor loomed large because they were so satisfying to sing.

Some of these songs we learned in school, but singing on walks, or on coach trips, or at parties was something we took for granted, because to us it was as natural as breathing. Only now do I realise what a wonderful tradition our folk songs represented, and how completely many of us have lost it. It was once a shared musical hinterland, but as an activity in which everyone participated – as opposed to a performance-art by specialists – it’s a mere shadow of what it once was.

Anecdotal evidence tells us this sense of loss is widely shared across Europe and America, because the musical heritage is not being passed on. Parents reared musically as I was simply can’t prise their grandchildren away from musical offerings on the internet. In 1907 that supreme song-collector Cecil Sharp wrote regretfully of bygone days when ‘every country village in England was a nest of singing birds’. And although the folk-song revival he led resulted in music being enshrined in school curricula, it didn’t arrest the decline, any more than did the club-based folk revival of the Sixties, with its roots in the industrial North and its direct input from local social history (viz the infectiously revolutionary Blackleg Miner).

The message is stark: musics can die, or at least be reduced to the status of folklore preserved in aspic. And it’s a very old message. Two centuries ago the German song-collector Ludolf Parisius wrote, ‘Whoever wants to collect songs from the mouth of the people should hurry, because folk songs are disappearing one after another.’

A hundred years later the Australian song collector Percy Grainger inveighed against ‘the victorious onward march of our ruthless Western civilisation, and the distressing spectacle of the gentle but complex native arts, wilting before its irresistible simplicity.’ Bela Bartok, writing in 1940, sadly declared that ‘one day all folk music will have been swept away’.

They were all wrong, of course – folk music is not dead – but in another sense they were also right. They were right about the musical effects of Westernisation, industrialisation, and urbanisation. And they were right about the musical losses consequent on the death of villages. To put down roots and be sustained, a music needs social stability and community support, and such conditions are not often found in cities.

Look at the songs which the American ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax collected in the Fifties in Spain, Portugal, Italy, and the Bahamas. A great many of them had evolved as integral facets of manual work: the Bahaman sponge fishermen’s polyphonic spirituals, the salt-miners’ songs in Sicily, the stone-cutters’ songs in Liguria; threshing and harvest songs, songs to accompany the making of shoes, or pots and pans for the kitchen. Consider the shirt-making and glove-sewing songs which Cecil Sharp collected in Somerset, or the sea shanties he collected on a quay beside the Bristol Channel. Many of these songs had a structure reflecting the ritualised nature of the work they accompanied: they had no existence independently of the trade of which they formed an integral part.

But much of this work is now done by machines. Take away the physical activity, and you take away the purpose of the song, you neuter it. Very few of the peasant songs which Alan Lomax collected in Europe 60 years ago are sung today. They’re gone, because the reasons for their existence are gone. And the issue is often less a matter of individual songs than of entire lifestyles.

It’s possible that much of the world may be approaching what could be described as traditional music’s ‘end of history’ – in effect, a musical climate-change. Worn-out and irrelevant forms may not be replaced by new ones, because the conditions required for that process no longer obtain, and may never obtain again.

Since the dawn of time, communities everywhere have produced their own music. Is humanity now losing that facility? If it is, no loss may be immediately apparent. But there may be a gradual realisation that a barely-sensed – but mysteriously significant – musical underpinning has gone, leaving an ache like that from a phantom limb.

We can’t reverse the social clock, or uninvent the internet, but let’s look on the bright side. Folk music can migrate – look at the spread of the Jewish musical lingua franca, klezmer. And in those parts of the world where village life is the norm, folk music still flourishes, as choral traditions are now doing in the Balkans and Scandinavia. And as anyone familiar with Georgian hospitality will confirm, the ‘table-songs’ sung at family feasts in that former Soviet republic involve intricate feats of polyphony which would severely tax professionals in any other place. Georgia’s musical amateurs deliver this challengingly dissonant music with scrupulous accuracy, no matter how much alcohol they’ve drunk, because it’s hard-wired into their DNA.

Folk music nourishes itself in an infinity of ways. New work inspires new songs: Amazon baggage-handlers in Genoa, whose forefathers sang as they humped fish, have devised new songs to speed their parcels. Pop stars may put old songs into orbit the way Paul Simon did with the exquisite 18th century ballad Scarborough Fair, taking his cue from a galaxy of British folk singers. And in Britain today, ad hoc ensembles are springing up in many places: somebody has an accordion, someone else has a guitar, someone wants to sing, and they’re off. Most Britons still sing carols at Christmas. And there’s a thriving industry mining the archives to exhume songs which have been forgotten.

Then there’s the pop industry, pumping out an endless supply of new material. Shouldn’t pop classics which have entered the global bloodstream – think Dylan, McCartney et al – deserve to qualify at least as honorary folk music?

War can kill music: China has suppressed Uyghur music, while the 800-year-old muwwashshah song tradition has been brutally erased in its home town, Aleppo. Yet patriotism is a musical spur. Descendants of the victims of the Armenian genocide in 1915 still rally every Holocaust Day with the aid of the hauntingly sweet folk songs which their great national composer Komitas (1869-1935) arranged for them.

And one of the most significant things about Ukraine’s Eurovision win last year was the gritty village chant – the following is phrase is new: in its uncompromising rigour totally unlike anything ever sung before in that contest – which the singers had chosen as their anthem. Like them, we should treasure the music we still have.

Pygmy polyphony: a cautionary tale

Pygmy polyphony is one of the musical wonders of the world, and its origins predate the Pyramids. Yet it only became known to the West in the 1960s, and it now looks like being extinguished for ever.

Its European discoverer was the French-Israeli ethnomusicologist Simha Arom, who chanced to hear it in the Central African Republic some 50 years ago. ‘It was a polyphony which made my spine tingle,’ he told me. ‘How could these people play such complex music without a conductor? They knew instantly when a wrong note was sounded. That meant they had rules. And if you have rules, you have a theory.’ He’s dedicated his life to elucidating that theory, and how it’s put into practice.

For Pygmies, polyphonic song with a moral purpose is an essential part of everyday life, and children learn the art as soon as they can walk. Singing  is accompanied on instruments made of wood, bark, and leaves. There are no nuances in the dynamics, and no variations in tempo; they sing in four parts, but since each part involves free-form yodelling, the effect is of a dense web of sound.

The rules include a prohibition of unisons, just as medieval European musicians placed a prohibition on ‘the Devil’s interval’, the tritone. And even in their rhythms, the Pygmies avoid symmetry by dividing the singers into two groups, one following an 11-beat cycle and the other a 13-beat one, but together obeying an over-arching cycle of 24.

This music reflects a serenely self-contained world of custom, ritual, and belief. Arom has described it as ‘ostinato with variations’ – cyclical music founded on a principle similar to that of the European passacaglia. When news of it filtered through to the European avant garde, Gyorgy Ligeti drew on its techniques, proclaiming: ‘What we witness in this music is a wonderful combination of order and disorder, which in turn produces a sense of order on a higher level.’

But Pygmy music is now under threat, from civil war plus a lethal cocktail of other factors including Ebola, the coronavirus, and many elements of modernity. Electricity has brought canned music, sapping the traditional urge to sing; alcohol militates against the necessary contrapuntal control; Pentecostal missionaries teach their Pygmy Christian converts to sing hymns, rather than ancient tribal chants. Ritual songs for healing and mourning are still sung as they always were, but songs casting benign spells for the hunt have lost their social function.

The Pygmies are becoming sedentary, and as their way of life loses its nomad character, so will their music. They now constitute a population of less than one million people, an exploited minority scattered through 11 Central African countries including Rwanda. Can their music survive?


Now listen to these CDs:


Centrafrique: Musical Anthology of the Aka Pygmies: Ocora C 561171/72

Vocal and instrumental field recordings by Simha Arom.

Ligeti/Reich: African Rhythms, Aka Pygmies: Teldec 8573 86584-2

Here Pygmy music alternates with Ligeti’s piano studies inspired by it.

Anthology of Folk Music: Ukrainian Music: Melodiya 30 017688

Recorded in villages between 1950 and 1980, this CD gives a fascinating overview of Ukrainian folk music.

Folk Music and Song of Italy: Rounder 11661-1801-2

A selection of Alan Lomax’s recordings made in Italian villages in the Fifties.

Songs of Survival: Traditional music of Georgia: Topic TSCD935D

Field recordings by Michael Church from many parts of Georgia, and including examples of vocal polyphony.

Sulam: Klezmer Music from Tel Aviv: SM1506-2

Klezmer was never more languidly elegant.

Isabel Bayrakdarian: Gomidas Songs: Nonesuch 511487-2

Gorgeously sung arrangements of Armenia’s most-loved songs, all noted down by Komitas. [NB The spelling of his name varies in Armenia]

Song Collectors and the Life and Death of Folk Tradition by Michael Church, is published by the Boydell Press.


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