Thursday, 27 November 2008
The Imagined Village
I’m getting increasingly interested in concepts of England and Englishness. Obviously with my academic background I am interested in the ways in which archaeologists have used England as a frame of reference for their research and the way in which the concept of ‘Englishness’ has been expressed and created through landscape, architecture and material culture (or as I prefer to term it ‘stuff and things’). But I’m also exploring a range of wider ways in which national identity is expressed, particularly through popular ruralist and historical writing (specifically in the inter-war period) and also in what might be termed folk culture, particularly music. The whole notion of ‘folk’ is as complex an idea as ‘Englishness’, but as a working definition I’d define it as something deriving from a vernacular tradition with an emphasis on an oral and practical mode of transmission, as opposed to a formalised and defined tradition (with an associated emphasis on written records). Whilst the folk tradition is something that was, in practice, highly fluid and constantly being re-worked, in the 19th and 20th century it was increasingly tightly defined and studied by a scholars creating a formal canon, and defining the way in which it was reproduced and interpreted. Georgina Boyes’ extremely interesting (but horribly written) book The imagined village: culture, ideology and the English Folk Revival (Manchester 1993) is very good on this (The title of this book was also nabbed for the music project Imagined Village which gave contemporary reworkings to traditional folk music). This ‘folkloric’ tradition can today often express itself in a puritan and reactionary attitude to the TRADITION.
Anyhoo…the reason why this has come up is that I’ve come across an interesting artistic response to this over-propriatorial approach. The artist David Owen has an exhibition at Cecil Sharp House, the home of the English Dance and Song Society, often seen as a bastion of the tradition (you can see a review here .
In the words of his manifesto
MOST OF MY WORK IS CONCERNED WITH FOLK MUSIC AND ITS IMAGE. FOLK MUSIC IS USUALLY PORTRAYED, OR PERCEIVED, AS ANCIENT, PASTORAL, VINTAGE, FROZEN IN TIME - THE USUAL STEREOTYPES OF BEARDS, JUMPERS AND FINGERS-IN-EARS. BUT FOLK MUSIC IS AN EVOLVING, LIVING, CONTEMPORARY VEHICLE FOR TRANSMITTING STORIES AND IDEAS, LIVES, LOVES AND FEARS - THE HUMAN CONDITION. FOLK SONGS HAVE EVOLVED OVER DECADES AND ACROSS GENERATIONS, SOMETIMES OVER CENTURIES. NAMES GET CHANGED, LOCATIONS GET MOVED, MODERN EVENTS ARE INCORPORATED, THE SONGS GROW, CHANGE SHAPE, ADAPT, EVOLVE, AND MUTATE. WHEN CECIL SHARP, VAUGHAN WILLIAMS ET AL TRAVELLED THE COUNTRY TO COLLECT AND RECORD THE SONGS, THEY INADVERTANTLY 'FROZE' THEM IN THEIR RECORDINGS AND WRITINGS. THEY HAVE SUBSEQUENTLY BEEN SEEN, BY SOME, AS COMPLETE, FINISHED AND DEFINITIVE. FOLK SONGS ARE DEAD UNLESS THEY CONTINUE TO BE SUNG, TOLD, EXCHANGED, RE-WORKED, ADAPTED AND RE-INTERPRETED.