Folk Music of England

Folk Music of England

The Folk Music of England has a long history.


Little survives of the early music of England, by which is meant the music that was used by the people before the establishment of musical notation in the medieval period. Some surviving folk music may have had its origins in this period, although the melodies played by morris dancers and other traditional groups can also be from a later period.

Some of the earliest music to remain is either church music, or else is in the form of carols or ballads dating from the 16th century or earlier. Troubadours carried an international courtly style across Western Europe. It was common in times before copyright for melodies to be interchangeable, and the same melodies have often been used (with differing words) for secular and religious purposes. Melodies like those of the Sussex Carol or Greensleeves have had a long history of eclectic use over the centuries.

During the 15th century, a vigorous tradition of polyphony developed in England, as exemplified in the music of composers such as Leonel Power, John Dunstaple and Robert Fayrfax. The music of this school was famous on the continent, and occasionally rivalled the music of the contemporary Burgundian school in expressiveness and renown; indeed Dunstaple is recognized as one of the strongest influences on the early development of the music of the Burgundians. Unfortunately, however, the vast majority of English music manuscripts from this period were destroyed during the dissolution of the monasteries carried out by Henry VIII in the late 1530s; only a few isolated survivals remain, including the Old Hall Manuscript, the Eton Choirbook, the Winchester Troper, and a handful of scattered sources from the continent.

16th to 17th centuries

With the growth in wealth and leisure-time for the noble classes, tastes in music began to diverge sharply. While in the early part of the period it was possible for tavern songs like "Pastime with Good Company" to be written by King Henry VIII, by the middle 16th century there were distinct styles of music enjoyed by the differing social classes. Renaissance influences made the acquisition of musical knowledge an almost essential attribute for the nobleman and woman, and the ability to play an instrument became an almost mandatory social grace.

The Renaissance influence also internationalised courtly music in terms of both instruments and content: the lute, dulcimer and early forms of the harpsichord were played; ballads and madrigals were sung; the pavane and galliard were danced. Henry Purcell became court composer to King Charles II and wrote incidental music to plays and events.

For other social classes instruments like the pipe, tabor, bagpipe, shawm, hurdy gurdy and crumhorn accompanied folk music and community dance. The fiddle gradually grew in popularity. Differing regional styles of folk music developed in geographically separated areas such as Northumbria, London and the West Country.

English Madrigal School

From about 1588 to 1627, a group of composers known as the "English Madrigal School" became well known in England and abroad. These madrigalists composed light a cappella songs for three to six voices, originally based on Italian models. The School began when Nicholas Yonge published "Musica transalpina" in 1588, using poetic forms like the sonnet and inspired by the work of Alfonso Ferrabosco, an Italian composer in Elizabeth I's court.

18th century

As courtly music grew more elaborate and internationalised, with composers such as Handel (who was actually born in Germany) and Mozart, writing operas, oratorios and symphonic works, an English musician called John Gay produced "The Beggar's Opera", a revolutionary popular opera which used English folk forms.

19th century

With the Industrial Revolution came a parallel revolution in English popular music as people moved from stable agrarian communities into the growing industrial centres and the rise of the brass band in the North of England. There was a period of intense interest in collecting folk songs during the 1840s. Notable collectors include Robert Bell and William Sandys. Folk music went through a rapid series of transformations as different regional idioms came together and reformed themselves into the first universally acceptable and commercial popular music. This change began first in the alehouses and later in what became known as the music hall. Music hall became the dominant form of English popular music for over a century from its birth in the 1850s. While folk music continued to enjoy popularity in the countryside, it was replaced for the majority by the new forms. Michael Balfe wrote opera, and Sir Arthur Sullivan wrote oratorios, orchestral works, a series of highly popular comic operas (with W. S. Gilbert), and numerous hymns and songs. At the end of the century, musical comedy and songs from musicals became popular, especially those of Lionel Monckton and Sidney Jones.

Also at the end of the century and into the early years of the 20th was a period when composers and musicologists took an renewed interest in collecting the music of the common people; recording and transcribing songs hitherto passed down from earlier generations only by ear, and occasionally arranging them for performance. The pioneers were Sabine Baring-Gould, Lucy Broadwood, Frank Kidson and Anne Gilchrist. Later, major figures in this movement were Cecil Sharp (who in 1911 founded the English Folk Dance Society, which later merged with the 1898 Folk Song Society to form the English Folk Dance and Song Society), Ralph Vaughan Williams, George Butterworth, Gustav Holst, Percy Grainger and Frederick Delius. These composers' art music is frequently tinged with the sounds and cadences of English folk music, even where the melodies are freely composed and are not arrangements of pre-existing folk tunes. Maud Karpeles collected both folk songs and folk dances.

20th century

First half

Frank Bridge made the arrangement "Old English Songs" in 1916. Ernest John Moeran composed "Six Folk Songs from Norfolk" in 1923. Eric Coates adapted "Eight Nursery Rhymes" in 1924. By 1950 this particular tendency among composers had come to an end. The only composer who made a direct link with recent professional folk singers was the Hungarian Mátyás Seiber, who collaborated with Alan Lomax, Peggy Seeger and Shirley Collins in 1960. Folk-song collectors who continued after the death of Percy Grainger and Cecil Sharp include Maud Karpeles, A.L. Lloyd and Stan Hugill.

The fifties

From 1945 until his death in 1976, Benjamin Britten was recognised as the pre-eminent English composer of classical music. He wrote many arrangements of folksongs. All six volumes of "Folksong Arrangements" have been recorded. Volume 1, 3 and 5 are entitled "The British Isles". Volume 2 is "France", volume 4 is "Moore's Irish Melodies" and volume 6 is called "England". They are all for voice and piano apart from volume 6 with guitar. Malcolm Arnold composed two sets of "Four English Dances" (1950 and 1951). They resemble morris dances and country dances, without actually quoting from any.

A regular BBC Home Service radio program called "As I Roved Out", broadcast field recordings made by Peter Kennedy and Seamus Ennis from 1952 to 1958. This was mostly Irish material rather than English, but the sound of traditional singers, rather than concert performers, was new to most listeners.

A significant factor in the early growth of folk clubs was Topic Records. A. L. Lloyd wrote many of the sleeve notes for the records for the next 20 years and sang on several of their albums. Ewan MacColl toured widely in England, and recorded many of the Child Ballads. Collet's Record Shop in New Oxford Street, London was the best place to find folk records and magazines. From the mid-fifties skiffle and rock and roll songs began to be home-produced by English performers.

Hit records

The first traditional song to reach number one in the UK was "Cumberland Gap" (April 1957), by Lonnie Donegan. A few weeks later Lonnie's "Gamblin' Man" hit number one. The tune was written by Woody Guthrie. April 1957 also saw Chas McDevitt's memorable "Freight Train" in the top 10. The last traditional song, so far, to reach number one was "La Bamba" (Aug 1987) by Los Lobos. Cliff Richard reached number 1 in 1999 with "The Millennium Prayer". The tune ("Auld Lang Syne") can be classed as traditional, dating back to 1687.

Peter Paul and Mary were the first group (1963) to have a top-20 album of mostly traditional songs. Among the non-Americans, The Dubliners were the first to have a hit album with traditional songs ("A Drop of the Hard Stuff" 1967). There were also the last, so far, to have a hit album of folk songs ("Spirit of the Irish" 2003). Among traditional English bands, the biggest chart successes were Steeleye Span's "All Around My Hat" and Fairport Convention's "Angel Delight", which got to number 7 and number 8 respectively.

Traditional instrumental tunes were less successful. Johnny Dankworth was first, with "Experiments With Mice (Three Blind Mice)" at number 7 in 1956. The biggest instrumental folk hit was "Amazing Grace" (no 1 in 1972) by The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards. Among instrumental folk albums, the biggest success was "The Long Black Veil" by The Chieftains, which got to number 17 in 1995. Bob Dylan, unsurprisingly, is the most successful writer of songs that might be described as "folk-rock".

Folk music on the radio

The most consistent source of folk music on radio, was BBC Radio 2. In 1967 "My Kind of folk" was broadcast on Wednesdays. In 1970 "Folk on Friday" began, presented by Jim Lloyd. In 1972 it became "Folk on Sunday". "Folkweave" was presented by Tony Capstick 1975 - 1978. "Folk on Two" (Wednesdays) began in 1980. In 1998 Jim Lloyd retired from the program and was replaced by Mike Harding. In 2007 it was renamed "The Mike Harding Folk Show". Ian A. Anderson, editor of "fRoots", also presented the occasional series for Radio Two. He hosted a World music program on "Jazz FM" and then spend 10 years broadcasting on the BBC World Service. He now hosts "fRoots Radio" on the web [ fRoots radio] . For over 20 years Charlie Gillett presented World music on BBC London, until 2006. Although it is rarely mentioned, John Peel frequently included folk music of his "Top Gear" show on Radio One from 1968, but dropped it suddenly when punk arrived.

English dancing

The main dancing organisations are the Morris Ring, the Morris Federation, Open Morris and the English Folk Dance and Song Society. The top dancing events in the calendar are Dancing England Rapper Tournament, Inter Varsity Folk Dance Festival and the Morris Ring day of dance in Thaxted. Locally organised dances (See English Country Dance, Barn dance) occur, and most folk festivals have dances and displays of Morris dance, Rapper sword or Long Sword dance. May Day folk dance events in Padstow and other places are free, provided you avoid the collectors who pass the hat around. There is even a following for the historial dances of John Playford.

The modern period

In the 60s and 70s, England was in a state of social upheaval as a counterculture developed, from which came an explosion of American blues-derived musical innovation as well as a revival of English folk music, inspired by pioneering artists like the Copper Family. There was mixing between the two groups, with bands like Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span pioneering an electric folk fusion. Nic Jones, Davy Graham, Roy Harper, Ralph McTell, June Tabor, Shirley Collins, John Renbourn and John Kirkpatrick were among those who balanced innovation with tradition, and criticized the worst excesses of folk-rock. When Martin Carthy "plugged in" in 1971, the English traditional scene erupted in an uproar of criticism. Ashley Hutchings and Dave Pegg had been earlier innovators of the fusion, and Hutchings helped propel Fairport Convention into the star position of the English electric folk scene, starting with the album "What We Did On Our Holidays". Arguably the most successful of the electric folk genre is Steeleye Span, a band fronted by Maddy Prior and which continues to perform some 40 years after forming.

The seventies were probably the heyday for Folk Music Publications. The popularity of English folk declined in the later 1970s, however, losing ground to glam rock, disco, punk rock, heavy metal and lovers rock. In the mid-1980s a new rebirth began, this time fusing folk forms with energy and political aggression derived from punk rock. Leaders included The Men They Couldn't Hang, Oyster Band, Billy Bragg and The Pogues. In the 80s, reggae influenced English country music due to the work of Edward II & the Red Hot Polkas. In the 21st century, Oxford produced a young duo, Spiers and Boden, and Northumberland produced Rachel Unthank and the Winterset.

England's National Centre for Traditional Music, Dance and Song is at Halsway Manor in Somerset.


Morris dancing

Morris dancing is an ancient form of music and dance, performed by men and women in distinctive clothing. The practice is complex, and regulated by the Morris Federation and Morris Ring, the unofficial governing bodies of morris dancing. See also Cornish dance and Border Morris

Broadside ballads

Broadside ballads were a form of popular music in England from the 16th century to the early 20th century. They were purchased on street corners for a small amount and performed at home and at fairs and other gatherings.


Sussex's traditions are best known from the mid-20th century performer Scan Tester and, perhaps the biggest stars of the English revival's predecessors, the Copper Family. Shirley Collins is from Sussex and retains her local accent.


Yorkshire's Waterson family, especially Norma Waterson, is a long-running institution that incorporates influences from the area.

East Anglia

Though East Anglian folk has not played a major part in the English roots revival, two major singers have emerged from the area to help inspire it: Sam Larner and Harry Cox. More modern performers include Peter Bellamy's mid-1970s revival of Norfolk's folk traditions, especially pioneer Walter Pardon.

Northumbrian folk

Northumbria, at the northern edge of England bordering on Scotland across the River Tweed, has the most vital traditional music of England, with a strong scene and some mainstream success. Indeed Newcastle University offered the first performance-based degree programme in folk and traditional music in England and Wales. [] Many of the most popular traditional songs of today were written by legendary composers like Tommy Armstrong in the late 19th century. In contrast to much of England, Northumbria retains a strong Scots influence in the music.

Northumbria is known for its long history of border ballads, such as "The Ballad of Chevy Chase", and dances, including social ones like the Elsdon Reel and others, like rapper dancing and Northumbrian clog dancing, more typically seen in concert halls.


Northumbrian folk is most characterised by the use of Northumbrian smallpipes as well as a strong Scottish influence for natural reasons of proximity. Northumbrian pipes are small and elbow-driven and the music is traditionally very swift and rhythmic. Another distinct form of Northumbrian pipe is called the "half-long" or "border" pipe. Perhaps the most important of the old masters of the pipes is Billy Pigg. Drawing on these pioneers, popularisers like Louis Killen, The High Level Ranters and Bob Davenport brought Northumbrian folk to international audiences, while Jack The Lad, Hedgehog Pie and Lindisfarne used regional sources for folk-rock fusions.

Northumbrian pipe music has seen a recent revival due to the touring of artists like Kathryn Tickell, and uses in songs by artists such as Sting. Many of the Shires of England had their own unique form of bagpipe; some mouth blown and others bellows blown, like the Northumbrian smallpipes, the Cornish bagpipes, the Lancashire great-pipe and the ancestor of the Uilleann pipes, the pastoral pipes. Unfortunately, many local variants of pipe have ceased to exist. For example the English great pipe, the English double-pipe and the Marwood double-pipe are known only from 16th century carvings and manuscripts [ [ Extinct bagpipes] ] . Modern craftsman have attempted reconstructions, but these can only be conjectural. John Hunsley, the last of the players of the Lincolnshire pipes, died in the nineteenth century. No actual examples of the Lincolnshire bagpipe have survived. [ [ Pipers Gathering] ]

West Country

The West Country is best known for ancient celebrations at Padstow ('Obby 'Oss festival), Helston (Furry Dance), and the Hobby horse at Minehead. There is a distinctive musical style, used to accompany step-dancing, often to hornpipe tunes. In December 1943, one of the oldest examples of English folk dance music was recorded - "Boscastle Breakdown". It is easy to hear a similarity between this and American square dancing, and even through to line dancing, with an infectious swing to it. The most famous West country musician was melodeon-player Bob Cann. Wet-tuned accordions are popular in this area, as examplified by the duo Mark Bazeley and Jason Rice.

In the 1970s the West Country became noted for its Scrumpy and Western music, invented by bands such as the Wurzels and The Yetties, much of it fusing comical folk-style songs with affectionate parodies of more mainstream musical genres, but delivered in the local West Country dialects.

The Cornwall Fiddle Orchestra is a large group of string players playing traditional fiddle tunes from the Celtic nations – Scotland, Ireland, Cornwall and Brittany. Their musical director, Hudson Swan, was an original member of Scots traditional band, The Tannahill Weavers.

From a different tradition The Lakeman Brothers have achieved considerable success in the 1990s and 2000s.

ea shanties

Sea shanties are a form of work song traditionally sung by sailors working on the rigging of ships. There are several types, divided based on the type of work they set the rhythmic base for. For example:
*short haul shanties: for quick pulls over a short time
*capstan shanties: for repetitive, longer tasks that require a sustained rhythm
*halyard shanties: for heavier work that requires more time between pulls to set up

External Links

* [ English Folk and Traditional Music]

* [ Historical Notes on British Melodies]

* [ Folk Music of England]

See also

* English cadence


* Georgina Boyes, "The Imagined Village" , Manchester University Press, 1993.
* William Chappell, "Old English Popular Music," 1859; reprinted with preface, notes and revisions by H. Ellis Wooldridge, J. Brussel, New York, 1961.
* Colin Irwin, "England's Changing Roots". 2000. In Broughton, Simon and Ellingham, Mark with McConnachie, James and Duane, Orla (Ed.), "World Music, Vol. 1: Africa, Europe and the Middle East", pp 64-82. Rough Guides Ltd, Penguin Books. ISBN 1-85828-636-0
* Kate Van Winkle Keller and Genevieve Shimer, editors, "The Playford Ball: 103 Early Country Dances 1651-1820 As Interpreted by Cecil Sharp and His Followers," A Cappella Books and The Country Dance and Song Society, 1990.
* Kenny Mathieson, "Wales, Isle of Man and England". 2001. In Mathieson, Kenny (Ed.), "Celtic music", pp. 88-95. Backbeat Books. ISBN 0-87930-623-8
* Edward Lee. "Music of the People". 1970. Barrie and Jenkins.
* Claude M. Simpson, "The British Broadside Ballad and Its Music," Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, New Jersey, 1966.

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