Thursday, 19 May 2016

My daddy says I'm fine: gender bending, female desire and Willie o the Winsbury

The king he hath been a prisoner,
 A prisoner lang in Spain, O
 And Willie o the Winsbury
 Has lain lang wi his daughter at hame. O
You know it's going to be good when you get to fornication in the first verse. Willie o' the Winsbury, or Child100 - currently my favourite to sing at people whenever I get the slightest indication that they won't actually kick me out for doing so - makes no bones about the boning. I especially like the term "lang" in this context. This could easily echo the "lang" in the second line, and mean "many times over several months", or it could, in the economy of form of folksong, mean rather "all night", "several times" and "with foreplay". It give the relationship a very languorous tone  - this is not a case of:
He took her by the milk-white hand,
 And by the grass green sleeve,
 And laid her low down on the flowers,

It implies rather more a:
Lye still, lye still, thou Little Musgrave,
 And huggell me from the cold;
Anyway, if I can ditch my obsession with the type of sex folkloric characters are having for thirty seconds, one other thing I will say about this opening is that it leaves very little idea where the ballad is going. The kind of people who enjoy putting folkstories away in such frameworks as the Aarne-Thompson Motif Index* have real trouble categorising ballads that start with enthusiastic rumpy-pumpy between the daughter of a powerful man and her - what - toyboy? Take, for example, Brown Robin (Child97) which - in the three variations recorded by Francis Child - has three entirely different endings. In contrast, Willie o' the Winsbury is remarkably consistent.

What follows immediately is both expected and upsetting. Janet (yes, the king's daughter is another Janet) is interrogated by her father as to her 'wanness' made to strip. In doing so, reveals that she is visibly pregnant. Her father then interrogates her as to the father of the child, and his emphasis is telling: he suspects rape. He asks if the pregnancy is by "a man of might" or "any of the rank robbers/ that's lately come out of Spain". What is more, he also attempts to ascertain the eligibility of the child's father - asking whether he is a man of "mean" or any "fame", depending on the version.

Janet's response makes explicit my earlier reading. This was a consensual liaison - not as (arguably) in Tam Lin an acceptance after the fact. It is something she had sought, wanted and enjoyed:
But it is to William of Winsburry;
 I could lye nae langer my lane.
More interestingly, the social status of Willie is not entirely clear. Yes, in 100C and 100D, there is some reference that - of the King's retainers - he "should hae been the foremost man", while in 100I, he is "Lord Thomas" and clearly a power in his own right. However, in most versions his exact status is unknown, and in 100F he is described as the King's serving man. Aside from in 100I, what is important here is that Janet has slept with a man who is perceived as markedly beneath her, and who - directly or otherwise - is subordinate to the King's power.

With this in mind, (and in most versions) her father declares that Willie o' the Winsbury is totally getting hanged. So far, so predictable if we factor in the manner in which Janet's father has behaved throughout. What happens next is... curious.

Ballads, as a general rule, are not big on description. You might get a passing reference to "grey e'en", "green mantles" "golden" or "yellow hair", and occasionally "lily-white" body parts (remind me to do a blog on Bold William Taylor sometime), but it tends to be included in the general thrust of the action, an aside to provide a little detail, or level out the rhythm. In Willie o' the Winsbury we get an entire verse of it:

when he cam the king before,
 He was clad o the red silk;
 His hair was like to threeds o gold.
 And his skin was as white as milk.
This presence of this much description is consistent across seven of the nine versions. And, what does it tell us? That Willie is a striking, snappy dresser (also, rich), that he is blond (or possibly red-headed) and that he very fair. The version I sing (which is slightly different to any Child version) states that his breast was white as milk, letting us know that that red shirt was open at the neck, along with the strawberry blond hair and pale, pale skin...

Yes, this is exactly where your mind should be going.
What the audience are probably expecting here is some sort of sword fight or slanging match, where Willie reveals himself to be Prince in disguise, sweeps Janet up in his arms and rides off into the sunset. Instead, the King says this:
'It is nae wonder,’ said the king,
 ‘That my daughter’s love ye did win;
 Had I been a woman, as I am a man,
 My bedfellow ye should hae been.'
Again, this is consistent across the majority of versions. This is the King's first response, and it marks a transition from raging, "hanged he shall be" fury, to... offering this guy his daughter's hand in marriage, gold and earldoms?

The sexuality presented in folk ballads fascinates me because the multiplicity of recorded versions offer a glimpse of a variety of voices in discussion over the same themes and stories. However much a teller might claim to the contrary, all singers and storytellers adapt the material they learn to suit their own prejudices and those of their audience. It is in those negotiations that the true subversive potential of the folk tradition is permitted to emerge. A range of versions can almost be seen as a collective effort to thrash out the problematic societal implications of these stories: endings being changed, reactions being framed differently, sympathy being assigned in differing ways.

Yet, what is most amazing about these verses - Janet's enthusiastic consent, Willie's beauty and the King's recognition thereof - is their consistency across the versions. Willie o' the Winsbury does thrash out the acceptability of a vassal/heiress relationship, of parental benevolence/control, and Willie's relative humility/pride, but it seems to agree on three key points. Firstly, that women feel desire and sexual attraction, and that they are not necessarily drawn to feats of strength, but to male beauty. Secondly - considering the ballad has a consistently happy ending - that premarital** sex under those conditions was to be condoned, and the King's anger at his daughter's condition was unjustified. And thirdly, that it was okay for men to admit homoerotic attraction provided they expressed it in heteronormative terms.

To dwell on this last point for a moment: Willie's beauty is, in most versions, described in a way that is more typical of the women in ballads. He is not a "man of might" nor is he not brown skinned from being in the sun or fighting in Spain. He is a "bonnie boy", his fine hair dangles down and he comes "tripping" up the stairs. We focus upon his complexion, his golden hair, his silk clothes. Only in G is there any active quality to his beauty "He glanced like the fire [...] His eyes like crystal clear."

And while in A and H we get the verse quoted above, in most versions, the King's statement of attraction reflects this connection of beauty with femininity - hypothesising a change of Willie's gender rather than his own: "Gin ye were a woman, as ye’re a man". While this does, of course, play into the heteronormative assumption of 'active' and 'passive', 'male' and 'female' sexual roles, it actually reinforces the strangeness of what's happening here. In A and H, the King is merely admitting that Willie is such an attractive man that it causes the King to imagine the circumstances in which he could act upon that attraction. This alternative implies that Willie's beauty, and the response to it, is such that it transcends gender - that he can simultaneously be perceived as 'woman enough' for the King to desire him as such, and 'man enough' for him to be irresistible to Janet. Or perhaps that his gender is irrelevant when it comes to desire. 

The fact is that conceptions of gender, desire, sexuality are constantly in flux, and in this context romantic folk ballads become an archaeological resource which gives some indication of past ideas that fell within the realm of acceptable. Which makes Willie o' the Winsbury a good one to throw at people who like to vaunt truisms about traditional constructions of gender, as well as being raunchy and rather a lot of fun.

Anyway, here's a lovely version from LazyShark - go and give it some well deserved likes:


*for which I am duly grateful, mostly because it must have been an utter chore to compile. I admit to simplifying its usefulness and complexity here somewhat.

**note, not extramarital.

Monday, 9 June 2014

The Mystery of Matty Graves

I know quite a few different versions of the ballad variously which, going with my usual system, I'd refer to as Child81. It is known variously as Matty Groves, Little Musgrave, Lord Barnard. The most famous is the Fairport Convention version (sung by the wonderful Sandy Denny) although my personal favourite is this one by Nic Jones.

The story is more or less the same throughout the versions, although the moral implications change. Lady Barnard (or variant) meets Little Musgrave (or variant) at church. She pursues a sexual liaison with him, although he 'dare not' because she is married. She tells him her husband is away and that they won't be disturbed, but a nearby servant overhears and runs off to tell the husband. He immediately rides home and finds the two asleep in each others arms. After a confrontation, he insists that Little Musgrave rises and fights him - usually with one of his own swords. They fight, Musgrave falls. The husband then asks his wife how she likes her lover, now. She says that she prefers him to all the finery or honour that she has in being Barnard's wife. Rising, her husband runs her through. In some versions, he then kills himself.

There's something archetypal about this tragedy, something timeless and terrible that causes it to be told over and over again. I used a version of it myself in my ghost story The Unquiet Grave. Its emphasis can be whatever singer wants - the destructive effect of lust, the violence that the privileged can do to those less powerful than themselves, the way that love is stronger than fear, or the terrible implications of an honour code. It can be anything, tragedy, morality tale, even violent, bawdy farce. It's a great song.

But that isn't what this post is about. No. In the Fairport version there is one bit that has always bewildered me. Now, in most versions - such as Child81A - the song goes something like this:
‘I have two swords in one scabberd, 
Full deere they cost my purse; 
And thou shalt have the best of them, 
And I will have the worse.’

The first stroke that Little Musgrave stroke, 
He hurt Lord Barnard sore; 
The next stroke that Lord Barnard stroke, 
Little Musgrave nere struck more.

So, what's happening here are a few things. They are duelling - with Barnard's swords. This is interesting as Barnard is both the challenger and he is selecting the weapons, and perhaps to counter this he is giving Musgrave the better weapon. They then fight, and with the economy of the form we see that they fight not to first blood (in which case, Musgrave would have won) but to the death, where Barnard's anger gives him the advantage. In other versions the fight is less balanced. In E both blows are attributed to Barnard, showing the anger (or dishonour) with which Barnard continues to attack an injured man. In others, he kills Musgrave with a single blow:  
The first straik that Young Musgrave got, 
It was baith deep and sair, 
And down he fell at Barnaby’s feet, 
And word spak never mair.

In the Fairport version, before the fight, Lord Donald says this: what happens is this: 
"It's true I have two beaten swords
Right dear they cost me purse
And you shall have the best of them
And I shall have the worst.

And you will strike the very first blow
And strike it like a man
And I will strike the very next blow
And I'll kill you if I can."

Now, this might sound like more or less the same thing but it contains a fundamental misunderstanding of sword fighting. In the Child versions, what is being discussed are 'strikes' - ie, blows that connect. In the Fairport one, we get the picture of two men taking it in turns to hit each other with swords to see who dies first. Or, at least, I do. For a long while, I thought this was fascinating insofar as it showed the incursion of the conventions gun duelling into a ballad about sword duelling. This would be a fascinating illustration of Ong's assertion that oral culture stays close to the human life world, and that obsolete conventions fall away as each singer rhapsodises on the theme, but there is a problem with this interpretation in that this isn't how gun duels work either.

My husband, bless him, tells me to stop over-thinking things that no-one else cares about and that, anyway, it's a statement of fatalism, a "this is how it's going to play out because you're good, but you aren't that good."

Perhaps he's right. I don't know. It still puzzles me. Any other thoughts on the matter are welcome.

Friday, 14 March 2014

Tam Lin and the Tiend

For the purposes of clarity, I will call the female protagonist 'Janet', the male protagonist 'Tam Lin' and the place they meet 'Carterhaugh', regardless of the variations (eg, May Margaret, Tam-a-line, Chester's Wood) that occur in Child. My spelling of 'faerie' will be as idiosyncratic as it ever is.

Oh, and this could easily turn into one of those ranty and pedantic blog posts, so if it does, I apologise.

The opinion that faery courts steal human beings in order to pay the Tiend to Hell seems to have become something of an orthodoxy in both academic and popular works. The concept behind it is simple: the fae steal beautiful or worthy human beings in order to pass them onto Hell in the stead of a beautiful or worthy faery. It is the plot of goodness knows how many novels based around faerie court - including the brilliant Fire and Hemlock, by Diana Wynne Jones - and for many years I touted it myself.

Faeries steal humans to pay the Tiend to Hell. It makes the foundation to a nice little fiction. It paints us, our society, irrevocably as the 'good guys', and the fae as 'other', unscrupulous, bad and dependent upon us. It gives a nice, dark little twist to all those twee, late Victorian fairy stories that prettied up the Greenwood and spoiled things for we lovers of the dark and the macabre. To accept it is to say - in fiction or folklore - that the 'good neighbours' can never be unproblematically good, or neighbourly.

The problem is, I can't find a scrap of evidence for it.

Oh, sure, there are plenty of references in academic tomes, plenty of scholars of the fae who present it as inalienable fact, but in all my time reading folklore, I have not encountered a single unambiguous reference to this state of affairs in a primary text.*

In what I've read, the impression seems to be that the fae steal humans mostly because that's a thing that some sorts of faeries do. Oh, sometimes, reasons are given: because they love them, or because they desire them, to eat them or marry them. Sometimes they steal humans because they like their music, because they need a wet-nurse or a midwife, because their own baby is unsatisfactory and they want a prettier one. They might steal a person because a Geis has been broken, a set of conditions met. Sometimes it just seems to be because the humans in these stories can be pretty bloody stupid and, hey, it's fun to fuck with them. But that's it. Stealing humans is just a function of this 'other' race inhabiting more or less the same world as humanity. If I would have to hazard a guess, as to 'why' I might say it was something to do with the blurring of the category of 'faery' and 'dead', but it isn't something that can be answered easily. The function of the abductions is rarely questioned, rarely explored in folktales. It is simply a statement of fact.

Okay, I haven't read everything. As a folklorist, I am an amateur. But when these people, these academics, these individuals who have spent hours pouring over transcripts from the oral tradition that I have no hope of accessing, who use that high-powered academic knowledge to give the strugglers like me a clue, the citation tends to be the same one: Tam Lin. In Tam Lin, the analysis goes, out eponymous hero is kidnapped by the faeries in order to pay the Tiend to Hell.

Well, that's great, isn't it, Alys? That's the little scrap of proof you need?

Actually, no. Because as far as proof goes, it isn't there at all.

If you know Tam Lin, I'm kind of guessing the version you know is either Child39A or the Fairport version (which is a much redacted version of Child39A). In Child39A, the issue of the Tiend is dealt with in these words,

"And pleasant is the fairy land
But, an eerie tale to tell,
Ay at the end of seven years
We pay a tiend to hell;
I am sae fair and fu o flesh
I'm feard it be mysel" 
(Child39A.24. )

Feared. Tam Lin fears. Not because he is human, not because he was stolen for this express purpose but because he is fair and full of flesh. This is a long way from, "Please rescue me as those nasty fairies want to send me to hell" - it's more of a "Yeah, I like faery pretty well, but I don't want to be there when the tiend comes up as I'd rather it wasn't me". Yes, the folk-song could be using the economy of its form to hint that they have been feeding him up in order to send him down to hell, but that isn't the inevitable, or even most obvious, interpretation.

Now, it would be very easy to say at this point to say, "okay, but it comes from one of the other versions". Alright. Except it isn't there, either. Oh, there are a lot more references to fairness and fullness, even 'fatness' of flesh. There are implications that Tam Lin may have been 'fed up' for some purpose, there are even a couple where there is some suggestion of a concern that he, particularly, should worry about being the Tiend, but even in the most explicit of those, there is no unambiguous statement of the fact that, "I am the tiend because I am a human stolen for that purpose."

Now, if you already have evidence that this were the reason folkloric faeries steal humans, Tam Lin could be used as support you hypothesis, but it is not, of itself, sufficient basis for the belief. Certainly the half-hints given by the text cannot support a belief as pervasive as this one seems to be.

If you can be bothered, you can skip over to Sacred Texts to read through variants A- N and draw your own conclusion on this.  If you have a different source for the origin of this, tell me. Argue with me in the comments, but please don't tell me it's in Tam Lin. It isn't.

Why do I care? 

The reason this bothers me isn't merely because my favourite folk ballad is being misrepresented (although obviously that is a factor here.) It has more to do with the fact that any orthodoxy founded on such a shaky, critical basis shouldn't be allowed to go unchallenged, the academic laziness in refusing to do so.

Folklore is varied and fragmented. While many similar features can be found across Europe, across even wider chunks of the globe, people's beliefs, practices and explanations were heterodox, varying in both overt and subtle ways. Yes, a fact found in one source  can be used to illuminate the mystery of another, or it may prove irrelevant. Generally, all that can be provided is an hypothesis to which both sources lend some questionable support. To assume this possibility is an inalienable fact in order to create an orthodoxy is not only futile, it gives a false image of what people honestly thought, which motives inform the source material.

That's my academic gripe. My real concern, however, is the way so shaky a premise is being used to justify a set of sweeping generalisations about a race marked as Other.

After all, we want to believe bad things about the Other, we want to be reassured in our superiority, our virtue, and we want those reassurances to be at their expense. The problem with this assumption is that it silences the multiplicity of voices that can be found in folklore which relates to the fae. Yes, plenty of these traditional stories make it clear that the faeries are the bad guys, that they are unscrupulous, ammoral, but others do not.  Other stories are more ambiguous, or else they portray humans in a distinctly negative light. The blanket assumption that "Faeries kidnap humans to pay the tiend and continue their existence" not only does our higher faculties a disservice, it stifles the range of thought, belief and experience, it undermines ones ability to differentiate, precludes the possibility of tolerance.

More significantly, it offers a precedent by which different models of Otherness can be shamed and demonised. Even if the discourse of faery does not feed directly into racial and cultural prejudices that affect actual people in the human world right now** it does show how willing we are to take an aspect of another race, another culture and - using only thin evidence and poor intellectual practice -  establish a single explanation as 'fact', over-riding a multiplicity of other narratives which could offer alternative explanations.

This, I really hope you don't need to be told, is a bad thing.

You may have noticed I haven't cited an awful lot:

Well, if you don't like this kind of thing, do ignore the rest of the article. If you do, then here are my references, written in the style that I make my notes.

Friday, 31 January 2014

Sacred Vampirism in the Child Ballads

If anyone ever wants to buy me a present - and has a few hundred quid to spare on it - I wouldn't say no to a full text, hard copy of Francis James Child's The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. A online version can be found on the superlative Sacred Texts website, but while this is arguably more practical for my daily researching needs, it does not have Child's notes, nor can it replace that calm, reassuring weight of the blue cloth volumes, the smell of the paper, or the joy you can get by just flicking through the pages and seeing what you can see.

That's how I came across 'Leesome Brand' (Child15), one of those little curios that lodges in your brain, needling you. Child recorded only two versions of it, and, although they share some motifs, B is much more like 'Sheath and Knife' (Child16) than it is like Child15A.

The story is.... odd. It begins with a mother lamenting that her son Leesome Brand left home at a young age (ten or younger), going to a strange land where the wind doesn't blow and the cocks do not crow. In this land he meets a girl who - despite being improbably young (eleven or younger) - is sexually active. When it became clear she is heavily with child, she and Leesome Brand steal some stuff (horses and her dowry) and flee her father's hall.

As they are riding through the forest, the girl goes into labour with that much used and wonderfully resonant declaration that her "back will gang in three!" After a little discussion about the distance from the town and the unavailability of a midwife, Leesome Brand offers to deliver the baby: The girl tells him to go off hunting because childbirth is women's business. Still, she gives the caveat that whilst he can kill whatever he wants, he mustn't touch the white hind, because the white hind is a woman. 

Enjoying himself hunting, he forgets about the girl until he sees the white hind. Racing back to where he left her, he finds her dead, the baby lying beside her (also dead?). He returns to his mother's hall, where she, overjoyed at his return, asks the reason for his dejection. He says he has lost a golden knife and its far more valuable golden sheath (if I had to pick one thing I love most about folk songs, it would be the unsubtlety of their sexual metaphors), but after crude symbolism proves inadequate, he explains that the lady he loves is dead, as is the son she had borne him.

What happens next is, strictly speaking, a relic miracle. Leesome Brand's mother has three drops of St Paul's blood, which, splashed upon the bodies, will restore them to life. Leesome Brand does this, and the woman and child are reborn,

as lively [..], 
As the first day he brought them hame.

 Now, I could spend years picking my way through this. Such a dark little ballad of love, of neglect, of loss. There is a lot about childbirth, about the relative statuses and antagonisms between women.  Like in 'Gil Brenton', another ballad that haunts me, the initially hostile mother-in law becomes the agent of her daughter-in-law's restoration. There is a lot about pre-marital sex and legitimacy. There is magic; both that which works (the blood) and that which does not (the White Hind).

Besides, the story is so poignant. That sense of lament, the mother's lament, the lover's lament...  Leesome Brand's support of the woman he loves, and how despite that love, his powerlessness to help her, even to understand her... Actually, it got to me so much I used a verse as an epigraph in Time's Fool, my own little tale of uncrossable gulfs.

And vampirism, of course.

Because it has to be blood, doesn't it? This isn't a prayer to Saint Thomas at Canterbury, it isn't a fragment of the True Cross (what better symbol of resurrection?) it is the blood of Saint Paul, the one who some traditions claim was crucified upside-down. What is more, it isn't merely contact with the relic that restores the life. The ballad is specific: three drops of blood - two for the mother, one for the son.

Christian tradition has a very conflicted view regarding blood, self mutilation and bodily injury.  On the one hand, it has inherited the (frequent) Old Testament injunctions against eating the blood with the meat, as well as Leviticus 19:28 ("You shall not make any cuts in your body for the dead"). On the other, it is a religion based upon martyrdom. Christians are redeemed by the Blood of the Lamb - the sacrament is (depending on your denomination) either literally, symbolically, or well-a-little-of-both, the blood of Jesus.  

The blood of saints, too, is powerful. The rituals of physical penance are often cited in the lives of Saints as a mark of holiness. It has been the cause of much worry in the church that the drawing of blood is seen as a visible mark of holiness. To be fair, when relics are venerated, what is more powerful than the blood? After all "the blood is the life" (Deuteronomy 12:23). After Becket's martyrdom, handkerchiefs soaked in his blood were sold as miraculous relics. 

But relics - at least in my limited understanding of these things - are incorruptible. Their power, coming as it does from sacred sources, is not diminished by their use. The sacrament renews with each consecration. The blood has been once spilt - to squander it would be sacrilege.

And, of course, there is the infamous 'Black Mass', where - one is told -  the cross upon the altar was inverted and human blood drunk from the chalice. Witches had familiars who came and suckled at their veins, giving them power over these humans, giving these humans powers beyond their lot. The promise of vampirism is the same: drink the blood of the right person, have the right person draw your blood and you will have eternal life. 

In his notes on the ballad, Child draws a comparison to the story The Transformation of a Maiden in to a Hind, where a girl is cursed by her stepmother and transformed into a hind. The curse can only be broken if she drinks her brother's blood. In the logic of story, it is her brother who shoots her and, at her request, cuts his fingers so she can be restored to her natural shape. He also references a Scandanavian ballad,
'Redselille og Medelvold', which follows a similar plot, but instead of the resurrection that we get in Leesome Brand, the protagonist buries the woman and her still living children, until their screams drive him to suicide. More concerns of the vampire genre - the dead coming back to seize the living. The curse that makes you prey upon those dearest to you.

A strange little ballad, Leesome Brand, one that asks more than it answers.

 Who is this woman who can be revived by blood? This precocious woman brought back from an uncanny land? The song begins as a lament,
MY boy was scarcely ten years auld, 
Whan he went to an unco land, 
Where wind never blew, nor cocks ever crew, 
Ohon for my son, Leesome Brand!

Yet ends 'well', or as well as these things ever do. The wording, too, is strange. They are as lively as the day he first brought them home. Perhaps folk ballads are not the place to analyse logic, but when Leesome Brand brought them home, weren't they dead?

(This article owes access to Child's commentaries to

Friday, 10 January 2014

Who'll be a soldier? Desperation and the modern folk tradition

...And he sang as he walked through the crowded streets of Rochester
"Who'll be a soldier for Marlborough and me?..."

A song of whisky and despair, for me,  a song half chanted, half crooned, the monotony of the refrain turned into a plaint against fate, against poverty. It is a song for the Medway towns.

Much of this is because of the way I heard it first, in the basement of The Command House, cried out by Chatham's favourite son. Riding on my coat-tails passport to the Medway Arts scene, I lurked at the back.  It felt old to me, as old the misery of being broke, as bleak as the folk-imagination can muster:

..."Oh I," said the young man, "have oft endured the parish queue
There is no labour or work here for me...

The folk tradition is conservative and subversive in equal measure. It at once defines normative roles (the recruitment sergeant) and offers criticism of structures of power those roles enforce. It is, as Adam Fox says, "inherently subversive and irreverent" and what else does the throw-away quality of that verse convey but the powerlessness with which the young and dispossessed see the promise of the recruitment centre - put so conveniently in the poorer areas of town - and wonder if they might as well not join the army. Without the benefit of a trade, an apprenticeship, what way do young men have of earning a wage?

...To be paid with the powder 
or rattle of the canon ball
Wages for soldiers for Malborough and me...

 The song keeps calling back to 'the King's Shilling', a soldier's first day of pay, taken in advance as they take their oath. Between 1700 and 1860, the average wage of a London carpenter rose from around 2s 6d to 5s a day (Source: To be a soldier, or at least a raw recruit, is perhaps not an elevation from poverty, butan affirmation of it. And as we hear

...forty new recruits 
came marching back through Rochester
Off to the wars in the North country...

How cheap a commodity, desperation.
As all scholars of the oral tradition will tell you, auditory experience is unique in that it leaves no mark. A ballad exists only in its performance, in the mind. But, from an emotive perspective, the mark that it leaves is deep, enduring. For all I hear it cried out with the full force of jollity and optimism at Rochester's Dickens festival (every time I can be bothered to attend) that will always seem an irony, a piece of false history, a failure to eulogise that sadness, the jingoism that masks the complete absence of hope.
But my conception of Who'll be a Soldier is a piece of false history, too. Although the first stanza is traditional, being the remaining fragment of a ballad called The Bold Fusilier, the song as we recognise it was written in the '70s by Peter Coe of Strawhead - who asksto be credited when it is sung. It is actually called The Rochester Recruiting Sergeant and, For those of you unfamiliar with it, the tune is Waltzing Matilda.

Given closer scrutiny, even the structure of the song suggests that it is not the creation of an oral culture. For example, each stanza takes on its own refrain (come be a soldier, wages for soldiers, take the King's shilling) - although this technique is not unknown in oral culture, what Ong calls the 'redundant' or 'copious' feature of oral tradition would lead me expect the refrain to be uniform - with the possible exception of a single verse.

The song, then, is modern. My interpretation of it, based upon Billy Childish's performance, and my lack of attention as he credited it to Coe, is a modern construct. Is this, then, as inauthentic, as much a indulgence of sentiment as the tendency to wear a crinoline and simper over Mr Darcy?

No. No, I would argue it isn't. For a start, Coe is clearly a talented and versatile folk writer. The song sings well, it marches well, as I'm sure the red-coats at the Dickens festival would attest. Like a good piece of historical fiction, while not 'authentic' it is, perhaps, an authentic reconstruction. It is a common feature of the broadside ballad to say, "sung to the tune of...". What is more, there is suggestion of scepticism towards the armed forces in Ratcliffe Highway (also known as The Deserter), which shows the reluctant soldier. Other ballads speak of press-gangs. Perhaps the only note that rings false about The Rochester Recruiting Sergeant is that young men, the forty new recruits, are willing volunteers.

But this is not my main objection to a consideration of the song as 'inauthentic'. To use that word implies the existence of folk tradition that is not real, one that can be stood next to a 'pure' oral culture. The fact is, my 'authentic' example of Ratcliffe Highway is a broadside ballad - is, essentially, a text, a literate creation. Of course, it is possible to postulate and oral 'original' to these texts, one captured by the culture of print which, even as it destroyed our English oral heritage, was kind enough to fossilize some of its remains. This Romantic conception of folk music is incredibly attractive, but is founded upon the fallacy that English culture has - at any point in the last 800 years - been anything other than literate.

Studies by historians, such as M.T Clanchy and Adam Fox show that the gradual encroachment of literacy and literate forms into every aspect of legal life made text accessible, even to those who could not read. Instead of the idyllic image of a pristine, peasant orality only gradually being 'preserved' by text, more historically likely is a vibrant symbiotic relationship between the two, of which surviving textual sources provide us with snapshots. Those texts - cheaply produced, cheaply sold, printed, reprinted, collected and shared - were equally sites of performance as the folksinger's memory. If, as Fox claims, "By 1700 it may reasonably be assumed that England was a society in which half of the adult population could read print," then it follows that half of the adult population could not. In this context, a broadside ballad becomes a social site, one that has a performative value beyond the words upon the page. There is some evidence that people bought them, put them up in their cottages and shops, even if they themselves could not read. Rather than dead text, a private indulgence, the context of literacy frames the broadside as a social site. The value of the text is known, even if its mysteries remain inaccessible without help. Having just one person in the village who could read it would have created the opportunity for everyone in that community to experience - and learn - the song.

So, it is conceivable that this written song would pass into the oral tradition, perhaps to be recorded again some some ten, some fifty years later by another broadside ballad printer - or perhaps a clergyman out 'collecting' Britain's oral heritage. In the context of literacy, the relationship between oral and textual ceases to be fixed and hierarchical, to be symbiotic, to become ongoing.

"In oral tradition, there will be as many minor variants of a myth as there are repetitions of it", Ong writes in Orality and Literacy. Speaking specifically of orally composed songs, he states, "though metrically regular, they were never sung the same way twice."

The Rochester Recruiting Sergeant can be found by searching, The Bold Fusilier, Who'll be a Soldier, The Recruiting Sergeant. Researching this post, I found locating a text of Coe's original words  nigh on impossible. Rochester's streets are either 'cobbled' or 'crowded' - although the 'kettle drum' of the original is barely mentioned.  The agonist is variously described as a fuslilier, a grenadier, or simply a recruiting sergeant. Approximately half of the versions I discovered referred to 'The King's shilling', despite the fact "the Queen" is the one recruiting troops. This smoothing of language - to fit the modern idiom rather than the historical accuracy of describing the shilling as 'The Queen's' - displays another aspect of oral tradition, that of close adherence to the human lifeworld. Similarly, there was a general tendency to homogenise the refrain lines. Each individual site of the text is informed by the performances of the song the transcriber has heard, informed by their politics, their sentiments, their understanding of the past.
As I sing the song - remembering the Dickens festival and the Command House - I don't sing the 'right' words. I rhapsodise upon the theme, the general idea, the memory. I don't sing the same words route marching my children home from the shops, trying to prevent them from dawdling, as I do when drinking with friends and feeling maudlin. Like the oral tradition, my engagement with this is empathetic, and participatory. Coe's song offers a critique of current conditions of army recruitment, just as broadside ballads offered one of the press gangs. Like many subversive forms, this critique is concealed beneath the veneer of historicity - the King's shilling, the parish queue, the objections of masons or butchers and bakers - what remains is the fact that a entry level pay in the army is around £15k, entry level pay for a teacher is almost £22k. Yet still, forty new recruits go marching.

Who'll be a soldier, indeed?

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Some history of Christmas Misrule.

Those good chaps at have produced this lovely article on Medieval Christmas traditions - so for any one interested in children misbehaving at Yuletide, check out these, especially 3.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Burning pants, farting donkeys and the Lords of Misrule.

I was going to start this blog with a quasi academic article about modern orality and snobbery but I figured "it's Christmas". So, to quote my favourite children's film of recent years, what we're going to do is... we're going to have a little fun.

Before we begin, a handful of things that will come up a lot in this blog:

  1.  In a literate culture, the oral tradition is generally the preserve of those on the borders of literacy - traditionally,  this would be women and children.
  2.  In a culture of partial or even full literacy, the relationship between oral and textual forms is symbiotic.
  3. Orality, particularly what Ong calls "secondary orality" is frequently subversive, offering acomment on established power structures.
  4. Therefore it totally justified for me to say:

Jingle Bells, Batman smells,
Robin laid an egg...

Yeah, that's right. The kids smirking that out in the back row of a carol concert?  Defenders of the folk tradition, every one of 'em.