Thursday, 2 April 2009

Yes, It's Folkie Friday!

One of my favourite singers is Anne Briggs, she has such a beautiful voice and her work was incredibly influential in the late 1960s. The song she is singing in the clip below, Black Waterside, was used as inspiration for Led Zeppelin's Black Mountainside, and if you listen closely you can really hear the similarities between the two tunes.

Black Waterside is an Irish tune, but I'm a little unsure whether the lyrics are Irish. The words to folk songs would alter, like a game of Chinese whispers, according to the regions of the British Isles, and like many traditional songs, particularly English traditional songs, the song is about sexual transgression and regret. The girl laments the fact that she was foolish to "lie in sport" with her Irish boy, upon nothing but his promise of marriage. The naivety of the young girl really comes though, this is not the song of a mature woman, and her words are not angry, but frustrated and shameful.

There's not a girl in this whole wide world, who's as easily led as I.

Of course the other side of the story, dare I say the more masculine version of of the girl's lament, is the bawdy ballad, the kind that would be sung in pubs and fields amongst men only. There's an interesting story in Classic English Folk Songs, published by the efdss, which tells of one of the old, turn of the century singers, refusal to sing a ballad (I think it was Salisbury Plain) to one of the female song collectors employed by Vaughn Williams. The old chap considered the themes within the song far too inappropriate for a woman, let alone a woman of the gentry, to hear.
Perhaps he simply couldn't bring himself to sing:
"Undress yourself, and come to bed with me." "Oh yes, that I will," then says she, "if you'll keep all those flash girls away."

Now, Salisbury Plain is a ballad in the tradition of Black Waterside, in the sense that the transgressors get their comeuppance, but there are other songs which allow the lovers to get away with their "sport" and they are far more explicit than Salisbury Plain. Understandably, few of these truly bawdy songs remain, as most would be embarrassed to sing them to any song collector and they were songs which would only be popular with a specific sector of the community; men who worked and played away from women and children. One of the most famous of these songs is Bonny Black Hare, here it is played by Fairport Convention. Be warned, it would make a sailor blush!

Now, I've read a feminist analysis of this song which states that it is women positive because the girl in the narrative enjoys the "sport" with the huntsman and feel no regret about her actions. I'm a little unsure about this interpretation, this is a man's song, told from a man's point of view, it's man's fantasy, little is said about the woman at all. What we must understand is that folk songs were a narrative mainstay for a largely pre-literate culture. That's why we find so many different narrative genres within the folk cannon, this is how stories were passed around, and in the case of Bonny Black Hare, this is how dirty stories were passed around.

Well, I hope you enjoyed my little foray into the folk culture of Ye Olde Englande. Next Friday I may take a look at songs about ghosts...or perhaps highwaymen!

Enjoy, goode huswyves!


Anonymous said...

Feminist lyrics my eye! Lol. I agree with you, he finds pretty, easy lady in secret outdoor place, no strings, no comeuppence - "I lay her with her eyes to the sky"...sounds like a man's song to me to be sure. If it were up to me in the last verse his mother'd do some damage to him with her rolling pin when she finds out! ;)

Anonymous said...

...THEN it would be a feminist song! Hehehehe - the rolling pin rules (not that I'd ever threaten my man with a rolling pin - ahem).

Dulce Domum said...

Hi Sarah
Yes, either a rolling pin or a frying pan would do the trick. It's all a male fantasy though. When was the last time you saw a lady of easy virtue going for a stroll in a wood?