Arts: Uncle Tom Cobley and all

So British popular music began in the Sixties, did it? Of course not. A new CD survey of original folk recordings shows today's pop groups a thing or two about musical grit.

Most people think they know what British traditional music is. It's Celtic, isn't it? There's your Irish Celtic - Riverdance, Enya and so on - and your Scottish Celtic - Runrig, Capercaillie and the like. Then, of course, there's your Welsh Celtic, although nobody knows quite what that is, and anyway Wales has got bands such as the Manics and Catatonia now, so it doesn't really matter. And then there's the English. Sadly, they're not Celtic. So they don't have any traditional music at all. Unless you believe in a Merrie-England-type fantasy of peasants dancing and singing and drinking pints of foaming ale on the village green, which we all know is absurd.

The release of a 20-part series of CDs entitled The Voice of the People and featuring a wonderful variety of British singers, from Norfolk fishermen to Perthshire hawkers, from Clare farmers to Sussex carpenters, may go some way to changing the way people think - or rather don't think - about the traditional music of these islands. First of all, it becomes clear that the term "Celtic" is a dead end, and better describes the kind of New-Age CDs with titles such as Druid Panpipes you see in the easy listening section of record shops. For what emerges from this collection is that the music of these islands, far from being lost in some dreary, mythical spiritual unity of the remote past, is bursting with the raucous energy, vitality and variety of real people in a fairly recent, or at least accessible past.

Here are the voices of "ordinary" people from around Britain, mostly born around the turn of the century; people such as Scan Tester, Lemmie Brazil, Jumbo Brightwell and Wiggy Smith, whose lives were as exotic as their names. Take Minty Smith, for instance (no relation to Wiggy); she was a fortune-teller who, aged 16, ran off with a knife-grinder and ended up as a busker at Epsom Races, bringing up 13 children on the way and living for some years beside a road in Sevenoaks. Not only singers like these, but the songs themselves - on every subject under the sun, from work to sex, from death to drinking, from marriage to exile, from "Hopping Down In Kent" to "The Dowie Dens of Yarrow" via "The Clattering of the Clyde Waters" - bear witness to lives that were often unbearably harsh and miserable, but usually exciting and adventurous as well. The collection as a whole displays a vast, interlocking network of popular songs - among them all the familiar classics such as "The Raggle-Taggle Gypsies", "Barbara Allen" and "John Barleycorn" - developed by the working people of these islands over centuries, which not only survived but thrived until the beginning of our own. What becomes clear as we move towards the millennium is just how close we now are to losing this culture altogether, as we strive to present ourselves as homogeneous, modern-day Britons.

The English in particular are for some reason thoroughly unwilling to recognise themselves as having any real cultural traditions at all, let alone the vast array of regional voices and stories that are so evident on this compilation. The average Englishman or woman usually seems extremely embarrassed about being English, possibly because today, the idea of being English in any serious or meaningful way seems to be the prerogative of flag-waving Nazis, from Colonel Blimps to British Movement skinheads. There's perhaps something quite endearing about this refusal on the part of most English people to be pompous about their cultural heritage in the way that the French can be, forever enshrining the language of the nation and presenting their artists and writers with medals and titles. At the same time, our total lack of interest in our cultural roots has led to a situation in which people don't even know that English traditional music exists, let alone feel the urge to enshrine it. It's a fact that currently there's no collection of our great English ballads in print in this country, which, to my mind, is taking cultural modesty a little bit too far.

It does seem sad that while we may be - at least nominally - keen to embrace a multicultural Britain, we are so dismissive of our own cultural traditions. Since the Eighties, music buyers have been sold world music and are happy to listen to traditional African or Arabic singers, for the most part blissfully ignorant as to what on earth they're singing about, while the names of our own great traditional singers, featured on these albums, such as Jeannie Robertson, Walter Pardon, Phoebe Smith, Harry Cox, Lizzie Higgins, Belle Stewart, and so on, remain largely unknown.

The result of this cultural rootlessness is, I think, apparent in Britain's contemporary pop industry, which is fast becoming the equivalent of a novelty toy factory somewhere around the Pacific Rim. Today, Britain specialises in quick-turnover, fashion-oriented bands, and there's little room for any other kind of endeavour. Compare the United States, where recently an "alternative country" scene of post-punk bands has sprouted out of the fertile soil of country music, itself generated from the folk music of rural areas such as the Appalachian mountains and Kentucky. Whereas the Americans have kept alive their rural musical traditions, we in Britain - where much of this music originated - have done our best to bury them (give or take Seventies folk-rock, that re-creation of Merrie England, with added loon pants and a dodgy rhythm section). The result of this is that many of our contemporary musicians have no real musical references beyond those of other pop bands since the Sixties; they flail around in a sea of ignorance, endlessly dredging up and recycling sounds from the recent past, instead of being able to dig deep into history and reinvent it, as American artists such as Bob Dylan - and more recently Gillian Welch, Lucinda Williams and Steve Earle - have done.

A year ago, the Smithsonian Institute in America released The Harry Smith Anthology, a treasure trove of early blues, folk and country recordings in a boxed set that sold to all kinds of music enthusiasts. The Voice of the People is Britain's answer to it: an anthology of our greatest traditional singers from the turn of the century onwards, singing some of our most beautiful songs. The fact that the British collection has been put out by an independent record label, Topic, rather than a large institution should make us begin to wonder what we value in our national life. For some of us, there may be a sense of relief that this collection has appeared before it's too late and the songs are gone; however, it's more than possible that the tradition will continue to remain obscure unless some effort - and money - are put into keeping it alive.

Apparently, copies of The Voice of the People have been sent to Tony Blair and he's written back to Topic to thank them. Which is nice of him. Let's hope he listens to them.

`The Voice of the People' is released this week by Topic Records. Charlotte Greig's album, `Night Visiting Songs', is available on Harmonium Records (both distributed by Direct)

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