The Folk Handbook ed John Morrish

English folk songs are a cultural treasure comparable to Shakespeare – so why are they so under-appreciated?
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The odd thing about English folk song is that very few people in England seem to know anything about it. Otherwise cultured, literary people seem to have no idea that we possess an extraordinarily rich canon of popular song, ranging from profound narrative ballads illuminating the human condition, to lyrical love songs, to comical tales that play with metaphor in the most sophisticated way. It's a lyric tradition that more than compares in range and depth to the work of our greatest poets, such as Chaucer, Shakespeare and the Romantics, but for some reason – whether through snobbery, ignorance, or the peculiarly British disease of self-deprecation – this valuable national treasure has been systematically trivialised and ridiculed over the years, to such an extent that today it remains almost unknown.

All of which makes this wonderful new collection of English folk songs particularly welcome. As well as the songs themselves, The Folk Handbook also boasts a series of perceptive essays and a fascinating CD of recently recorded traditional singers (one track was recorded as late as 2005, showing that the music is still very much alive). Packaged in a ring binder, it's clearly aimed at schools and libraries, but still has much to offer the general reader. Hopefully, the book will help to dispel the illusion, fostered by a lot of modern revivalists, that English folk music consists of nothing but whimsical nonsense about milkmaids, elves and fairies prancing about in a pastoral idyll. It may also give us some pointers as to why the tradition has been so undervalued in the past, and how it might be resurrected in the future.

There are 90 songs here, presented in thematic groups entitled "songs of death", "songs of love", "songs of trickery and outwitting" and so on. Each song is given a page to itself, with the lyrics clearly printed and the melody shown in simple musical notation, followed by information on the song, which, like the rest of the writing in the book, is erudite without being overly academic.

For instance, the notes on first song, "Death and the Lady", which tells of a young woman's attempt to bribe her way out of a prophecy of death, not only give us the lowdown on the danse macabre tradition to which it belongs, but discuss Holbein, Dürer, William Chappell, Mary Lamb, Cecil Sharp and Shirley Collins along the way. The classic murder ballad "Bruton Town" gets a similar treatment, showing us how it connects to versions of the story by Boccaccio, the German poet Hans Sachs and John Keats. To balance the gloom of the ballads, there are plenty of optimistic love songs in the collection, such as "The Banks of Sweet Primroses", "Hear the Nightingale Sing" and "The Bold Fisherman", as well as humorous, bawdy tales like "The Game of All Fours" and "The Thrashing Machine" that, as the notes explain, take delight in sexual metaphor rather than hiding behind euphemism.

My own particular interest, songs about errant women of one kind or another, is also well represented here. On the one hand, we encounter resourceful heroines like Lady Isabel in "The Outlandish Knight", who drowns a serial killer by asking him to avert his gaze while she strips naked, and then pushes him off a cliff into the sea; on the other, there are tragic figures like the unfaithful wife in "The Daemon Lover", who is tempted away from her husband and baby by a former lover, with dreadful consequences. Also included here is perhaps the most famous female heroine of them all: the rich, highborn lady who leaves her "new-wedded lord" and her goose-feather bed to elope with a dark-eyed gypsy boy and sleep with him in a "cold open field", in the song variously known as "The Raggle Taggle Gypsies", "The Gypsy Laddie", and "Black Jack Davey".

This is perhaps the one English folk song that people know today; yet somehow, in being served up to us over the years as a jolly rural ditty for schoolchildren to sing, its radical sexual and social message, as well as the mysterious female psychology at its heart, have tended to become obscured. Perhaps the reason for this has to do with the way folk songs have been presented in musical and cultural terms, rather than because their lyrics no longer speak to us. Handing out song sheets, getting people to sing the songs in unison, and banging out chords on the piano to accompany them, as teachers used to do when I was a child (and probably still do), entirely robs the words of their poetry. No wonder that today many people can't stand the sound of what they think of as "English folk music", and refuse to take it seriously.

Many ancient English folk melodies are full of strange, Eastern-flavoured intervals and irregular patterns that are at odds with our contemporary way of making music, whether classical or pop. For this reason, an unaccompanied traditional air may sound stark, even ugly to the modern ear. But try listening to one of the singers on the CD here – Jean Orchard or Walter Pardon – and then attempt to sing along yourself. You'll be struck by the intricacy of the phrasing, the way it's almost impossible to reproduce exactly what you hear; and afterwards, when you go back to modern pop or rock tunes, you may begin to find that they begin to sound bland and simplistic in comparison.

Overall, there is only one minor criticism that I would make: a separate index of song titles, with alternate versions, would have been helpful. Many readers will want to go straight to individual songs, rather than look through the selections by theme or consult a general index. But in every other way, this is a very fine, user-friendly collection, a sharing of experience and knowledge by some of our best contemporary English folk singers and scholars.