Saturday, 25 April 2009

You (don't really) Need Roots

A year or two ago I heard a song called "Roots" by a folk duo called Show of Hands. It's a very catchy, stirring song, with lyrics that caught my mood at the time -- basically, a feisty lament for the way the English have lost touch with their own native musical traditions (and by implication their national identity). Apparently it was written in reaction to sometime Culture Minister Kim Howells' remark that his idea of hell was three folksingers from Somerset in a pub (Dr. Howells, despite a distinguished career in Parliament, is given to such provocative remarks -- people may remember his comments on the 2002 Turner Prize).
After the speeches, when the cake's been cut
The disco's over and the bar is shut
At christening, birthday, wedding or wake
What can we sing 'til the morning breaks?

With the Indians, Asians, Africans, Celts
It's in their blood, below their belt
They're playing and dancing all night long
So what have they got right that we've got wrong?
As a veteran of the folk scene myself, it spoke to me very clearly. "You need roots" asserts the chorus -- yes, indeed. But the more I thought about it, the more suspicious I became of the feelings the song aroused. The reason we have had at least four "folk revivals" in this country is that the patient is, frankly, dead. And every time we bring it back, it's a bit more of a Frankenstein zombie. And I'm also always uncomfortably aware that "rootless cosmopolitans" was Soviet-era code for "Jews".

The English folk scene now, despite the continuity provided by the likes of the Copper family or the Carthy/Waterson dynasty, is about as authentic as chicken tikka masala. Which is to say, it's a perfectly decent reflection of our own times, but has been refracted and reflected through too many mirrors too many times to accurately show the source. Some might say it was ever thus, and that continual renewal is precisely the point. But to claim these songs as "ours" and thereby somehow intrinsic to our national identity is to raise Balkan and reactionary questions about race, land, culture and belonging. Let's face it, for anyone born post-1945, "Smokestack Lightning" is even more "ours" than "Cold Haily Windy Night". And "Smokestack Lightning" is not "ours" at all.

So it didn't surprise me at all to hear this week that Show of Hands have had to take action to have their song removed from a video put out by the extreme right-wing British National Party. Well, of course. Billy Bragg and Show of Hands might talk of "taking back" the Union Jack and the flag of St. George, but -- come on -- does anyone really want them back, knowing where they've been? The fact is that the strong emotions aroused by talk of "roots" and "tradition" may be real, but they are not progressive, in the sense that they will not take us forward from here -- this imperfect but really rather not at all bad place we call "England" -- to an even better place.

In fact, when you think about it, isn't England leading the world in its casting off of the trappings of nationalism? Have we not perhaps muddled through to a society strong enough in its self-acceptance to find itself ludicrous, and post-modern enough to enable millions of Pick'n'Mix identities to rub along together? After all, why do so many people with rather different roots find this a congenial place to come and live? It sure as shit isn't the food (though chicken tikka was definitely a step forward, except as a flavour of crisps). And why do so many of us not really mind all that much if they do come here? Apart, that is, from a few boneheads with a thing about the dilution of our mongrel "blood" and the preservation of "traditions" most of them are too ignorant to identify.

Ironically, I think the urge to poke fun at morris men and all such solemn attempts to re-invent "traditions" is one of the genuinely life-enhancing legacies on our interesting island. It's our insurance against Kultur-peddling Nazis. Remember the 1983 film The Ploughman's Lunch? Scripted by Ian McEwan, it used the fact that the "traditional" ploughman's lunch was invented as a marketing ploy as a metaphor for the continual and self-serving rewriting of history by our masters, about which we have every right to be cynical.

Of course, apart from a few peculiar backwaters like Rottingdean, the singing of folksongs (other than in folk clubs) died out in most of England so long ago that no-one can actually remember when. People have always sung, of course. In the late 70s my partner and I used to drink most nights in a pub called The Phoenix in Bristol -- on certain weeknights the entire pub would resound with the communal singing of about thirty or forty well-oiled senior citizens. I never did hear them sing a single "traditional" song, though, but "Delilah", I recall, would raise the roof. No more though: subsequent generations have lost the taste for the singalong, and that may be something to be regretted. This has nothing to do with "roots", though, and a lot to do with the professionalisation of entertainment.

But "Playing and dancing all night long?" Give it a rest, some of us have got work in the morning, mate.


Mauro Thon Giudici said...

A couple of beautiful images, the second one is great.

Mike C. said...

Thanks, Mauro. Interesting you should comment, as I had recently decided that making the effort to tie text and images together is too restricting, and will simply be using whatever I have recently made (or rediscovered) that is good to look at.

Anonymous said...

My feeling is that the roots are there, whether you explicitly cultivate them or not. They have a habit of reemerging unexpectedly and reminding you of their existence - especially once you reach maturity or middle age. I suspect ground elder is probably a better metaphor than Stout Oak though.

For me, folk music has three main attractions. First, the folk world has retained the idea that music is something you do, not just something you buy. Second, the musicians can actually play their instruments, and are usually better live than recorded. Third, I'm a sucker for triple time, which pop and rock have largely rejected.

The invention of tradition is nothing new, and neither is the co-opting of traditions by those who would like to neatly ring-fence their own little world of power or comfort. I only know "Show of Hands" by what's on YouTube, so can't comment on them in particular, but it would be ironic if a new English Folk movement adopted the old celtic political inferiority complex and defined itself by what it is not.

The oldest songs are usually hiding in plain sight in the playgrounds. Swedish children's songs have the most amazing irregular rhythms - even those for the very young. They're a welcome break from the endless 4/4 of the adult world.


Mike C. said...

Thanks for commenting -- I agree with everything you say, Struan. However, my concern is not so much the music as the emotional short-circuit that seems so easy to make from "roots" to xenophobia, or worse. I can feel it in myself, and distrust it: I'm one of those people that can ignore the national anthem, but tears up when Jerusalem is sung...

I was profoundly disturbed by what happened in the Balkans, for example. That such extreme nationalist / cultural divisions can smoulder for so long underground without being extinguished is very shocking.

I once read an interesting piece titled "The Hangman's Ancient Sunlight" which explored the links between the British "agrarian right" (Henry Williamson, et al.) and the British folk-rock scene (esp. the likes of The Incredible String Band), which explained some of the unease I felt about "folk" as an ideology, if not as a practice. A version of it is still available here:

Tendentious, but very thought-provoking.

Adam Long said...

Hi Mike, been reading your blog for a while and find your photography very inspiring, but this week you've echoed my thoughts exactly!
Last sunday I accompanied my Dad to see Show of Hands. I enjoyed it, but felt distinctly uncomfortable during their finishing number - 'Roots'.
At the time I was a little alarmed to have an 'emotional short-circuit', as you put it, though not to xenophobia but to a kind of knee-jerk anti-racism that my head told me wasn't justified, and led on to concerns that I was becoming some kind of loony-leftie seeing 'racists' everywhere.
Thankfully I picked up The Guardian the following day and read an article (the same, I presume?) which rather reassured me of my distrustful urges.
Keep up the good work.

Anonymous said...

How do you fight co-option? I have cringed when living in Berlin and here in Sweden when kindly people reassured me that I was the sort of foreigner they were happy to see coming into the country. At some point you call them on their racisim, but politeness and a sense that their bias is largely inconsequential prevents me at least from bringing out the big guns every time. The trick is to protest before you get to the Niemöller stage of having nobody around to help stick up for you.

The risk as I see it is not so much the short distance from local culture to nationalism, but the urge to make the club exclusive, and then actively hostile to non-members. The flip side of the flag-waving hearts of oak is the incredible growth and interest in World Music, and the respect accorded by many - at least in the Swedish and Scottish folk scenes I know best - to musicians from widely different cultures and traditions. Some of the results are more pig-swill than melting pot, but it makes it harder for the hometown nationalists to co-opt the local fiddler if he regularly performs with musicians from all over the world.

The countryside, and the preservation of the countryside, do seem to be issues where both loony fringes of the political spectrum meet each other coming back from infinity round the other way. Preservation of rural *jobs* seems to have been abandoned by both sets, but that's probably a further reflection of their fundamental callousness.

All that said, I gather that "Show of Hands" come from Wickham. As a Bishops Waltham nipper I'd say we should show pity and understanding, rather than anger :-)


Mike C. said...

Thanks, Adam, I much appreciate it when "lurkers" break cover! Interesting that the song has the same impact live.

I see you're a rock-climbing photographer, based in Sheffield -- my son may be going to Sheffield university this October, and -- ludicrously -- everyone keeps telling him how perfect it is for climbing (he is daunted by steep stairs, never mind cliffs...)