Who Gets a Song?

What is the relationship between a folk song and its genesis? How important is it to the worth of a song that there is a personal connection of some sort between the author, subject and audience? It could be argued that ever since the popularisation of the broadsheet, around 1712, this connection has been broken. With songs copied from one region and spread all over the country (and globe) to be sung by singers to audiences, neither of whom have any tangible connection to the subject matter.

Thinking back to the time of the bards, their songs were closely linked to the living memory of a specific region, clan or tribe. The audience could often trace their lineage to the heroes of a song, or even have eyewitnesses to the events amongst the living population.

We could be sceptical and assume that the bard was the equivalent of Fox News or a Murdoch tabloid, with truth in reporting highly dependent on who is paying their salary (or threatening to kill them). A brief research into the Fili of Ireland would suggest otherwise. It is because of the Fili and Bards of Wales and Scotland that such well preserved stories as those retold in Coll the Storyteller’s Tales of Enchantment or in Padrig Colum’s Treasury of Irish Folklore are still available to us, much as they would have been performed and told 500 years ago. Prior to the introduction of Christianity, the storyteller held a very high place in Celtic society, even at the same level as the chief or king.

This ramble was prompted by my reading of a book that details close to 300 years of linen manufacture in Maghera, Ireland. The book, Linen on the Green, was written by Wallace Clark, my great-great uncle. In the book is a story of one Jackson Clark (1762-1788), who had married the daughter of a local General (James Patterson). Jackson dies after falling from a horse while racing back from work to try and catch his young wife in bed with his uncle. To me, this had the makings of a good folk song, so I wrote one.

This got me thinking, why does the story of a young girl pushed into the river by her elder sister (Twa Sisters), or the tale of a young girl dying for her criminal lover (The Highwayman) warrant selection and perpetuation by society through immortalisation in song. Any folk researcher will know the process of evolution these songs go through, where the town, villain, trade or names get changed for whatever will better connect with a local culture, or serve a particular political agenda. A good example being the Recruited Ploughboy who becomes a Recruited Collier in the time when ploughing has been given over to machines. In some cases we know that the song (or poem), as for The Highwayman, has no link to real events and is purely from the imagination of the author.

So why was it that the death of my great-great-great-great-grandfather was never made into a popular song? Someone who died after riding to his love across the river Annan got a song. Could we assume, like Carl Jung, that there are archetypes of human existence that are frames upon which a particular folk song will stick because they align with these sub-conscious memes? Is this why many millions of other stories and the songs written about them fade into oblivion? Or instead, is it the writers of songs and poems that shape new archetypes from human experience which rise of fall on their merits.

This capturing of snapshots of human existence is one of the many reasons why I love folk music. There is a local singer/songwriter here in Australia, John Warner, who wrote about the experience of a group of convicts in Victoria. Anderson’s Coast, performed here by Nancy and James Fagan, captures the story of people that would otherwise never have been told. Hearing John sing the song himself is an experience worth tracking down, unfortunately there isn’t one on YouTube.

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