At the moment, a lot of my time and creative energy is going into a project called The Ominous Folk of Hopeless, Maine. We’re a four person singing group, doing a mix of original stuff, covers and folk.
This all started some years ago when the Hopeless, Maine graphic novel project was invited to participate in the local book festival. What do you do with a graphic novel on a stage? We put together a mix of stories and folk songs, because folk traditions have always been a big influence. James and I have been singing together his whole life. We added Susie to the mix and last year took our first Hopeless, Maine show out into the world, debuting it at Festival at the Edge, in 2021.
We’re gigging a lot – at Steampunk events, folk things and local stuff. We’re now in a conversation about recording an album in October, which is an exciting prospect.
This isn’t my first musical project – I played in a blues rock band in my teens, gigged as half a folk duo in my twenties and have been involved in assorted things that were mostly for fun. I love performing. I love how this group works – the balance of silliness and gothic, folk horror vibes, the getting to play with kit, and the ways in which we can increasingly do things by magic.
This is performance with no safety net. We sing unaccompanied, so there’s nothing to refer to for pitch. There are also quite a few songs that start with two of us singing in harmony, and we’ve got to a point where it just happens, we simply hit the notes. We’ve learned to breathe together, and to be able to make sense of what we’re each doing even when we are stood in a line far enough apart not to be able to easily see each other in peripheral vision. I get a massive kick out of this. It’s definitely magic, no two ways about it.
During our great Shropshire adventure weekend recently, we hit on the name for the singing quartet that does Hopeless Maine and folk material. Henceforth, we will be Ominous Folk. We also had the opportunity to get our photo taken by Dark Box – who you can find over here https://www.darkboximages.com/
Our friend Gregg takes photos using a Victorian camera, he develops the images on tin plates – he has a portable dark room that looks like a Tardis! It’s a fantastic process and we love the results.
Singing has always been part of my life. I love being able to take performances to events- so much more interesting and engaging than standing behind a table with books! Our next outing will be to Stroud Steampunk Weekend, where we are part of the evening event. More over here – https://stroudsteampunk.weebly.com/
When Nimue suggested that I write something about the living tradition for this blog, I wasn’t sure what I would come up with. However, the kaleidoscope that is social media has provided me with an answer.
If you haven’t been living under a rock the past few weeks, then you may have heard something about sea shanties on TikTok. You’ve likely heard a song called The Wellerman. I’m an old person who likes folk music, but I barely understood what TikTok was until this happened. And what’s a Wellerman? A guy who delivers supplies to a whaling ship in 19th century New Zealand, it turns out.
What happened on TikTok? A young chap from Airdrie, in Scotland, called Nathan Evans, posted a video of himself singing an old whaling ballad. It went viral in a way that is particularly TikTok as other singers, and then instrumentalists, dubbed in their own parts, creating a moment of rare beauty. There are a few mixes floating around now, but this one will give you the idea.
As a music scene, TikTok seems to be a place where currently isolated young people are congregating to try to share a bit of themselves, their talent, and trying to look good in the process. There’s a certain emphasis on image that I find a little uncomfortable, but that’s not limited to TikTok, or a particular age group. Lockdown has created a whole new layer of virtual self-curation for everyone.
This was the second or third shanty that Evans had posted, but he hasn’t really been promoting himself as a folk singer. He’s been singing pop covers, and few things of his own, and taking requests for months. Some of that has been folk music, in the broadest sense of the word.
I’m not here to review Evans’ singing, but his solo performance of The Wellerman is really good. I just listened to various recordings of shanty groups and folk groups’ doing this song over the past few decades, and Nathan’s solo has a depth and power that the others miss. He’s obviously enjoying the song and singing it a cappella except for beating out the rhythm with his hand on the table is perfect. So far, so good.
But it’s what happened next that is so great. People began posting mixes of the song with their own voices dubbed in duets with Evans’ original. That’s hardly unique on TikTok, but the quality and blending of some of these duets, which quickly became a choir, is amazing.
This had been building for a while. Sea shanties have been a thing on the internet since, maybe, September. This massed choir project of “Leave Her Johnny”, organised by shanty group The Longest Johns had over 500 submissions.
To my mind, this isn’t just an example of living tradition because a folk song happens to be involved, although that obviously helps. As other folk nerds have pointed out, The Wellerman isn’t exactly a shanty, but a closely related song-type – a whaling ballad. However, it’s sung here with a shanty feel. A shanty being a work song, which sailors once sang to keep themselves in rhythm when doing work like hoisting sails. With Evans’ fist banging rhythm and the song’s great chorus this works well.
Sea shanties once had an important purpose. Not only did they keep the sailors in a work rhythm, but they helped them to keep going, and stay heartened, under difficult conditions. Under a different kind of difficult conditions this winter, these songs have found another purpose – reminding people how great it is to sing together – in rhythm, in harmony, in making the whole a little bit better with your own contribution. Hopefully, this is teaching us a valuable lesson for when we can sing together again. That’s the living tradition I’m hoping for, anyway.
In the folk tradition, if there are banks of primroses, the odds are people will be shagging on them. In part this is because the folk tradition is full of sometimes quite surreal euphemisms for people getting in each other’s undergarments.
We’re at the time of year for primroses, on banks or otherwise deployed. My memory of them in childhood was that they weren’t that common. Seasonal walks might lead to a precious few tucked into the margins. I’ve noticed in recent years that there are more of them about, and that extravagant stretches of primroses are much more of a thing. Banks of them are indeed glorious.
Which brings me back to the folk songs. It’s cold out there. Even the relatively well draining banks you get the primroses on are damp. You really would have to be very keen on someone indeed to find the idea of putting your bum on a primrose bank for them even slightly appealing.
Modern Paganism seems to favour the idea that outdoor sex is a Beltain thing, but the primrose songs suggest otherwise. Beltain is often a much more sensible choice, but apparently primroses do things to people…
To further confuse matters, this song suggests that the banks of primroses are to be found at midsummer… so there’s always the possibility that we were never talking about flowers at all. But that’s folk for you!
It used to be the case that folk tunes turned up in sessions and for dancing. Tunes were for ceilidhs and morris sides, and for groups of people all playing together. Musicians might throw a tune or two into a set dominated by songs. What was rare, was getting a folk gig, or a set at a festival that was all tunes. A friend of mine who was heavily involved in folk club and festival bookings considered just tunes to be a very hard sell to an audience.
In the last few months, I’ve been to two gigs that were purely folk tunes. Leveret, and Knight and Spiers. Both gigs were well attended by people who were clearly very happy to spend an evening listening to folk tunes. I enjoyed both immensely. I’m aware of other groups who do just tunes, in recent years there’s been more of that sort of thing.
Of course in classical music, people expect to listen to music with no singing. There’s nothing weird about it, but for whatever reason, folk audiences weren’t up for this, or were assumed not to be up for it. I’m not honestly sure what’s changed, but I think something has, and I think it’s rather exciting.
This weekend I was able to do a thing I’d wanted to do for some years – be a beast in the Stroud Wassail’s parade. Wassailing is an activity that takes many forms around the UK, from pouring cider on the roots of apple trees to raising toasts to the cows, and wishing your neighbours good health, it has many manifestations. In Stroud, the wassail is modern, involves street dancing, mumming sides (folk theatre with death and re-birth themes) music, revels (12th night style) and Beasts.
It’s a wonderful example of living tradition. The Stroud Wassail draws on folk traditions, bringing together many different threads. It’s colourful and cheerful, and shamelessly new.
This year I was in the wonderful position of being able to take my mmumming side along – we’re also rooted in the tradition and shamelessly new. I wrote a climate crisis mumming play – which is funnier than you might assume, and revolves around the line ‘In comes I, The Sea.’ We’ve traditional characters – Beelzebub and The Doctor. We’ve fights and deaths. I replaced everyman character Jack Finny with Common Jill, because traditional plays don’t have enough women in. The Burning Executive and the Building Executive are killed by the sea and are not revived, it’s the innocent bystanders who drown and get saved.
The Stroud Wassail includes a procession, and in the procession are the beasts – mostly headdresses, some hobby horses, plenty of sackcloth, and a strange local creature who presides over the whole event. I danced (as best I could!) through the streets with a sheep’s head and my face covered, and it was lovely. There’s something really liberating about masked capering in a space that holds that for you. Where a person is welcome to be weird, where the spirit of The Lord of Misrule is with you and you’re allowed to be outrageous. There’s magic in it and absolute delight.
I used to do a lot of the creature and monster roles in my old mumming side, and I miss it. It is a wonderful thing to be a dragon, or a wild boar, or a white stag in public (I’ve done all three). I enjoyed being a sheep. It creates a bit of enchantment, and to bring that magic into a high street on a gloomy January day, and watch it affect people, is a wondrous experience. We need more of this sort of thing!
When I read Nimue’s posts about Living Tradition and The Folk Process they resonated strongly with me. I write contemporary fantasy inspired by folklore. My first novel, Beltane is set in Glastonbury and I had a fabulous time weaving as much folklore as I could manage into the story. I’m currently editing my third novel, Storm Witch, which is inspired by an Orcadian folk tale. Folklore is the initial seed from which the books germinated. It’s woven into the setting of both novels but, once I started dealing with the nuts and bolts of constructing a novel, the pressures of structure, characters, pacing etc. took over.
Then, last year, I started working on a collection of short stories which are re-imaginings of folk songs and ballads. I wrote the first three stories as my dissertation for my MA in creative writing and suddenly I found myself dealing with the issues which Nimue talks about in her post on the Living Tradition. It’s fair to say I did a lot of research. I read Francis J. Child’s The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, I spent afternoons researching in the Vaughn William’s Memorial Library at Cecil Sharp House and I got the university library to order me increasingly obscure academic texts on ballad and folk song theory. And I started to feel I was doing something far more subversive than I’d anticipated in retelling the stories of these songs.
To use Nimue’s metaphor, these academic texts pinned folk song to a board but, in this case, in a library rather than a museum. I started to feel like I couldn’t change anything. Under the weight of all of this academic erudition, I was getting further and further away from my initial vision and my words started to dry up. The dissertation had two elements, the larger element was creative content and there was a shorter critical element. It got to the point that I couldn’t write anything creative. My words felt too flighty, too fragile for the pressure of all of this theory. In the end, various friends gave me a fairly stern talking to and I found enough of a way back to get the dissertation finished but my confidence in myself as a writer had been severely shaken.
On finishing my MA in October, I was shattered and, after lying on the sofa reading trashy fiction for a few weeks, I put my song stories away to concentrate on other writing. I went back to going to gigs and listening to folk music and I tried really hard not to think deep thoughts and simply to enjoy them. Then a few weeks ago, I had a conversation with a folk musician which made me reconsider what I’m trying to achieve in re-imagining folk songs.
For me, folk is essentially about people. It’s about the people who sang the songs in the past and the people who sing them now. It’s not an accident that the stories I’ve written are all about women. As a writer, I want to hear the narratives which aren’t explicit in the song and too often it’s the woman’s perspective which isn’t told. The original idea for writing these stories was sparked by wanting to know why the wife ran away with the gypsy in ‘The Gypsy Laddie’. I’ve written a story about that now and it feels like I’ve found jigsaw pieces which have been missing since I first heard The Waterboys version of ‘The Raggle-taggle Gypsies’ in 1990.
I learned about the concept of traditional referentiality in my research which suggests that every performance of a traditional song resonates with all of the previous performances of that work. I know this is true in the way I listen to folk music. When I hear a new interpretation of a song, I listen to it in tandem with all of the previous versions I’m aware of which means each folk song echoes with the interpretations which have gone before. For me, that’s part of folk’s magic.
I’ve realised I’m happy to refer to the tradition but I don’t want to be bound by it. The stories I’m writing need to reach forwards more than they reach back. Folk has to evolve and grow in order to stay relevant. Anyone who is part of the living tradition is keeping folk alive in ways which are, I think, far more vital to its survival than anything you’ll find in a museum or a library.
Alys West writes contemporary fantasy and steampunk. Her novels BELTANE and THE DIRIGIBLE KING’S DAUGHTER are published by Fabrian Books. She’s currently editing her third novel, STORM WITCH which will be published in autumn 2019. Alys has a MA in Creative Writing from York St John University. She teaches creative writing for Converge, an education project for people with lived experience of mental health.
My parents met in the folk club my mother and grandmother were running. Folk music featured heavily in my childhood. I was terrified of mummers as a child. Not only did I get exposed to the more usual rounds of Greek mythology, Robin Hood and King Arthur, but also to other folklore of the British Isles. I grew up in a landscape rich with story. For me, folk is something you do, not something you pin to a board and leave, dead and dry to gather dust. I am deeply invested in the idea of living tradition.
The trouble with folklore is that there are some folklore academics, and people who wish to align with what they think academic approaches to folklore look like, who want to police it. They want dead things pinned to boards. They have rules about what folklore is, and it is all about what is in the past, and what has been widely accepted already. They actively exclude living tradition people from the folklore playground.
Not all folklore academics, mind you. I’ve had some brilliant conversations recently with people who see folk as a process not a product, and for whom the living tradition is just as important as the history. I’ve got books to hunt out and people to read and I’ll be back to talk about this excellent stuff more when I’ve had chance to dig in. Because for me, dialogue between folklorists and living tradition people is a good thing when that’s an open conversation and not one set of people trying to tell the other set what they are allowed to be, and do.
I take this all very personally. My land stories, my relationship with songs and places and tales, with mumming and history and the imagination are threads that run through my life. They are part of how I see myself and understand myself. I’m by no means alone in this. To tell a living tradition person that they are outside of folklore, that they don’t have any right to have what they contribute taken seriously, is, frankly, offensive. Folklore and tradition are living things, made by people, changed by people – the people at the cutting edge of it should not be excluded from it.
This is especially important for modern Pagans. So many people are working with old stories, personal gnosis and vision and the realities of our modern world to create a living tradition that is both rooted and relevant.
But, as folklore is a living thing, it has the means to wriggle out of the hands of gatekeepers and those who would kill it and pin it up for scrutiny. Folk traditions have always resisted authority – folk remains dirty, plural, messy, contradictory, full of re-invention and innovation, becoming whatever people need it to be at the time. Folklore, as one of my fellow comrades in living tradition points out, has a habit of biting on the arse anyone who thinks they can own it.
Last week I wrote about the right to be creative within your own folk tradition. Morgan Daimler flagged up to me that I need to tackle the other side, too – what happens when we mess about with other people’s traditions. Taking other people’s traditions, writing into them, or over them and presenting that as genuine material can have the effect of wiping out the tradition, not keeping it alive. How do you tell the difference?
Your relationship with the tradition is key here. If we’re talking about your culture, your family background, or the place you’ve lived your whole life as a participant not a coloniser, then you are someone who is inside the traditions around you. They are your traditions.
There are plenty of non-white British people engaging with British folk traditions, and that’s also fine. It’s important not to let this idea of who owns the tradition exclude people who want to be involved. Time spent working in the tradition, learning it, knowing it – that’s the key thing here. If you’ve put in the years, then you can enter a tradition that belongs to the place you live, or to people you are interested in, without that being a problem. The key thing is that what you’re doing is entering the tradition and participating in it. If people are willing to teach you and share their traditional things with you, then you can enter into it without issue.
The problems arise when people have brief and superficial contact with a tradition and then think they can own it. Going to one folk festival doesn’t qualify you to write folk songs. In the context of British folk, if you go to one festival, and write some songs that are wide of the mark, the odds are you won’t go far, and it won’t matter – there’s enough people who have been doing this over a long enough time to just shake off the pretenders with no impact.
If you have some superficial contact with someone else’s traditions where there are fewer people involved, and/or it’s not part of the dominant culture, and then start making your own in what you think is in the same style, there are massive problems. You may be presenting material to people who don’t know that you’re misrepresenting a culture. If you have more power – if you are a white western person messing about with the traditions of an indigenous culture, for example – you may have more scope to present the tradition to others than the people living in it do. You may have the power to inform and define a tradition that you know little or nothing about, with no one to rein you in.
This is also true if you are someone studying or recording a culture – as a folklorist or academic. Trying to pin a tradition down can be a process of limiting and damaging what you study, and shaping how it will be seen by others. Colonial misrepresentation of other people’s cultures is a longstanding problem. The determination of westerners to present non-western tradition as primitive, superstitious and irrational is a longstanding problem.
If you’re working from inside a tradition, steeped in it and invested in it, then the ways you want to keep it alive and updated are likely to serve the tradition, not harm it. But, why would you want to appropriate a tradition you know nothing about in order to play with it? What does that achieve? You aren’t keeping a tradition alive by doing this, unless what you’re working with is a people who have disappeared. Then you’re guessing and reviving, and there’s a case to make for that if it’s done honestly.
Wanting to learn from someone else’s tradition also makes a lot of sense – there’s a lot of wisdom and inspiration out there, it is reasonable to find that attractive. But surely, if you’re interested in another culture, what you want is immersion and absorption, and to get to a place of having internalised it. Running in to make up our own things in the same style is a sure fire way of learning very little. It’s a deeply questionable activity on so many levels.
There are no short-cuts to being part of a tradition. You can’t pick it up over a weekend course or by reading a book. If you aren’t prepared to invest years in building a relationship with a tradition, you aren’t interested in tradition and should probably leave it alone.
In a living, oral tradition, material changes. Each person who tells a story or sings a song will add something, or leave something out. It’s easy to see this in action as there are so many songs that share features. They may have the same tune and chorus but different verses. They may tell the same story, but with a different tune and words. Sometimes you do it to keep the language contemporary. Sometimes you do it because what rhymes in one accent doesn’t in another.
There’s a natural selection process in stories as well. For example, there are many older versions of the Cinderella story, and they don’t all have glass slippers. For some reason, the glass slipper was a detail/innovation a lot of people liked, and it stuck.
Every traditional piece was at some point first created by someone, or perhaps by a small group. The idea that we can’t create new folk material seems mad to me – this is where folk material comes from. If it is only allowed to be stuff from the past, what we have are museum exhibits, not a living tradition. I have nothing against museums, but I am reluctant to take living things and pin them to boards so that we can all look at them more easily and agree about what their real and proper form should be. And this is why folk gatekeepers drive me a bit nuts.
I’m aware of a number of 20th century folk songs that are sliding into the tradition. If you are most likely to hear a song sung by a floor spotter, if you picked it up from your granny, the name of the writer may have fallen off. I’m aware of several 20th century songs already experiencing folk process, with variations of the words and tune occurring. This is good, as far as I am concerned. This is living tradition.
Sometimes it is important to change the song. Simply changing the singer can be powerful, and some songs suddenly sound queer, for example, when you get the right person singing them. Were those songs queer before? They might have been, we don’t know. As there have always been queer people, I think it’s a good thing to have older songs reflecting that.
The idea that you can ‘pollute’ tradition by adding ‘fake’ things to it mystifies me. Adding to tradition is… tradition. There’s a natural editing process here. If an addition is good, and works, it’ll become part of the tradition – as with those glass slippers. If it doesn’t catch on, for whatever reason, then that’s fine, too. There are many singer songwriters working in the folk style whose material won’t endure. For a song to survive, it has to be sung by other people. It becomes folk because of the ways in which other people sing it, adapt it and keep it alive.
Folk purism is, from my perspective, the unreasonable practice of killing folk tradition in order to pin it down in a fixed shape and own it. The whole point of folk is that it is not the property of a single person, and it is not for one person to say what it means or how it should be. Folk is of the people, by the people, for the people – it is collectively owned and anyone who wants to has the right to mess about with it. that’s what makes it the way it is. Folk is not re-enactment. It isn’t backward looking and it isn’t all about the past.
This blog was brought to you by me being cross about someone on Twitter yesterday. Here’s what was said in regards to a post about Hopeless Maine ( a project very much inspired by folklore)
“Isn’t this that made up faux folklore?”
“That feels like a rather important distinction that shouldn’t be forgot. So many people viewing this hashtag aren’t experts and it’s extremely disingenuous to have faux folklore just mixed in on the #FolkloreThursday tag. It muddies the waters and potentially tricks neophytes”
Get your hands off my living, breathing tradition. It is not a butterfly for you to pin to a board. It is not something you get to define, or own, or tell other people how to do. All folklore was once faux folklore, until people adopted it – that’s what the folk tradition is.