English Folk Music and its origins

Morris Dancers performing with their musicians

Traditional English Folk is music based and has been around since the late medieval period. The music was delivered in genres, such as sea shanties, jigs, horn pipes and dancing. There were great variations in the music in the different regions of the country. In the 16th century the increasing wealth of the upper classes resulted in music coming together in the shape of songs and dances. Previous to this, social type events were rather reliant on individuals in the areas that they were being held. Now musical instruments, dances and even the tunes themselves were being shared. In the mid-17th century the middle classes wanted to understand the music of the lower classes, and this led to some publications being printed on songs and dances.

In the 18th century this music was now being termed as folk music and was even being sent across to America and when mixed with other cultures music new genres were produced. It is claimed that Western Music is a combination of English balladry and the African banjo. The 19th century saw the arrival of other types of music other than folk. The industrial revolution brought new themes and better instruments. There was now music hall, plus brass bands which entertained large audiences, but while this was occurring folk music was still an everyday occurrence especially in the smaller towns, the villages and the rural areas.

Joseph Taylor the Folk Singer

Morris dancing had risen in popularity during the 17th century and a major part of it was the music. Traditionally the music was fast and rhythmical and played on either a piper or a tabor. In time the accordion, the melodeon, the tambourine, the concertina, the flute and the violin have all been added. It doesn’t really matter what instrument plays as long it keeps to and can maintain the beat. The sea shanties were a vital way of keeping spirits up on long sea journeys. In the 17th and 18th centuries there were many journeys and many songs were sung. There was always a head shanty man aboard each vessel and this was very much a respected position. The major part of the shanty were the lyrics, but musical instruments would also play along whenever they were available. Harmonicas, accordions and even spoons were used to keep the rhythm to tunes, such as “what became of the drunken sailor”, that are still heard today.

Music festivals were often held in towns where there would be competition for the best folk singer. One such event at Brigg in Lincolnshire in 1905 resulted in a victory prize of 10 shillings and six pence for 72-year-old Joseph Taylor. Taylor was reputed to be the best singer in the country and this event at Brigg also provided singing classes for those who wanted to learn more.

As time has progressed through the 20th century folk music has proved to be adaptable. New genres of music have appeared regularly as increasing technology has paved the way for these different styles to develop. Progressive folk music has made great strides as English folk has mixed with American musical styles. Folk performers such as double bassist Danny Thompson have excelled, and he was a founding member of the successful British folk-jazz band Pentangle. The influence of English folk music is still seen today. Attend any summer music festival and there will undoubtedly be a number of folk performers on the bill. There is something quintessentially English about folk music.


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