The English Folksong

By David Jones

David as a London Cockney Pearly King, in a 1980s NYC production of songs from the English Music Hall

I know there is an art in the singing of folk songs, but I’m not sure that I can explain it. One night a singer sings a song and gets great applause, the next night, the same singer sings the same song, in the same way, but gets, at best, a muted reception. On the second night, the singer failed to connect with the audience. Why? It is one of the intangibles of performance.

My own story of how I fell in love with folksong began at school, right after World War II. One of the songs we sang was “Barbara Allan.”

T’was in the merry month of May
when green buds they were swelling, Young Jimmy Grove on his death-bed lay, for love of Barbara Allen.

The sad tale of Barbara Allen and Jimmy Grove, (or Sweet William, or Sir James the Graham), is well known and has touched the hearts of many since it was first mentioned in the diaries of Samuel Pepys, some 350 years ago. As a London schoolboy in 1945, I sang this song, and many other folksongs, with my classmates in our singing classes. My school was for children not destined for further education, but it had some pluses. A major plus was that four times a week, each class of students gathered in a room that had a piano and sang songs. The songs were a mixture of art and folksongs, though to us boys, they were all just songs.

The songbook for English schoolchildren at that time had been compiled by the Reverend S. Baring Gould and Cecil Sharp, both eminent collectors of folksongs. They had traveled the countryside in search of singers who sang the songs and ballads that their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents had sung — songs that had been handed down to them rather than learned from a book. They sang without musical accompaniment, but with the confidence that their songs were good. These singers are referred to as “traditional” or “source” singers. So there we were, in the 1940s, school boys and girls sing- ing 17th-century art-type songs, e.g., “Nymphs and Shepherds Come Away,” by Henry Purcell or, “Who is Sylvia?” a song with words by William Shakespeare. I can’t knock these famous authors, but their songs didn’t appeal to me in the way that splendid folksongs like “The Lincolnshire Poacher” or “The Golden Vanity” did. Those songs seemed to fit more easily with the untrained, but enthusiastic voices of London school children and the stories they told appealed to my imagination.

In San Francisco in the mid-1960s, I used to go to a cafe near Washington Square where old jazz musicians gathered to play. They improvised, took solos, and seemed instinctively to understand what the other musicians were doing. I asked an old saxophone player how they knew how to do this. He said, “It’s all in the listening.”

Listening is fundamental to communication. English traditional folk song generally calls for a straightforward delivery, but singers can also enhance their presentation by listening to themselves, making sure their diction is crystal clear, and their phrasing is pleasing. When singing a ballad, I focus on the story, and try to let it unfold in a way that will spark the inner eye of a listener and keep the audience engaged; this is what “connecting” to the audience is all about. Whatever the style of song — whether ballad, sea chantey or comic — I try to give every word its full measure and meaning. Phrasing is everything in music, and if carefully thought out, it will bring beauty and interest to the melody and text. Throughout the day, I sing songs softly to myself, listening to find something new, but in the end, it always comes back to keeping it simple. Clear melodic lines and beauty of phrasing.

Whether the story in the song is of storms at sea, or unrequited love, the action, as described by the words, determines the phrasing. Reading those words out loud, and fully under- standing them before learning the tune, is something I like to do. Here are a couple of examples. This verse from “The Gallant Frigate Amphitrite” is about a sailing ship rounding Cape Horn in a roaring gale:

While beating through Magellan Straits it blew exceeding hard,

While shortening sails two gallant tars, fell from our topmost yard,
By angry seas the ropes we threw, from their poor hands were torn,

And we had to leave them to the sharks that prowl around Cape Horn.

The action, and the vivid language, will guide the singer on how to approach the song.  Think of the poor sailors trying to grab the ropes to save their lives.

A verse from “The False Bride,” a lament by a young man who didn’t get the girl:

The week before Easter, the morn bright and clear,
The sun it shone brightly and keen blew the air,

I went into the forest to gather fine flowers, But the forest would yield me no roses.

This is one of the most beautiful songs in the canon of English folksong. The words can be savored, and the sadness of the broken-hearted young man expressed with simple, straight-forward singing.

Young David as a World War II evacuee from London, with a visiting aunt

The film actor Robert Mitchum on being asked for advice on how to get into acting, is said to have replied,” showing up is a good start.” Sound advice. Before getting into the “art” of performance, it helps to understand its many more practical aspects. If one hopes to make what passes for a living as a folksinger, being well-rehearsed, reliable and on time is a “good start.”

So where’s the “art” in singing folksongs? There are a number of facets. A folksinger should have a good voice. It doesn’t have to be a beautiful voice, but he or she must know how to use that voice to connect with the audience and tell the story. The singer should have a full understanding of the story to be told, be committed to telling it well, and believe it is good and worth the singing. Subtle ornamentation can add beauty to the song but I try not to overdo it, and I am careful with dialects that are not my own.

Another important aspect of the art of performance is to involve the audience in the song by way of chorus and refrain. To end an evening of singing, I like to have a song ready that will involve the audience. Sometimes a song like the “Leaving of Liverpool,” with its rousing chorus, or one that most folk audiences will know. “Adieu Sweet Lovely Nancy” is a good song about a young sailor saying goodbye to his girlfriend and making lots of promises before he sails away. Here’s the first verse:

Here’s Adieu sweet lovely Nancy, Ten Thousand Times Adieu,
We are sailing round the ocean love, To seek for something new,

With nothing to protect us love,
Or keep us from the cold,
On the ocean wide, where we must bide, Like jolly seamen bold.

Apart from the traditional material, many of the old-time singers sang songs from the Music Hall (which in their time in England was analogous to the more popular forms of music today). They didn’t seem to differentiate between one or the other, but just sang what was in their repertoire. I often include songs from The London Music Hall in a performance. Two of them are: “My Old Dutch,” a sad tale of an old man and his equally old wife, who are about to spend their last days in separate workhouses, and “Granny’s Old Armchair,” a song of a young fellow who found a fortune in an armchair left to him by his Grandmother. The audience soon joins in on the familiar choruses and these songs add variety to my program.

To give justice to a song or a ballad, the singer must like it, and enjoy singing it. A fine contemporary American singer, Bob Zentz, wrote a song that included the line “I wouldn’t sing ‘em if I didn’t like ‘em.” A great line I thought. I’ve had great pleasure in singing these folksongs over the course of sixty years, and, hopefully, I’m beginning to get the hang of it. Studying any art form is a path of discovery, and there is always something new to learn.

David Jones, a transplanted Londoner, now resides in Leonia, New Jersey. He has worked as a structural engineer, as a singer of folksong, and has had very good reviews as an actor. He has also published a collection of short stories, entitled Smith of Lambeth.

This article is an excerpt from Art in the Making: Essays by Artists About What They Do, published by The Fisher Press & The John Stevens Shop, 2022. This collection has been assembled by Christopher W. Benson — painter, author, and the director of The Fisher Press — and co-published with his brother Nicholas, who currently owns and runs the John Stevens Shop. 

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