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Fieldwork and Scholarship on Folk Music
Starting in the 19th century, interested people - academics and amateur scholars - started to take note of what was being lost, and there grew various efforts aimed at preserving the music of the people. One such effort was the collection by Francis James Child in the late 19th century of the texts to over three hundred ballads in the English and Scots traditions. Contemporaneously came the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould, and later and more significantly Cecil Sharp who worked in the early 20th century to preserve a great body of English rural folk song, music and dance, under the aegis of what became and remains the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS). Sharp also worked in America, recording the folk songs of the Appalachian Mountains in 1916-1918 in collaboration with Maud Karpeles and Olive Dame Campbell.

Around this time, composers of classical music developed a strong interest in folk song collecting, and a number of outstanding composers carried out their own field work on folk song. These included Ralph Vaughan Williams in England and Béla Bartók in Hungary and neighbouring countries. These composers, like many of their predecessors, incorporated folk material into their classical compositions.

In America, during the 1930s and 1940s, the Library of Congress worked through the offices of musicologist Alan Lomax and others to capture as much American field material as possible.

Often, fieldworkers in folk song hoped that their work would restore folk music to the people. For instance, Cecil Sharp campaigned, with some success, to have English folk songs (in his own heavily edited and expurgated versions) to be taught to schoolchildren. Fieldworkers also played a role in the "folk revival", narrated in the next two paragraphs.

In 1950 Alan Lomax came to Britain, where at a Working Men's Club in the remote Northumberland mining village of Tow Law he met two other seminal figures: A.L.'Bert' Lloyd and Ewan MacColl, who were performing folk music to the locals there. Lloyd was a colourful figure who had travelled the world and worked at such varied occupations as sheep-shearer in Australia and shanty-man on a whaling ship. MacColl, born in Salford of Scottish parents, was a brilliant playwright and songwriter who had been strongly politicised by his earlier life, and who was already responsible for creating material - such as 'The Manchester Rambler' - which now is often viewed as folk song. MacColl - whose daughter Kirsty was later to become a well-known pop singer - had also learned a large body of Scottish traditional songs from his mother.

The meeting of MacColl and Lloyd with Lomax is credited with being the point at which the British roots revival began. The two colleagues went back to London where they formed the Ballads and Blues Club which eventually became renamed the Singers' Club and was the first of what became known as folk clubs - it was also the longest-running of them all. And as the 1950s progressed into the 1960s, the folk revival movement built up in both Britain and America (it wasn't a 'revival' in Ireland, because Irish folk music never died).

One theme that runs through the great period of scholarly folk song collection is the tendency of certain members of the "folk", who were supposed to be the object of study, to become scholars and advocates themselves. For example, Jean Ritchie was the youngest child of a large family from Viper, Kentucky that had preserved many of the old Appalachian folk songs. Ritchie, living in a time when the Appalachians had opened up to outside influence, was university educated and ultimately moved to New York City, where she made a number of classic recordings of the family repertoire and published an important compilation of these songs.

Contributed by Wikipedia
7 January 2004

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