"What is this thing called Folk?"
The folk arts are much misunderstood. They are often compartmentalized and put in a box, as if they were something apart, something separate and, more to the point, something of the past. Actually, the folk arts are part of each and every one of us and, whether consciously or unconsciously, we all help perpetuate them within our own families and communities. Unbelievable?
Think about the playground. Think about all those games and stories you learnt, the language you learnt and the way you speak it, all from your peers. Have a listen here.
This is the oral tradition in process, something which varies from place to place and certainly evolves over time. This is part of our intangible heritage, the culture which is carried within people and helps define regional and national identities.
Much of the fieldwork and study of the folk arts undertaken since the middle of the nineteenth century was prompted by a number of historical factors, most significantly the undeniable fact that the 'old ways' were under threat from the onslaught of industrial progress and needed to to recorded in some systematic way before they became extinct. The concept of 'folklore' was constructed from this need and populated with content which early antiquarians and folklorists not only believed were threatened with extinction but linked nationally and to other cultures globally. Evidence was often thin and their theories spurious but the importance of what they did is now very obvious to see and evaluate. Their work provides us with an insight into the lives of ordinary people which can be compared and contrasted to those of today.
But is life so very different today? Is the subject matter of folk arts materials from two or even three hundred years ago so very removed? Love, sex, murder, war, trickery, drunkenness, deception and faith - these themes, so prevalent today, are all to be found in a huge repertoire of songs ad stories that have been passed down to us over centuries. And a new generation of people is beginning to realise this. A dip into The Full English digital archive will reveal all.
"It's just what we do!"
In the 1990s I made a radio programme for the BBC in which I had the real pleasure of interviewing two elderly carol singers in Castleton, Derbyshire, both of whom had memories of going 'around the edge' at Christmas time - in other words, visiting houses and singing the carols - before settling in the warmer environment of the pub. Their memories and voices had been recorded by folklorist Ian Russell and been broadcast to the world. I asked one of these ladies what she felt about such celebrity and her reply was this: 'I don't understand it, really. It's just what we do!' The same applies to the many people who gather in several pubs in South Yorkshire and the Derbyshire Peak before Christmas and sing their hearts out with home grown carols unique to their area.
And in many ways, that is what the folk arts represent: an unselfconscious enactment of what people absorb from a particular environment and which characterises that environment. The very thought of the Padstow 'Obby 'Oss or the Abbots Bromley Horn Dancers not appearing on their traditional days is unthinkable. It is to do with a pagan urge, or a superstition, or is it a day for letting off steam and having a few drinks, making a little money even, or simply something which happens and people do on certain days in certain places? For whichever reason, such practices have a deep resonance amongst the people who take part in them, and this in turn binds them together, even at a distance. Ask any Irish person anywhere in the world what happens on 17th March and you will see what I mean.
Basically, to believe that such customary practices are quaint, archaic or irrelevant in today's so-called sophisticated society, is to miss the essence of this thing we call folk....... This is where Traditions can help you.