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The English and their Roots

Mike Harding | 12:19 UK time, Friday, 15 May 2009

It struck me, as I was driving back from Hastings last week, that of all the peoples of Europe, England has the least respect, interest and pride in her own music, song and traditions.

I don't say this lightly and it is more than tinged with a hint of sadness, but it seems to me that - for whatever reason - the English have pretty much lost contact with their roots.

I'll give you an example...

A few years back I found myself in a bar with a group of young people of various nationalities.

After a few drinks the singing started; there were Russians, Poles, Irish, French, Spanish and several other nationalities together with a scattering of English kids.

The songs went turn by turn passing round the room, and each nationality sang something from their tradition.

Now this wasn't a folk weekend so the young people concerned weren't steeped in their traditions, yet they all had a song to sing ­except the English who sang bits of Yellow Submarine that they'd probably been taught at school (they were far too young to have learned it first time round).

So, how come the kids of most major European cultures know some, at least, of their own native songs and music while the English don't?

It is something I've talked about with people like Martin Carthy and Jim Moray and still I'm no clearer.

When I was at primary school we all sat down at a certain time (I think it was Tuesday 11am) and we all sang along to the BBC Schools Programme on the radio, Singing Together it was called, and we did.

It was there I learned songs like Down In Demerara, Donkey Riding, Barbara Allen, Blow The Man Down and The Mermaid; and it was there I learned to love people singing together.

No matter how rough the voices or dodgy the pitching it's still great to hear a pack of people singing.

Some people say it was radio and the music hall that robbed us of our music and song; others say it was World War I; another theory has it that because England turned from being a largely rural country to one of huge urban centres the music was lost.

I suppose it's a combination of all of these and more. As a conspiracy theorist of some note, I suspect that the Establishment certainly didn't want to foster any sense of togetherness (unless it came to jingoing men off to war) because that way led trade unions and mutual benefit societies.

In the last ten years there has been a re-kindling of interest in traditional music and song, in spite of sneers from most of the commentariat, and it seems that young performers like Seth Lakeman, Bella Hardy and Jackie Oates are having a really positive effect on a new generation. I live in hope.


  • Comment number 1.

    Hi Mike,

    You may be thinking the situation is bad in England, but from my point of view here in the Netherlands, folk/traditional music is very much alive at your side of the North Sea - look at the increasing popularity of artists like Spiers & Boden, Bellowhead, Jim Moray, Waterson/Carthy family - the list goes on & on. I cannot even think of *one* popular folk/traditional music artist or ensemble over here - let alone that (young) people will sing you a Dutch traditional in the pub - no way.
    I'm really fond of your English & Scottish traditional (ballad) music - wish I had been brought up in that rich tradition.

  • Comment number 2.

    Hi Mike,
    My first reaction is to agree with your comments.
    I was at Chris Wood's concert last night at Bury Met - what a wonderful performer he is and what a great place Bury Met is - get out there you people of Greater Manchester. Anyway I digress, but Chris made similar comments but said something on the lines that we should love our neighbour as ourselves, but first we must learn to love ourselves.
    A bit more exposure for the folk scene would help. Your great show once a week is about all there is. Plus some infrequent programmes on BBC 4 and a token folkie on Jools Holland.

    It is good to get the comment above from Netherlands. We are a nation of whingers? Glass half empty etc - and I count myself well into this way of thinking. Someone from the outside sees it a bit differently and back to Chris Wood he quoted a french friend who could see positive things about the English that we cannot.

    The current folk scene does seem really great and I can remember singing Donkey Riding at school but I do love how songs like this are being updated and given new life by todays performers. I dont think singing these songs in school assemblies in the traditional way is realistic now, but wouldnt it be great if Chris Wood, Seth Lakeman etc could go into schools and show were we are at now?

  • Comment number 3.

    Here in Ireland, while we haven't lost our rich tradition of singing in both English and as Gaeilge it wasn't considered too cool until the revival in the '70's and still its having to compete with the awful popularity in cowboy hat and gingam clad Country & Irish singers around the country. However, there are numerous groups and individuals who are going into our primary schools on both sides the border teaching kids trad music and song. We look at the encouraging signs in the growth of English folk music across the water and I believe infiltrating the education system/curriculum is the secret to future promotion of the tradition.

  • Comment number 4.


    dannylerudd is spot on. It's not a new thing. I am probably about your age and any sort of traditional music was absent from my childhood. It never appeared on the TV or radio and my family wasn't musical.

    I was fortunate that I had an elder brother who went away to college and picked up Fairport, Nic Jones, Watersons, Anne Briggs, Shirley Collins etc. When he was home for the holidays, I heard it for the first time. Just hearing this stuff blew me away!

    Given the material that exists in the archives of the BBC, and the umpteen hours a week we get of the usual mindless pap, 1 hour a week is criminal. Perhaps you could raise this with the powers that be, perhaps they will answer your question.

    With the contempt that the BBC has for folk music, I would suggest that the folk scene is in rigorous health

  • Comment number 5.

    Mike - I agree with your comments and lament that us English seem loathe to appreciate our rich tradition.

    As a recent folk convert I think you need to hear the really good performers and folk songs which sadly get little enough exposure on mainstream radio/television.

    I was a died in the wool rock/blues fan who ocassiopnally played my guitar until three years ago I heard Show of Hands on a Radio Two programme with Bob Harris - I was hooked! bought the CD's went to a folk festival (Broadstairs), liked the Morris sining, and pub groups performing, bought a melodeon, joined the Morris, heard some trad Irish at a Ceilidh, bought a violin, taking lessions, now have played melodeon and fiddle in a few open sessions - don't listen to anything else but the vast wealth of folk music out there (you tube is a great resource as is Amazon! to get to explore the folk music scene, as well as online magazines, etc) and planning many more festival and concert attendances this year! I love it! all that after hearing a few minutes of Show of Hands on the radio while driving round the M25 a while back. As I share this music bit by bit friends are taking interest and listening/and learning as well ....

    We need more exposure to this tradition on mainstream channels - I think the majority of people just don't get a chance to hear this genre of music ... or were put off back in their teens when, lets be frank -folk was a dull and definitely not cool - but I think folk has taken off today and has hugely talented performers who, in my case - changed my musical taste for ever!

    We've a long way to go though, to turn the situation around with the majority of the music loving public. Mike you must take the lead - we'll rally to your banner! to take our much loved music to a new audiences!

  • Comment number 6.


    I've never heard of /any/ of the five songs you say you learned at Primary School!

    Maybe you could give us a back-to-basics "catch up" on one of your programmes?

  • Comment number 7.

    Sad innit Mike?
    My dad was responsible for introducing me to English roots music-something I'll ever be greatful for...
    With more and more people becoming conscious of their Englishness I think its only a matter of time before people discover our rich traditonal musical heritage..Can there be a more postive way of expressing pride in your ethnicity than by enjoying our songs and stories as well as appreciating all the diverse music and traditions we also have in this country?

    People like Seth Lakeman, Eliza Carthy, Bella Hardy and Jackie Oates show that its all live and kicking and long may it continue


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