Some Thoughts on the Traditional Folk Music of Newcastle Upon Tyne

I am presenting  here some thoughts which I put together concerning the traditional folk music of Newcastle Upon Tyne. As with any analysis it is only as good as its fit with the questions that the reader is asking. It may be of use to the reader or it may not. Nothing is set in stone. These are ideas, dreams and constructs that I have found useful, so I offer them up for your consideration. I am interested in your feedback. Send your comments to me at

These thoughts are also part of a larger work:

An Introduction To Eccentrics and the Folk Music of Newcastle Upon Tyne The Tales of Two Pictures and A Race An Exploration of the Mysteries of Regionalism and the Artifacts of Disclosure and Projection By Conrad Bladey

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Some Thoughts on the Traditional Folk Music of Newcastle Upon Tyne
©Conrad Jay Bladey 2012

The creation of songs within the framework of the artifact of regional identity is story telling.

 “When I turn something into a story it doesn’t control me anymore”….it’s in my vernacular, it’s the way I see the world.…..Our stories ask our… big questions…by the asking in front of people and with people even if we do not find the answer by the asking we know we are not alone…. that’s even more important than the answer……we are all social beings ….that idea comfort in the mystery….you can survive anything with a sense of humor  and a sense of self and  our stories give us both of those…..when you are laughing at something it can’t control you you “It is more important to find solace in the mystery (than in explanation/ discoveries)….that’s what storytelling is about”

-Kling, Kevin,”The Losses and the Laughter We Grow Into,” On Being,, March 15, 2012.

Listening to, absorbing, remembering and singing songs does not perpetuate the realities of politics, economics and social struggle. These things fall away at the entrance to the ear canal. Our entry into the worlds of the oral traditions as autonomous participants helps us to use songs to liberate us from those things. We can take comfort that we can manipulate the mystery of cultural identity, it cannot control us.


The purpose of this work is the celebration, discovery and operationalization of folk treasures, traditions and regionalism.  How do we put  the treasures and traditions to work for the common good in the best way? Storage in books just won’t do.  After working with this material, some additional thoughts of a philosophical and analytical nature have come to mind and I think it might be appropriate to share them. Perhaps they may become starting points for further study in a more appropriate format or maybe they will assist the reader in further understanding. First I describe the concept of regionalism. It is then related to the Oral and Media traditions. I go on to examine philosophies of revival and conclude with a few recommendations for the future.

The  Mystery of Regional Identity and the Artifact of Regional Identity

To begin with: Folklore and culture are not startng points.  It is important to think of them as reactions and responses. It is difficult to understand cultural productions such as song if one begins with the songs themselves or even with their authors, singers, publishers and marketers. From this perspective one can only discover descriptive history and cannot reach cultural processes, variables, causality and explanation. This is evident in Dave Harker’s introduction to Allan’s Tyneside Songs, (Harker, 1972).  Rather than  begin with a model of regional identity, Harker works outward from published collections to discover two traditions, insider and outsider, which he uses to account for the entire culture whereas; he, working only within the artifact of regional identity, is in fact describing two parts of the same artifact.  He only hints at the true folk dimension of culture when he describes its songs rather condescendingly as “ritual pieces” (such as the “Keel Row”), (Harker, 1972, p.XX).  The artifact of regional identity is a projection created to disclose the mystery of regionalism.  It is not a place where the “ordinary” people can be found, but a place where they are represented, generalized and codified in an artifact which can be put to use for the common good or for the purposes of other subcultures.  Regional culture is a response to folklore, not its root. Let us begin with an exploration of the concept of the mystery of regionalism.

It is exciting, and important, to imagine a time prior to folklore and culture. This was a time without celebrations, without stories, without calendars.  Then, at some point there came an explosion- a “reaction,” to the mysteries of the environment which I call the Folkloric “big bang. The human condition is that of people surrounded by mysteries in many dimensions- sunrise, sunset, the coming of cold and then of heat, seasonal changes. We must add to them birth, life, death, disease, and the scenarios of human interaction.  The mysteries made survival difficult. They were unpredictable, unexplained and abstract. A second problem was that these occurances were invisible until their effects were experienced and then it was too late to avoid suffering.  One might consider these mysteries as dark matter which cannot be fully understood or comprehended-- mysteries in the full sense. How could human beings disclose these invisible abstract mysteries?  Once disclosed, people could get out of the way and adapt. Once disclosed, the mysteries could be manipulated and processed, exploited for the common good or for the purposes of subcultures or other interests.

The solution for disclosing the mysteries came as humans attached artifacts of folklore, celebration and cultural productions to them. Covered like a Christmas tree with ornaments, observable aspects of regionalism-- accent, cultural practices and preferences, dialect, geography--- the mystery was disclosed and once disclosed it became predictable. Celebrations and rituals could be devised which would facilitate manipulation of the disclosing artifact, operationalizing, or putting to work, the mystery within. One might think of the artifact created to disclose the mystery as a spinning ball and the rituals and celebrations as handles which could be used to move, spin, or project the purposes of the culture. Celebration and ritual could put people to work in order to accomplish such tasks as preparation for harvest, planting and provisioning for the winter as well as a host of social safety-net functions to help rescue those in need. The artifact would allow the culture to manipulate the mystery of cultural diversity.

The Disclosing Artifact of Regionalism

As with the mysteries of seasonal change and human behavior, the mystery of regional identity was also most likely something reacted to by culture rather than created by it.  Prior to the folkloric big bang, groups of people were, as they call themselves in many cultures, “the people.” All origin is inherently set in isolation. In the beginning it was “we the people,” just “us” and no concept of “them” or “other.” Before cultural expansion and exploration resulting in culture contact, this reality would have prevailed. When isolation had prevailed for a sufficient time “we the people” would be able to construct ways specific to the group itself: accents, languages, habits, strategies for problem solving, all inherently specific to the group. Before travel and outside contact, populations would tend to look alike and share genetic attributes.

Perhaps at the beginning “the people” would realize that they did things in particular ways and that those tasks re-occured. Tasks that were functions of daily survival could be summed up by and made easier with songs of occupation, lullabys, counting songs.  Imagine the surprise that occurred at the height of the folkloric big bang- encounters with other groups which had also grown up in relative isolation.

The discovery of the mystery of cultural diversity called out, as did the other mysteries, for disclosure and manipulation for the common good.  This realization would go beyond the question of “what do we do?” to the queston “who are we” and perhaps “who are they.” They would wonder: How do we disclose our identity? How do we use the artifact that results from the disclosure process for the common good? How can it be used to defend ourselves or work toward common goals?  The answer was to take stock of behavior, appearances, and special habits as well as particular reactions to the world, the specific things that they had come to value.  Piece by piece, observations transferred abstract ideas into concrete artifacts and then the artifacts assembled to form a more complex artifact that could be applied to disclose the mystery of regional identity. Once this was accomplished, many functions, or handles, could be designed for its use. The artifact of regional identity did not have to be constantly reassembled. It worked through time with only minimal adjustment. Now that the mystery was disclosed and manageable the disclosing artifact “regional identity” could be also used as a mold that became very useful for enculturation of outsiders as well as for that of new members. The interesting thing about regional identity is that as an artifact it is very resistant to change. While it can be taken apart, re-assembled and adapted, the process is often fiercely rejected by the people. It appears to be rooted deeply (almost genetically and physically)   within the population or perhaps it is the fear of having to go back to the cultural big bang and cultural oblivion that provides the power to support the artifact.

All too often scholars have started their analysis from within culture. They look for economic and historical causality. When this prevails, music becomes a byproduct and not the causal dimension proposed by Dave Russell (Russell, Dave, Popular Music in England 1840-1914, 1998.)  Russell suggests that we avoid “a one-dimensional view whereby social and economic factors are seen to create a superstructure within which music operates, a model which largely ignores music’s potential in turn, to shape and structure the society that creates it.” ….ideas and expriences gained through various forms of popular musical activity influenced political life nad the construction of social and political identities” (Russell, 1998, p.3)

In terms of this model Russell describes how the artifact disclosing the mystery of regionalism is constructed involving music as one of its components. The disclosing artifact projects its music back via artifacts of projection to enculturate new members of the population of the region as well as influence the future adaptation of the disclosing artifact itself. For example, music and dialect created by pitmen, keelmen and members of the military are incorporated in modified form into the disclosing artifact, then, independently without direct involvement of those who created it, music as projection of regional identity influences politicians, the religious, labor and industry figures to reassess and redirect the course of history by modifying the artifact of disclosure.  Essentially, they manage the brand based not upon the people on the ground but based upon the nature of the brand at the time and their interests. The pitmen eventually travel via religious revival and labor organization to the halls of Parliament itself and obtain for the first time an opportunity to direct the use of their music themselves for the first time. (Colls, 1977, p. 117)  While managing the brand, adapting it to new moral standards, and national respectability could have positive results in the short term, the mystery of the existence of regional culture seems to prevail.  Dave Russel describes the fierce battle between local identity and the national culture of brass bands, choirs and international music, and proclaims Tommy Armstrong and the culture of the North East and Newcastle the winner. The brand is generally intact, stopped in its attempts at appeasement. (Russell, 1998, p.9)

Today the concept of regionalism is as much under fire as it was at the end of the nineteenth century. All attempts at recognizing “stereotypes” are discouraged.  Regionalism is not seen as essential for understanding the mystery and using it for the common good, but as divisive of the construct of nation, international economics, and of international culture. Despite the increased power of these larger entities and the challenges with which they confront regionalism, the human condition remains local. Challenges and problems are specific, local, regional and personal. Despite all claims that we have moved on and made “progress” we must realize that the mystery remains and can never be totally explained away. We have no control over it but can only disclose and manipulate it. The question is: How do we construct and maintain the artifacts of disclosure and the functions of manipulation to best serve the common good?

If we begin with the mystery and work outward to culture, folklore and the artifacts of regional identity, we might make more progress toward explanation than by using the artifacts of identity and culture as starting points. We must be careful to observe that the mystery of regional identity informs structures history and economics. These are byproducts.  The scholar can not move from the study of economic and historic trends or systems to explain the mystery. The effects of politics and economics and the market- place fall away as music and verse enter the ears of the autonomous participants of the oral traditions which contribute to the creation of regional identity. The individual citizen must be held to be autonomous if we are to avoid being distracted by economic or political determinism.

When we recognized that the artifact which is regional culture is created to disclose a universal unchanging mystery, we can appreciate that it too has universal unchangeable qualities. Like the artifact of regional culture, the artifacts of projection that allow the projection of the disclosing artifact are also durable. Once created they will always function if they are put to use. Making the best use of available artifacts of projection: publication, music halls, singing societies, stage shows is important.  Groups in the economic and political spheres merely “spin” or manipulate the artifact of disclosure using the artifacts of projection either for the common good or for the advantage of one group or another.  To appreciate the role of the “folk” groups that utilize music as part of daily life as distinct from regional and national politics and economics. one must examine how the model reflects a version of the “great chain of being” that permeates the region literally from the ground up and including the groups upon which the artifact of disclosure was originally based.

Timeless Significance

Much of the analysis of the music upon which the disclosing artifact was based has focused only upon how the artifact was “spun” or manipulated by the forces of politics and economics and technological change which have swirled around it. Analysis therefore becomes not that of the cultures which gave rise to the disclosing artifact, but instead upon the cultures of commercialism and of class struggle which clearly lie outside of the realm of the creation of the artifact of disclosure. Despite all of the research thus far, although we know much more about the unfolding of history and of the economic theory of class struggle we still know little about how folk music works and functions at the level of the individual and culture of the home and community. 

“Memories such as these are a benchmark against which to measure the present and a powerful bond among those who share them; they are markers of a communal identity which binds families and communities together.” -p.150.

“That general amalgam of fact, legend and belief which is the history of the North East is a varied resource culled and used in many diverse ways.  It can be parceled as “real history” and told to children in schools; it can be sold to tourists as pamphlets on this and that, or it can be reformed and presented in drama or song.” -p.152.

-Williamson, Bill, “Living the Past Differently, Historical Memory in the North East,” In: Colls, Robert and Bill Lancaster, Geordies, Roots of Regionalism, 1992, p. 149.


Bill Williamson (Colls, 1992) describes the artifact of regional identity in terms of communal histories which project its content in different ways from generation to generation. The artifact of regionalism is described as an “amalgam” used or projected in “diverse ways.”  The amalgam is not fact, nor is it the possession of a single class or group.  It creates “communal identity binding families and communities together.” Because it is neither history nor entirely myth or legend, the artifact is not suited to historical or economic analysis. As with the oral tradition, the influence of economics and politics ends at the gates of regional identity. The artifact of regionalism discloses the mystery of regionalism possessed by a living community rather than a system, or ideology.  Williamson identifies the historical dimension as that where the purposes and intentions of the proponents of the individual histories are projected- the dimension where the artifact of regionalism  is “used in many diverse ways,” and is  “parceled.” This is the dimension of the artifacts of projection such as broadsides, music halls and publications. It is not the dimension of regional identity itself from which the projections, the individual histories are mined.

We must remember that the mystery of regionalism is timeless. Despite all of the economic and political struggles and all of the capitalist ventures, the “Blaydon Races” is still sung at Newcastle United football games. The city remains for most the “Toon” and there is a lot that remains “canny”. Let us then let the record speak for itself. Let us try to amplify the foundations of the mystery of regionalism. It is important to found this study upon the way folklorists have focused their research and analysis and upon the questions they have chosen to address.

Singing Tradition, Literary Tradition, or Capitalism?

“The Northumbrian musician W. G. Whittaker tells of a German scholar, confronted with typical North-Eastern tunes who said: “Do you really tell me that the peasants in your district sing these songs?”  When asked why he doubted it, the German went on: “If your peasants can sing such songs they must be the most musical race in the world.” Whittaker’s reply was: “Who told you they weren’t?”- Lloyd, A.L., Folk Song in England, 1967, p. 42.

The answer is- All three. As with anything cultural, there is no simple explanation. We can only get close via newspaper reports, personal letters and diaries. According to Robert Collis who relies on such sources  (Colls, R., The Collier’s Rant, Song and Culture in the Industrial Village,  1977, p.51) major subcultures of the region such as colliers had their own well- developed rhyming and singing traditions.  For my purposes here it is not important to follow origins or know exactly what was done with the songs when. For my purposes it is important to isolate the treasures- tunes, lyrics, biographies and structures for the projection of songs (music halls, chap books, songsters etc…).

The regional culture of the north-east became, over centuries, involved on many levels with the production of a large inventory of songs. These songs were in turn given roles in a wide range of cultural institutions.  Over time individual songs were selected for use by different institutions, or structures, or, “artifacts of projection,” before appearing for our consideration in the 21st century.  This process involved many different cultural groups and classes for whom the songs functioned in many different ways which changed over time. The entire cultural phenomena provide a rich matrix for analysis.  It is important to note that we have before us two important treasuries: the treasury of the songs themselves, and the treasury of the cultural instutions, within which they were given roles, from which they were projected into the culture. Any given song could be projected by any of the structures. It could be printed on a broadside, sung in a tavern, read as literature or presented in a music hall.  Despite the passage of time regional culture remains able to return to both the songs and to the institutions as sources for cultural development on many levels. While we will never be able to know how these songs were put to use we can know which institutions have been created for them and of course we have the songs themselves.

Our task is to preserve the songs and the institutions, not so much to answer questions about the past but to put these treasures to work in cultural development for the present, adding both cultural institutions and songs as we go along.

Culture reacted to the need to preserve songs by the creation of artifacts and processes for learning them. The problem facing culture was that of maximization of the number of songs which could be kept active within the “suspension” of culture. The second problem was what to do with the songs that could not be kept in suspension, that would fall out like precipitate in a liquid.

 The problems associated with the memorization of songs and the dangers inherent in the printed word date to the times of the orators of ancient Greece and Rome.  Plato in Phaedrus describes how Socrates dealt with the issue of the choice between writing and memory by modifying an Egyptian myth:

“Socrates “And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners' souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.”


-Plato, Phaedrus, , 374d)c. 360 BC, In: R. Hackforth,  trans., “Phaedrus,” In: The Collected Dialogues of Plato, ed. E. Hamilton and H. Cairns, 1961

A hallmark of the 19th century in Britain was the rapid growth of literacy among the working classes and the rapid growth of the middle class. (Vicinus, Martha, The Industrial Muse, 1974.) In a pre-literate society songs could not be printed on paper; they had to be installed into the human mind. Songs would have to be memorized. This meant that the number of songs that could be presented effectively in venues would be limited. Adding songs to this inventory was slow relying upon rote learning via repetition. Work songs were the best suited to memorization. They provide accompaniment to the rythem of repeated actions such as walking, marching, preparing cloth, harvesting, plowing and sowing, among others. Other songs that would be repeated were anthems associated with specific groups and carols associated with recurrent religious celebrations such as Christmas. Eventually the creation of new songs would occur at a pace that would restrict most of them to entertainment rather than shared knowledge. Performers and song writers would willingly embrace any method of maintaining the popularity of their creations and therefore their livelihood.

Initially, hand-written informal books, “cheats,” or “fakebooks” would be written to allow musicians to present a wider inventory of song and tune than could be quickly placed into their memories. These tools generally included musical notation which was not generally included in later tools.


Given the presence of sufficient members of the audience who were literate, songs and recitations and other texts could be placed upon affordable broadsides. Some credit the appearance of broadsides as leading to literacy however, for the artifact to have functioned and prospered sufficient numbers of readers must have been present to read and sing. Once musicians had musical notation and the audience had printed lyrics--hymnals if you will-- the problems of memorization could be overcome and more songs could be operationalized more efficiently to function for a larger number of people.

 As Socrates noted, once the written word was made the standard, going back became difficult.

It is helpful to consult the old Irish Rann:

The man who only took
His learning from a book
If that from him be took
He knows not where to look

-Hyde, Douglas, “Irish Ranns,” Irish Literature, Ed.:  Justin McCarthy, E d.Morris, 1924.


None the less, a core inventory of regional songs remained in the active memory refreshed by constant reiteration. Even today a good number of old standards are shared by the culture as a whole. The ability of the broadside to keep a growing number of songs before a growing literary public produced an entire industry of writing, publishing, distribution and presentation.  Within minutes a performer could introduce a new song, sell and distribute printed sheets or songbooks, and have a singing audience sharing the experience of the music which could come back over and over again re-using the broadsides or purchasing new ones. Songs themselves received new functions. No longer of the moment or in the shared memory, songs could be taken home and read for their human interest or rhyming content-- they had become literature.

The next problem was that of “precipitation.” How could the songs be kept for the longest time actively suspended in the solution of culture? Broadsides, in order to be affordable, were printed on very inexpensive paper that would not stand up to much use. Small booklets of songs “chap books” would also be disposable. It would be difficult to sell any but the most current songs on the street corners or in the pubs.  There was a need for a new artifact of projection.

The next step for the operationalization of song is the one which is most important for this work- publication of song books and reference works. After musicans bound lyrics and tunes into chap books, these could be preserved. Accurate performances could be repeated with ease. For the audience, broadsides could be collected and printed on substantial paper and published into booklets and small collections or “songsters.” Later publishers such as Allan (Allan, T., Ed., A Choice Collection of Tyneside Songs,1872)  and collectors like Bell (Bell, John, Rhymes of the Northern Bards,1812.) could collect songs from songbooks, cultural memory and broadsides, into reflective reference works which included histories, portraits and biographies of the song writers and performers.  In this way the songs received an extended shelf life and the mystery of preservation was solved, or so it was thought. As we look to our archives today, hundreds of years after publication, we find that publication is not the final solution to the mystery of preservation. Books deteriorate and are ignored and are discarded by libraries. So we are left to conclude that we need not only preserve the treasury of songs but we must also preserve the artifacts which have been designed for their projection and active use. If we look to the artifacts of projection and presentation we will find that although they may fall out of use they can still function. Additionally with new technologies we can add to their number just as we can add new lyrics and tunes.  In the end we must respect the observation of Socrates that once the written word prevails it is difficult to go back without it. Therefore singing from the hymnal or printed page will be a process essential for the start up of  any lasting revival.

Sung or Not Sung?

Scholars have long been interested in knowing- Were songs sung or just read or just collected or perhaps just sold as status items to fill shelves. Were they perhaps used to promote the “brand” of a city or region for development? It is clear that songs are multi-purpose artifacts. Songs can be shared by a sub culture or the regional culture as a whole.   Colls (1977, p.55) describes a process by which observations of subcultures are transformed into shorthand cartoons by the forces of the maintenance of regionalism. Regionalism is more than the sum of its individual subcultures. Linkage to the oral tradition of shared music worked on many levels. On the level of the sub-culture, colliers had their own inventory of songs and proper dialect. On one hand editors and publishers felt a strong calling to rehabilitate the reputation of the dialect.   Robson felt that his regional dialect was as good as any other:

”…it is not my present duty to compose a Theses on the distinguished Bard of Greece; my business is of a humbler nature; it is to write a few words on the peculiar compositions of this volume and to endeavour to make some apology for presenting the public with a book of Songs of a description which may be termed by the fastidious reader to be vulgar and decidedly un-genteel.—The somewhat coarse dialect of Northnmbria as spoken by the lower classes of its population, has been stigmatised as a "bastard Scotch—a mongrel compound of high dried Welsh, scented with Gaelic Rappee." But to a candid reader of these Songs the application of these epithets will not be so glaringly apparent. True it may be that our Local Songs are not so soft as Italian, so sounding as Greek, nor so nasal-twanging as French; but they are held in higher estimation by the dwellers on the banks of the coaly Tvne than the finest composition of Arisoto, Thcecrilus, or Ricine, for this especial and cogent reason that they are part and parcel of the Northumbrians themselves”

-Robson, Joseph Philip,  Songs of the Bards of the Tyne…..1850, p.5. 

In the Newcastle Song Book Fordyce wrote in 1840:

Should an occasional coarseness of language meet the eye, let not the fastidious reader forget, that such were the modes of expression used by the parties described, and that elegance of language would be as much out of place as are the polished classical sentences of Shenstone's rustics, so often and so justly a theme of censure.

-Fordyce, W.&T, The Newcastle Song Book; or Tyne-Side Songster…,1840, p.iii.

Perhaps changes made by editors were designed to correct decay that had occurred over time. At the same time, at the level of the regional culture language would be a challenge so was adapted ( as Colls points out), transformed for quick use by the consuming public of the region. The same is true of songs. Rather than observations from within the sub culture, songs at the regional level were songs written from the point of view of the outside observer and thus again, for the benefit of convenient projection and consumption are modified, becoming more romantic and stereotypical. This process is to be expected given the importance of the use of songs to disclose the mystery of cultural identity. When we view the treasures of folk song from this perspective the importance of authenticity becomes relative and relevant only at specific times and in specific places. There is one oral tradition at the local level while another more generalized one functions at the regional level. Dialect is proper only when its context is defined.   At either level of oral tradition the introduction of a literary tradition brought advantages as well as challenges.

Songs have always been consulted as much for entertainment and for information as for musical effect. Once they were converted to printed literature they could be more easily read and used in different ways. The relationship between singing and other functions of songs was most likely a changing one. One could actually sing and read from the same page. Songs became artifacts for multi-tasking. Information transfer, music, entertainment, and the teaching of reading could all take place. The functions could be as many as the individuals involved in the process.


This all leaves us returning to the problem described by Socrates- how will we take the music as literature which has been created and place it back into cultural suspension? How do we get the books reprinted as they deteriorate or maintain their significance so that they will be considered too valuable to be discarded?  How do we get songs back to everyday use so that they can serve the greater good? Unfortunately I have to agree with Socrates. The process is largely irreversable. While it is possible to re-develop the active inventory of songs curated in cultural memory, we will find it a long process.


Perhaps the best stragegy for revival is for greater accessibility of the written materials combined with long-term development of the shared cultural inventory. Working with the songs addresses only one category of treasure. We must also explore and revive the structures which have been created over time to serve as a connection between the people and the music. These structures include the oral tradition, the chap book, broadside, social gathering, civic celebration, music hall, songbooks and reference works. These are treasures of the past which can serve us well. We can add to them our vast array of electronic forms and media to make them function even better for us in our time. It is worth a try!


Great Chain of Being

The artifact created to disclose the mystery took account of all aspects of the environment, both human and natural. It was built for a particular people living in a particular place.  This relationship to the wider environment is reflected in the observations recorded in song and in song collections.

Environmental Awareness

Nanny carries water,
Tommy cobbles shoes,
And Adam gans aboot
Gethering in the news

-“O’Adam Buckham, O!,”  In: Whittaker, William Gillies North Countrie Folk-Songs from  Schools,1921,  p.1.

Just as Adam Buckham went about gathering bits of news, so too the broadsides and songs of the early 19th century and earlier served as mirrors of the community, reporting speeches, executions, murders and civic news of all kinds. When did the interest of songwriters and singers in their environment(s) begin? No one knows but surely the phenomenon is ancient. It is not the origin of the phenomenon that concerns us here but its scope. Everything happening in the environment, from the change of seasons to places of beauty, to festivals or fairs known as “hoppings,” to the views of fishwives concerning the redevelopment of the market places and to the violent news stories of the day, were found by the song writers of the times to be of interest and worthy of inclusion in their lyrics. This interest included such things as the social life in the pubs, captains who had lost their ships and the playing of musicians and antics of eccentrics.  Think modern tabloid and they included the naughty bits as well!

Memorialization in song in the 19th century and earlier seems to have had no limits. Songs possessed all of the content we now associate with newspapers or network news or even social networking sites.  While the news, then as now, was filtered by cultural responsibility and marketability (as the saying went “all the news that is fit to print”) inclusion in the news did not necessarily represent special values of society. We should think of inclusion of eccentrics in the news not so much as a special case but as part of a general trend of inclusivity. Humanitarian sensitivity is provided to the eccentric and criminal alike, the empathy of the audience being essential for maximizing sales and performances.

Attraction to and interest in the unusual is perhaps a part of the human condition. Today we too create whole books such as the “Weird State” series highlighting the eccentric dimensions of our environment. A search of videos on YouTube will find thousands of videos illustrating eccentrics and eccentric acts, with each video receiving great numbers of hits indicating that eccentricity is still quite popular.

The appearance of chapters on eccentrics in history has been found to be noteworthy by many scholars. In Charlton’s History of Newcastle Upon Tyne. (Charleton, R.J., Charleton’s History of Newcastle Upon Tyne…, 1882)  a chapter on eccentrics is included.  The author states that he is including the chapter to provide a comprehensive coverage extending not only to the rich and powerful but to all elements of society. He does not do so because of a special interest in the topic.


Songs convey memorable events but they also seem to be describing a sense of place and history. Political issues are common. Characterization of enemies is frequent. It is hard to escape the feeling generated by some of the collections, especially those of Fordyce, that their purpose is to create a “brand” which can be projected with the hope of attracting new workers and businesses to this quaint, exciting, and inviting culture. In this way some of the functions of the traditon appear to be quite modern. For the brand to be successful it must convey a place filled with activity on as many dimensions as possible from the natural environment to industry and on down to eccentrics and strange occurances. We must remember that the number of possible uses of the songs can be as many in number as those creating them or utilizing them.

Robert Colls (1977) describes two periods of the development of folk music in the North East- Early Period dating from 1700-1839 and Later Period dating from the 1840s to the 1860s. From the earliest collections down to that of John Bell: Rhymes of Nothern Bards, (1812) Colls observes the effect of cultural filters which are applied by collectors to make their collections of songs palatable to consumers.  We should however temper our skepticism with the statements of the collectors themselves. Bell for example prefaces his work thusly:

“Give me the writing of all the Ballads, for the  people of England, and let who will be their law-giver," was said by a celebrated orator, in speaking on the manners of the people:—this cheering ray, in behalf of ballad writing, gave rise to the publication of the following pages  for how many of these simple, yet popular effusions, have been lost for want of a repository to give them a chance of living a day beyond the time they were written ?—As such, the Summum Bonum of my labours is to rescue from the yawning jaws of oblivion the productions of the Bards of the Tyne; and by so doing, hand them down to future ages as Reliques of Provincial Poetry:—But, conscious of the liability of personal allusions in the generality of provincial poems, the words of the poet have been kept in mind:—

"Curs'd be the verse, how well soe'er it flow,

"Which tends to make one worthy man my foe!"

- Bell, John, Rhymes of the Northern Bards, 1812.

Further filtration is applied by the Newcastle Society of Antiquaries in their Northumberland Minstrelsy which was published in 1882.  As Fordyce notes the transition was noticeable as early as 1840:

During the last few years, so great has been the progress of education amongst the humbler classes of society, that many of those eccentricities so often seized upon by our Local Poets as subjects of humourous satire, are fast disappearing, and ere many more years shall have elapsed, the Songs of our Local Bards will be the only memorials of the peculiar characteristics of this ancient border town.

According to Gregory: “by the Mid-Victorian period music hall culture had transformed popular songs in the North East into performances requiring the singers to be dressed in character”

To a certain extent the lamentation for the death of the English rural tradition by Cecil Sharp in his English Folk Song Some Conclusions, published in 1897, is repeatd in Coll’s lamentation for the death of “everyman” in what he sees is the “cartoonization” of the tradition. To a certain extent Coll sees the market place as the villain; these collections were filtered because they were offered not as archives but as products for sale. The lament that songs are not “embedded inside the culture” (Colls, 1977, p19) fails to acknowledge that the songs were also projected by another entity, that of the regional culture, if you will, a sphere erected just outside that of the sub-culture. The regional culture would develop its own perspective, one which was palatable to many other linked subcultures, and this culture would develop its own oral tradition of memorized song inventories as well as a wide-ranging inventory of artifacts of projection and published songs.

Many scholars have proudly indicated that authors, editors and publishers of songs as well as performers were not generally those in the commercial business of song writing publishing and distribution. They had other professions. As Coll points out “Selkirk was a clerk and failed merchant, Thompson was a successful timber merchant,…. and Robson was a respectable printer….William Mitford was a shoemaker turned publican and Robert Gilchrist… a businessman-sailmaker” (Colls, 1977, p.18.).  Essentially these men were observers and not participants in the cultures that they wrote about. As Thomas Allan noted: “Creators of collections and printers” had “lowly occupations” shoemaking, painting, and wrote for friends and themselves.” (Allan, T., Ed., A Choice Collection of Tyneside Songs , 1872.) Businessmen writers were “self made,” it is important to note that they were “self made;” in other professions.

Coll’s mystery of how a proud sub-culture could embrace the mockery of its dialect and habits is easily solvable when one acknowledges the second sphere of the regional culture. Members of the subcultures described operated within their own sphere but were delighted to be acknowledged as part of the artifact of regionalism which was constructed for the benefit of all local cultures to disclose the mystery of regional difference.

Colls describes this unity when he describes the role of patriotism and the military as a sub culture a parallel to that of the pitmen and keelmen.  The character of songs sung by the military themselves wold not be as suitable to the wider regional culture for whom views of the military changed between times of war and times of peace. Cartonization helps regionalism to fit divergent subcultures into a mold that would serve them all as it disclosed the mystery of diversity and enculturated newcomers, as well as projected a unified cultural front for the common good.

What is the Northern “Character?”

Eneas Mackenzie concluded that since Newcastle was not a large manufacturing town, inhabitants developed “much individuality” (Mackenzie, E.,A Descriptive and Historical Account of the Town and County of Newcastle Upon Tyne…, 1827.)

Gregory observes: The quay….”a location identified by social historians as a place of socio-moral transgression—were wonderfully prolfific in characters….Individuality was lost through urban social intercourse where as under a great deal of plainness in the countryside there was often much of what is really queer” (Gregory, James, “Local Characters, Eccentricity and the North-East in the Nineteenth Century,” In: Northern History, XLII: 1, March, 2005.)

W.D. Lawason studied the Northern Character and made the following observations.  Certainly a glowing, ethnocentric account, none the less, it can provide us with an assessment, from within the culture, of the cultural environment which so uplifted characters and eccentrics.  In this way it may be helpful our understanding.

“When observing the Northern Character….you discover that your first impressions have not been altogether correct. You find his sympathies are generous and benevolent as those of other men, though these are manifested in a way peculiar to himself. You acknowledge their genuineness and warmth; but think them unsavoury, from the mode in which they are dispensed. His manner is awkward; his speech is blunt, open, and free from anything sycophantish. His whole constitution strikes you as at once peculiar. For, with all the severity so much observable, you are bound to acknowledge that it is more apparent than real; that within the outer shell there exists, in all its juicy savour, much of the "milk of human kindness. Nor would your estimate of him, thus arrived at, be without precedent. Others have recognised the same features in his character; one of whom affirms that  beneath the rough exterior there is great kindness of heart, and much natural intelligence.…….. we find that the organs of sociality, to speak phrenologically, are highly developed. Within the precincts of the domestic circle he is full of kindness. His wife and children are to him objects of the greatest solicitude, and their welfare calls into existence the very finest feelings of his nature. Extending the sphere of your observation, and entering on the wider arena of citizenship, you discover him to be openhearted, open-handed, and largely generous to his friends and his companions. And yet there is in all this display of feeling, an amount of caution which is, to say the least of it, proof that he is "wisely knowing.” While he expends his generosity and diffuses his friendship, he is always desirous of seeing these reciprocated. If in his disposition he is open and warm, you raise all the finer feelings of his inner man to the highest pitch of enthusiasm, when with a similar display of sensibility you meet his approach. Act coldly towards him, or exercise either a haughty reserve or a callous indifference, and you thaw the generous impulses of his soul, and transform what would be a genial streak of sunshine into an icy and Arctic experience. In short, you call into action the finest elements of his character when you show your own nature most like his, by reciprocating the kindness he would manifest towards you; for without it, he feels a vacuum which the display of different characteristics in you can never properly fill up. In the communication of his thoughts, too, he is equally frank. Secrets, as a rule, he cannot keep. He prefers plain and honest dealing, and desires only that all his transactions should be fair and above-board. In almost every state of mind, and under all the circumstances of his life, he reveals his thoughts, expresses his resolves, and tells of his air-built castles. When topics of public interest are being discussed, he delights to offer an honest opinion. On any subject of conversation his utterances are without reserve, and offered with the best of motives. In administering counsel to a friend, he does so with a good intention, and without that chariness of speech which characterises less open-minded persons. In dealing with him, you have no difficulty in interpreting his thoughts, or in securing an expression of them, for, as already observed, he is plain-spoken, perhaps to a fault, in the avowal of his opinions. Straight-forward and honest, he is no less willing and ready in hand than he is open and feeling in heart. He is ever proud of showing a kindness, and in having it in his power to do so. Nor does he confine this display of feeling to his more intimate and personal friends. The stranger at his door, the acquaintance to whom he has been introduced, or the visitor to his district, come in for an equal share of his generosity and benefaction; so much, indeed, is this the case, that proverbial philosophy has bequeathed to us the iollowing distinction and difference:—In Durham it is asked, "What are ye gannin't stand?" whereas in Newcastle it is said, "What will ye hev?" ….. That his business faculty is highly developed, there cannot be a doubt. If, as is without question true, he is slow in the conception of an idea, he nevertheless pursues it carefully to its fullest maturity. He will not shrink from its realisation, though difficulties should beset him upon every hand; nor will he yield to opposing forces that his own working out of that idea may call into existence. In this respect, indeed, he may be considered pre-eminent, for all the energy of his being is thrown into its accomplishment; and, with a soul above defeat, he rises superior to obstacles of every kind. If, as will at once be conceded, he is strong in body, he is equally so in those mental faculties which are so necessary to every man's success in life. Body and mind seem with him to have been cast in the same strong mould, and such being the case, the issue of both is equally strong. An object once placed before him, and recognised as worthy of his attention, evokes all the dormant energies of his nature, and sees his determination of character and decision of purpose equally brought into action. In him you can recognise the same marked features of character which prompted the "I will to Worms" of Martin Luther; for though (like that hero of the Reformation, whose decision of character led him to make that avowal, the opening words of which we have given) there should be as many opposing forces as there are tiles upon the homes of his native town, the Northerner will proceed to the accomplishment of his object. Nor is decision of character all that can be seen in this connection. His self-reliance is equally exemplified. In any endeavour to accomplish an end, for instance, he does not despise the assistance of those who are around him. On the contrary, he is ever prepared to receive advice, when that is offered for the purpose of furthering his work; but should it be withheld, he is above asking it with "bated breath, whispering humbleness," preferring to achieve, by nis own self-application and industry, the end desired. To its fullest extent he realises the truth of the proverb that "Heaven helps the man who helps himself" and, imbued with such a spirit, makes all impediments to progress subservient to his will, and renders them even valuable agencies to assist in the fruition of his aim. Look at him as you will, you cannot but recognise the same dogged resolution which enables him to achieve a victory over trifles, and to grapple with those sterner realities with which he may be brought into contact. In having thus spoken of the decision and self-reliance of character observable in the Northerner, we may be supposed to have anticipated the foremost trait of all—viz., his perseverance, on account of the implied existence of that one element in those just mentioned. But if so, we are prepared to give evidence to the contrary. Decision and self-reliance combined, may seem to be an embodiment of perseverance, but that is only true to a certain extent. A man may have either or both of these qualities, without having perseverance in its most comprehensive sense; for in it is implied a feature of character which, if subsidiary to decision, is one without which that decision could not be effectively carried out; nor would self-reliance of itself prove of any avail in furtherance of the desired issue. To attempt any definition of that perseverance, however, would be a task not very easy of accomplishment. Its manifestation is so much brought to bear upon all his undertakings, that the history of these lalter would be the best illustration we could give. It matters not in what sphere of life we find him, we discover the same indomitable constancy, steadfastness, and earnestness of purpose. Be it in the workshop or in the field, its results are seen in his efforts at supremacy; be it in the maturing of a design, or in upholding the aquatic honour of Tyneside, its influence is powerfully palpable; be it in the commercial relationships, or in competition with home or foreign agencies, that same spirit of perseverance shows the desire to excel; and, acting up to its dictates, the Northerner cannot brook second honours, far less the prospect of defeat. Were exemplification of this wanted, we need surely do no more than point to the trying circumstances through which that hero of invention, George Stephenson, passed ere he succeeded in perfecting the great object of his life. If ever man had difficulties to contend with, it was surely he. His own poverty of connection and circumstance was no ordinary obstacle in his way; but that only aroused his energies, and whetted his anxiety to succeed. The jibing sneers and puerile jealousies of his fellow-workmen, were ever rising up to oppose the bent of his aspiring mind; but he laughed these to scorn, and steadily pursued his purpose to the end. His own mental conceptions frequently failed in the accomplishment of designs; but their failure only induced closer application and industry to substitute others more suitable to his plans. The intelligence of the country was against him, and the representatives of our national Legislature denounced his schemes as foolhardy and incapable of execution; yet, like the rock lashed by the billows of a tempestuous sea, our grand hero of invention remained unshaken in his resolves and unmoved in his principles. "The hour and the man had come." Let the history of our country say with what blessing……Before closing the present chapter, we cannot but observe, that in all the different features submitted as distinctive of Northern character, there are observable no indifferent traces, of that old border heroism which fired the souls of our ancestry. The energy, enthusiasm, and native fire of those primitive times, seem to have been bequeathed to the children of the present generation; for, as of old, the Northerner cannot brook the insult of defeat, nor is he pleased if only second honours crown his efforts. The same spirit which made Otterburn and Flodden bloody fields of fight, still hovers amongst the Northumbrian hills, but now happily devoted to the victories of peace, as in those times it was to the triumphs of war. If this be doubted, let the following pages be corroboration and proof. The lives we have endeavoured to sketch are, one and all of them, those of purely local men, who, if not in every, at least in many points exhibited, to a greater or less degree, those features of character which, we hold, are peculiar to Tyneside. They were men who cherished the warmth of Northumbrian feeling. They fostered the spirit of Northumbrian liberality. They manifested Northumbrian independence. They spoke, more or less, with a Northumbrian accent; and acted as living exponents of that description of society in Newcastle as given by Bradshaw, when he says, "Society is more open and friendly, and devoid of that exclusiveness so peculiarly a feature of Scottish towns. Compared with exclusively manufacturing towns, it is free from the everlasting themes of business, profits, and speculation, from the smatter and small-talk of London, and the 'blue-stocking pride' of Edinburgh; and strangers are much more warmly received by the Newcastle people than by the Modern Athenians, whose cold, bleak, iron pride crushes them to the ground, upon their very entrance upon the threshold of society."”

- Lawson, W.D. Tyneside Celebrities, 1873, pp. 5-17.

While you will find no eccentrics or characters in Lawson’s profiles of Tyneside Celebrities, you do find a good description of the environment in which our characters lived. Newcastle was a city housing an ancient culture with unique character evolving into a new age of growth, technological advancement and social change. The city relied on its “northern character” to attract new residents and workers. “Character” was seen as a foundation for growth and development as well as a reservoir of strength to withstand these drastic changes. “Northern Character” gave resilience and power to the Newcastle “Brand”.

In this preface to a relatively early collection of songs, (1826) the projection of the regional brand by the artifact of projection, the songbook, is important to the editors, T. J. Thompson, writing in 1826:

“In editing a more extended collection of local Songs, descriptive of the language and manners of the common People of Newcastle upon Tyne and the Neighbourhood, the Editor claims little merit beyond that of giving to what some will designate "airy nothings, a local habitation and a name." One important consequence of the general diffusion of education among the labouring classes has been to destroy, in great part, that marked difference of character which formerly existed between the higher and lower grades of civilized society; and nothing perhaps has contributed more to this purpose than the publication, from time to time, of those local Songs, so familiar in their phraseology to the comprehension and understanding of all classes, in which the peculiarities of each are forcibly depicted, and in some cases humourously caricatured.

Those who are best acquainted with, and have been most observant of, the language and manners of the common people of this part of the kingdom will, it is presumed, admit that their general character has fully kept pace with the means of improvement presented to them, and that they are, generally speaking, better informed and more intelligent than those of their own class in most other parts of the country.

Our Keelmen and Pitmen have generally been the common subjects of satire for our local Poets; but, in attempting to describe the character of these useful bodies of men, the Poets appear often to have claimed their privilege, and given, instead of faithful portraits, wily rude caricatures;—delineations not characteristic of the Keelmen and Pitmen of the present day.

One thing worthy of notice is, that a very striking difference exists between our Keelmen and Pitmen, both in moral and physical character. The former, a hardy race of men, pursue an employment congenial to their health and muscular strength, possess strong feelings of independence, and have shewn, on some important occasions, that they are not easily subdued ; whilst, on the other hand, our Pitmen, who labour under ground, in an atmosphere generally contaminated with noxious vapours, seldom arrive at the common stature of men, and at an early period of life put on the appearance of age and decrepitude —Servile in their habits and manners, they possess little of that self-respect and feeling of independence which generally characterise the Keelmen, and too often become the dupes of illiterate, "pennyhunting hypocrites," the apostles of the most degrading superstitions—the result of which must necessarily be, the deterioration of their moral character.

A few words on what is called the Newcastle Dialect must suffice. This being a border town, was, before the union of the two kingdoms, subject to continual incursions from the Scotch ; and after the union great numbers of them settled here. The historians of the town tell us that most of our keelmen were originally from Scotland. This accounts for our dialect and accent being in great part Scottish. What is called the bur, or forcible guttural pronunciation of the letter r, is not, as has been commonly thought, peculiar to Newcastle; it is observable in several other places in Northumberland, in some parts of Scotland, and is quite the fashionable pronunciation in Paris, whence it is thought to have been originally derived. Some of our gentry who, in this respect, affect to ape the dialect of their more southern neighbours, drop the letter altogether in their pronunciation, and instead of gridiron will talk glibly of the gidion, oast beef, &c. The clear and forcible pronunciation of this letter has been ably pointed out as a peculiar beauty of our language, by the celebrated lecturer, Mr. Thelwall.”

Newcastle, Dec. 16, 1826.

- Thompson, T., J. Shield, W. Midford, H. Robson, and others, A Collection of Songs,Comic and Satirical, Chiefly in the Newcastle Dialect, 1827, p.i.

Bill Lancaster sums up the dynamic nature of regional identity:

“The community is, of course, an imagined one. It is us; us Geordies- people from Newcastle, the Tyne valley, Northumberland, even those from Wearside, South Tyneside and Durham. It is us as we see and are seen, with our hearts of gold , ready  humour, our friendliness and flat northern vowels. The stories are from our past….Being imagined does not make the past and the stories which go with it any less real. These traditions, and the feelings which accompany them, though they provide people with common ways of remembering, do not override real differences among them-those of place, occupation, opinion and class. Nor is the tradition coherent or tidy or static.” --Williamson, Bill, “Living the Past Differently, Historical Memory in the North East,” In: Colls, Robert and Bill Lancaster, Geordies, Roots of Regionalism, 1992, p.151.

It is much more dynamic than simple observation or history. It has a causal role. It creates history and is not isomorphic with it. That is why it is not “tidy”.

A contemporary example of this resilience can be seen in the comic strip Andy Capp. The main character Andy was from Hartleypool, in the North East. The comic first appeard in The Daily Mirror and The Sunday Mirror newspapers on 5 August 1957. The strip was the creation of Reg Smythe. Despite Smythe’s death in 1998 the strip is still alive and well in 2011. In the Comics as well as on the ground the “brand,” while challenged by the spirit of internationalism which is sweeping the globe, is still alive and well.

The Significance of Eccentrics

Although space is limited I will provide a short survey of the folk music of Newcastle eccentricity. As I discuss history, bear in mind that despite all of the contortions of history, the constants of the mystery of regionalism and the artifacts used to disclose and project it as well as the processes which created the treasures that are the songs do not die. They are simply manipulated, put on the shelf for a while and adapted. Another important point to consider is that despite all of the research and analysis we are limited generally to the public face of the culture. Culls (1977) notes that once published, even our earliest collections such as that of Bell (1811) were produced for sale and marketing and do not reflect the emic or insider culture of the groups represented. This reality should not impact our work here as we are not so much concerned with origins as we are with the composite artifact of regional identity. According to Culls (1977) most of the eccentrics mentioned in song lived during the last quarter of the 18th century and the first quarter of the 19th century. While overshadowed by the larger mythological figures such as Bob Cranky, Jack Spring, and Geordie Shieldykes, we must remember that the music of the region is filled with ordinary people who were eccentrics, too large in number to mention here, without whom the drama of the music of whatever period would be lifeless.

Culls (1977) considers the music of eccentricity to be like that of the other important three subcultures: Pitmen, Keelmen and Military men. Culls describes their contribution as, “they lend Tyneside a rich rum flavor; they animate its innate spirtit” (Colls, 1977, p.45). Pitmen, Keelmen, members of the Military and Eccentrics were not the only subcultures but were those referenced most frequently in song. Colls (1977, p.45) notes that Bell’s collection of 1811, published when the eccentrics were still alive, contains songs which are matter of fact and do not romanticize the eccentrics involved. Included is Robson’s “The Colliers’ Pay Week” which has the verse about Blind Willie who “sat scraping” in a pub.  He also includes Thompson’s song “Canny Newcassel” which also does not romanticize the fiddler.  Bell also includes john Shield’s “Cull ( a.k.a. Silly)  Billy.” This work, also not a romanticization, is a humanitarian call for better treatment of the local eccentric population (Colls 1977, p.46).

James Gregory (Gregory, James, “Local Characters.  Eccentricity and the North-East in the Nineteenth Century,” In Northern History, XLII: 1, March, 2005.) notes that Chambers (Chambers, 1882)  defines Eccentricity as “singularity of conduct: oddness.” According to Adams “some of these individuals were merely “eccentrics”, with pecular and generally harmless characteristics, that caused them to be well known and sometimes notorious. Others, again, displayed special powers of mind or body, along with certain distinguishing whimsicalities, by which they gradually attained a popularity more or less remarkable and worthy of admiration.” (Adams, W. E., Ed., Monthly Chronicle of North Country Lore and Legend, 1887-91.) Eccentrics were a varied group. They were women as well as men. They were primarily poor. Often they resided in specialized care facilities such as hosptials and workhouses, often with other members of their families. As Gregory observed: “eccentricity was a fluid and broad category. Prodigies of memory, strength, or height were subsumed in the category….this nonconformist element was straightforward and stood out.”

For the historians of the time eccentrics were just as important parts of the environment as any other-- they made the place what it was.  According to Gregory,--the eccentric was “partly created and partly maintained visually, justified eccentrics’ inclusion in works by antiquarians.” It is important to note the modification. Once the eccentrics moved from their cultural realities on the street to the upper realm of regional identity they lose a little of their history. However, they retain their significance and importance.  Ballads helped to project that significance to those outside of the cultural circle of the eccentrics themselves. Gregory highlights Coll’s observation that eccentricity lent Tyneside its flavor because it was “an area eager for such tokens in a flush of local identity.”  Here Gregory is referring to the process of creating a tangible form via the codification of local traits so that the “local identity can be disclosed for projection both to encurate the local group” as well as to project as a brand for the region that, as Gregory discovers,is  “demonstrative of regional individuality and “character “reflected local pride and local-centredness, sentiments that generated an unusual volume of local songs and historiography.” “Novocastrians were “fond of local lore, and of collecting objects with local associations.” He further records that: “those wanting a credible “regionalism” asserted the need for “cultural and mythological maps” as well as economic and political actions.”  As as constant it is not surprising that this local regional identity characterized by Wrightson as “pride and truculence” continues to be projected into the 21st century.

Following the publication of Bell’s collection (Bell, 1811) the country embarked upon a period of dramatic social change. This was spearheaded by groups such as the primitive Methodists and new Poor Law “feelosofers” devoted to moral reform, political order and discipline in the workplace.  The transition intensified after 1815.  Traditional headonism was out and respectibiltiy was in.  As Colls notes, “Not that every working pitman before the cultural revolution lived the life of a Blind Willie with his daily quayside round of music and drink- far from it; but in the new atmosphere such men were taken as symbols of what was disappearing, and the more it disappeared the more could it be unreal, unreal and precious.” (Colls, 1977, p. 46. ) This explains the romantic songs lamenting the passing of such figures as Captain Starkey, and Blind Willie, Bold Archy and others.   William Oliver in “The Newcassel Props” describes the change of scene ”Oh, waes me, wor canny toon, it canna stand it lang-The props are tumbling one by one, the beeldin seun mun gan…But cheear up lads, an’ dinna droop’, Blind Willie is still alive!” (Colls, 1977, p.47)  By the 1880s and 90s the transition to a more romantic view of eccentrics was complete. However, just like the process of cartoonization described by Colls (1977) the re-packaging was done in the higher sphere of the regional culture.  The “characters” are sanitized; they seem to have lost their grotesque disabilities, their work-house backgrounds, their rags, for a new suit of jester’s clothes; and they were always “of before in the old good old bad days.”  “Ballads,” reports   Gregory, “often written in Geordie, were performed at taverns, box-club head meetings (mutual aid societies) and weddings. Yet they were constructed in a “stylized” dialect rather than being “authentically” working-class; and were no necessarily enjoyed by them alone.”…”the demotic status of early-nineteenth-century songs needs qualification, though they were authentic to the extent that they featured local crises and personalities rather than romantic types of earlier ballads.”

He continues: “some local songs first appeared in newspapers, most as broadsheets (perhaps for a middle-class audience) and chapbooks, and they were republished in collections…”

Crawhall in his collection of “Sangs” understood the challenges of dialect: “A CALEDONIAN on literary and Libraryforming proclivities intent, invited a hint concerning a selection from the works of our English Poets. Chaucer as a start-point was (perhaps rashly) suggested, and to a later query—"How progresses the Library?"—quoth he—"Oo! fine—aw peck't up Chowcer t'ither day, but—Maun—aw can no read ett!" To the general reader it is much feared that the contents of this volume may present a like difficulty. Failing however appreciation and comprehension of our Northumberland speech, the collection may, it is hoped, find favour in home circles, and the added tunes prove a solace to all.”

-Crawhall, Joseph, A Beuk O’ Newcassel  Sangs, 1888.

Crawhall projects the treasures of song as being worth extra effort involved in mastering the dialect. The modification of the cultural realities of the eccentrics is to be expected as the regional culture was not of the class of eccentrics but outside looking in and concerned about finding ways to encorporate mention of the eccentrics in its effort to disclose the mystery of diversity-to project the brand. This demonstrates that despite the “cultural revolution” the tradition continued. That it continued however, gave the revolution away. The revolution was still incomplete.  The eccentric was still part of the regional character and music had to continue to disclsose it.

Allan’s Illustrated Edition of Tyneside Songs and Readings, Thomas & George Allan, 1891: The Perfect Artifact of Projection of Regionalism.

Allan’s Illustrated Edition of Tyneside Songs is a perfect example of an artifact of projection designed to present the disclosing artifact: North-East, Geordie or Newcastle regionalism. It is not a perfect history. It cannot be as it is a product of the abstraction of culture: the artifact of regionalism. It is derived from and not isomorphic with the folk culture. The book serves regionalism on behalf of its third- party creators.  It is important when reviewing it not to consider so much the orientation of presentation but the artifacts which were included. From the presence of the God Tyne to the Newcastle eccentrics, the building blocks expected of Newcastle regionalism are present.  The book is a good example of how all elements of the environment were drawn into the artifact in the spirit of the Great Chain of Being. The hills were literally alive with regionalism. Beginning with the emblematic god, Father Tyne, regionalism runs from the river up through the houses of its writers, eccentrics and performers out their signatures and onto the printed page. No element is left out. In the introduction to the book which I have included below it should be noted that all of the elements of the environment must be included so that “the interest of the song is (not) weakened or lost.” The background including previous employment and life experiences of the authors and performers is included as a foundation for the songs.  This coverage extends also, to the eccentrics mentioned in the songs. Harker in his introduction describes the portrail of ordinary working people “ …in songs…as vulgar caricatures or at best condescended- to economic inferiors given to malapropisms” (Harker, 1972,p.VIII).  Because the book exists within the generalized artifact of regional identity, chacterizaion is required and not exceptional.

 Of Blind Willie and the eccentrics Harker writes: “what Willie and the rest were made to represent was simply an image of the nostalgia of the better-off upper town people for certain aspects of the working class life most of them had left behind.” (Harker, 1972, p.X) While the newly prosperous lower town businessmen brought to the eccentrics and the ordinary working people their “spin” or projected point of view, it is hard to imagine any account of the culture without reference to the living or recently desceased eccentric persons who had become epic heros of the streets,  possessed of their own super-human status and mythology. The prominent position of the eccentrics as the frontispiece of the book attests to their essential role. Even though they had passed away, the artifact of regional culture continued to instruct neophytes of the behavior and mannerisms which were expected of any would-be Geordie. Did this expectation come from the editors and song writers? Possibly; however, in the case of the eccentrics we are dealing with real people whose lives and behavior are recorded historically elsewhere. The answer is that the inclusion of eccentrics within the artifact of regionalism was both historial and mythological, with information and fiction passing across the divide between folk and media in both directions. While Harker (Harker, David, “The Original Bob Cranky?,” Folk Music Journal, 1985.) is correct that there are two competitive groups in the town (as Harker notes, competing over women rather than jobs at the coal face) they are united by the common artifact of regionalism. Songs about Bob Cranky were published. How then would they have been: “Of course, the songs were written for private delecatation in the clubs, or at certain drawing room pianos” (Harker, 1985, p.65).  We know that there were some literate miners and that they had the funds to purchase the publications. As Harker points out: “1800-1804….Those years by common consent, were comparatively golden for face workers in North-East pits: on the Wear,  the once-a-year binding money payment shot up to as much as eighteen guineas a man and fifteen guineas was average, while on the Tyne the usual payment came to be twelve guineas. At the same time, piece-rates were forced up by between thirty and forty per cent” (Harker, 1985, p.57)

I would suggest that the artifact of regional identity was a compromise bought into by all members of society and all were proud to be included and benefited greatly from local pride. Again it is obvious that from inside the artifact of regionalism that songs are not of the people but about them. Harker however insists that the published songs existed in some form of secret society. He states:

“Typically, the songs were also about, rather than for, working women and men, and many could not have been performed publicly, because of the likelihood of reprisals from the people whom they caricatured” (Harker, 1985, p.65)

Harker provides no evidence of the views of pitmen or others characterized in the songs. I doubt very much that they were not familiar with the songs.  Yet there are no accounts of reprisals of any kind. There are also no counter-message songs by Corvan or others who Harker lifts up as writing for the people.

The entire argument for the dominance of class struggle in the songwriting and publishing world reminds me of the popular American television programme “Hee Haw”. The program presents jokes, situations and biting satire all directed against rural, farming, country people. It is a program which is all about the projection of their cultural and regional identities. The program does not prevoke protest; quite the contrary, it was very popular in its time (aired on CBS-TV from 1969–1971) and is now frequently re-run on a television network dedicated to the farming community.

“Bob would have been able to treat young women better than a Newcastle apprentice or young journeyman, on his once-a-fortnight spree” (Harker, 1985, p.61) Why then is the caracture taken as negative? Bob swelled with what would later be called “Geordie pride”, a force which united the classes through the artifact of regionalism rather than divided it.

One thing is clear: despite the statements of the authors one should never look for realism, fairness, or political correctness in a song which was constructed to function within the artifact of regional identity.

The Allans say little about those who did not become commercial writers, those who remained pitmen, keelmen and members of the military, whose interest was limited to composing, singing and enjoying the songs and presumably to some extent teaching them via the oral tradition. They do not see the need to reach that far. They start their coverage with the professional songwriter or performer; the homes and workplaces of ordinary people escape srcrutiny. This is because this work is an artifact of projection of the wider culture which is the sum of many parts ranging from the heavenly, to rivers, neighborhoods, buildings, life experiences and signatures.  It is not an all-inclusive view. The artifact of regional culture is a generalization of which song at the most elemental level of culture that of the ordinary person in the home is digested and absorbed into new form.

Dave Harker, in his introduction to the 1972 edition of the book, believes that this third edition heralded the start of a shift in Allan’s philosophy of editing. Harker draws attention to the fact that Thomas Allan was an ordinary man rather than a “study-bound intellectual.”  Harker views the book as reflecting two communities: those from working class backgrounds who wrote, published and sold music for their own community and those who were from “the middle class and later, the skilled artisans who wrote and sung songs (often about working people) popular amongst themselves.” Harker describes the division of the two groups in a sort of genetic sense. Both communities, Harker notes, were interdependent and in fact they were more alike than different. Harker, presumably because he believes the oral traditions irrelevant or dead, seems not to investigate the book for traces of the productions of these traditions which may also be present. as “ritual pieces” (such as the “Keel Row”) , (Harker, 1972, p.XX).   Perhaps he considered capitalist production the only relevant dimension. His distinction between the two traditions of editing is not between folk oral tradition and commercialism but between two levels of commercial activity, each geared to the tastes of two different markets of individuals who could afford the costs of a night of music leaving the poorer classes limited to the music of the home or casual setting.  Migration of songs such as the “Blaydon Races”  from the Allan’s and other collections to the folk tradition is noted, but we are left despite the analysis with a poor understanding of music outside of the realm of the media and performance.

The book was republished in 1872, 1873, and 1891. In 1972 Frank Graham republished the 1891 edition with contributions by Dave Harker. 

-Harker, Dave,”Preface,” In: Allan, Thomas and George Allan, Allan’s Tyneside Songs, 1972 (1891), p.III

Another important aspect of the Allan collection is the fact that despite their stated interest in preserving the songs, following tradition, they have omitted the notation for the tunes that they so hope to preserve.  It is hard to believe that given their stated priorities the Allans could expend so much on images of signatures, portraits of artists and buildings, without having sufficient funds to dedicate to the more important notation. This fact forces us to inquire as to the true function of the collection. Was it for an audience intent on singing and preserving the songs as songs or as literature? Perhaps the publication served a need similar to that of the Renaissance household where the lady of the house collected printed recipe books for her library as literary objects while her cooking staff, being illiterate, had little use for published recipe collections? The book at over two inches of thickness is much too large to fit on a music stand or piano.  Another market-based analysis would suggest that the reason for the absence of notation related to the maket interests of musicians. By the middle of the 19th century, as David Russell points out (Russell, David, Popular Music in England 1840-1914, 1997, p.5.), the  growth of the number of people engaged in musical performance beginning in 1840 was phenomenal. 

“The number of “musicians and music masters” recorded in the census returns increased from 19,000 in 1871 to 47,000 in 1911.  In 1856 there were perhaps only half a dozen brass band contests in England, yet in 1896 there were over 240…..In 1840 a piano was a luxury item by 1910 it had been estimated there was one piano for every ten to twenty of the population” (Russel, 1997, p. 5) .Brass bands and choruses recruited men and women from the streets and taverns to play music and therefore become a more reliable work force as they would drink less and sleep more.  Professional musicians must have felt this new development as a threat. Who would need to hire a musician if one could simply purchase sheet music for a family member to play on the piano or horn or sing in the chorus? I would suggest that there would be a very strong market incentive for publishers to exclude the notation. Lyrics however, would not be seen as a threat. Quite the opposite, lyrics would create demand. Those owning the song books could discover the song, and with the tune noted in the text request the services of a professional musician to perform it. Another interesting point is that while there was a significant inventory of shared tunes in the 19th century,  as collections grew as large as Allans it is doubtful that the average reader would  know a significant number of the tunes or be skillful enough to match the tunes they knew to the many songs now suddenly available.  Dave Harker noted in his Introduction to Allan’s Illustrated Edition of Tyneside Songs (Harker 1972, p. XIII) that at each of the 14 points of call of the buffers of the railway-trucks via Gateshead miners purchased their drinks. Whether or not they arrived with lyrics in their heads or on broadsises or in songbooks they paid not so much for the lyrics as for the tunes, the music.

The grip of the professional instrumental musician would perhaps have weakened significantly with the proliferation at the household level of competent instrumental musicians. For the new “do it yourself” generation, publishers had to do much more than include the lyrics – they had to include notation and indication of tempo. Perhaps we see this occurring with the publications of Joseph Crawhall (Crawhall, Joseph, A Beuk O’ Newcassel  Sangs, 1888) and arrangements of popular traditional songs by C. Ernest Catchside-Warrington,  (Catchside-Warrington, C.Ernest, Tyneside Songs, 1900-1920.)  Pushback by the professional instrumentalist community would come with the invention of the phonograph in 1877, with home models available in the early 20th century. Despite this proposed explanation, one should not discount the perfectly acceptable function of songbooks as literature.  Ballads are in fact defined as stories and the backgrounds of artists and composers are generally popular with readers. The development of the function of songs as literature has parallels in the history of the publishing of cookbooks in Early Modern Europe (Applebaum, Robert, Aguecheek’s Beef, Belch’s Hiccup, and other Gastrono ic Interjections, 2006, p. 66.) Applebaum describes early cookery books as literature for the enjoyment of the literate members of the household, none of whom would customarily be found in the kitchen. Early published cookbooks were not just books of recipes but contained a mixture of recipes and texts concerning household management. In the same way Allan’s work is an eclectic mix of biography, recitation, local history, and architecture.

The absence of notation is indeed a complex issue not explained with one simple answer .

William Mitford Signature (Allan, 1891)

From Allan’s Illustrated Edition of Tyneside Songs, 1891

“Introductory Note

It is close upon thirty years since we brought out the first edition of this book.  In 1872 it was enlarged, and the following from the introductory note will show upon what lines.

“Several features now in local collections have been introduced. In many of the songs, particularly those of an earlier date, there are allusions to events and persons without a knowledge of which the interest of the song is weakened or lost.  These allusions, well known at the time the songs were written, haave now grown strange to a great many.  To remedy this, notes explanatory are given where necessary.

In previous collections, little has been told about the writers of the songs- the local bards

“---who swept the rustic lyre,

Their native hills adoring.”

That it should have been so is unfortunate, as, now, the task of supplying the omission is one of difficulty.  Like their songs, the singers were, with few exceptions, of humble life, and but little known beyond their own immediate circle.  It is from these, now few in numbers, and difficult to trace, that the information gathered, in several instances, has been so scanty is to be regretted; but, at least, a little has been obtained which will be interesting to those who take an interest in Tyneside song.

The older writers wrote for their own amusement, and sung their songs at social meetings amongst their friends; now Tyneside songs are generally launched into popularity from the stage of the concert hall, music, and dressing in characters, being used to add to their effect. Corvan, and, after him, Ridley, followed this course, and made the writing and singing of Tyneside songs their means of livelihood.  Joe Wilson and Rowland Harrison are now pursuing a similar course, excepting that Joe neverdresses in character, but invariably sings his songs in ordinary dress.”

To this we may add:--In the new edition the notes on the songs and the Lives of the writers have been largely extended, while Portraits and Autographs, some of them rare, have been freely added.  For these additional atttractions we have been indebted to many kind friends; their valuable help we here beg to acknolwledge with many thanks.

In the present edition a fresh feature is introduced-the writers follow in order of time; and each song is traced back to its original publication, or as near as can be, and the text revised from the best authority.  The emblematic device on the ack, the head of he River God, Father Tyne showing its products and industries is from Brand’s Newcasle (1789), where it is given as designed by Sir Wm. Chambers.”

-Allan, T., Ed., A Choice Collection of Tyneside Songs , 1872, p.1.

Oral Tradition

An oral tradition is that of a flexibly structured stream of consciousness that is a product of pan-human abilities of the human mind. In brief, the human mind can compose as it wishes and apply rule systems and standards to the resultant composition as it chooses. It can choose to remember the composition or forget it. It can project it via print media, singing or recitation. It can teach the composition or keep the composition protected. As a pan-human ability it is the realm of the individual to accept artifacts of structure and convention as well as artifacts of lyric and notation on their own terms. While existing in a wider cultural environment, the individual is free to filter, adapt and pick and choose. This nature of the tradition is the essence of the adaptability of the tradition.  

Autonomy of the Participant

A very important aspect of the oral tradition is that it is free to ignore or accept external events, philosophies and trends. The oral tradition works independently of external philosophies, political paradigms and the events of history. It decides whether to follow trends or external develpments and is not subject to them. All too often folklorists have neglected this important autonomy of the individual participant.  It is this independence that allows the oral tradition to preserve its inventory of compositions and to resist replacement of these with those from the market place.  In short, political, economic and cultural trends and other external concerns are powerless once entering the auditory canal of the participant in the oral traditions where they are reassessed by the autonomous participant.

It could be said that the oral tradition begins with the ear canal and ends with the throat. Once a song comes out of the body of the participant it is almost as if it has been printed or recorded.  Placing a song outside the mind and body places it into the world of politics, economics and socio-cultural affairs. This therefore is where we must stop if we are to consider the nature of the oral tradition.

In conclusion: The oral tradition is totally dependent upon the inside world of the participant and is independent of the outside world. The unity of a tradition conveyed and kept orally is an illusion created by the agreement of groups of participants upon rules, standards and other conventions. The task of analysis is not to describe external political influences so much as to document the inventories of songs kept internally and performed independently of formal venues. This area of study has been neglected but without it we will never know the true relationship between media music and the people themselves.

Limitations of the Oral Tradition

The oral tradition is adaptable, and flexible. It is a series of processes and relationships; however, it has important limitations. There are three important limitations which I would like to touch on briefly here: The limitations of socio-cultural environment, the limitations of the process of memorization, The limitations of memory capacity.

As the tradition is dependent upon living individuals, survival of the tradition is directly related to the relationship of the participant to the particular culture and set of social and historical circumstances in which they live. When participants are relegated to the lower impoverished social classes, the prosperity of the tradition suffers. Folklorists have often failed to observe that the degredation, and decay of the tradition is not caused by the decay of immortal relationships and processes. These can function at any time and in any place. The degredation, decomposition and dulling of the inventory of songs is directly related to the socio-cultural, political and economic environment or deprevation and abject discrimination in which the participants in the oral traditions were forced to live. This persisted well into the 20 th century when folklorists of upper classes treated the main players in the production and maintenance of the inventory of songs they collected as rustics, primitives and children who, if left to their own devices, would only inflict further disintigration and dullness upon the traditional treasures which the more “enlightened” classes wished to construct into a “National Music.” They hoped replace the childish rustics with properly instructed schoolchildren singing and romantic classical works founded upon folk melodies.

The oral tradition, functioning without the aid of written records, depends upon the process of memorization. The task of the participant in the tradition is to convey an inventory of songs to successors. This is done by a range of methods ranging from formal rote learning to experiencing the reiteration of songs in the course of daily life. This process requires time. Without the aid of written materials, outsiders cannot easily join the tradition and partake of the full experience of singing. Instead of growing in numbers the keepers of tradition are more likely to simply create temporary audiences of which only a few will become participants. If time is of the essence due to external preasures the tradition will be impacted. Another limitation, that of memory capacity, can be seen in the small size of the components of the regional traditions of the British isles.

The folk tradition of the British isles is divided into many small units spread across the landscape. Some of these units are as large as counties, others cities and villages, but many are limited to small settlements and small families or occupational groups. One potential explanation for the small size of the units which make up the tradition is the limitation of the human mind to contain and retain songs. How many can be remembered? How many can be carried along and learned during the course of a lifetime? This number is absolutely not infinite. One explanation for the large number of songs from the traditions of the British isles which have been preserved by the oral tradition is related to the number of individual local traditions, each carrying a manageable inventory of different songs. The more small units carrying different inventories,  the more songs in total.  Infinity came to the oral tradition in the form of media which preserved songs independently of human memory.  At first it was writing, then printing, then recording.  Almost immediately the number of songs which could be preserved grew by an amazing rate. By the nineteenth century it became impossible for any oral tradition to cope with the number of songs which had been printed and published. As a result, entertainment rather than learning became dominant. It has been demonstrated that regions such as the North East have strongly opposed the adoption of a national printed inventory; however, the challenge to the oral tradition was extremely dangerous and proved destructive.  The tradition of the media can be seen, however, not as a separate competing force but as a new organ of the same body which is able to provide important functions. As   A.L. Lloyd demonstrated, songs flow easily across the divide between the two. The lifeblood of the tradition can be enriched by exposure to the media tradition and the media tradition can be given life by the oral tradition. The same processes of adaptation and new creation go on within both traditions in similar ways. The print tradition can take a song from the oral tradition, adapt it and pass it back. The early 20th century revivalists could do their “scientific” work upon a song, restore it and pass it back. The media tradition created song books which as hymnals could help the oral tradition recover.Would-be participants could short-cut the long learning process and join in immediately and use the media support to learn the songs over time.

The oral traditions are insulated from the outside world by the socio-cultural distance of the auditory canal, but they are  also insulated in the same way from media traditions It is important to realize that the  media tradition also had its own free and independent gatekeepers, the publishers, writers and marketers of the recorded inventory. It is important to examine the parallel organs of the media traditions as they are of great importance for the aspects of the tradition we are discussing here.

Print or Media Tradition

Folklorists have often attacked the media tradition as being a threat to the oral tradition. However, as a second organ in the body of song creation, adaptation and transmission, it is essentially a complementary parallel tradition which accomplishes many of the same tasks and functions. Some follkorists actually have found the media tradition to be central to the process of transmission, especially of “scientifically” collected and reconstructed songs. Writing songs down properly and exactly became important when the participants in the oral tradtion were in decline and the inventory of songs was threatened. Without printing it would have been impossible to do the geneology of folk songs, linking and reconstructing versions found in many small local inventories scattered across the landscape.

While the media tradition was most helpful for the preservation of songs and their analysis, it could also assist in the over-development of standardization and the promotion of performer virtuosity. Both of these processes are directly in conflict with the fluid nature of the oral tradition which operates through adaptation via personal participant autonomy. When standardization of performance is over-developed, ordinary participants who do not rise to the standard or keep their performances to established guidelines and rigid codified styles are relegated to the background and have a limited access to resources and performance opportunities. Even today in a BBC Radio Shropshire broadcast, the respected English Folk Music and Dance society representative stated clearly that those who do not rise to acceptable “quality” standards and possess a signficiant promotional capacity simply need not apply to represent the country at the festival known as Celtic Connections in 2013. The oppression of the participants in the oral tradition maintained by the founders of the Society, Cecil Sharp and Ralph Vaughn Wiliams, is clearly alive and well. Despite the importance of the inventory of songs that they preserve participants are denied respectability. The printed page and codification of styles in written analysis and study has clearly fanned the flames of this inferno.  While there is nothing wrong with a performance or virtuoso tradition, its role had never expanded as dramatically as it did following the expansion of the song publishing industry in the 19th century.

All of the songs presented here originated in the popular printed tradition.  Or did they? One of the difficulties with the media tradition is that often collector-author-publishers are not clear as to the origin of the songs that are published. Some are identified as “old songs” or “popular.” Others were collected from participants in the oral tradition. Most scholars have agreed that in one way or another songs collected and printed, even by the more conservative antiquarian collectors, have been modified from their original forms in some way. For our purposes the authenticity of published material is unimportant. The link between the media tradition and the oral tradition is an open one.  Both traditions shared music and institutionalized adaptation.  The history of songs becomes irrelevant for the functioning of traditions in the long run. The analysis of history, evolution and inspiration and other external dimensions will never succeed in the explanation of the processes at work within the culture of the autonomous participants of both traditions- the oral as well as the media.

In conclusion it is appropriate for us to be more accepting of the inventories and processes of both traditions. Human minds within the oral tradition are limited in their memory. and production costs have limited the  ability of participants in the media tradition from printing an infinite number of songs. It is important not to dwell upon the output of the processes of the two traditions, but to focus upon the processes and principals, variables and relatinships of the cultures of the participants that produced it as a byproduct of daily life. This realization should not cause despair but should rather encourage us to work toward the moderation of discriminating practices of the market place and minimization of the filters which keep available songs from preservation in the media tradition.


The study of the folk music and in particular the oral traditions of the British Isles in the 18th, 19th and well into the 20th century was founded upon the basic, fundamental denial that ordinary people found by scholars to be in possession of the inventory of folk song treasures could have ever been capable of creating such artistic masterpieces. This denial would shape the perception of the oral traditions of folk music.  Creation of the treasured songs was determined to have been accomplished by a long gone master craftsman race.  The oral tradition was pronounced dead. It could not be reconstructed.  The period of the awakening of the awareness of the importance of folk song and the existence of folk oral traditions paralleled a fervent interest in human cultural origins. Gentleman and lady scholars traveled to the far corners of the British Isles and North America. There from their modern perspective they found, as did Thomas Crofton Croker in Ireland (Croker, Thomas, Crofton, Researches in the South of Ireland, 1824), and Squire and Davis (Squire, Ephraim, George, and Edwin Hamilton Davis, Ed. Joseph Henry,  Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley: Comprising the Results of Extensive Original Surveys and Explorations, 1848) in America, amazing cultural artifacts which scholars considered treasures, in the custody of the “childish” Irish or “crude” Native Americans which from their “advanced “ cultural perspective could not have possibly created them. The scholars of the revival believed that English Folk Song should not be entrusted to the care of English primitives.

Joseph Ritson wrote in 1813:

“There is nothing, perhaps, from which the real character of a nation can be collected with so much certainty as the manners and diversions of the lower or rather lowest classes of the inhabitants.  The principal amusement of the common people of every country and in every age has been a turn for melody and song…..(in contrast to other European cultures) The English vulgar have never, perhaps, shown such a brilliancy of intellect and therefore the compositions which they most relish are hardly to be endured by those of any other description.  Nothing can be more common than to see a large crowd attending with apparent satisfaction to rhapsodies in which, though written in a jargon, and with a grossness perfectly suitable to such an audience, it is evident that the composer has not understood what he wrote, that the performer does not understand what he sings, and that the audience do not understand what they hear, and yet, what is most extraordinary, no one of these circumstances appears to render the composition less favorite or delightful.”

-Ritson, Joseph, A Select Collection of English Songs, With their Original Airs, And a Historical Essay on the Origin and Progress of National Song, 1813,p. XCIII.

Sabine Baring Gould, wrote:

“it has been asked by not a few-How is it that these songs are so unprovincial? For one reason: Because they are an heirloom of the past, from a class of musicians far higher in station and culture than those who now possess the treasure.”

“…….It must be borne in mind that folk-music is nowhere spontaneous and autochthonous. It is always a revival hence, a heritage from a cultural past. The yokel is as incapable of creating a beautiful melody as he is of producing a piece of beautiful sculpture, or of composing a genuine poem”…

…” I hold that these melodies are of West of England origin in a majority of cases, and that they are worth collecting because they are the remains of a school of cultural musicians that has passed away unheard of out of their own counties.”

- Baring Gould, Sabine, and Henry Fleetwood Sheppard, Songs and Ballads of the West: A Collection made from the Mouths of the People, 1889-91, p. IX-XI.

Vaughn Williams wrote:

”The folk-song has ceased to grow on its native soil. The art of the folk-song lives, but the art of the folk-singer (writer) is dead. That is a special art and I would strongly advise all musicians before it is too late to seize some opportunity of going to hear a genuine folk-song sung by a singer who has the traditional art of singing them: it is a wonderful experience. The folk- song in its pure state has ceased to evolve….The evolution of the English folk-song by itself has ceased.”

-From: Vaughn Williams, Ralf, “English Folk-Songs,” In: The Music Student , 5 /6 , 1912, In : Manning, David, Vaughn Williams on Music, 2008, p.198.

“The art of the ballad singer is a lost art- we cannot recapture it  or imitate the externals, the dialect, the closed eyes, the curious prolongations of certain syllables- the best we can parody it but heaven forbid that we should do so. But we can, if we wish to, apply the fundamental principles of the ballad singer’s art to our own interpretations of folk-songs.”

- Vaughn Williams, Ralph, ”How To Sing Folk Song,” In:  “The Midland Musician,” 1 / 4 , 1926, 127,  In: Manning, David, Vaughn Williams on Music, 2008, p.219.

“May not some particular movement of a dance or form of a melody which we have discovered to our joy in a hitherto undiscovered country be a debased version of a pure original? I believe in the communal evolution of the folk song- but that belief involves the possibility of individual disintegration.  Folk singers and dancers are, after all, human beings and if here are great artists among them there are also dull practitioners.  A tune or dance once beautiful may well have been disfigured into dullness by passing through the mind of a dull-witted individual who has robbed it of its character and vitality.“

-From: Vaughn Williams, Ralf,” The Justification of Folk Song,” 5 / 6 , 1941, 66-7, In: English Dance and Song, In: Manning, David, Vaughn Williams on Music, 2008, p.249.

 “I think I can show that their existence (folk-music like songs from printed sources) proves most conclusively that there is what we may call a distinctive folk – song idiom which is a thing apart.”

-Vaughn Williams, Ralph, English Folk-Songs”  From: The Musical Student,”4 / 6-11, 1912,  In: Manning, David, Vaughn Williams on Music, 2008, p. 189.

Starting with the custody of treasures by a class and race apart who could not possibly be responsible for their creation or maintenance, folklorists next concluded that folk music is apart from all other music.  In this way music scholarship must set out on a path to justify as separate that which is in effect a continuum running through all classes and peoples via the shared wiring of the human mind.  Folk-music, if it was to be the root foundation of a national music, had to be by definition apart from the whole, “special.”  Later scholars would attempt to justify the separate and superior nature of British folk-music by the intervention of the forces of technological  change, social change and politics which through oppressive force maintained the necessary division between what are in essence two sides of the communal musical brain.  For A.L. Lloyd (Lloyd, A.L., Folk Song in England, 1967) folk-music became not the foundation of the nation but of the opposition. “The mother of folklore is poverty” (Lloyd, A.L., Folk Song in England, 1967, p. 11)  rather than the root of the nation. Although equipped with the same mental wiring, the brains of the aristocracy simply could not mother properly (or perhaps they weren’t asked). Although Lloyd admits that the membrane   between the oral traditions of folk music and other worlds and genres is thin and permeable, he dismisses his observation that “we are all bearers of some sort of folklore, if only in the form of the dirty story…” as “a prospect (that) extends too easily to a boundless panorama going beyond all reasonable definition”

But even Louis Armstrong, quoted by Lloyd noted that “All music’s folk music: leastwise I never heard of no horse making it.” (Lloyd, A.L., Folk Song in England, 1967, p.12 ) Classism has been substituted for racism as the tool for finding the missing link which was, all the time, simply the principals and processes facilitated by the common human brain.

Vaughn Williams, Cecil Sharp and others pursued the art of the folk song. They scientifically collected and reformed texts and restored the music to what they considered to be its former glory. They would meticulously study singing styles so that folk music could be injected back into the people. This would be done not through the resurrection of the tradition of the singer which they had buried in a final way, but through the market place of popular music and the printed page. This process would end with the despair of Ewan MacColl who lamented the failure of the second folk revival in his autobiography (MacColl, Ewan, Journeyman, 1990). This is why we are told that the oral tradition is dead and can not be restored. Lloyd had observed (Lloyd, A.L., Folk Song in England, 1967 p. 7) “For the most part, the makers and bearers of our folk songs were anonymous amateurs who earned their living, meager as it often was, in other ways than entertainment. By the same token such educated men as were interested in the songs had little thought of exploiting their curiosity for gain.” The rationale behind the move to the marketplace is a confusion of history. Where did it come from? From the first revival of the turn of the century when Frank Kidson and John and Lucy Broadwood (Broadwood, John, Sussex Songs, 1890, Broadwood, Lucy, E. and J. a. Fuller Maitland, English County Songs, 1893, Broadwood, Lucy, E., English Traditional Songs and Carols, 1908, Kidson, Frank, and Alfred Moffatt, English Peasant Songs, 1929 )  emphasized the importance of the proper printed record. There is nothing which is more important to the music market place than accurate replication of performance and recordings to the public. While important for the preservation of songs and understanding of their history, excessive codification and standardization started us on the path to market.  MacColl cited Hugh MacDiarmid  (Christopher Greive) and his concept of the Kailyard (an overly sentimental representation of rural life derived from the Scottish term for small cabbage patch ) to describe less than perfect folk singers as “vandals” and “weeds” which “should not be allowed to germinate” (MacColl,Ewan, 1990, p.275-276). This is nothing more than a strong echo of the presumption by Vaughn Williams and others that the dullards and childish peasants who had guarded the tradition for untold centuries could no longer be trusted with it.  Left for dead, the immortal oral tradition was discarded in favor of the speculation of the market place and competition for air time, record sales, music venues and the top of the pops. MacColl created a revival in the role of a “vogue” and “sudden fashion.” Due to to the selection of this course it was only a matter of time before MacColl’s revival was to be “given the finger,” as had been given to Tin Pan Alley before it. (MacColl, 1990, p.266) Although MacColl’s heart was in the right place when he addressed his hatred of the discrimination afforded folk musicians by their classical counterparts, instead of eliminating the underclass he was simply portioning it, dividing the folk professional from the ordinary participant in the tradition. The partition came in the form of ticket prices, juried venues and the cost of media. Despite it all the Kailyard remains an area where ancient traditions still face harsh competition.

The processes and principals of the oral tradition have gone nowhere. They cannot die, and that is why the restoration and effective revival of the place in the common memory of the songs presented here is brought forth as an important option for the active preservation of this important tradition.

Another consequence of the proclamation of the death of the oral traditions was the proclamation of the tyranny of the marketplace and of capitalism.  Dave Harker states that all that people can do is accept what is provided to them by the market, by outsiders. ( Harker, David, One for the Money, Politics and Popular Song, 1980.)  Even when Harker describes song writers such as Tommy Armstrong as insiders, he does so in an almost genetic hereditary sense. Armstrong as well as Ridley were once insiders-- both colliers. Their status changed completely when they became writer-publisher capitalists. Harker denies the autonomy of the participant in the oral traditions as well as ignores the fact that the most important aspect of oral traditions is their conservative power to, despite access to the marketplace, maintain specific inventories of songs  with only a minimum of careful borrowing.  If we are to hold that the oral traditions are pan-human processes, then we must find that they are perhaps oppressed more by the negative pronouncements of Harper than by the marketplace or capitalism.  It is difficult to bring about revival of oral traditions if the oral traditions are so stridently pronounced dead and irrelevant. Yet it is clear that because they are pan-human processes derived from the wiring of the human mind that revival can indeed be accomplished.


It Is tempting to put our music down, proclaim the oral tradition as dead and gone, and take a comfortable seat at a concert, attend a festival or purchase recorded music. We must be reminded that in so doing we neglect a piece of the puzzle that has brought our songs and music through time. While little in history is certain, one thing stands out as true. The library of Alexandria always tends to burn, civilizations and technologies fall and fail, but the human mind, carrier of our music, marches on. What will remain in that mind of our inventory of songs when the lights go out?  How can we make sure that our songs and music are there?

The autonomous participants in the oral traditions of communal composition and preservation have always existed on the other side of a thin permeable membrane from the worlds of commercial and media music.  Songs and ideas have flowed back and forth with ease from the printed page, performance, and recordings to the minds of the autonomous participants in the oral tradition and back again. All “spin,” manipulation, politics and other coded meanings fall away at the ear canal of the participant.  The wonderfully complete account of Dave Harker (Harker, 1972) presents the world of the autonomous participant in oral traditions as that of existing next to a cacophonous roommate who plays its music at top volume on the other side of a very thin wall. The force of osmosis from the commercial side seems to be far greater than that coming from the oral traditional side. The effect is most likely quite overwhelming for the participants in the oral traditions.If we are to recognize that the principles and processes of the oral traditions cannot die and because of their ability to preserve and adapt songs cannot be allowed to become irrelevant, it is important to address the imbalance. I propose a few ideas to assist with this task:

1.                      Encourage memorizing over listening. The effects of entertainment are soon gone. A song learned lasts a lifetime and can be transmitted.

2.                      Encourage singing along over listening. As songs are sung and repeated they are learned.

3.                      Encourage the value of possession of songs over quality of performance or style. It is the inventory of songs in the mind that is important, not how they are presented. Encouragement to sing for all paricipants is important.

4.                      Do not enforce stylistic continuity. The lyrics and the tunes are important, not the packaging.

5.                      Encourage adaptation via accretion of traditional materials and new composition on an equal basis. While deterioration is to be avoided,  change via accretion keeps the core song intact.

6.                      Provide for equal accessibility of resources and performance venues to all who possess the songs regardless of quality or style. Recognition and encouragement are important for the participant. Despite not being in the business of music they deserve our encouragement.

7.                      Make printed collections of songs accessible, as “ hymnals”  are the first step of the process of bringing songs from the media tradition to the oral tradition. Printed songs facilitate singing along.


The songs and life stories presented below may not have ever entered the oral tradition. Some have, and live there to the present day. While trusting the media and commercial world with them is tempting, we must recognize the limitation of that strategy. The commercial world does not so much preserve songs in active use but rather processes them for profit and temporary success. Who remembers the hit parade of 50 years ago? Book publishing is costly and limited and libraries regularly discard books that are not continually used. We are left therefore with an obligation to revive the autonomous oral tradition. We can be comforted in knowing that it is the foiundation of the artifact of regional identity and can inform the media and commercial tradition.

Further study is also needed of the role of the autonomous folk traditions of communal composing and preservation of the inventory. From existing research it is difficult to determine how all of the different classes and subcultures related to the music. What did they actually have access to? What entered their heads and lodged in their minds? Which songs were taught within the oral tradition?  From the work of Dave Harker it is difficult to determine the relationship between disposable income of pitmen and others to the cost of attendance at venues and the prices of publications.  The future should see a greater concentration upon personal documents, diaries and letters as opposed to newspapers and formal publications.

Today the music of the North East and of Newcastle streams across the internet. I can watch the crowd at St. James Park watching a Newcastle Unite Game and I can sing along with them  as they belt out The ”Blaydon Races” as well as I can hear the songs of Blind Willy played on Northumbrian small pipes on YouTube .  I can join in as the Unthanks sing “Here’s the Tender Coming” from their CD of the same name (Here’s The Tender Coming, Uk Release: 2009 EMI / Rabble Rouser Music). It is just as if they were the girls next door. But they aren’t and it’s not the oral tradition. I am communicating with the commercial tradition via the media. The music comes across the thin membrane which divides the autonomous oral tradition from the media-preserved and commercially-presented tradition. This method of transferance is not the same, although it is important. While the voice of the commercial and media-based tradition is seemingly turned to full volume, the oral tradition seems to be faint. The songs have made it into my head but it seems there is nowhere for them to go. Folk clubs are in decline and I would not have a chance at a place on the stage of a festival. How can we turn up the volume of the autonomous oral traditions?

A major hindrance of the prosperity of the music and the effectiveness of the artifact of regional identity is the imposition of censorial views. There have always been filters. There have always been songs which could not be printed. Although significantly liberated today, the productions of cultural groups are still often criticized for being offensive. Harker describes a cultural tradition as “simple vulgar ignorance and prejudice” and laments that “indeed this tradition is not yet dead on Tyneside- And Allan provided such people with the work of the old middle-class writers to serve as models for future songs“(Harker, 1972, XXI). This critique is often directed at those with membership in specific classes or industries. If we are to consider all music as autonomous production of members of cultural groups and traditions, we cannot critize world view or political perspective, style or professionalism or virtuosity, just as we no longer censor as much, at least, in service to morality. Ewan MacColl’s Critics Group, dedicated to improving the quality of singing and performance style, and was designed to merge the folk tradition into the mainstream. No ordinary singers need apply! The effort ended in failure as trends in the market place changed and the industry moved on to other genres. (“How Folk Songs Should be Sung”, BBC Radio 4, Tuesday January 3, 2012, 0630.)  To return to Vaughn Williams: Dull people sing songs in a dull way but at least they keep the songs and transmit them. -Vaughn Williams, Ralf,” The Justification of Folk Song,” 5 / 6 , 1941, 66-7, In: English Dance and SongIn: Manning, David, Vaughn Williams on Music, 2008, p.249  

Of course the artifact of regional identity creates stereotypes. That is what it is supposed to do. It exists to make of many one, It speaks from the commercial and media tradition.  It is a consensus. Within this model we can encourage participants on both sides to represent themselves and perhaps turn up the volume from their point of view but we can not censor their contributions.  The oral tradition being made up of autonomous participants should be trusted to do what it will with the music that enters its ears. The music of the carriers of the inventory of old songs should be trusted as the participants themselves wish to present it.

In one line, it is my opinion that not enogh emphasis has been placed upon the possession in the mind of folksong and too much has been placed upon quality, professionalism, and virtuosiity. The media and commercial tradition are but two pieces of a puzzle which works best only when all pieces are equally strong.

I have presented a dream, a model, and that is how it should be regarded. Going back to the mystery and the dark matter of folklore seems from my point of view to be essential for explanation and understanding. The songs and stories presented below can be utilized in many ways and on many levels. Read them, sing them, tell the stories to others. Lift them from these pages and give them life. Adapt them to make the world work in a better way for you.

©Conrad Jay Bladey 2012

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