Folk Music and Fascism: A Divisive History

Folk music is near synonymous with the left. This union is so apparent and longstanding in the Anglophone world that we rarely ever think to question it. Haunting the revival of the 1960s, the archetype of a folk singer is beholden to legends such as Woody Guthrie, his guitar emblazoned with the phrase “This Machine Kills Fascists” (now available online for $4 a piece).

Although folk music was employed in the service both of communist state propaganda (vividly illustrated in Paweł Pawlikowski’s recent film Cold War) and in support of the Third Reich, our concept of folklore has tended to remain wedded to a proletarian or progressive vision. Folk music partisans, themselves frequently stalwart Marxists or card-carrying Party members, were at the vanguard of the most iconic political struggles of the twentieth century, from the Industrial Workers of the World and the Popular Front to the civil rights movement, CND, and the movement for reproductive rights.

In the public imagination, the folk revivalist is a dyed-in-the-wool radical, an activist whose commitment to the betterment of the common woman and man was forged in the furnace of anti-capitalist hostility. The frivolous offerings of the commercial music industry only serve to compound this opposition to the marketplace and its profit-hungry moguls. And so the folk singer rages against commerce and decadence with songs of social injustice, their roots firmly grounded in the topography of home.

But this tradition of thought is built upon a paradoxical foundation, one that casts a disconcerting shadow on the vision of folk music as a tool of resistance.

Folkloric thinking echoes what Raymond Williams saw as a form of “idealist retrospect” – a way of measuring change and resisting capitalist injustice nevertheless in danger of reinforcing undemocratic hierarchies “in the name of blood and soil”.<1> Might folk music share a common history with the very forces it has strived so hard to resist?

Indeed it does. Looking back at the work of the most influential and indefatigable British song collector Cecil J. Sharp brings this strange correlation into focus.

Sharp, a Fabian socialist with strong nationalist leanings (he was a member of the imperialistic Navy League), believed that folk song should be used to combat an ostensible erosion of white, English identity. Writing in 1907, he claimed that

Our system of education is, at present, too cosmopolitan; it is calculated to produce citizens of the world rather than Englishmen. And it is Englishmen, English citizens, that we want. How can this be remedied? By taking care, I would suggest, that every child born of English parents is, in its earliest years, placed in possession of all those things which are the distinctive products of its race…If every child be placed in possession of all these race-products, he will know and understand his country and his countrymen far better than he does at present; and knowing and understanding them he will love them the more, realize that he is united to them by the subtle bond of blood and kinship, and become, in the highest sense of the word, a better citizen, and a truer patriot.<2>

Although many of his contemporaries fought vociferously against such ideas, Sharp’s vision of revivalism emerged triumphant on both sides of the Atlantic, pairing a commitment to organic nationalism and racial hierarchy with a socialist resistance against cultural degeneration and the ravages of industrial capitalism.

On the surface, these political commitments may seem baffling––what Dave Harker describes as a “bizarre mixture of radical and reactionary”.<3> But they are by no means inconsistent. As the Israeli historian Zeev Sternhell has argued, such a confluence must be seen not simply as the precursor to fascist regimes but rather as a powerfully attractive nexus of ideas circulating throughout Europe at the fin de siècle predicated on a revision of Marxism in which a “revolution of the spirit” trumps revolution proper.<4>

This ideology sought above all to unify a class-ridden society through the idea of the nation viewed as a racial community with sacred ties to the soil. “Before it became a political force,” Sternhell affirms, fascism was “a cultural phenomenon”.<5>

Our conception of folk music from Somerset to Appalachia is indelibly marked by this moment largely as a result of Sharp’s interventions. As the collector Lucy Broadwood wrote in a personal letter to her sister in 1924, Sharp elected himself “King of the whole movement” and “was by the general ignorant public taken at his own valuation”.

What’s surprising is the extent to which his ideas—deeply conditioned by extreme nationalism, racism, misogyny, and xenophobia—have managed to circulate without having their political meanings fully scrutinized.<6> In this sense, he has been supremely successful: such ideas reverberate silently and all the more powerfully within objects and cultural practices that, for many people, exist as innocent tokens of the past.

Sharp, in other words, holds a profound sway over public memory. Even within academic circles today, the term “folk” is often employed in its Sharpian guise without due attention paid to the broader discursive ecology that afforded its emergence and proliferation. Instead, it is taken as a given and hence becomes a blind spot.

Lurking under the surface of folk culture’s celebration of the past is a call not to international solidarity, equality, and brotherhood but to blood and soil nativism. This contradiction plagues the folk revivalist project, its songs and dances always endeavoring to reconcile the conflicting pull of history and locality with human unity.

In the current political climate it is worth pausing to reflect on how many ideas, assumptions, and institutions are indebted to the same patterns of thought as was Sharp. His ugly ideology rears its head as the mouthpiece of white supremacy when the majority feels under threat, from Paddy Tarleton’s noxious “Charlottesville Ballad (War is Coming)” to neo-Nazi investment in the mythology of Celtic music. To what degree, we should ask, can folk song escape this darker aspect of its intellectual heritage?

<1> Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (London: Chatto & Windus, 1973), 35–6.
<2> Cecil J. Sharp, English Folk-Song: Some Conclusions (London: Simpkin & Co., 1907), 135–6.
<3> Dave Harker, Fakesong: The Manufacture of British “Folksong”, 1700 to the Present Day(Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1985), 175.
<4> Zeev Sternhell, Neither Right nor Left: Fascist Ideology in France, translated by David Maisel (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 272.
<5> Zeev Sternhell with Mario Sznajder and Maia Asheri, The Birth of Fascist Ideology: From Cultural Rebellion to Political Revolution, translated by David Maisel (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), 3.
<6> Notable exceptions include Georgina Boyes, The Imagined Village: Culture, Ideology and the English Folk Revival (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993) and Daniel J. Walkowitz, City Folk: English Country Dance and the Politics of the Folk in Modern America (New York: New York University Press, 2010).

Who are the General Rippers of higher education?

In an environment where universities are portrayed as “madrasas of the left”, music appears to be a safe haven. How could you politicise something as abstract and ethereal as the rules of harmony? Yet with the rise of so-called grievance studies and calls for decolonisation, some fear that music is at risk of succumbing to the radicals.

On Twitter, the Scottish composer James MacMillan recently complained about students having “to endure so much political mind control” in their university experience – something he regards as a “monumental waste of time” and “a monstrous intellectual imposition”. 

If Twitter is anything to go by, he is far from alone in holding these views. Comments reveal a surprising level of anger surrounding the pollution of higher education with pursuits such as critical race studies, feminism and queer theory that supposedly threaten its status as a disinterested place of learning.

I can’t help but think of the Cold War paranoia concerning infiltration, indoctrination and subversion so brilliantly satirised in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove by the figure of General Ripper, committed to defending “our precious bodily fluids” against an international communist conspiracy. 

The libertarian fear is uncannily similar: subversive tactics practised on a global scale that might turn freethinking people into what the online alt-right mocks through its non-player characters meme as liberal, close-minded sheep.

The argument that this faction relies on is that as academics we have a responsibility to teach all manner of opinions on any given issue, prizing impartial rigour over political sympathy. Who could possibly disagree? If you do, then you’re clearly not an academic, but an ideologue who belongs in an advocacy group rather than an ivory tower.

Well, up to a point. For all its outward commitment to liberty, this line of argument serves the opposite end. It runs up against what Karl Popper referred to as the paradox of tolerance: “Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance.” In other words, if we are not prepared to defend political tolerance then it is at risk of disappearing under a rising tide of sanctioned intolerance. 

In certain circumstances, he argues, we must exercise a right to subdue hatred in order to preserve democracy. It follows that work supportive of racism, misogyny or homophobia must be challenged and suppressed if reasoned debate is rejected.

In this light, the ostensibly benevolent call for balanced and objective rigour begins to look a bit flimsy, much like the arguments about race and intelligence in The Bell Curve. In fact, it risks legitimising not diversity of opinion but the reverse – illiberalism and irrationality. 

We may even see it as a way of smuggling reactionary thinking into the academy under the camouflage of neutrality. This is precisely the tactic that Donald Trump uses to give credence to white supremacy, abusing the concept of equality to explain that there are “very fine people on both sides”. There is a bitter irony here that we would do well to name and resist.

We’ve come a long way from music, it seems. Or have we? Could the idea that music is simply a collection of notes on a page have a darker political undercurrent? 

Writing in 1993, the ethnomusicologist Philip V. Bohlman made a simple but profound claim: the act of viewing music as an autonomous, apolitical object of study – what he refers to as “essentialising” it – is the most dominant way music has been politicised. 

In consequence, musicology as a discipline is able to imagine itself into a world without politics – without music by women, by African Americans, by an array of colonised others across the globe throughout history. Although much has changed since the 1990s, what we have at present is still a largely segregated pedagogics of music drawn tacitly and thus all the more powerfully along lines of race, class, gender and empire. To avoid owning up to these shortcomings is to make a point about what matters in society at large.

There’s a bad faith in believing that scholarship and politics can be neatly uncoupled. Who, we might want to ask, are the General Rippers: those who, like Stuart Hall, aspire to understand and challenge injustice or those who resent the incursion of politics into something as pure as music? The answer, it seems to me, is obvious.

The Threat of the Popular

We live in an era of resurgent populism. Whether it’s grassroots Labour (with a web address, the nationalist demagoguery of Trump and Orbán, or the tabloid rhetoric of Brexit, ‘the people’ seem to have taken centre stage in a way not seen since the 1930s – the era of Roosevelt’s New Deal, an international Popular Front, and the establishment of fascist regimes.

What this cursory list indicates is that populism does not have a stable identity, but rather manifests itself across the political spectrum from left to right. Populism, in short, is a political project driven by or answerable to a vision of ‘the people’; but it’s precisely the impossibility of pinning down just who these people are that lends populism its mercurial – and hence disquieting – character. At times the people seem to be the smiling archetypes of socialist realism, at others an atavistic mob, faces at the barricades, middle England, or disciplined blackshirts. Populism represents a fight over who ‘the people’ are.

So what has music got to do with all this? Popular music studies was established as an academic field dedicated to asking why the study of music should be restricted to canonical scores written by a handful of European men. The possibilities it opened up were boundless: looking at how music was received, the imbrications of music and identity, music as a multimedia practice, recording technology, postcolonialism, feminism, race, the music industry, and so on.

We all have some idea of what ‘popular music’ is, but when pressed it becomes difficult to decide how to define or delineate it: is it down to the sheer quantifiable number of something (sheet music, records, downloads, clicks), or is it more about the habits and tastes of that enigmatic assembly ‘the people’? What happens as practices change over time? What about music across the globe?

These questions were at the heart of a Masters seminar I ran a couple of years ago. During our discussions we came to the conclusion that no coherent definition of popular music exists. This led me towards a new approach: what if, instead of formulating a theoretical definition, we trace how and why the term was employed? The result, an article entitled ‘Notes on Troubling “the Popular”’, has recently been published in the journal Popular Music – an affectionate nod to Stuart Hall’s classic essay ‘Notes on Deconstructing “the Popular”’.

Focusing on a crucial period from 1860 to 1920 in Britain, I show that the term fell into two broad categories of use: first, to identify and/or denigrate mass culture; and second, to establish a pathway for edification and to champion ideals of respectability. Rather than representing one facet of what Andreas Huyssen has termed the ‘Great Divide’ between high art and mass culture, popular music cuts across this discourse. The term, in other words, was not only employed to dismiss London’s music halls as ‘a desert of semi-lunatic trash’, but also to position the music of Beethoven, Handel, and Haydn as ‘a recreation and a solace’ in the face of industrialized modernity. These discourses, however, represent two sides of the same coin. The popular, I suggest, is thus a floating signifier with the potential to reference mutually opposing ideas.

Taking the popular seriously in the academy has always been a revisionist gesture, whether in the form of ‘history from below’, Birmingham school cultural studies, or popular music studies. In an ideal world we wouldn’t need the modifier ‘popular’ as an adjunct to the study of music, just as we wouldn’t need Stormzy’s Scholarship for Black UK Students as a corrective to generations of social and ethnic inequality. Just as ‘white’ disappears as an adjective because of its very normativity, pervasiveness, and power, so music as a subject has managed to silence the words that still haunt it: Western classical.

Now more than ever, as the phrase ‘the people’ is used to bolster undemocratic processes and tacitly exclude those who fall outside its remit, it is necessary to look again at our understanding of the popular, whatever guise it appears in.