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).