Singing for the Sake of it – A Lost Tradition?


Christmas has long been and gone (sorry to break this news to anyone) and with it, so has the sound of people singing carols together simply for enjoyment. But why, throughout the rest of the year, do we have such an aversion to communal singing and why do we treat the songs that connect us with our past with such suspicion? Whatever the reasons, it’s time to start singing together again, in tune or otherwise.

In the UK (particularly in England), there is a big problem with our attitude towards singing. Far too often kids are told that they cannot sing, usually by parents and guardians who have grown tired of off key renditions of ‘Hit me baby one more time’.  Some go even further and tell said child to stop singing or they will indeed be hit one more time: by their ‘baby’ or otherwise. The problem with this is that it unfortunately ingrains in children, at a very early age, that the idea of singing is only a worthwhile pursuit if Simon Cowell doesn’t tell you to ‘Piss off!’ Now I totally disagree with this notion, not only because singing in young children can encourage their imaginations and confidence to grow (shown by both anecdotal and empirical evidence), but also because I find the idea of being told to ‘Piss off!’ by Simon Cowell an immensely enjoyable one.

Of course anyone within a good 5 mile radius of Jesters on a Friday night may safely conclude that we haven’t lost our love of singing for the sake of it, even if it does require alcohol lubrication to prise it out of us. However, it does seem that our enthusiasm to sing with other people could be well spent elsewhere. This is not a snobbish judgement on music choice (I will belt out ‘Let it Go’ as much as the next slightly inebriated person) but I do find that communal recitals of gems such as “These girls ain’t loyal” and “Rack rack city bitch”, leave much to be emotionally desired.

I happen to be an unabashed lover and advocate of folk music and yep… there goes the sound of people hurriedly flicking to a different page, anything to escape this article. No it’s fine, I’ll wait… panic over? Yes, it seems just the mere use of words such as ‘folk’ or ‘traditional music’ creates immediate wariness and even disdain amongst a large proportion of people. If it ever comes up in conversation, which does occasionally happen (although I must stress I don’t make it my opening gambit. I usually just comment on the weather or foreign policy, like a normal person), then I’m often treated to a tirade of scepticism of how ‘traditional’ just means ‘stuck in the past’, ‘boring’ and ‘unimaginative’. This is of course, I would rebuff, complete rubbish. The beautiful thing about the folk music tradition is its very nature of not being stuck, instead it constantly evolves. Each song adapts, as it is passed from person to person, gaining verses, modernising and even being sung to a different tune. As for ‘boring’ and ‘unimaginative’; almost every great modern work of literature from Lord of the Rings to Harry Potter, The Narnia books to A Clockwork Orange are indebted to folklore and folk songs from a host of different cultures, and thereby become part of the evolution process themselves. In fact, at their best, folk songs are essentially a series of mini-episodes of Game of Thrones, with enough blood, sex and murder to accuse George R.R. Martin of being guilty of copyright infringement.

But since folk music is still at heart a word of mouth tradition, our reluctance towards non-nightclub based communal singing means that these songs are starting to disappear, these songs that are wonderful melting pots of different cultures and hold our history and identity. After all, without these songs, there would be no Robin Hood who is first referred to in ballad form (which I guess would also mean no Kevin Costner Robin Hood either, so swings and roundabouts I suppose). But if these songs are left unsung and do eventually disappear, what will we be left with? Rule Bloody Britannia, that’s what, which just gets more sickeningly jingoistic from note to note and I can’t think of anything worse than that to represent our past and identity.

Image by Paige Nicholas
Image by Paige Nicholas

Therefore, the worst thing to do to these songs is not sing them. Just ask Jake Bugg, Frank Turner and Bellowhead, who take some of these songs, put their own spin on them and then introduce them to a wider audience, to great acclaim.  There is no intellectual property attached to the songs themselves, no multimillion pound record deals or lawyers treating songs as goldmines. Instead, they are songs of the people (after all that’s what ‘folk’ means) and if we lose these songs, we not only lose part of our identity and culture but we cave in to the bland, the corporate and the one dimensional and then, in the words of Chumbawamba, “The Boy Bands have won.”

So yes Christmas may be over but why should it be the only time when communal singing is socially acceptable?  Many of you may have found yourself caroling in the streets, churches and pubs around the country and if you happened to find the experience an enjoyable one, you might find yourself thinking… “Yeah, that was fun!”… “Why don’t we do it more often?”… “I’ve heard the the other songs replace Jesus with tonnes of sex and blood!”




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