No songs for singing

Nov 4th, 2007 | By | Category: Cross Channel

Drifting through back roads on the Dublin-Wicklow border on Friday morning, there was a moment of perfection. Blue skies hung over an unseasonably warm day and the autumn foliage was deep in its reds, golds and browns. Lyric FM were playing music that captured the timelessness of the passing seconds.

Risking being late meeting a friend for coffee, I slowed the car down to a gentle amble and listened as I rolled through November lanes. The music was light and happy and filled with verve. It was a medley of song tunes from times gone by. I smiled at the autumn scenery as I swung into a sweeping bend in the road. Nothing could destroy the peace of the moment.

The announcer came on at the end of the music, “The Academy of Saint Martin in the Fields conducted by Sir Neville Marriner playing the third movement of Vaughan Williams’ English Folk Song Suite: Songs from Somerset.” From being full of a radiant lightness, the morning became melancholic. I almost stopped the car to think about it.

great-great-uncle-frederick.jpgMy home county had once been so filled with songs that one of the most famous composers could write a medley of them. Perhaps I knew that and had never thought about what it might mean. Even in my own village a hundred years ago Cecil Sharp, the collector of folk songs, had written down songs sung by Frederick Crossman, my great great uncle, songs that were sung by his granddaughter, Mrs Amy Ford.

We have lost our songs for singing – and with them we have lost our identity and our sense of history.

Pressing hard on the accelerator, I wondered if in fifty years time someone would drive that same road and listen to a medley of Irish tunes and think to themselves that once the people of this country had sung their own songs. Were Cecil Sharp to travel around England today he would find no songs to write down, the airwaves are filled with mediocre blandness and even older people are hard pressed to remember words for singing. Ireland should not make the same mistake.

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  1. There are times when stopping to listen to a good bit of music is much more important than being a few minutes late for a casual coffee.

  2. Amy Ford was Freda Webb’s dad’s sister

  3. My trouble nowadays is that I remember a line or two or the chorus and no more of a song.

    Pity really, since much of our family entertainment when I was young, was singing around the fire.

  4. Grandad,

    It would have been disrespectful to a good friend to have arrived late!


    I think we lose something of our soul when we lose our songs.

  5. I agree it is sad when songs are forgotten, but I think it doesn’t have to indicate a loss of identity but rather different ways of expressing identity. The people who used to spend evenings singing are now doing something else, e.g. looking up old friends on Facebook (which is quite a positive, community-restoring kind of thing, even if it does involve turning people into virtual vampires etc). A lot of the activities one thinks of as possible modern substitutions seem to express a fragmented community divided into subgroups: people know songs, but not songs they share with everyone else (e.g. a body of teenagers would share a repertoire of R n B which they could sing to each other on buses – I’ve heard them do it and very annoying it is too). But then again, the folk songs were the property of particular, close-knit groups, not of everyone, which is why people like Cecil Sharp felt the urge to go and collect them.

  6. Alice,

    Isn’t the fact that the teenagers sing R n B an expression of the fact that there has been a loss of local identity? I thought it sad, that at the rugby world cup, the English supporters seemed able to manage only two songs – one was a verse of the British national anthem and the other was two lines from the American spiritual ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’. Attending rugby matches in Biarritz and Bayonne, the French Pays Basques, the fans there have a whole repertoire of songs. England is becoming just part of a globalized monoculture, which suits no-one but the advertisers and the multinationals.

  7. There are various different issues we could discuss here:
    have people lost local identity?
    by local identity, do we mean national identity? – if England fans have very little to express their commonality, maybe that is to do with distinctive problems of Englishness, which is an especially problematic national identity because of England’s historical dominance in Britain
    if people don’t have songs in common, are they just expressing identity in other ways?
    is global culture pure commercialism?

    I think the loss of the folk songs is a symptom of the loss of a particular kind of stable, local (especially rural) identity, associated with close-knit families and closeness to the land; it has much less to do with national identity. As a person about to have a baby in a country where her only family is her husband, I do feel modern life with its extreme mobility and loosening of local ties brings a danger of isolation. In this mobile society we have the cultural resources we carry with us and they can help us express an individual persona and make superficial connections to people briefly known while no longer being attached to deep roots and secure ties. But on the other hand didn’t people often used to feel trapped and disadvantaged in little local communities? They had close ties but were also closely supervised, and they might feel outsiders despised them as yokels.

    I’m emotionally drawn to the folk songs, the close villages, the firm roots and slow roads of the past and of traditional societies, but I do wonder if this is the kind of nostalgia one can safely indulge precisely because there is little chance of going back to that kind of society.

    I agree it would be great if everyone knew more songs. It is a profound pleasure and an extremely powerful way of sharing with people.

  8. Alice,

    I wouldn’t disagree with most of what you say but would be worried at the suggestion that it is dangerous to reflect on a past that was much more local – extreme nationalist movements seize upon such lines of thought to say “There you are, we told you so, when you allowed immigration, when you joined Europe, etc”.


    PS. I was (am at heart) a real yokel!

  9. I was shocked to see Fred Ford shuffling very slowly with 2 walking sticks through Langport the other day.The last time I had seen him was 20 years or so ago in Maisies with his brother Andrew. We forget how old we are.

  10. Les the older you get the more you forget

    Ian’s Dad

  11. Les,

    The passing of the years struck me when Tommy Makem, my favourite Irish folk singer, died in New Hampshire at the beginning of August. He would have been 75 this year.

    Amy Ford would only have been 78 when I came to live in Ireland, I’m glad someone wrote down some of her memories.

  12. Hi Peter Was Freda Webbs Dad Albert Crossman who used to live down the road from Me?

  13. Les,

    You’re right. “Ackie” would have been Freda’s dad, Cliff was her brother. Ackie and Amy Ford were amongst the six children of Luther Crossman, and were grandchildren of Frederic Henry Crossman. It gets confusing because they had a brother called Fred, an uncle called Fred and a grandfather called Fred.

  14. It is sad that that Cliff passed away so young, another part of rural life has gone forever. The barn where the cider was made is now gone and the farmhouse now a hobby farm for a self made local builder. The smells and the semi darknes and tools and junk of all kinds,and the earth floor,West of England hessian sacks and barrels of cider will stay in my memory forever.Also of ‘Ackie’ Cliff, Laurence Fisher, Fred and Andrew Ford crushing the apples and building the ‘cheese’ at cider making time.

  15. We have all become uniform – even the accents are dying out, the old sounds giving way to Estuary English. I have a photograph of Cliff in a book, I must dig it out.

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