The place of accompaniment in folk studies

The status of accompaniment within folk music’s cultural practice can be problematic for performers and scholars. It is widely believed that Britain’s folk tradition was fundamentally a melodic one, and for many within the post-war folk revival the solo, unaccompanied voice of a ‘source’ singer like Harry Cox was the epitome of authentic traditional performance. In The Singing Island (1960) Peggy Seeger and MacColl suggested practical guidelines for accompanists which reflected the notion that folk music was essentially unaccompanied. Despite this, (as the publishers of MacColl and Seegers book recognised with their inclusion of piano accompaniments) most people are used to hearing folk songs and tunes with some sort of harmonic and rhythmic setting.

The creative re-harmonization of folk melody isn’t a recent development: tunes from what the American folklorist Samuel Bayard called the ‘common melodic repertory’ have been reworked and reharmonized by musicians for centuries (Bayard 1950: 145). Before Cecil Sharp and his contemporaries in the English musical renaissance began to grapple with the curious, ‘modal’ strains of English folk melody, Scottish traditional airs appeared in settings by Geminiani, Oswald and even Beethoven. As Matthew Gelbart (2007) notes, mid-18th century collections might include figured bass arrangements that reflected a contemporary tradition of semi-improvised accompaniment.

The advent of commercial recording and the folk revivals of the 20th century generated new approaches to song and tune accompaniment that brought British folk melodies into contact with other styles such as jazz, blues, and rock, and onto the fringes of the commercial mainstream. The work of musicians such as Archie Fisher, Shirley and Dolly Collins and Planxty in the 1960s, and ‘electric folk’ bands Steeleye Span and Fairport Convention kickstarted a wave of experimentation with harmony, timbre, texture and rhythm that continues in the work of contemporary performers such as Lau. All this has meant that in much of the Anglophone world, the guitar as much as the fiddle is the quintessential folk instrument. So why have academics written so little about accompaniment?

Reasons can perhaps be found in the beginnings of folk music research in the 18th century. Rather than studying traditions as part of contemporary musical practice, early scholarship was often concerned with sifting out the pure elements of traditional melody from contemporary performance (textual or musical), while contemporary social-historical theories of musical development equated melodic simplicity with oldness and authenticity. Gelbart shows how the conceptual separation of folk and art music in the 19th century established folk as the realm of timeless communal melody; vast collections of ‘national song’ presenting swathes of disembodied tunes reflected a definition of tradition that privileged text over performance, a position which 20th century developments in ethnomusicology have yet to completely supersede. This intellectual legacy has meant that accompaniment is still often understood as a dimension of re-interpretation rather than as part of ‘the tradition’ proper.

As Gelbart shows, European nationalism and the politics of class have also played a substantial role. Herderian notions of a national, peasant-derived song culture left little room for the refined forms of pastoral found in Edinburgh drawing rooms or the tune-settings of foreign-born virtuosi, making them seem at best inauthentic and at worst forms of corruption and appropriation. 20th century Marxian class-based analyses which identify folk music with ‘working-class culture’ have done little to correct these assumptions. Despite the work of researchers such as David McGuinness and contemporary ensembles such as Concerto Caledonia in recovering pre-20th century harmonic traditions, the conceptual separation between a pure, melodic (vernacular) tradition and secondary (commercial/bourgeois) practices of re-presentation remains in place, colouring our understanding of folk’s performance history.

There is much more to be learned about how musical approaches to accompaniment have developed over the last century as well as how scholarly and popular attitudes to accompaniment have shaped (and been shaped by) perceptions of folk and traditional music’s historical and cultural significance. There is a vast amount of evidence to be sifted through in the form of commercial and field recordings, in addition to which many key 20th century practitioners are still living. There is thus scope for a fusion of ethnographic, textual and historical approaches which would not only recover a great deal of sophisticated musical practice but potentially produce an alternative history of Anglophone folk music which moves beyond the tacit intellectual assumptions of the 19th century to recover the creative work of musicians whose work has so far received little in the way of detailed analysis.

Works Cited 

Bayard, Samuel (1995). ‘Principal Melodic Families of British-American Folksong’ [1950], in Dugaw, Daphne (ed.) The Anglo-American Ballad: A Folklore Case-Book. New York: Garland.

Gelbart, Matthew. (2007) The invention of ‘folk music’ and ‘art music’: emerging categories from Ossian to Wagner. Cambridge University Press.

MacColl, Ewan and Seeger, Peggy. (1960) The Singing Island. London: Mills Music.