English folk song, a great tradition

Folk Song in England. By Steve Roud. Faber & Faber; 764 pages; £25. To be published in America in September; $29.95.

ENGLAND, the Germans used to jeer, was “the land without music”. They were wrong, as Steve Roud robustly demonstrates in “Folk Song in England”. Surveying English musical life from the time of Henry VIII—a keen musician and composer—to the mid-20th century, when folk song lost its roots, he shows what an intensely musical land England has been.

Mr Roud makes no inflated claims for folk song. It is not “better” than classical music because it is “of the people”, he argues, nor is it an antidote for modern ills caused by urbanisation and commercialisation. Nor did it emerge pure and undefiled. Most songs were written not by ploughboys or milkmaids but by professionals, and many were first heard from the stage, or in the pub or music-hall. But from there they made their way to the ploughboys and milkmaids, and…Continue reading