The sleeve notes of an early Elvis Presley L.P. describe rock and roll as “commercial folk music”. This is not as far-fetched as it appears. Elvis used to be known as the Hillbilly Cat, and served a long apprenticeship of tours on the country music circuit. In its early days, country music played by hillbillies for hillbillies was sold on records billed as “folk music”. When the old songs began to feel “corny”, an extraordinary transformation of the music took place.
Bluegrass music, with frenetic banjo-playing, began to be heard in the late Thirties, to be perfected and given its name in the Forties. With a new style of extremely skilled accompaniment, the old songs all made a comeback and were recorded all over again. By the mid-Fifties bluegrass itself began to feel “corny”. The music industry kept moving at a fast pace, and rock and roll became a background for traditional songs; not mountain music this time, but Negro-influenced ditties such as “John Henry”, “Matchbox Blues” and so on. This style had come to a dead end just before the Beatles changed everything and brought in the dreaded “rock music” we now know only too well. But in the “western” part of country and western, a startling change took place. All the cowboy songs became “trucker songs”, with new words to old tunes. Overnight the outdated cowboy ceased to be the archetypal he-man American, and the trucker (or long distance lorry driver) took his place. Modern country music innovators like Garth Brooks are still playing truck driver songs. These songs are derided by folk music fans now, but wait till they become extinct!
Jimmy Rodgers, the father of country music, was derided by American folk music fans in his day, and satirised by Woody Guthrie (in “Dust Pneumonia Blues”, I think). Woody Guthrie became an acclaimed “folk singer”, perhaps because he was a Communist, perhaps because his intellectual friends did not realised that he was rifling the country and western songbook. Every ditty he composed or stole was called a “folk song” automatically. A better name for this sort of music is “Americana”, but as modern music emerging from a folk background is a worldwide phenomenon, “roots music” or “half-folk” might be better terms.
What of the traditional “national” musics of the world, played by professional bands at dances? Such music, ignored by most “folk fans”, is ideal for “half-folk”. Almost any type of song, traditional or newly-composed, can be given a Latin treatment, a bluegrass treatment, reggae treatment, or even a Scottish bagpipe treatment! If, like myself, you seek for traditional music among uprooted peasants and rough, unlettered people, a rich source of songs can be found among comedians. I have heard many a gem at Scottish variety shows, and unsophisticated comics often trot out an ancient song to roars of acclaim. Even Morecambe and Wise began as clog dancers.
On record, I recommend American hillbilly singer-comedians such as Grandpa Jones, the Duke of Paducah, and anyone on the same label as Cousin Minnie Pearl. Pigmeat Markham, the Negro comedian, has a fine blues voice when he cares to use it. In Jamaica, look out for the legendary duo Bim and Bam, who used to sing old slavery-time songs to a wonderful bluebeat backing, between jokes. They revitalize the work song “Old Mother Mack” to great effect (“She wear mini-frack”).
All over the world, American country music is the music that both replaces traditional music and also preserves it in a new setting. Jamaican singers of old songs often use an assumed “hillbilly accent” on record at the start of their careers, only to grow “natural” as they gain in confidence. Australian’s unofficial national anthems, “Waltzing Matilda” and “A Pub With No Beer”, both have a Nashville flavour. “Matilda” was composed by Banjo Patterson, whose banjo originated in the American South (by way of West Africa). “A Pub With No Beer”, every Aussie’s nightmare, was composed and sung by Slim Dusty, the Australian cowboy.
In England, if Cornwall is England (which many doubt), unusual traditional music can be heard at Fowey’s Daphne du Maurier Festival, held every May. Daphne du Maurier, whose works I have never read, seems to be the Cornish Robbie Burns, an inspirer of drunken revelry.
Highbrow du Maurier goings-on take place in her old house on a hill, but down at the quayside all kinds of anarchic Celtic music-in-transition can be heard. Best of all are the so-called Cajun bands, whose fiddle and accordion style comes from the Louisiana French version of country music. On the beer-soaked quayside, Cajun becomes Cornish, and young and old dance, roar, fall over and fight.
In 2011, at Liverpool’s Food Festival in Sefton Park, the burger-scoffing fans were treated to live music in the marquee, played by a group called John O’Connell. No place for a gourmet, it ought to have been called a Fast Food Festival. Most of the patrons were youngish couples, he tall and dark-haired, she dumpy and peroxide. Here the music was country and Irish. After a great deal of steel guitar virtuosity, the fiddle player came to the fore. She was a tall blonde young lady with a humorous face, a brown cowboy hat and boots to match. First she handed all the little girls and toddlers in the audience a fancy handkerchief each, to twirl on high. Then she began to saw her fiddle and jig around at a great pace.
The song she sang was a country and Irish favourite, based on a children’s playground song.
“I’ll tell me Ma when I get home,
Then boys won’t leave the girls alone!
They pulled my hair, they stole my comb,
But that’s all right when I get home.
She is handsome, she is pretty,
She is the girl from Dublin City…”
In the Sussex version my sisters used to sing years ago, it was the Royal City, and real names of local children were used. Now a recorded song, the words are “fixed”. It was wonderful to hear it again and to see the children leave their picnic tables to hop and dance.
ROY KERRIDGE is a folklorist and author of numerous novels, including Subjects of the Queen. His autobiographical novels are available here