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In Search of the English Folk Song

In Search of the English Folk Song (Warner 50-5144-23494-2-9)

In Search of the English Folk Song
Written, presented and directed by Ken Russell

BBC Channel 4 (TV, UK, broadcast 31 August 1998)
SBS (TV, Australia, broadcast November 1998)
Warner Music 50-5144-23494-2-9 (video, UK, 2007)


  1. Siân-Elizabeth Rees: Brigg Fair (Roud 1083)
  2. So What: Kick It
  3. Garry Fenna: Gonna Put a Bar in My Old Car
  4. Bob Appleyard: The Fawley Flame
  5. Lynne Fortt: Down at Greenham on a Spree
  6. June Tabor: The King of Rome
  7. Fairport Convention: Seventeen Come Sunday (Roud 277; Laws O17; G/D 4:791; Henry H152)
  8. Osibisa: Sunshine Day
  9. Eliza Carthy and The Kings of Calicutt: Good Morning, Mr Walker
    live at Cropredy 1997
  10. Chris While with The Albion Band: Young Man Cut Down in His Prime (Roud 2; Laws Q26; G/D 7:1404; Henry H680)
  11. Waterson:Carthy: Stars in My Crown (Roud 22423)
  12. Donovan: Nirwana
  13. Edward II: Shepherd’s Hey
  14. The Percy Grainger Orchestra, conducted by Joe Conway: English Country Garden


Greg Bailey is “Still Searching...” - a letter to Folk Roots

I must start by declaring an interest. A group of long-suffering collaborators and I have been trying to develop a TV documentary on exactly this subject for several years.

Apart from any question of style or underlying seriousness of purpose, I think my real quarrel with Russell’s In Search Of English Folk Song was the programme’s underlying negative premise. It was taken as given throughout the piece that folk song (and by implication English folk culture in general) no longer actually exists. This assertion was repeated several times in the programme, most surprisingly perhaps by Ashley Hutchings and seemed to be considered so self-evident that its inherent assumptions were never examined or questioned at any stage. While this may go some way towards explaining why the director never bothered to look for anything resembling a folk song during the course of his work, it does beg the question as to why he would bother to make his programme.

I realise that one of Mr Russell’s creative trademarks is his often perverse point of view, but after patiently sitting through a seemingly endless parade of spectacularly mis-cast contributors miming to their material, the viewer was finally treated to his encounter with the redoubtable June Tabor. No offence to anyone, but here was a serious performer at last. Perhaps we’ll be rewarded with a folk song? We were offered The King of Rome, a fine contemporary song no doubt, but a rare chance to hear one of our finest interpreters of traditional song on television had come and gone.

Eliza Carthy, as I recall, sang only one song at Cropredy that was out of the British tradition. While I really love her arrangement of the Mighty Sparrow’s Good Morning, Mr Walker, why choose that particular song from her whole set for inclusion in a programme purportedly trying to discover the roots of English folk music? Then Waterson:Carthy get a bit closer to the target with their lovely version of Stars in My Crown, but when all’s said and done it is Sankey and Moodie, not one of their much loved South Yorkshire folk carols. It seems that Ken chose to deliberately exclude any of the overtly traditional stuff which after all forms the bulk of these fine singers repertoires from his documentary. Why?

If he was serious about trying to shed some light on our traditional culture why did Ken not listen to Norma Waterson’s friendly advice offered at a very early stage in his “research” and go and have a look at Bampton on Whitmonday? In the general spirit of enquiry, why did he not go to any one of the very many villages that still cling ferociously to their own local folk customs? He could have gone to Padstow on their day or to one of very many, perhaps less well known villages whose seasonal celebrations if they are indeed dead, refuse to lie down. We ourselves went to Goathland for the Plough Stots in January and saw kids of ten and eleven completely immersed in creating their own variations of the regional sword dance seemingly without any adult prompting. Had we seen a similar scene in an Hungarian Gypsy village what would our conclusions have been?

The question arises as to who’s really “in denial” here. Is it the villagers of Goathland (agricultural workers almost to a man in Keith Thomson’s team) who refuse to admit that their own homemade culture no longer exists? Or is it those (am I fair to assume, middle class) pundits who hold the somewhat romantic view, that genuine folk music only ever existed in some long departed pre-industrial rural idyll (presumably something along the lines of the jaw-dropping, over-lit, thatched section of Ken’s show, the bit featuring Fairport Convention) and today, in the case of the pundit in question, exists only as whatever he chooses to say it is?

None of this nonsense might matter if it wasn’t set against the miserable background of 30 years of contempt from English television towards our own roots culture. I don’t know if anyone else remembers Channel 4’s last foray into English folk music nearly ten years ago? As I remember, it was also called In Search of English Folk Song, took a similar silly, patronising line and likewise managed to have a remarkably low folk song count. I can’t but think that programmes like these with their myopic, jokey treatment of a culture as complex, subtle and meaningful as anyone else’s serve only to further alienate programme controllers and audiences alike.

What Ken, a self professed folk fan, or for that matter any other programme maker who feels they’re ready to tackle this daunting subject might seriously consider is whether they simply wish to confirm the many entrenched prejudices surrounding this music or whether it might be more interesting and, who knows, perhaps genuinely perverse, to avoid the prevalent stereotypes and attempt an honest, open minded search for both the “folk” and their songs.


Thanks to Greg Bailey and Folk Roots