The Fifties: Great Britain

  April 17, 2022   Read time 5 min
The Fifties: Great Britain
Musical eras are seldom easily characterized by specific dates or decades, but in terms of the folk music revival, the year 1950 appears to have been an important turning point.

There was, in particular, a much enhanced relationship between folk music and musicians in the United States and Great Britain, as both experienced an obvious revival, as well as a shaping and broadening of the vernacular musical landscape. By decade’s end these influences and changes would be most visible, with significant results that would gain greater transformations in coming decades.

In September 1950, Maud Karpeles, who had worked with Cecil Sharp many decades earlier, returned to the United States at the behest of the Library of Congress. For over three weeks, accompanied by musicologist Sidney Robertson Cowell, she again visited the Appalachians, where she uncovered a few dozen singers, some of whom had been interviewed many years before.
They managed to record almost 100 ballads and folk songs. The next year she summarized her trip in the Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, where she lamented the arrival of technology, particularly the radio, “the arch-enemy, except in certain favored circumstances, of folk song.” She remained the living link (or ghost) between song collectors past and present.
The English folk scene had various, even conflicting, aspects. The English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS) continued its support for traditional songs and dances. While the society mostly tried to hold the line against modern influences, both A. L. “Bert” Lloyd and Ewan MacColl expanded their reach and influence, particularly with the arrival of Alan Lomax.
“The rise of the Second English Folk Revival has sometimes been dated from 1950, when Alan Lomax arrived in the U.K. looking for songs for the World Library of Folk and Primitive Music,” Gerald Porter has noted. If this is not entirely true, it has much to be considered. As the anticommunist crusade heated up in the United States, with government loyalty oaths now imposed, and a cold war prevailing in international relations, Lomax decided to move to England in late 1950.
The previous January he had organized a memorial concert for Lead Belly, who had died the previous month. Lomax featured his usual eclectic lineup, with Woody Guthrie, jazz greats Hot Lips Page and Sidney Bechet, Tom Glazer, calypso singer Lord Invader, W. C. Handy, traditional ballad singer Jean Ritchie, the Reverend Gary Davis, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, and a new quartet, the Weavers. This attempt to demonstrate the wide spectrum of folk music would be Lomax’s last fling in the United States for a decade. But in England he would use his tireless energy and artistic scope to shape and influence a creative, dynamic musical scene.
Lomax had a mix of reasons for moving to England, where he would establish his base until returning to the United States in 1958. Surely the mounting internal attack on communism was of major consideration, but he also had finished his book on the jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton, Mr. Jelly Roll (1950), and completed his radio series, “Your Ballad Man,” for the Mutual Broadcasting System (1946–1949).
He was now searching for broader horizons for his restless collecting spirit. He was struck by the mounting interest in studying the world’s music, as indicated by the formation of the International Folk Music Council in 1946, and Moe Asch’s founding of Folkways Records in 1949. Asch planned to issue records of the world’s musical and oral traditions, which he would do for the next 40 years. The term “ethnomusicology” was coined in 1950, followed five years later by the formation of the Society for Ethnomusicology in the United States, in order to represent this interest in the world’s vernacular musical styles. In the summer of 1950, just before his move to London, Lomax participated in the “Midcentury International Folklore Conference” at Indiana University.
Following his advice to the conference participants to promote the exchange of recorded folk music between all of the world’s countries, he signed an agreement with Columbia Records to issue a series of perhaps 30 LP records surveying this new field. He thought his stay in England would make possible “collaborating with the folk music experts of Europe and drawing upon their archives.” He would be assisted by a Magnecord tape machine, the latest technology to ensure accurate field recordings.
After arriving in England, Lomax plunged into the developing folk scene. He first visited the Cecil Sharp House, where he met Douglas Kennedy, Director of the EFDSS. His son Peter, who had been collecting West Country folksingers, and Lomax became friends and collaborators. Lomax also now connected with Ewan MacColl and Bert Lloyd. MacColl (still using his given name Jimmie Miller) had been an actor who now turned to music for his artistic and political expression.
Joined by Robin Roberts, an American actress and singer, Lomax started collecting in Ireland, obtaining the valuable cooperation of Seamus Ennis, who had a wealth of songs and played the uilleann pipes. Lomax had also begun his work for BBC in early 1951, first appearing on the Traditional Ballads show then immediately starting his own three-part series, Adventure in Folk Song; featuring himself and Roberts playing a range of American folk songs. A few months later he created three programs on Patterns in American Folk Song, also with Roberts, and followed with a series on The Art of the Negro, which included music from Big Bill Broonzy, Jelly Roll Morton, and many of his southern field recordings.
“At once an enthusiastic championing of the music of ordinary black Americans and a damning indictment of Southern racism, The Art of the Negro was an extraordinarily powerful documentary feature that won Lomax many admirers and, no doubt, not a few enemies too,” E. David Gregory has written. He was quickly establishing himself as a presence on BBC, which introduced its listeners to a wide range of folk music from across the Atlantic.

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