There was a moment in the recent Robert Plant and Alison Krauss concert when Krauss sang part of the traditional English song Matty Groves. The band, led by T-Bone Burnett, was from the American South, and it was a reminder of the connections between the English folk song and the musical traditions of the white American south. But it was also a reminder, at a high profile event, that musics which have been marginalised are pushing themselves into the mainstream. This is partly a story a diversity coming full circle. In England, at least, it is also a story about politics.
Plant, of course, is famous for his central role in one of the British bands which took the black music of America and repackaged it for white American audiences. He himself made the distinction in a pre-tour interview in the Guardian:
Before his collaboration with Krauss – which grew, after a long gestation, from having met at a tribute to the blues singer Lead Belly – Plant admits he had serious prejudices about country, the music Hank Williams called “the white man’s blues”. Plant’s musical epiphany, in his early teens, had come from black American music, when he saw Son House, Skip James and Bukka White play on package tours of the UK in the mid-60s…The romantic lyrics and mature singing style of the country songs he heard on British radio “didn’t make as much sense for me and my friends, who were learning how to be as masculine as ‘Squeeze my lemon till the juice runs down my leg.’ Bear in mind I was 13. So for a long time I closed my eyes to the possibility of America having a white voice.”
In some ways, Plant’s musical journey has parallels with that of Simon Emmerson, who made his reputation with Working Week (soul, jazz, Latin) and the Afro-Celt Sound System (which pretty much did what it said on the tin, fusing African and Celtic music with electronic loops and other effects), but whose most recent work has been with The Imagined Village, a band I mentioned in passing a few months back. The Imagined Village project – about to set out on the summer festival trail – is about taking the traditional songs of England and reinterpreting them; doing perhaps for this repertoire what Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span, and Pentangle did a generation ago. (Tam Lin, on the classic Fairport record Liege and Lief, along with Matty Groves, is on The Imagined Village CD in a set of lyrics rewritten by Benjamin Zephaniah.) The project has engaged Britain’s folk aristocracy – the Waterson-Carthys and the Copper Family.
There are other similar signs out there too; the reformation of Pentangle, perhaps, and the success of Prodigal Son by Martin Simpson, a guitarist and singer steeped in English and American folk musics – and more than a smattering of the blues.
So what’s going on here? At risk of being contentious, I think it’s possible to trace the emergence in Europe and America of black and ‘ethnic’ musics, much now badged under the ‘world music’ marketing label, as a cultural sign of a potent mix of trends: civil rights in the US, post-colonial and identity struggles elsewhere, increased migration (much of it a function initially of the end of empires), and increased tourism, along with a boom in the amount of cultural production.
The effect of all of this was to increase interest in the margins, and in the exotic. In the process, traditional music from the heart of those ’empire states’ – cultures which were every bit as marginalised – was pushed to the edges. The fact that they are coming into view again is also a cultural sign, certainly in England. If the rise of black and ethnic musics was a sign that the politics of diversity and representation were becoming more important, the return of white traditional music suggests that the politics of English identity are becoming more visible. It’s not a coincidence that Billy Bragg is both a member of The Imagined Village and has written about the need to reclaim a radical view of what it means to be English. It is a sign that the diversity is becoming fully inclusive.
And this last point is important. It’s almost impossible to use phrases like “traditional English culture” without being positioned as being politically reactionary. But the history of traditional music – as with the blues – is largely a progressive history, sometimes even a radical one. As an article on The Imagined Village site notes, “there is a distinctly English tradition that belongs not to royalists and imperialists, but to the people, a tradition that runs from The Diggers to The Clash.” If multi-culturalism is going to have a happy ending, it will need such interpretations of its own roots to sit alongside the roots of the many other cultures which now constitute England.