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The term folksong first arose in the 1778/9 publication by German


cultural philosopher, theologian and writer Johann Gottfried Herder Stimmen der
Volker in Liedern: Volkslieder. Here it was mused by the circumstances behind
its composition, through means of oral transmission, and the sense of a
community based activity. It was from this time onwards, until around the 19 th
century and indeed after, that not only had the definition of folksong been
established, but the issue the identity of who the folk really were also came
about; the folk being those who create and participate in folksong. They were
identified by those such as Herder, and still later on by the likes of Cecil Sharp in
the 19th century as peasants and rural artisans (Pegg acc. 2014). So as early as
its beginnings, folksong has been assigned within the class structure, and was
associated then with the lower class or the peasantry. Interestingly, during the
time of Sharp in the late 19th century, folk had essentially become synonymous
with nation, and those wishing to engage with or identify their nationality,
turned to folksong as they thought it to be the best representation of their
nationalist views, and greatest supporter or piece of evidence in the arguments
of nationalism and identity.
It is a conscious decision for one to become involved in folk music nowadays,
as it is seen by the majority as a counter-culture and perhaps slightly weird to
engage in its practices. However, maybe it being such a different outlet for
people to explore is part of its appeal. It is a sort of harkening genre in that it is
not of the modern day, and such a select community of people become involved
with folk music because its association with the past and its aesthetic. The
modern world is full of issues and problems that the late 19 th century and before
did not have, and of course there are similar concerns around today, but the
modern world can become a place of isolation and through no fault of the
individual, but what the establishment has reduced him to. Perhaps the
engagement of the modern person within the folk music scene is simply that
individuals means of leaving the modern world behind and revelling in just being
a human within a community.
The world of music can be a daunting place to outsiders. It is often thought
that (classically) trained musicians make up the entirety of the musical
population, and those that do not understand the ways of music are not
welcome. On the contrary, anyone can become involved in music, and it is not
such a daunting community of people, and folk proves that. Folk is such an
accessible music, being fundamentally simple, with obvious opportunities for
virtuosity, but it is certainly not a Tchaikovsky piano concerto which is only
possible to be played by a professional pianist. Anyone can become involved
with folk music, and maybe that is why folk as a concept is politically
motivated, in that its simplicity and encouragement for involvement is a perfect
counter-cultural response to the modern world.
In defining "folksong", and determining whether, or not, it is a politically
motivated concept (or not), one should examine the socio-political scene of the

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world at the time of this concepts conception (or at least the time of its
"labelling"). Herder's publication was produced during a significant moment of
change in history, notably the Industrial Revolution. At this point, the cities and
towns of Britain were pulling in large numbers of workers from the countryside
and surrounding rural areas. The upper-classes or "landed aristocracy and big
bourgeoisie" (Harker, 1985 p.15) began to tighten their political standing against
the rest of the population, and also secured their "collective economic interests"
through international wars over the control of trade. The era of massive change
saw an even greater delineation of the class system, putting everyone even
more so in their respective 'place' and giving everyone a clear label. However,
the 1770s saw a political crisis in Britain, which alerted the "bourgeoisie" to the
'people', and made them recognise them as a "newly-politicised power in
society." (Harker, 1985)
Harker speaks of specific individuals, the 'mediators' of song, of the time
(Thomas Percy, David Herd, Thomas Evans etc.) and their upbringing, particularly
how unusual their rise through the ranks (if you will) to their unexpected careers
and even more unexpected material success. One in particular however I would
like to draw on is Joseph Ritson.
Born in Stockton-on-Tees in 1752, he received some education from a local
church minister, went on to serve with a local solicitor and conveyancer, before
finally moving to London in the late 1770s to take the post of managing clerk in
conveyancing firm there. It was after this move that his wealth significantly
increased, and he took to publishing collections of songs amongst his other
literary works - he took a liking to the songs of Scotland and England (particularly
North-East England) in particular: Scottish Songs, 1869 and A Select Collection of
English Songs, 1783 for example. It should be noted that Ritson was very antiaristocratic and, after visiting revolutionary France in 1791, he stated that
England was "ripe for the long-delayed parliamentary reform." (Bronson 1938
p.144)
It is one publication of his in particular that I wish to bring up, and that is perhaps
his most famous and controversial works, his collections of ballads and poems on
Robin Hood of 1795 (a year if great political turbulence). Here, Ritson describes
Hood like so:

"...a man who, in a barbarous age, and under a complicated tyranny, display'd a
spirit of freedom and independence which has endeared him to the common
people, whose cause he maintained, (for all opposition to the Tyranny is the
cause of the people); and in spite of the malicious endeavours of pitiful monks,
by whom history was consecrated to the crimes and follies of titled ruffians and
sainted idiots, to suppress all record of his patriotic exertions, and virtuous acts,
will render his name immortal." (Ritson 1795)

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At the time of publication, this must have had serious political resonances, and is
probably the reason for his literary silence for years after, not publishing another
songbook till 1802. At this point you are probably thinking that I have gone far off
topic, and this has nothing to do with the question at hand. In a sense you are
correct, but what I am trying to say, is does Ritson's description of Robin Hood,
who for all intents and purposes within this essay shall remain a figure of
mythology, not sound similar to my previous points on folk music a political
rebellion? Not to mention, that Robin Hood is a character of legend, therefore not
(potentially) "real". In other words, Robin Hood is not a person, but an idea, a
concept, and very politically motivated one at that. The origins of "folksong"
coinciding with Ritson's collection on Robin Hood and the political statement it
makes (Ritson was the first person to publish the idea that Robin Hood stole from
the rich and gave to the poor, as opposed to just stealing from the Sherriff of
Nottingham) are not, to me, mere coincidences. The fact the idea of "folksong"
arising amongst such political upheaval, not only in Britain and Europe but
globally (American War of Independence [1775-1783] for example) can only lead
to the concept, if not alone then the practice also, of "folksong" to be totally
politically motivated.
That being said, I mentioned that the political state of the world affected the
creation of the concept of "folksong", but I merely stated the global political state
in general terms affecting "folksong" in Britain. There remain many cultures to be
examined if the concept is to ever be properly understood. Therefore I stand by
that "folksong" as a concept is politically motivated in the West. The labelling of
folk music, as a genre, is after all a Western coinage. Indian Bhangra for
example, traditional music of, and specific to, the Indian sub-continent, is not
referred to (by (ethno-) musicologists or Indian musicians) as Indian "folk" or
"traditional" music, but Indian "classical" music.
As with all definitions of the term, "folksong" is communal and of the people (the
folk), and the people as a politicised power not assigned to one nation, nor is the
concept of nationalism, rather they are two sub-divisions of a larger whole: the
global scene. In order to understand whether or not "folksong" is globally a
politically motivated concept, much more research must be undertaken into the
cultures, and histories of those cultures.
Herder may have been the first to try and define "folksong", but the concept
must have been around for, perhaps, centuries before. If folk music is as old as
some say it is (as in the common expression 'old as the hills'), the "the folk" must
be just as old, if not older still. They (the folk) would not have called what they
were singing "folksong". To them, it would simply have been "song". It takes
someone like Herder, a philosopher, thinker and perhaps enthusiast or collector
to take a potentially age old concept and practice and give it a label.
If I personally were to attempt to define "folksong", it would sound similar to
those descriptions from Herder and Cecil Sharp, using words like 'communal',
'traditional' and perhaps 'of the people' or 'protest'. My version however would
also include words such as 'incomplete' as I feel that further research must be

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done into the vast variety of cultures and the traditions and histories of those
cultures, as well as their musics, before we can truly understand why the music
is made and whether what the term "folksong" completely encompasses is
confined solely to the Western world. Calling "folksong" a politically motivated
concept in regards to the songs of the folk of the world would be incorrect. In the
Britain and the Western world, yes, the concept, and practice, of "folksong" is
politically motivated.
Bibliography

Bertrand Bronson. Joseph Ritson: Scholar-at-Arms. Berkley, USA. 1938


David Harker. Fakesong: the manufacture of British folksong 1700 to the present day. Milton Keynes,
Open University Press. 1985
Carole Pegg. "Folk music." Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press.Web. 18
Nov. 2014. <http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/09933>.
Joseph Ritson. Robin Hood. 1795 (1884 ed.)
Joseph Ritson. Scottish Songs. Kessinger Publishing (2008). 1869
Joseph Ritson. A Select Collection of English Songs. 1783