PREFACE by Ewan MacColl
I mostly sing Scots and English songs. The Scots material was part of the background of ray childhood, the English I began to acquire during my adolescence and have gone on adding to my store ever since. The Scots songs are closest to me, with the Liverpool shanties and forebitters running them a close second.
As for American folkmusic, my first contact with it was during the late thirties when I heard some of the Library of Congress recordings broadcast in the first B.B.C. folksong series. I can still remember the tremendous impact they made on me, and still recapture something of the initial excitement that was roused in me by hearing Woodie Guthrie, Blind Willie Johnson and that most superb of all folksong stylists, Mrs. Texas Gladden.
During the years that followed I learned scores of American songs and ballads and made them work for my pleasure until they could work no more. The pseudo-American accent which I acquired by watching gangsters and western gunmen flicker across the threadbare screens of a hundred flea-pits, twisted the songs into mere parodies of themselves until, in the end, I began to develop a hearty dislike for my own voice. I returned to the songs I knew, the songs I had grown up with.
Some fifteen or sixteen years later, in 1954, I was to see young folks all over Britain behaving similarly … only more so. With me it was Texas Gladden, with them it was Leadbelly.' This was during the short-lived age of skiffle, when the kids of Glasgow, Hull and Manchester discovered the guitar and the tea-chest bass, when the lads of Liverpool, Leeds and London rolled their own, tried to unlearn reading and writing and looked at you with the hyperopic gaze of men whose eyes have grown dim with staring over the eternal deserts of Arizona, Utah and the Bronx; it was the time when the chicks and scrubbers began to talk out of the sides of their mouths and to stare at you with contemptuous eyes because you hadn't been in a chaingang; it was the time when the addicts built twelve-string guitars in the body-building shops of the Ford factories and when the roaring-boys of Tin-Pan-Alley couldn't make up their minds as to whether they should get in on the act or register for a long course of Electrical Convulsive Shock treatment.
Well, finally they made up their minds and took skiffle over, gave it a haircut and a shampoo and sent the results rolling down the conveyor-belt of the pop industry. It didn't last long, just long enough to produce the inevitable reaction. So the kids hocked their cheap guitars and moved out of the cellars and the upstairs rooms of number- less pubs and looked around for something else that they could identify themselves with. Many of them, moved by the herd instinct found refuge in 'the rock' joints, others found their way into the jazz clubs and the rest began to form folksong clubs.
The vanguard of the popular folksong revival in Britain today is largely made up of ex-skifflers; they are by far the most devoted, and the best informed, people in the whole movement and they have become rather intolerant of British singers who use American material.
And what has all this to do with the contents of this album?
Just this — during the time I have spent working in this field, I have rarely moved outside of my own musical tradition. At the hundreds of concerts and hootenanies where I have sung or acted as chairman I have made a point of insisting on the rule that singers do not sing anything but the songs of their own native tradition. It is, I think, a good rule and one that has produced extremely good results in Great Britain.
And now I am not only singing American songs with Peggy but encouraging her to sing Scots and English songs with me!
However, for the most part we confine ourselves to joining in the choruses of each other's songs.
Ah, yes … but what about those places where you sing in harmony? Surely that runs counter to the tradition!
Yes, there is some truth in that, though it isn't the whole truth. What about the Copper family in Sussex? They sing in harmony and so did my parents occasionally. In fact, it was the only way my mother would ever sing in public.
Yes, duets. My father and mother had several songs, and even some traditional ballads, which they treated as duets; my father would sing the hero's lines while my mother sang those of the heroine — which is what Peggy and I are doing here. There is a further point. When you work with someone over a period of several years, you begin to assimilate elements of their style and vocal habits. This need not mean that your approach to your own repertoire is affected but it does mean that you can stand on the edge of another musical tradition without feeling too conspicuous.
PREFACE by Peggy Seeger
A friend of mine here in Britain, where I now live, once remarked quite unwittingly: "It must be difficult to remain really American when you've been away from America for four years." A casual remark, but a very perceptive one, for it is easy, when away from one's native land, to gradually lose the many small habits, actions, ways of speech and thought that characterize one as distinctly "American". The stranger to a new country must establish a new routine of life, will inevitably begin to assimilate new words and inflections into his speech, and — most important — will have missed a stage in the progress of his native land. If this separation is long enough, he will be in a sort of cultural limbo, in which he is no longer a real part of America and is not yet a real part of Britain.
This can be a period of crisis for any person who wants to be part of a community, but it is more so for one who sings the folk songs of his native country. A folksinger is very closely tied to his country through his singing — musically, linguistically, stylistically, culturally — and his performance and understanding of his music can grow only through contact with his own people. A folksinger is most comfortable when exploring his own tradition.
For the city folksinger today, there are two main avenues of contact, of replenishing his repertoire and techniques: (l) community musical activity and (2) resource to original sources, either discs or field singers themselves. At the present, passing through limbo, I find myself in a double crisis: no oral sources from which to draw and no natural community with which to sing (for one can sing American folksongs to a group of non-Americans, but not with them, for the communication, the musical growth, is one-way. The group can neither reciprocate nor contribute, save with their appreciation, and it is strictly an audience performer relationship.)
This is not as hopeless a situation as it might first appear. It is obvious that new sources must be sought, new ties be established. For sources, I can go to the numerous excellent books and discs of American material. For a community, I must assimilate British habits, actions, inflections, usages of speech. In a word, I will become, consciously and unconsciously, less American and feel more and more in common not only with British people but also with British folkmusic.
Under no circumstances, even were I to live here all my life would these feelings make me a "British folksinger", nor would they enable me to take anything but the supporting role in the performance of a Scots or English song. However, I have always been drawn, in my choice of American repertoire, to the traditional ballads, to the songs of British origin, so that the change of nationality taking place now is merely an extension of my former interest.
It is almost inevitable that any American folksinger who has come into the field, as I have (through books, discs and college singing groups) will go through a phase of attempting to sing foreign folksongs. One may even develop a facility in this, although it is rarely more than a party trick, for singing a song in folk tradition is not a matter of memorization, but of improvisation, both in text and tune. And unless the singer is fluent in the language and singing style of the song he sings, that song will be crystallized into one form — fossilized — a process completely foreign to folk tradition and folk history. Even if linguistic identity between singer and song is achieved, there is still the larger identity to be reached: that between the singer and the society which gave rise to the song (which, of course, can only be achieved fully by living among the people of that society). It is this understanding which makes the true folksinger the most valid cultural representative of his people.
I am not trying to sing Scots and English songs — I merely cannot help it, living as I do and where I do. To sing them adds immeasurable richness to my understanding of American folksongs and gives a new dimension to their performance. For the first time in my life as a singer I am beginning to recognize the qualities which make these songs unique, which make them American. And, paradoxically, losing with the current American scene is directing me back to the bedrock of the American tradition, both in repertoire and performance.