My wife and I were both shocked and disturbed by our children’s intolerance of classical music. We had always listened to classical music, especially on car journeys or when lounging, ponderingly, on the sofas in the evening. The greats—Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, Handel, Schubert, Haydn, Debussy, Verdi, Sibelius, Elgar, Vaughan Williams—often accompanied us. If we were feeling especially merry, Vivaldi would sound out. We sometimes solemnly sat to sacred pieces, especially Tallis, Byrd, Palestrina, Victoria, and Allegri. The moderns sometimes appeared: Messiaen, Tavener, MacMillan… Then the children began to declare their disgruntlement. Their incapacity to endure some chamber music or a work of polyphony was disheartening.
One thing was clear, though: we were not going to start playing pop music. Pop music, generally speaking, is evil. It corrupts the soul and makes people stupid. Pop music has become increasingly corrupting over the decades since its emergence. And now, each pop song appears to consist of a three-and-a-half minute intro. The beat goes on and on, and the occasional abstract platitudinous remark is sung in an electronically manipulated voice about some base emotional impulse, and then the beat continues. One sits there, waiting for the song to actually take off, and it never does. In this way, pop music reflects the modern mind, which is always on the verge of possessing the utopian epoch, marching forth to abstractions uttered as promises… but it never actually takes off.
One alternative would have been to play early pop: Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, even Elvis Presley. This would be, though, like trying to avoid the corruption of the soul by just slowing down the corrupting process. It’s all the same rubbish as the noises we produce today, but it just sits upstream a little. Perhaps the most terrible thing about pop music, and early stuff is as guilty as our current clamours, is that it relies on abstractions—isolated emotional states, usually emanating from disordered appetitive impulses—described in something pretending to be song. In this way, pop music—dislodged from the particular and relocated in the realm of abstractions—attempts to belong to everywhere and to everyone at once. It is a universal kind of music, and by attempting to belong to everywhere it belongs to nowhere. Listening to pop music—like the rest of modernity—marks an education in unreality, which is no education at all.
What music, then, were we to play on long journeys in the car or in the house that the children would find tolerable? We started playing folk music. Not modern folk-pop, but real folk music. We found recordings of old English folk songs, and in the car we would sing along to The Lincolnshire Poacher, Because I Were Shy, Jack Hall, The Barkshire Tragedy, and good old bawdy numbers like The Raggle Taggle Gypsy and Gently Johnny my Jingalo. We learned the words to John Barleycorn, Drink to me only with Thine Eyes, The Derby Ram, John Anderson, Sovay, As I Roved Out, Star of County Down, and some good old hunting songs like Tally Ho! My Fine Sportsmen and John Peel. We discovered the great figures at the heart of the mid-20th century folk revival—before it was hijacked and ruined by the pop production industry—like Luke Kelly, Martin Carthy, and The Chieftains. Our kids loved it all.
An astonishing feature of all authentic folk music is its antipathy towards abstractions. The songs are generally stories about a particular community, in a particular place, going through a particular event at a particular time, and the particular individuals or couples that underwent it. Folk music is invariably rooted in the concrete reality of life. Take the following opening lyrics of The Lincolnshire Poacher, for example:
When I was bound apprentice in famous Lincolnshire
Full well I served my master for nigh on seven years
Till I took up to poaching as you shall quickly hear
Oh, ’tis my delight on a shiny night in the season of the year.
As me and my companions was setting out a snare
‘Twas then we spied the gamekeeper, for him we didn’t care
For we can wrestle and fight, my boys, and jump from anywhere
Oh, ’tis my delight on a shiny night in the season of the year.
We know, within two verses, that this is a story about a man who was an indentured servant, not far off a slave, living in Lincolnshire, who was fettered in this way for nearly seven years. He clearly broke the contract of his indentured servitude and left his master, soon being without the proper means to feed himself. Hence, he took up poaching, venturing out in the evenings to snare hares. He was joined in this highly illegal activity by others, no doubt with equally unfortunate histories, with whom he had to carefully avoid the gamekeepers of the land on which they were poaching. Gamekeepers, incidentally, are a respected but rough breed. Clearly, for this young man and his friends, encounters with such keepers in the past necessitated learning how to fight and wrestle. All this we learn within a minute of the song beginning.
Now, compare the lyrics above to the opening two verses of Ariana Grande’s Bang Bang:
She got a body like an hourglass
But I can give it to you all the time
She got a booty like a Cadillac
But I can send you into overdrive, oh.
You’ve been waiting for that
Step on up, swing your bat
See, anybody could be bad to you
You need a good girl to blow your mind, yeah.
One can imagine these words written in excrement on the cell wall of a sectioned psychopath. What, though, can we learn from these lines? Well, there is a woman—we do not know who she is—who is characterised by an unfortunate body-shape, being compared here to an egg timer fastened to a large American car (an image that is somewhat difficult to form in the mind). Verse two is even more cryptic, but I am informed that the ‘bat’ refers to the male reproductive fundament; the rest seems to require arcane decipherment in order to bring to the fore the complex sexual psychology being deployed, for which I am unqualified.
I’ll try to be serious. In truth, what we have in the second example is total rubbish, produced to ensnare people. In the first example, however, we have a story, deeply bound up with something real, contextual, cultural, and historical, which is also entertaining and memorable. It is difficult to imagine a situation in which my children could suitably encourage me to join them in a sing-song of Mrs. Grande’s allocutions or the apparently more aristocratic Lady Gaga’s most praised tracks like Poker Face or Bad Romance. My family and I have, however, many a time sat around the table after breakfast on a Saturday morning and sang our favourite folk songs together. The children have an amazing capacity for picking up the lyrics, and it’s a joy to listen to them.
My wife and I were confirmed in our low-cultural response to our children’s intolerance of classical music last summer whilst holidaying in north Devon. Having spent the afternoon below the enchanting Tintagel Castle—a hallowed place wrapped in Arthurian legend—paddling about at the beach under the gaze of Merlin’s cliff-face carving, we hopped into the car and headed back to our lodgings. As we wound down the narrow country roads of Cornwall and drew close to the Devonshire border, the children began to complain that they were hungry.
We pulled into a rustic village, at the top of whose square was a thatched pub, The Green Dragon. In we walked and were greeted with smiles and head-nods. “May we have a menu?” I asked. The lady behind the bar replied, “We’re serving sausages and mash tonight.” “Four sausages and mash then, please.”
The pub was serving one kind of meal and one kind of ale. So, that made ordering a simple affair. As we finished our food (which was exactly what we all needed after a day of walking on Cornwall’s north coastal hills and swimming in the sea for hours), we watched through the window as a large yellow van pulled into the village square. The back doors of the van swung open, and out jumped ten Morris dancers. I will never forget the look on my children’s faces as they watched what appeared to be a gang of oversized hobbits leap out and spring about with a wooden horse. Soon, the villagers had all come out of their cottages to enjoy the spectacle. We ate up, picked up our pints—lemonades for the sprogs—and wandered out to watch the Morris dancers.
There we sat in the twilight for the next hour or so watching the wonderful dances and listening to that old music that appeared to have the sounds of the centuries encased within it. The children clapped and danced around too. My affectivity, so warped and darkened by decades of exposure to modernity, could hardly cope with the wholesomeness of it all. Our children, formed in their aesthetic attachments by hundreds of hours of folk music, listened and danced and claimed the whole event as their own. This was, they judged, their culture and their music.
My children are not Cornish. They’re barely English. But my wife and I have enough sense to know that there is no such thing as a citizen of the world. The only true belonging is local belonging, and we always knew that the imperative before us in the raising of our children was to induct them into a cultural inheritance that they can call theirs. They couldn’t, we decided, live as aliens in this world. Indeed, the minimum we could give them was the experience of being at home in the world. Folk music has been a major part of teaching the children, implicitly and by habit, that history, place, culture, and real things matter. In short, folk music helps to purify us of the rationalism that is in the very air we breathe in the modern world.
When the energy is low, or irritability begins to cover the domestic sphere with its dark mantle, we put on some folk music and dance together around the house. I scoop my children up into my arms and leap around, singing at the top of my voice. They clap and laugh and sing along, and for a brief moment all the stupidity and perversion of the modern world, for us at least, disappears. It is quite likely that, in a few decades if not before, when I lie on my deathbed and make my final confession, begging for the Lord to save me by the merits of His passion and death, I will not wonder why I didn’t write more books or publish more academic papers. I will probably wonder why I didn’t spend more time dancing with my wife and children to old folk songs—that this is a cliché makes it no less true.