Radio Times/1923/11/02/The Magic of Folk Song

The Magic of Folk Song.


A Talk Broadcast From London, By Walter Ford.

What are folk-songs as we know them to-day? The songs which have been taken down from the lips of the peasantry, mostly in very recent years. They owe their preservation to the tenacious memories of country folk through countless generations. In other words, they are traditional.

They are to be found in all nations, savage or civilized, all over the world. And in civilized nations the melodies of folk-song have been little affected by the musical changes which civilization has brought to the art of music. The reason is plain. Art is the product of the human intellect, which has set itself to train and develop what was originally only a natural instinct. In folk-song we have the results of natural instinct itself unconsciously, unreflectively developed through endless centuries.

Most Wonderful Musical Instrument.

The beginnings of melody are older than the beginnings of language, and spring from a different human impulse. But the fact that folk-songs have words as well as melodies easily leads to confusion of thought; for, at the stage of civilization in which we live, it his become, for the majority of people, more natural to talk than to sing. It is obviously more natural to sing than to talk; for the voice, though we use it for both purposes, is a musical instrument, the most wonderful that exists.

Many of you possess a violin or a piano, or some musical instrument; but there is only one musical instrument which everyone possesses and has always possessed—the voice. Such a gift was not given without the intention that we should all use it, and use it, as the inferior manufactured instruments are used, for music. More than that, it was meant to he used without trouble on our part, just like those equally elaborate instruments, our eyes and our ears. It is designed, like them, to go of itself, not by reason, but by instinct.

Civilization and Singing.

If, then, with the voice is given also the instinct, to use it, to sing is not an exceptional, but the normal thing to do. Only abnormal or unnatural conditions, such as prevail in what we call civilisation, prevent singing from being a universal habit. The simplest proof of this statement is that every nation and tribe all over the world has evolved its own folk-songs, just as it has evolved its own language. A fairly early stage in this evolution we can study in the folk-songs of savage or primitive peoples. No doubt, they represent a stage through which the folk-songs of civilized nations once passed.

What does all this mean? It means that the race of man cannot get on without music, was obviously not meant to get on without music, that it can make it for itself without the help of trained musicians, and has always done so.

The gift of a voice was the promise of all the music which was to come.

In folk-song we see its beginning, and at the present stage of human history we also see, from the folk-songs which have survived, just how far music, under the sole guidance of the voice and of instinct, is able to advance. For the day of folk-song is over. There won't be any more. Civilization inevitably kills it. When music is made for people by experts, they stop making it for themselves. It is only a living thing, an essential part of human life, now to an aged peasant here and there who cherishes what his father and grandfather sang before him, or in peasant communities, such as that one which Mr. Cecil Sharp visited in the Apalachian Mountains, where civilized music and musical instruments have not yet penetrated, and where men, women and children all sing, and sing the songs brought by their forbears from England 300 years ago.

Have the melodies any other significance than that they are the survivals from a world of mimic which is past and will never come again? Is the interest really for the antiquarian? Their popularity to-day, now that they have been collected, published, sung in our concerts, our schools and our homes, and loved by learned and unlearned alike, is one answer to this question. But I want you to go further. I want you to ask why, what they mean, what they express? If we can answer these questions, we shall know not merely what the instinctive melodies of folk-songs mean, but what all true music means and expresses, and partly, at least we shall understand the unique power which music exerts over human beings, now as in the dim past, when Orpheus was not a singer only, but a magician, when a song was not a melody and words only, but an incantation and charm, a spell.

We speak still in our casual and unthinking way of music as "the divine art," and of singers as "charming"; but simpler people meant these words literally, and not only reverenced, but feared the singer.

When Language Fails.

Let me put the matter very briefly, and then I must leave the thinking out to yourselves. Through the voice, the race of man has fashioned for his use two languages—the one of speech, by which we communicate our needs, our thoughts, our experience to one another, and without which no civilized life in communities is possible; the other, the language of melody, by which we express all those thing. (and, to my mind, they are the deeper things) for which language fails.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1925.


The author died in 1938, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.