Thursday 12 September 2019

An introduction to folk song for singing teachers

I wrote this for a newsletter for the Association of Teachers of Singing (if you're a singing teacher and haven't heard of them, you should have (I'm their freelance administrator)) so it focuses on what I think you need to know if you're teaching students a folk song, but that also means that it covers the basics as I understand them; it also includes links to some of the singers I like the most, to give you somewhere to start...

Folk song is a rich and varied genre, but it does sit in its own niche, so it’s possible to know a lot of music but never encounter a real folk song. The differences between folk song and art song are what make folk particularly interesting to sing, so I was impressed when I discovered that singing an unaccompanied folk song is compulsory in ABRSM singing exams, and that you choose your own song. In Trinity, it's an option but each grade has the choice of just two songs.

ABRSM use the term 'traditional song', then define this as a folk song. 'Traditional' is a more nebulous term, so I prefer to use 'folk song', but the ABRSM definition is a good one: "colloquial and [has] no traceable composer." A folk song is essentially a song that has been passed around for so long that everyone has forgotten who made it up in the first place. If an art song is a crystal goblet with sharply defined facets, a folk song is like one of those bits of glass you find on the beach, battered by waves and pebbles. The power of traditional song lies not in precise effects but in having passed through many people.

Traditionally, folk songs were oral not literal – they were shared by being heard, not be being written down. The nearest analogy these days is a joke: you hear it at the pub and retell it later in your own words. Most songs exist in many different versions, and most folk singers will change the songs as they sing them. There is no reason not to combine different versions, or leave out some parts – there is no ‘correct’ version of any song, as long as the story makes sense. This means that you can easily adapt a song to fit the timing requirements: for grades 1 to 4, the song must be between one minute long and two minutes long; for grade 5 to 8, between one minute long and three minutes long. If you’ve found a song you like, a good place to find out about alternative versions is the Mudcat CafĂ©, a community of enthusiasts who collect and discuss traditional folk and blues songs.

Folk tunes tend to be based on modes (Ionian, Dorian and so on). If you haven’t encountered these, watch out when you are learning or teaching folk songs that you don’t ‘correct’ the tunes into what you might expect if you’re more familiar with major and minor scales.

Songs tend to have a strong pulse, but singers generally don’t worry about adding an extra couple of beats to accommodate the words, and when songs are written down they often have irregular bars. An example of this that you might know is Johnny Todd (if you’re as old as me you might remember this arrangement).

Singers generally add ornaments and vary the tempo rather than using vocal timbre to characterise the songs – the freedom of singing unaccompanied is hugely liberating as well as terrifying. Folk is all about telling a story, and putting the words across is the primary aim, taking precedence over beauty of tone. Folk singers tend to use their natural accents, with pronunciation as close to speech as possible, and comfortable keys to allow that. The ABRSM allows any key, and lets your pupil get a starting note or key-chord from the piano, so make sure they know what it should be.

It would be odd to sing in a language or dialect not your own, which is why I find the Trinity selection too limited. If you have a pupil whose first language is not covered by the syllabus, this can be a real opportunity: the ABRSM let you sing in any language, as long as you provide a translation or summary: at a recent area day, AOTOS members commented that some pupils were really liberated by being able to sing in their native tongue.

All the above characteristics mean that the best way to learn a folk song is not to read it from sheet music but to hear it. So I'd like to encourage you to seek out recordings rather than using books.

If you or a pupil have found a song you like, a bit of Googling will establish whether it’s really a folk song – generally, if it has a named author, it’s not, but Trad. arr is fine. Once you have a title (and have checked what other names the song might go by), explore YouTube. Recorded versions will often have accompaniment, but the songs will be fine without: folk was traditionally sung unaccompanied. Your pupils can find lots of versions of a song they like and take different bits from them to make their own version. They can change the tune and add their own ornaments; if the words don’t make sense, they can find out what they mean, or they can change them. There are no rules in folk!


Don't know where to start? Here are a few of my favourite singers, with a wide range of styles and voices.  

I've just discovered Bill Jones, who has a lovely effortless style – and what a great song.

Maddy Prior has one of the most distinctive voices around, and folk-rock band Steeleye Span have been part of the folk scene for nearly fifty years…

Martin Carthy is a giant of the folk revival, with a typical slightly nasal voice. This is a live recording and you can hear the audience joining in for the chorus and improvising harmonies – folk clubs are some of the only places I know where this happens.

Here’s singer Anne Briggs singing a traditional song in the early days of the 1960s folk revival.

June Tabor is a rare alto, and has a knack for finding terrific material (though she also sings contemporary music, so check carefully). Do explore the big ballads too, though you would have to think about what to leave out to keep them within the time limit.

Frankie Armstrong is a remarkable singer, another key figure in the folk revival; she’s recently become president of the Natural Voice Network, which some AOTOS members are also part of. ‘The Brown Girl’ is a song with lots of different versions, which Armstrong sings in a truly distinctive style.

Finally, even an unknown singer can be lovely. This is a good example of a song that's easy to pick up but would be fussy written down. I tried to teach it to a friend who's very classically orientated, and she just panicked... 

No comments: