Early Popular Music

by Dr. Norman Stanfield ~ February 1st, 2012. Filed under: Pop Music Studies.

As I prepare for my Popular Music course this coming spring, I see in my lecture notes that I occasionally triangulate pop music and Early Music. By “Early” I don’t mean the dawn of rock and roll in the ‘50s; I’m referring to the popular music of decades like, for example the renaissance 1550s, the baroque 1660s or the classical  era of the 1870s. Early Popular Music is derived from “commoners” and is usually gentrified or imagined by court composers, often with instructions to play a la pesante (in the style of a peasant). From the 19th century onwards, music from the same demographic was called folk, a term that has endured up to the present.

Before exploring this topic, perhaps one point needs to be clarified. Popular Music of the last 100 years or so has been heavily commodified, that is, created to sell for profit, even if the songs began life as creative inspiration. Early pop music songs, particularly ballads, were also created for profit (like sheet music today) but the singers who bought the sheet music never imagined that they could make a living singing the songs (unlike the entertainment industry today). The creators of the songs were barely acknowledged, and never accrued fame by performing them, and the performances of the songs seemed to have been motivated only for the sheer pleasure of sharing them with near friends and relatives. The unknown, vast genres of aural folk music (such as children’s games, and high day songs like Christmas Eve wassails) and instrumental dance music, seems to have only existed in the minds of the performers, past and present, with no thought of creative attribution. In both cases, singing or playing from memory ruled the day, even when some music began life in printed form. The repeated performances inevitably led to socially sanctioned  and unattributed variation, unencumbered by copyright. Some would call this the heart of music authenticity. But that’s another story.

Sources of Inspiration

My appreciation of Early Pop Music is not really surprising given my years as a musician in many Early Music ensembles, mostly playing flutes from the repertoire of the French baroque (Cameron Hotteterre, A=392), the Italian baroque (Cameron Rottenburgh , A-415) and the renaissance (Puglisi Verona, A=450). The repertoire in all these groups consisted of High Art from court and church, and Low Art from the villages and city market-places. The High Art could be sublime, but the Low Art was always rollicking good fun.

At one particular twist in the road, I settled on a solo career. The impetus for this adventure began with a challenge presented by my friend and manager in the entertainment division of Expo 86. The organisation had commissioned me to be an Artist-in-Residence for the entire 6 months of the fair. “Could you play your music in a kind of virtual village context (i.e., the streets and by-ways of the fair), using theatrical conventions like costume and patter appropriate to the music-maker I was portraying?” I had already experienced the rich depth of audience reaction when we Early Music musicians successfully used the concert performance model of re-enactment.

I was eager to try out the same mode of performance using the material I had gathered in my first venture into ethnomusicology – the sacred music of the Japanese shakuhachi flute. The music was originally performed by the Komuso – peripatetic warrior-monks and occasional spies who used a flute(!) to realize their many roles and aspirations. Rather than play the music in the sterile atmosphere of a recital-hall stage, as I had done many times, or inflate the sound with reverberation and electronic pitch correction commonly heard on recordings, I would play the music live while I wandered the streets of the site as an actual komuso, complete with bee-hive hat disguise. If you left your reality check at the gate, you could almost imagine a similar moment in the crowded byways of the Yoshiwara District of old Tokyo.

I was delighted at the success of the project. Not only did it attract the attention and wonderment of thousands of fair-goers, it teased the curiosity of the media. Much to my amazement, I even received alms, the original intent of the music, from Japanese visitors who seemed quite un-fazed by my presence. Best of all, everything I did as a komuso, and the music I performed, was authentic in every detail.

“And thereby hangs many a tale,” perhaps for a future blog.

For the second half of the fair, I continued to wander the streets of the Expo, but instead of a sombre Japanese monk, I was a boisterous renaissance pipe and tabor player. My role model was Will Kemp, Shakespeare’s comic  actor and his associate, Thomas Slye, seen on the left. As you can see in the illustration, the player blows a three-hole recorder called a pipe (two Sweetheart reproductions in G and D) with one hand while the other hand plays a drum called a tabor (Paul Williamson, small and large). And, in keeping with the tradition, I immersed myself in the songs and dances of the commoners of long ago, this time from the streets, theatres and public houses of the English renaissance, all drawn from sources and literature regularly used by those in Early Music.  Each day, I recreated the music accompaniment for Kemp’s Nine Day Wonder, as he jigged his way from London to Norwich in 1600 AD. My costume, banter and music was essentially a concert of Early Music in the round and on the run. Anybody who had more than a fleeting interest in my music had to follow me around for 45 minutes to hear my entire concert.

Fast forward to my years as a passionate morris dancer immediately following Expo 86. After an apprenticeship as a novice journeyman morris dancer and unusual pipe-and-tabor musician (a common sound among historical Morris teams, but now rather rare), I followed the team’s tentative venture into group singing after practice sessions, a time-honoured custom among morris dancers in modern (and pre-modern) England.  The idea was introduced and promoted by the English ex-pats in our membership, one of the wonderful and unique features of the team. Again, rollicking songs about seasonal pleasures and adventurous lads filled my musical life, in addition to a host of jigs, hornpipes and reels, all drawn from “the people’s music”.

Now that I am a practicing ethnomusicologist, I find myself again visiting the musical literature of commoners, now called the folk. I discovered that an army of academics have devoted vast amounts of energy and creative thought to the music of western and non-western folk, especially narrative songs generally called ballads in the West. During the latter half of the nineteenth century, some maverick academics had given the repertoire of folk music the same kind of respect normally accorded to courtly songs and bourgeois lieder. The reverence for the musical art of the people was carried forward by songcatchers of the second revival who were motivated by left-wing politics and the call to grant power to the people. Now, when we look at the history of Western art and folk music, we see a divide that began merely as a narrow gap in earlier centuries, only to steadily widen into the gulf that exists today.

The “Top Ten” of Long Ago

Since I began teaching and researching modern-day pop music, I have come to realize that the early songs and dances of urban and rural folk that I so carefully learned in my Early Music and Morris Dance days can also be identified as the popular music or more specifically, the pop music, of those distant times. Not “pop” as in the binary opposition to rock, but pop in opposition to art music.

Imagine renaissance and baroque folk songs and dances driven by the enthusiastic needs of a historical youth culture in the courts and the villages, always on the look-out for new and exciting departures from the norm of a previous generation set in their ways. I am reminded of a wonderful bit of speculation I heard during an Early Music rehearsal. Apparently the pace of certain historical dances (e.g., the minuet) slowed down over the course of their history. Why? As the people who picked up the dance in their youth began to age, their ability and enthusiasm to dance with vigour also waned. I acknowledge that the youth in historical demographics would not be nearly as omnipresent as they are today, given the modern consumer market’s obsession with attracting the disposable incomes of young people. And the life expectancy in pre-modern Europe hovered around the 30 to 40 year mark, blurring the very meaning of the term “youth”. But these are provisos, not rebuttals.

If we apply some of the same critical theories and cultural studies towards Early Pop that have been developed by contemporary pop music scholars, we can bypass some of the hoary debates about orality versus print, rural versus urban, non-literate versus literate, vulgar versus genteel. I dare say we might even be able to apply the insights of pop music’s arch curmudgeon, Theodor Adorno.

Keeping Company

Of course, I am not the only one to re-cast “folk” as “pop”. A hint of the accidental conflation of the two terms can be seen in the title of the first canonic set of ballads entitled The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (1882-1898, my italics), compiled by Sir Francis Childs,. Also, William Chappell’s Popular Music of the Olden Time (1859, ibid italics). Many modern Early Music ensembles have explored the idea of modernity in early popular music. One example that immediately springs to mind is the CD produced by the Baltimore Consort (with Chris Norman) entitled La Rocque ‘n’ Roll – Popular Music of Renaissance France (Dorian Recordings, 1993). Then there is the entire output of the City Waites, founded in the early 1970s by Lucie and Roddy Skeaping. Jeremy Barlow’s Broadside Band in the ’80s. There are many others.

Early Commoner Music is explored in a marvelous, new book called Music and Society in Early Modern England, by Christopher Marsh (Cambridge, 2010).  Following in the wake of social historians like Peter Burke (Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe: Ashgate, 1978; see Marsh, 2010: 15), Professor Marsh has presented the pre-modern English music of the people through the lens of the everyday, the everyman and everywoman. Pop Culture scholars will nod their head in recognition because they know only too well the work of Henri Lefebvre, the eminent sociologist of the everyday. (See his Critique Of Everyday Life, University of California Press; 3 edition 2011, a translation of the original Critique de la Vie Quotidienne, 1947/58). Tia DeNora (Music in Everyday Life: Cambridge, 2000), Harris Berger and Giovanna Del Negro (Identity and Everyday Life: Essays in the Study of Folklore, Music and Popular Culture: Wesleyan, 2004) and Susan Crafts et al. (My Music: Music in Daily Life Project: Wesleyan, 1993) have looked at the same question in the realm of today’s amateur and pop music-makers.

Now the door is open to view Early Pop with the same eyes.

More reading for the avidly curious

Newman, Steve (2007), Ballad Collection, Lyric, and the Canon: The Call of the Popular from the Restoration to the New Criticism (University of Pennsylvania Press)

Mullan, John and Christopher Reid, editors (2000), Eighteenth-Century Popular Culture: A Selection (Oxford University Press; annotated edition)

Reay, Barry (1998), Popular cultures in England, 1550-1750  (Longman)

Harris, Tim, editor (1995), Popular Culture in England 1500-1850 (Palgrave Macmillan)

Barry, Jonathan (1994), The Middling Sort of People: Culture, Society and Politics in England (Palgrave Macmillan)

Hibbert, Christopher (1987), The English: A Social History 1066-1945 (Grafton Books)

Reay, Barry, editor (1988), Popular Culture in Seventeenth-century England (Croom Helm, 1985, reprinted Routledge)

Underdown, David (1985), Revel, Riot and Rebellion: Popular Politics and Culture in England 1603-1660 (Oxford University Press)

Briggs, Asa (1983), A Social History of England (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

Malcolmson, Robert W. (1973), Popular Recreations in English Society 1700-1850 (Cambridge University Press)

Leave a Reply

Spam prevention powered by Akismet