Residual and emergent cultures
It is possible to portray these two musical cultures, of which the above two men – Spicer and Matthews - were the unofficial representatives, in terms of ideal-typical oppositions. The residual, as we have said, consisted of an older generation of traditional singers. They were born within the period 1870-1916 and had strong geographical ties to the locality. Many had been born within or near Sussex, or had moved there at an early age and had since remained. They had little formal education or were self-educated and could be characterised in social class terms as skilled or semi-skilled workers, typical occupations being railwaymen, roadmen, fishermen, agricultural labourers or travellers . Their habitat was rural and they were the inheritors of an oral tradition of folk song, having learnt their repertoire from family, friends or workmates.
The figures of the emergent folk culture were born during the 1930s and 40s. Few of those who became central and committed members of this revivalist movement were born in Sussex. Most had been educated beyond the level of compulsory schooling with art-school and university students or graduates making up a sizable number of their ranks. Having taken the grammar school route into such middle-class occupations as lecturers, teachers, civil servants and librarians, they had experienced a significant degree of social and geographical mobility. Their habitat was urban, their politics if pronounced and articulated were liberal-left or radical, in some cases aligned to a bohemian sensibility – what in another context Alan Sinfield (1989) has termed ‘new-left subculture’. Theirs was a more literate and mediated voyage of discovery of the folk tradition, via traditional jazz and blues, American folksong, Ewan McColl and the voice of protest.
To what extent can the traditional singers be regarded as constituting a local music scene, according to the definitions put forward by Peterson and Bennett (2004)? I would argue that this older generation could be regarded as a local scene by virtue of the ‘organic’ set of relationships existing between the music and their long-standing local culture. While many of their songs had been documented in other areas of the United Kingdom, thereby forming a national heritage, often celebrating national events and reflecting perennial human concerns, they had been appropriated and relocated to represent Sussex surroundings. The songs were localised variants of the standard versions, often sung in dialect and personalised to reflect the idiosyncrasies of a particular singer. For this older generation the very act of singing was, moreover, grounded in the local traditions of their everyday life. Songs were learnt and sung in the contexts of both work – the fields of the countryside, the railways and brickyards, the beaches, boats and the huts of the fishermen - and leisure – the local village public house as the focus of the community.
The rigid class divisions of the time were embodied in the architecture, the actual spatial layout of the ‘pub’ (as it is known in its diminutive term). The ‘Saloon’ was frequented by the respectable tradesmen and business class; the ‘Public Bar’ was for the labouring working-class. It was these latter, prosaic surroundings more conducive to singing in which Matthews made most of his recordings. The pub was also the locus for traditional games, such as shove ha’penny, skittles, quoits, darts and marbles. Marbles has been part of Sussex folk-lore since the 16th century and many alehouses in the area had been marked out with the tell-tale ring on which the game takes place. An annual championship had been revived locally in 1932. George ‘Pop’ Maynard (pictured), captain of the 1948 champions, the Copthorne Spitfires, was one of the great traditional folk singers and a significant member of that older generation recorded by Matthews.
On the other hand, there are characteristics of local scenes as defined by Peterson and Bennett (2004) which the older generation did not display. One is the construction of an alternative musical identity, a differentiation from the mainstream mass-marketed music industry. Now it is true that this clustering traditional singers could very obviously be contrasted with the commercially-driven popular music of the time where a nucleus of producers provide multi-national sounds as ‘products’ for ‘consumers’. Yet it was very doubtful that his older generation had any self-constructed sense of identity that allowed a perception of distinction from a mainstream. It was, in fact, not a distinguishable musical community at all in the specific sense; rather, music was just one element, albeit an important one, in a residual, entirely natural ‘way of life’.
Whereas scenes are defined by the forming of “clusters of producers, musicians and fans, collectively sharing their common musical tastes” (Peterson and Bennett, 2004, p. 1), this residual culture did not have formal distinctions between producers, fans and singers, because their signing and the playing of instruments was not a formal ‘performance’ . Just as singing in the fields at work was an integral, undifferentiated part of routine activity, the singing and playing of traditional songs in public houses was neither a formal session nor a series of regular, scheduled events. Although public it was also spontaneous, part of the wider sociality of pub-going. It would therefore be a mistake to think of singing in public houses as having the status of official sessions or regular, scheduled events.
“The idea that a singer was someone exclusive was not there then. Everybody sang. Some sung well, some didn’t, but singing was a normal as breathing. We sang up in the woods, we sang anywhere. You sing when you felt in the mood – you’d be in the pub and someone would start a song and all of a sudden the whole place lit up. It was never, “Well, let’s have a sing.” – it either happened or it didn’t” (Musical Traditions 2000 Double CD liner notes).
When one person in the pub finished singing, another may have started up, possibly before the assembled company had realised and had come to attention. Thus, the positions of audience member and performer were easily elided.
3. The use of the male gender here is deliberate. While some women were known singers of traditional song, they were more likely heard in a private or domestic context and rarely so in public or the patriarchal surroundings of the public house. The majority of singers recorded by Matthews and his contemporaries were men.
4. It is for this reason – to avoid the suggest they were engaged in a ‘performance’ - that I have collectively termed the older generation ‘singers’ rather than ‘performers’ even though some of them were non-singing instrumentalists.
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