Pivotal Moments in English Folk Music

The first notable event in the history of English folk music was not, in fact, the work of a musician at all, but of a monk who set out to chronicle the history of the Catholic church in England. The Venerable Bede gave us the first example of a true English folksong when he included a song in Anglo-Saxon by the obscure poet Caedmon in his "Ecclesiastical History". From this, we know that even in the early middle ages, English folk traditions were already well established.

The next key moment in English folk music is the rise of the Tudor dynasty. In this period, although there was already a distinction between the "high" music and song of the courts and the "low" music of the common people, it was not unknown for the upper classes to mix company with the lower, and to still maintain a connection with traditional, popular music. For example, Henry the VIII composed the song "Pastime with Good Company", which was clearly influenced by folk traditions, and unsurprisingly became a favourite of ordinary people to sing in teverns, at fairs, and generally with friends.

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After this, the rise of Puritanism, eventually leading to the pivotal event of the English Civil War in the mid 16th century, had a great deal of effect on folk music. Which is to say, it had the effect of trying to stomp such folk traditions out for being at best an idle distraction from more serious matters. And to the Puritans, anything to due with folk traditions was most often looked at as an invitation to superstition and crypo-Paganism, which the Puritans, perhaps not unjustly, saw in events like Maypole festivals in which folk music would have traditionally played a part.

The onset of the Romantic period at the beginning of the 19th century was another important moment. While folk songs had been looked at with suspicion by the Puritans and looked at with derision by the Neoclassical musicians and writers that followed, now they were treated as relics of a long-forgotten England. This era saw the publication of a number of collections of folk songs, including "A Collection of National English Airs" by William Chappell and "Ancient Poems, Ballads and Songs of the Peasantry of England " by Robert Bell.

From the late 19th century to the mid-20th, English folk music experienced the most important moment in its development into its current form: the British folk revival. For the first time, there was a profound public interest, as opposed to just an interest among intellectuals as had been the case in the Romantic era, in collecting and preserving the English folk traditions. Not only were numerous collections of folk songs released to a great deal of public enthusiasm, but the record company Topic Records provided folk musicians with a chance to give their music a wider range of listeners than was previously possible. This era also saw the development of the English Folk Dance Society, which in 1932 became the English Folk Dance and Song Society, which still exists today.

The most recent major development in English folk music occurred in the early 90's: this era marked the return of many musicians to pure folk style, rather than a mix of folk with other styles such as Electronic, Punk, or Metal, which had previously been the norm. Due to the rise of more purely folk acts, the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards were established in 2000, which helped give such acts much needed exposure to mainstream audiences.

What the next big moment in English folk music will be is anyone's guess. But we can at least be sure that the traditions first recorded by Bede in the middle ages will continue well into this century.