Great Britain 1930-1950

  October 18, 2021   Read time 3 min
Great Britain 1930-1950
Cecil Sharp’s legacy stretched long after his death in 1924. Traditional songs and dances were promoted by the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS), carrying forward a commitment to the belief that folk songs were rooted in a distant past and could preserve a distinctive, inherited culture.

According to cultural historian Georgina Boyes, “By the beginning of the 1930s, Folk culture had been fully colonised by the Revival. The Folk, on the verge of extinction at the turn of the century, could now be assumed to be nonexistent…. Revivalists had replaced the Folk, and constructed the population of rural areas as non-Folk—failed inheritors of the Folk’s culture and artistic abilities.” It was up to the academics to carry on these traditions, which they struggled to accomplish. “Although the status of the Folk as the well-spring of Englishness and national culture never came under concerted assault,” she continues, “across a range of social, political and cultural positions there was a selective reduction in support for the institution and practices of the Revival.” By decade’s end public interest in the dances of the EFDSS had substantially declined, and the organization languished.

The widespread economic collapse during the 1930s triggered radical political, social, as well as cultural movements, and thereby a search for authentic rural as well as urban working-class music, in order to draw from and connect with the people. Radical cultural organizations soon appeared, including the Workers’ Theatre Movement. Workers’ songs were nothing new, but now gained enhanced value, particularly as popularized by young cultural workers with a flair for organization and promotion. Composer Alan Bush led the formation of The Workers Music Association in 1936, dedicated to “the promotion of socialist and communist song from national and international sources.” The group’s prime goal was to elevate the working-class through promoting classical music, with scant interest in folk music (until after World War II); it had the support of modernist composers Benjamin Britten, Hans Eisler, and John Ireland.

Folk musicfrom the United States, however,came to Britain through the mid-decade BBC radio broadcasts of Alistair Cooke. He traveled to the United States in 1932, and when briefly back in England in 1936 he produced a half-hour program for BBC on American hobo songs entitled “New York City to the Golden Gate.” He emigrated permanently to the United States the following year and soon began a series of 13 programs for BBC entitled I Heard American Singing, which drew upon John and Alan Lomax’s Library of Congress field recordings of work songs, from lumberjacks and railroad construction workers, and prison songs by African Americans. The program generated a positive response in the British press. Cooke soon met jazz legend Jelly Roll Morton in Washington, D.C. and was present for his lengthy, seminal-recording sessions with Alan Lomax at the Library of Congress. In the summer of 1939, western music star Gene Autry, most famous for his movie roles, was touring in Great Britain, performing in London, Liverpool, Glasgow, and Dublin. He received a warm welcome, with a cheering crowd of 300,000 lining the streets of Dublin as he rode by on his horse “Champion”.

The outbreak of World War II prompted the start of a radio show, “Country Magazine,” in May 1942 (until 1954), designed to promote a unified nationalism through presenting a broad folk culture through personal stories and traditional folk songs. Heard every other Sunday, the program’s musical arranger, Francis Collinson, “recorded pub singers at the ‘Eel’s Foot’ in Suffolk, hurdle makers in Dorset and Harry Cox in his woodshed.” Scottish folk songs were well represented. Collecting Irish folk songs had grown out of the founding of the Irish Folklore Institute in 1930, changed to the Irish Folklore Commission in 1935, which sent story and song collectors throughout the countryside. Fieldworkers were helped by the publication of the Handbook of Irish Folklore in 1942.