Real folk music no longer exists in this country. It may do so in parts of Germany and Switzerland, but in Britain what is called Folk is the product of middle class guitar strummers of the 1960s. By then the rural working class, the last true upholders of the folk music tradition, had abandoned it for the pop music that radio and gramophone records had made more easily available.
In Norfolk we may still pick up hints of folk music as it used to be. Very often it was simply sung; when played on an instrument it was often the accordion that was used. A nineteenth century invention, this portable reed organ was taken up with enthusiasm by people across the world. We are told this was what was played one evening before the First World War, in Central Norfolk at Gressenhall Village Hall. There a young miller was playing county dance music by ear for a local get-together, when he was heard by a professional musician. Francis Cunningham Woods, who was on holiday from his job as Head of Music at Highgate School, used what he had heard to compose the Gressenhall Suite*. In 2015 the suite was played at a concert in the former Gressenhall Workhouse chapel (now part of the Museum of Norfolk Life), to mark the hundredth anniversary of its publication. I was privileged to be present.
In other parts of the country people like Percy Grainger, Cecil Sharp, Ralph Vaughan Williams and George Butterworth were diligently collecting the tunes which were soon to die out, had they not been preserved for posterity. My father as young man heard such a song being sung in the Wheel of Fortune pub in Alpington, South Norfolk, but was too shy to copy it down. He had the ability but lacked the confidence. This song had been learnt by the old man as a youngster it in the mid 19th century, but whatever it was both the words and music have now been lost forever. Although the professional musicians who collected these tunes produced suites and arrangements from them, they are art songs and quite different in mood from the simple folk melodies sung over a pint of beer in the local pub. The words of these songs were at least as important as the tunes, and the words were not so important to these collectors, who were musicians first and foremost.
In Norfolk the most popular folk instrument was the dulcimer. I have heard it played, and to be frank it is rather a jangly sound. In the US this type of instrument is called a hammered dulcimer, to distinguish it from the Appalachian dulcimer, which is plucked. Over here this plucked type of instrument is known as the psaltery.
When I was growing up a builder called Mr Matthews lived a few houses along the road from us. I can just remember him, although he must have died in about 1960, before I was was a teenager. He always had fag hanging out of the corner of his mouth. I never thought he was anything but an ordinary Norfolk ‘bor’, but years later his widow remarked to me that he had played the dulcimer. How I wish that I had heard him; he must have been one of the last traditional players of folk music in Norfolk.
The dulcimer has enjoyed a revival recently, but it is now played by such people as university undergraduates and accountants in their leisure hours. Mr Matthews’ chain smoking does not go with this lifestyle, and nor does the job of bricklaying. The tunes are now read from printed manuscripts, not handed down from father to son as they once were. As I remarked at the beginning, folk music no longer exists in this country.
*The Gressenhall Suite was published by Hawkes, but is now hard to find. I have an original set of parts, and as a work now out of copyright it may be copied from the British Library.