The Folk Revival, Skiffle and Protest Songs of the early 1960s

Found in the Haining archive - part of a typed article, possibly never published, by the writer and folklorist Leslie Shepard. He was particularly interested in street literature and broadsides and this piece is inspired by what he saw as a revival of broadside literature which came with a renewed interest in folk music in the early 1960s, also the time of Skiffle…

Chas McDevitt Skiffle Group with Nancy Whiskey*
Twentieth Century Ballads - Leslie Shepard. The Arts in Society

At the dawn of the twentieth century even the broadsides had disappeared, while the countryman had little to sing about. In a more material age people read prose newspapers instead of the verse broadsides and studied practical affairs instead of a romantic past. Both traditional and printed pieces became museum relics, of interest to scholars, country parsons and antiquarians rather than to a modern world - until the folk song revival of barely ten years ago.

In the post war period the banner of 'Folk' appealed equally to the romantic and social realist. Young people took up the serious study of Jazz and its sociological background of negro blues singing. The remains of Anglo-American folk song were popularised by singers like Burl Ives, and out of this melting-pot came Skiffle - folk song with jazz undertones and a simple instrumental background. While commercialisation of skiffle helped to shape teenage taste in rock-and-roll and pop singers, the amateur skiffle movement led to a British folk song revival which spread like wildfire. Cecil Sharp House, headquarters of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, was ransacked for texts, tunes and recordings; folk clubs sprang up overnight in cellars, coffee bars and pubs.

Revivalists split into two main groups - traditionalists who wanted to go on singing country songs and ballads in the same way as the old singers, often unaccompanied, and the modernists who set new topical verse to the old tunes and used a guitar or skiffle background. Even the choice of songs led to local chauvinism, some holding that British singers should sing only British style and not attempt the American accent or Burl Ives and cowboy song.

All agreed on the need to spread the words and music of new and old songs and the printed broadsides began to appear again. Although the broadside singers of the past sang and sold their pieces in the streets or al country fairs, the revivalists of today mostly stick to their own little magazines and, if they make the grade, gramophone records. Some even circulate private tape recordings. But many modern broadside sheets have been sold and sung in the streets, a pioneer imprint being that of entertainer John Foreman, 'The Broadsheet King', who sold sheets on the Smithfield Market Fire in Petticoat Lane within a few days of the event. 

Social criticism had been one of the leading characteristics of the broadside ballad over nearly four centuries. A main channel for the revival movement is  Aldermaston, where the power of the street song to inspire a popular cause is as evident today as in the sixteenth century when there was harsh legislation against ballad singers. Pioneer writers and singers of modern broadsides of social criticism include Ewan MacColl, Peggy Seeger, John Hasted, Eric Winter, Fred and Betty Dallas, John Brunner, Alex Comfort. Most of these are also enthusiasts for a true folk style and have helped to popularise traditional country songs, MacColl and Seeger in radio and television programmes, Hasted and Winter in their popular folk song magazine "SING". John Brunner, active in CND is well known as science fiction writer, Alex Comfort is a doctor and research Fellow in the biology of old age.

Although the H-Bomb, greedy landlords, racial discrimination and sit-down strikes have been good subjects for the more radical broadsides, enthusiasts have sometimes complained "Can't the bomb be kept out of folk music?". Many purists accept only genuine folk songs in the authentic oral traditional style of the countryside and frown on the use of guitars. 

In Liverpool, a keen group called "The Spinner" write and sing broadsides on such present-day topics as 'The lure of TV (tune: The Lure of the Mines):

"Come all you  young fellows and listen to me,
Seek not entertainment by watching TV,
For your eyes they will wither and sink in your head
Till 'This is Your Life' makes you wish you were dead…"

This is the spirit that has led young people to create their own entertainment in folk clubs. TB Or Not TB is another Spinners piece, to the tune of Lolly Too Dum. It was written to support a mass X-ray campaign and the song was sung all over the city when a mobile X-ray unit toured Liverpool.

The broadside has lost one of its effectiveness on the political scene. 'Time That You Told Them to Go', written by Kenneth Younger, M.P., Croydon, Surrey from a car equipped with amplifier. The Labour candidate was returned with an increased majority.

Last year a crowd of a thousand men outside the gates of the Pressed Steel factory in Swindon sang:

"D'ye ken Pressed with their coats so blue?
D'ye ken Pressed with their blacklegs too?
D'ye ken Pressed where there's work for you?
And you'll all get your cards in the morning".

The words were duplicated on broadside sheets with the instruction "Sing as loud as you can". 

*Many thanks to the East End Memories for the pic.

4 thoughts on “The Folk Revival, Skiffle and Protest Songs of the early 1960s

  1. Mumpsimus

    "Pioneer writers and singers of modern broadsides of social criticism include Ewan MacColl, Peggy Seeger, John Hasted, Eric Winter, Fred and Betty Dallas, John Brunner, Alex Comfort."

    Would that be John Brunner the science-fiction writer? Interesting, if so.

  2. Tommi Uschanov

    Missed this one somehow back in July. The piece is approximately two thirds (missing the introductory paragraph, one in the middle, and five at the end) of what was published as "The Ballads Today" in New Society magazine, 20 December 1962; only the twelfth issue of the then newly launched, much missed weekly. Arts in Society was a regular column therein, of which a delightful anthology was compiled by long-time New Society editor Paul Barker and published in 1977 by Fontana.


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