Folk music and feminism -traditional songs and misogyny

(101 Posts)
IntergalacticHussy Fri 17-Jun-11 13:17:28

As i'm sure some of you might have noticed, i'm a bit of a folky at heart, but for a long time now i've been trying to square my love of traditional songs with the awful sexism and misogyny which seems to be an integral part of them.

I mean I'm the first to complain about the depiction of 'ho's' and 'bitches' in mtv videos but some of the depictions of sexual violence and oppression in folk song make Eminem and 50 Cent look positively progressive

Off the top of my head there's 'Pretty Polly' which is one of those songs that got about a bit, starting off in England and being adapted and transported over to the new world in various guises, but the gist of it is always the same: young, naive girl falls for a mysterious bloke and wants to marry him. He gets her on a promise and convinces her to elope beforehand and have sex with him in a forest or somewhere where he digs her a grave during the night, much to her dismay and then murders and buries her. All this is presented in a really neutral, matter of fact way by whoever wrote the song. No justice is metered out, at least not in the versions i've heard.

Then there's 'Blackwaterside' which isn't violent but still incredibly sexist. Young girl (you can see a pattern emerging here - i don't know if these songs were meant as cautionary tales to keep young women in line - probably) goes down to the river and meets a bloke, who again promises to marry her, convinces her to have sex with him then pisses off in the middle of the night. When she asks him where he's going he tells her it's her own fault for succumbing to her 'wanton will' which again is something of a theme in these songs.

I know virtually no-one listens to this music, so it's not exactly a pressing issue, but for me it does show something of the way in which the popular culture of the past played a part in stigmatising and oppressing women, so it's interesting to me from an anthropological point of view.

I just wondered if anyone else had any shining examples? you never know with mumsnet, however obscure the topic!

CaptainBarnacles Fri 17-Jun-11 13:31:41

Really interesting post. I have always seen songs like this as an articulation of women's victimhood and a way of bringing it to light. So instead of brushing illegitimacy under the carpet, they made it something public. Instead of seeing them as sexist, I think of them as descriptions of a sexist society.

But I quite see that they can also be seen as cautionary tales and a way of controlling women.

This is American, not British, but the Carter Family's Single Girl, Married Girl is a great feminist song.

loiner45 Fri 17-Jun-11 13:33:12

that's an interesting question - I'm a folky too and I tend to hear songs like that as condemnations of the men involved rather than cautionary tales to keep the women in line! wishful thinking maybe:-)

HAve you heard the Imagined Village / Benjamin Zephania reworking of Tam Lyn? youtube video of it here

dittany Fri 17-Jun-11 13:35:17

Ye Banks and Braes is a lovely song by Burns about a young woman who has been used and then cast aside by her lover.

Thing is Robert Burns who was shagging all over Ayrshire was the man he was writing about so I don't know why he thought he got to write a sensitive song about one of his victims. Sociopath.

I think you'll find misogyny in every kind of genre of music that men are involved in making. It's always been a mistake just to focus on rap.

TheCrackFox Fri 17-Jun-11 13:35:42

When I was at school in Scotland in the 1980's I remember learning a traditional Scottish Song called something like the "Wee Cooper of Fife" and it was basically about a man who lost his temper with his wife so decided to hit her with a walking stick but put a sheep skin over his wife's back so it didn't hurt too much. I remember thinking this is deeply innappropriate to teach a bunch of 8yr olds this song.

MillyR Fri 17-Jun-11 13:38:21

Feminist folk songs? How about Blue Blazing Blind Drunk, which is about domestic violence from the woman's POV. Or WhiteThorn, about the sorrow of losing multiple children during successive childbirths. Andrew Lammie is about honour killing and conveys it as a tragedy. Felton Longing is about a mother searching for her child. The Birth of Robin Hood is partly about a woman choosing to have sex with who she wanted, and not getting into trouble over it. In fact that is quite a common theme in folk music.

We listen to a lot of folk music, and played a lot of it to the kids when they were younger, and DD has performed in folk festivals. I have paid some attention to the content from a gender point of view, and I do think a lot of it is very positive about women or reflects women's experiences and work.

EnnuiGo Fri 17-Jun-11 13:40:31

Not a folk song but the calm and emotionless way the rape of Becky in coward of the County is sung gives me the chills....

EnnuiGo Fri 17-Jun-11 13:44:06

Some of these folk songs come form the era / genre of Punch and Judy shows - when selling or beating your wife was not only seen as the norm but sort of laughed off with the man being the 'village joker - beats his wife but a good sort really and can really quaff his ale' hmm And the Scolds Bridal too...

I'm helping out at Shrewsbury Folk Festival in August <squeeee> - will keep an eye out for this sort of thing....especially since generally the female singers and performers in the folk world seem a pretty feminist and strong bunch....

loiner45 Fri 17-Jun-11 13:51:09

oh that's got me on a roll! this is why I love folk music.

I think there is misogyny in old F Songs, because it was there in the societies in which they were written and sung, but I do think the contemporary folk scene has some very strong females in it, who are building on the traditional but going beyond it - Eliza Carthy singing one of these old songs can bring quite a different sense to it I think

EnnuiGo Fri 17-Jun-11 13:52:32

Phew -glad to see you back loiner - i thought i'd killed the debate by Squeeing on a feminist thread grin

loiner45 Fri 17-Jun-11 13:58:32

lol - no I'm here <whispers> aren't we allowed to squee in here then? have had a visitor, the friend I really discovered feminism with in the early 80's - we went along to conferences together, safety in numbers :-)

She is not into folk music sadly but we did just have a reminisce about going to see the likes of K.D. Lange and Chris Williamson.

last yr I took my 20 yr old DD to Cambridge folk fest (my first time) and I think she's a convert - she's going again this year with a friend!

dadof2ofthem Fri 17-Jun-11 14:36:58

all the folk songs that spring to my mind are quite the opposite
-whiskey in the jar- guy gets betrayed to the solders by his lover and ends up in prison
-seven days drunk- drunk old fool so drunk he doesnt know his wife is sleeping with someone else
black velvet band- also about betrayal, i think.
i dont think it's attall fair to say that all male written music will have an element of mysogyny, most songs of all genres are love songs or about longing .

SybilBeddows Fri 17-Jun-11 16:03:01

we listen to seashanties a lot - it is (obviously) a very male tradition, sometimes quite anti-woman.

some random lines that spring to mind:

'Row, row, row bullies row, Those Liverpool judys have got us in tow'

'I have a wife in Louisville, another in New Orleans'

will think of more

BooyHoo Fri 17-Jun-11 16:10:28

not sure if this is along the same folky lines but my dad was a christy moore fan and i have some of his CD's. tehre is one song that always made me laugh. cant remember the title but it went like this. a man was always getting drunk and coming home and beating his wife. his wife was a seamstress (now starting to think that may be the song title) and one night after he came home drunk she set about stitching him into the bed so he couldn't move and then she beat him very badly with, i think, the frying pan (how original hmm) and told him he would never touch her again. the only thing that annoyed me about it was that she stayed with him. although i am guessing that as christy moore is irish, he was singing about a catholic family and so leaving him wouldn't have been possible.

BooyHoo Fri 17-Jun-11 16:11:56

just googled. the song is called 'a stitch in time'

onclefestere Fri 17-Jun-11 16:19:12

Some are a little different though, and celebrate women getting free of dull lives - the Raggle Taggle Gypsies?

QueenOfFeckingEverything Fri 17-Jun-11 16:25:59

Funnily enough this was the topic of conversation in our car just the other day (we inherited a large collection of folk music on tape with our car as the previous owner had excellent musical taste but no tape player at home!).

The song that sparked the discussion was Stitch In Time which for anyone who doesn't know is about a woman who has a drunken husband who beats her, so she stitches him into his bed when he's in a drunken stupor and does the same to him with a frying pan and various other household implements. Anyway, there was I singing along absent mindedly when I thought, hang on, this isn't actually very nice blush and of course then I started thinking about all the other songs and what they are about.

Will read with interest and come back to say more later.

QueenOfFeckingEverything Fri 17-Jun-11 16:27:31

Oh Booy x-post grin

BooyHoo Fri 17-Jun-11 16:31:25

grin queenof

you explained it better than i did anyway!!

ElephantsAndMiasmas Fri 17-Jun-11 16:46:27

I think folk music is one of the best sources we have for learning about the past that isn't in history books, so yes we see a lot of misogyny (because there's always been a lot of it about), but also a lot of other stories that don't fit in with this.

And I really really don't know why everyone's assuming that men were the ones who composed folk music. It's modern poetry/music that is so hot on authorship, with men wanting to put their name all over everything. Ever heard of Anon? I know I've posted it before, but it seems appropriate)

ANON (Carol Ann Duffy)

If she were here
she'd forget who she was,
it's been so long,
maybe a nurse, a nanny,
maybe a nun -

A girl I met
was willing to bet
that she still lives on -
Anon -
but had packed it all in,
the best verb, the right noun,
for a life in the sun.

A woman I knew
kept her skull
on a shelf in a room -
and swore that one day
as she worked at her desk
it cleared its throat
as though it had something
to get off its chest.

But I know best -
how she passed on her pen
like a baton
down through the years
with a hey nonny
hey nonny
hey nonny no-

Takver Fri 17-Jun-11 16:48:04

OP, was having a very similar thought about some of my musical choices the other day - and their appropriateness for cheerful singing along with my dd.

Just for starters : 'Old Maid in a Garret'

And (admittedly not folk), love the song, but really . . . Peggy Lee singing Black Coffee - not only about as far from feminism as you can get, but smoking too grin

dittany Fri 17-Jun-11 16:49:50

"i dont think it's attall fair to say that all male written music will have an element of mysogyny"

It isn't fair. That's why I didn't say it.

I said all genres of music that contain music written by men will contain misogyny. That doesn't mean every piece written by a man is misogynistic. Just that if you go through folk, rock, hip hop, classical music etc etc, there will be misogynistic pieces in all of them.

ElephantsAndMiasmas Fri 17-Jun-11 16:53:42

Also there are all kinds of folk songs. Some are news songs, like forwarding someone a link to the Daily Mail and saying isn't it awful - lots of these probably started as songsheets sold at executions, detailing the supposed crimes of the person being hanged, usually in the form of a "confession". Lullabies of course, romances, warning songs (all that "take heed by me" stuff), rude songs etc.

One of my favourites from a feminist point of view is The Lady Leroy - woman has a secret boyfriend. She dresses up as a man and charters a boat from her father. When he realises it's her and sends a boat after her, there is a sea battle which she wins and the couple escape smile

There are also quite a lot of songs where men are the victim of the girlfriend's family, come to think of it. All part of the patriarchy of course.

pointydog Fri 17-Jun-11 17:02:44

Did you do Singing Toegther, crackfox?

There was a wee cooper who lived in Fife
Nickety nackety noo noo noo.

TheCrackFox Fri 17-Jun-11 17:12:20

Singing Together certainly rings a bell.

MooncupGoddess Fri 17-Jun-11 17:22:53

Yes, there are quite a few which involve the heroine dressing up as a man and running to sea, like Sweet Polly Oliver.

Though also a lot where the heroine is knocked up and abandoned by the man, who comes back at the last minute so it's all OK (Seventeen Come Sunday). And some where the heroine is thrown into Bedlam by her evil boyfriend's parents or goes mad from abandonment (I Love My Love).

I went to a folk gig last autumn where a mixed group called I think The Raven sang a song about a man who wanted to shag a girl, she kept changing into different guises to escape him but he changed too and kept chasing her. Eventually he basically pinned her down and raped her. It was horrible yet they sang it in a really cheery way hmm

SybilBeddows Fri 17-Jun-11 17:24:04

The Handsome Cabin Boy

she gets knocked up of course.

QueenOfFeckingEverything Fri 17-Jun-11 17:29:35

Lots of songs where men 'persuade' young girls into losing their virginity and then bugger off into the blue, can think of several off hand.

And lots where women dress as men to go to sea/join the army - Pretty Drummer Boy is one where she (unusually I think) doesn't get pregnant or fall in love, just gets found out and has to go home.

ElephantsAndMiasmas Fri 17-Jun-11 17:33:02

One that really makes me think is Bonny May. A woman is raped by a man who's stopped to ask her for directions, then he comes back after she's given birth to his child and teases her about who the father is. He then takes her away and marries her, turning out to be rich.

One of the interesting things is the way she speaks, criticising her father for making her work in a remote place and characterising her rapist as a fox, and herself as a lamb. The rapist, when he comes back, also tells her father that he will have to do his own work from now on. Warning to lazy men?

BornSicky Fri 17-Jun-11 18:10:46

try any of the artists featured here maybe. twas a very feministy music festival.

or anything by Ani DiFranco who is exceptional - IMVHO

ElephantsAndMiasmas Sun 19-Jun-11 12:50:52

Sorry I've been pondering on this a bit more, and I think one of the main things folk music has to offer us (women) is the knowledge that so many things haven't changed. So when someone tells us that abortions have made men less responsible and therefore been bad for women (thank you, various idiot politicians), we can see from these songs, some of which are VERY old, that men have been impregnating women and fecking off for centuries.

FreudianSlipper Sun 19-Jun-11 19:40:35

House of the Rising Sun is original folk song believed to originally be sung by women, and earliest recordings are mainly by women and nina simon's version is said to be closest to the original

House of teh Rising Sun a gambling den/brothel house some beleive its about a brothel in soho in teh 17th century, some beleive its about a brothel/gambling house in new orleans in the 18th centry. it is certainly about a women telling other women not to do as she has done

Ormirian Sun 19-Jun-11 19:49:16

I think there is a strong vein of morality in most folk songs. The are written often about and from the POV of the victim and whilst there isn't a chorus 'Ooh what a bad nasty man, Let's hope he gets his comeuppance!' it's clear that the crime is seen as a Bad Thing. They are a space for the victim, the underdog, the unseen to have a voice.

Now when it comes to fucking rap music! Grrr!

Re mysogyny, I went to see Taming of the Shrew on Friday. hmm. Never actually seen it before....

loiner - saw the thread title and thought of Tam Lin too - good feminist song!

Michelle Shocked - not trad. but often categorized as folk - sings a song called 'Goodnight Irene' which is a love song from one woman to another; when I was little I remember being struck by it.

Ooh - and, this is not 'folk' in the sense the record store would categorize it but is a very old song that I think would have been sung by ordinary people, so to me has folk origins (originally 'carol' just means a certain kind of song, not necessarily Christmassy): what about the Coventry Carol? I know it is very sad but I really like that it takes an event of horrible cruelty done by a powerful man, which is often glossed over because of another important man, and it puts the women's voices back into the story.

ElephantsAndMiasmas Sun 19-Jun-11 22:06:16

Oh yes that is a beautiful song - how old is it, do you know? True as well that the mothers are speaking whereas the Bible itself silences them.

Tam Lin is a great song and (sorry OT) occurred to me a lot when living with a depressed partner, trying to hold onto someone no matter what transformations they go through, in the hope that they will return to their original form.

BornSicky Sun 19-Jun-11 22:17:48

you've got me wracking my brains for old folk songs now. first candidate i offer is: Down by the Salley Gardens by WB Yeats recorded by multiple artists, most notably Clannad.

" Down by the salley gardens my love and I did meet;
She passed the salley gardens with little snow-white feet.
She bid me take love easy, as the leaves grow on the tree;
But I, being young and foolish, with her did not agree.

In a field by the river my love and I did stand,
And on my leaning shoulder she placed her snow-white hand.
She bid me take life easy, as the grass grows on the weirs;
But I was young and foolish, and now am full of tears. "

what do you think?

It's medieval (surprise, surprise, right? grin), and I would guess to fourteenth/fifteenth century, but hard to date anything folk-y.

I love that interpretation of Tam Lin - makes a lot of sense. I just loved the idea that she went right out and got the man she wanted, told her father to piss off when he wanted to marry her off and stop her being a single mum - I wondered if it wasn't maybe a song a single mum back in the day made up as a way of putting two fingers up at people telling her to be ashamed.

cleverything Sun 19-Jun-11 22:21:29

I'm fairly sure Coventry Carol is 16th century.
Love Imagined Village.
I like the folk songs that tell stories about actual events, like the Springhill Mining Disaster by Peggy Seeger.

There are some 'women as heroine' folk songs. Prickle Eye Bush springs to mind. I was in the audience for this concert grin Jon Boden. Mmmm

BornSicky Sun 19-Jun-11 22:22:27

and there have to be some about Nell Gwynne...

Thanks clevery. I love Peggy Seeger, too. smile

Something I remember every so vaguely and am hoping someone else can help me with - is it right that the people who started writing down folk songs in the 18th (19th? confused) century also kind of 'prettified' them, making them regular and so on? Be interesting to know what effect that had re. women's songs.

TeiTetua Sun 19-Jun-11 22:36:34

Don't I remember "A debt to the devil, whatisname must pay, for killing Pretty Polly and running away"? Maybe when everyone was religious, this was seen as being a threat.

And there's "Hang down your head Tom Dooley, hang down your head and cry, hang down your head Tom Dooley, poor boy you're bound to die" for killing his lover. Based on a true story apparently.

And there's "Long Black Veil" which you hear all the time, but that one only dates to the 1950s. Not about a murderer but about misplaced loyalty, or fear of shame worse than fear of death.

But hey, what about that other cluster of songs about a girl who murders her sister to steal her lover? And doesn't the dead girl come back to life as a swan or something, and denounce her murderess?

People had nasty tastes way back then.

MooncupGoddess Sun 19-Jun-11 22:45:37

LRD, yes, the folksong collectors like Vaughan Williams, Cecil Sharp etc in the late 19th/early 20th century certainly regularised the music (often put it into classical major/minor keys rather than modal as it originally was, made the tempos much more regular etc). I'm sure they changed the words too - especially when the originals were rude! It would be fascinating to compare versions.

cleverything, totally agree re the gorgeous Jon Boden and Prickle Eye Bush!

BornSicky Sun 19-Jun-11 22:46:31

baring gould archive is another very important one.

MooncupGoddess Sun 19-Jun-11 22:48:20

TeiTetua, the Askew Sisters sing a song called 'The Bonny Bows of London Town' about a girl whose sister gets the lover she wants, so she murders her, and the sister's body is made into a violin that denounces the murderess. Lovely!

Folk songs are really good at dealing with dark emotions, which is valuable, I think.

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

cleverything Sun 19-Jun-11 22:50:32

Right, now I am having an ovulation-induced letch over foxy folk singers, when I actually need to be in bed. Jim Causley. Yum.

Thanks mooncup - interesting. smile

Btw, one of the things that really sticks in my head that my teacher did, one of those 'feminist lighbulb' moments was when she looked at Raggle Taggle Gypsies and the lines about the mum warning her little girl 'Your hair won't curl/ Your shoes won't shine/ You dirty girl/ You shan't be mine' - my teacher explained how it was both reinforcing the idea that little girls should want to be pretty in a very particular way, and that the way they're punished for stepping out of line will affect them physically and make them no longer worthy to belong to their families.

I'd never thought about a nursery rhyme/ folk song like that before and it was a really eye-opening example.

ElephantsAndMiasmas Sun 19-Jun-11 23:03:49

I never knew there was such a thing as foxy folk singers smile

I thought Reynardine was a name for a fox - maybe another fox-like man (stealing things, untrustworthy and sly)?

ElephantsAndMiasmas Sun 19-Jun-11 23:11:38

The bonny bows of London used to scare the bejesus out of me. I can't think of any sister-killers although there are some seriously fucked up families in folk. For instance, the two mothers in The Clyde Water who try to keep their children apart, and end up with them both drowning.

ElephantsAndMiasmas Sun 19-Jun-11 23:14:10

Has anyone mentioned the Child Ballads which seem to be a source of a lot of these old songs. Also Cecil Sharp

I bet sheaves of old broadsides are sitting around in the British Library or the Bodleian waiting to be looked at. These are and always have been low status songs. IMO it is partly because they are anonymous, no man has put his name on them and therefore they are illegitimate - unfathered.

Same thing gets written by Yeats as above, and suddenly it's art.

Tyr Sun 19-Jun-11 23:14:53

Hi LRD...

I can see how you might think Tam Lin is a feminist song (it has those overtones on the surface) but it has a much deeper and arguably darker history than that-it is one of a group of songs that are sometimes referred to as magical ballads- they describe interactions with the underworld and faerie beings. Some believe that remants of pre christian folk faith were preserved in them.There is a book by a musician/magician RJ Stewart called "The Underworld Initiation" which goes through the symbolism in great detail. It's pretty esoteric but interesting
I seem to remember a short story by Alice Monroe which centred around that ballad; an old lady singing or reciting it ( or a version of it) and being carried away by it.

There's a really cute song about Reynard fox who gets caught and promises he won't hurt any chickens or ducks if they let him go - but he goes hunting again and second time the farmer finds his animals have caught the fox by his brush and won't let go. grin

Another turning-the-tables folk song ...

Tyr, yes thanks, I'd heard that too - I don't think it makes it any less feminist, though. smile

There's also a lovely Diana Wynne Jones book based on it where she weaves it around with 'True Thomas' and all sorts of other similar songs/stories. You're absolutely right it's magical.

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

ElephantsAndMiasmas Sun 19-Jun-11 23:23:04

I think folk songs and folk/fairy tales are pretty much indistinguishable when you get back a certain distance. Songs help people to remember, stories give you more of a chance to put your stamp on it. One of my favourite stories is Thomas the Rhymer (or Thomas of Ercildoune and the Queen of Elfland) and I'm pretty sure Steeleye Span did a song about him too, not sure which is older.

LRD - there are lots of turning the tables songs aren't there. Like Marrowbones where the wife tries to trick the husband by blinding him then killing him, and he outwits her and tries to do her in instead.

ElephantsAndMiasmas Sun 19-Jun-11 23:23:37

ooh Thomas the Rhymer x-post, I never thought I'd see the day smile

Ooh, I don't know Marrowbones Elephants - will have a look.

All these songs seem to go back to the idea of tricking the fairies - I read a theory once that this and changeling stories might have originated as a way of understanding children's deaths/stillbirths: the idea that the fairies steal people away. There'd be no way to prove that but I think in a lot of folk music you can find women's stories or stories that women would have had an emotional investment in. I like that - despite the really misogynistic ones that are there too.

Oh, that way a cross-post? That's so funny! grin

Tyr Mon 20-Jun-11 00:09:58

LRDTheFeministDragon Sun 19-Jun-11 23:18:44

Tyr, yes thanks, I'd heard that too - I don't think it makes it any less feminist, though. smile

There's also a lovely Diana Wynne Jones book based on it where she weaves it around with 'True Thomas' and all sorts of other similar songs/stories. You're absolutely right it's magical.
Add message | Report | MessageBeerTricksPotter Sun 19-Jun-11 23:20:23


Do you have the name of the book? That author RJ Stewart's book focusses a lot on re-balancing gender archetypes and how the key to that is encoded in folk songs and faerie tales.

LRDTheFeministNutcase Mon 20-Jun-11 00:16:21

The Diana Wynne Jones? It's Fire and Hemlock - it's really good (though I think Hexwood is even better). Are you keen on her then? I think she is (or was, I was said to hear she died a few months ago) brilliant.

LRDTheFeministNutcase Mon 20-Jun-11 00:17:22

Her husband was the medievalist J A W Burrow, so I wonder if they used to share ideas about where these stories came from.

Tyr Mon 20-Jun-11 00:23:35


Thanks-I'm afraid I hadn't even heard of it but I'll check it out when I get back home. The title is wonderful.
I'm still wracking my brains to remember the name of the Alice Monroe story- I have it at home but it's been a while since I read it. I think the collection was called "Friend of my heart" or something like that?

Tyr Mon 20-Jun-11 00:31:40

p.s. If you're interested in the faerie tradition, a couple of centuries ago, a Scottish Presbyterian minister (of all people) called the Rev. Robert Kirk wrote a book called " The secret commonwealth of faeries and elves." He named them and complained that his congregation were "wearing themselves out with faerie lovers instead of attending church" Local legend has it that he himself was carried off to faerie-land and never died.
It's a fascinating area of our culture and history that was trivialised by the Victorians and their cute little "fairies" with gossamer wings. Traditionally, they were much darker than that.

LRDTheFeministNutcase Mon 20-Jun-11 00:38:00

Ah - in that case I should explain she's a writer of children's books, often fantasty-ish. Very clever imo.

I think folk songs/folk stories are often about the 'darker' side of things, aren't they? In fact maybe that is why so much violence/ misogyny gets there - maybe it's a way to talk about these things when you don't have much legal recourse.

Tyr Mon 20-Jun-11 00:45:13

I'll still check it out. Many folk songs are also about other social injustices, like the countless immigration ballads in the Irish tradition.
For a really creepy folk song, "The Well below the valley" is about as dark as they come.

mathanxiety Mon 20-Jun-11 02:28:33

Maybe the laugh is more on the men in Irish songs. Listen to a selection by the Dubliners. A lot of trad Irish songs about men and women's relations predate the Victorian era, and are open about illegitimate children, extramarital sex, women having minds of their own, less moralistic.

The Auld Triangle, a good old Dublin song combining lust for the women in the women's prison, description of the prison guards' brutality and tendency to perversion. Ronnie Drew solo version.

Seven Drunken Nights sung by the late great Ronnie Drew is worth listening to just for the heck of it. Pokes a lot of fun at a drunk. There are more verses than this version.

Leaving of Liverpool is modern, by Ewan McColl, sung by Luke Kelly -- theme is sorrow at leaving Liverpool and his love, hardship of a cheap passage and working class life in general.

And here's the lovely Raglan Road sung by Luke Kelly, about forbidden love. The words are by Patrick Kavanagh, the form is traditional, with the repetitive 'dawn of the day' motif, and the tune is traditional.

The Night Visiting Song is a love song, again forbidden love I think.

This is by the Dubliners and Friends and the song is not traditional though it has trad sounding music -- "Don't Get Married Girls". ('Be a call girl, be a stripper, be a hostess, be a whore/ But don't get married girls, for marriage is a bore'.)

And the Raggle Taggle Gypsies is about a woman doing her own thang irregardless as they say.

mathanxiety Mon 20-Jun-11 02:38:26

The Well Below The Valley sung by Christy Moore. I don't think the words were ever expected to incite anything but outrage.

bucaneve Mon 20-Jun-11 14:00:31

my favourite country singer Nothing specifically feminist off the top of my head but definitely nothing misogynistic and lots of good lefty political stuff.

I'm really enjoying this thread, partly for the feminism and partly for all the music recommendations.

Bit sad about black coffee though, I've always loved that song and never really noticed the lyrics before sad

mathanxiety Tue 21-Jun-11 04:44:07

Disturbing children's song here from the Dubliners -- 'Weila weila waila'

Another song sung by children when I was younger, 'Monto', celebrating Dublin's old red light district. Dublin songs tend to be very bawdy.

A cautionary tale here -- 'Maids when you're young..'

Peggy Gordon -- Canadian ballad of unrequited love and despair.

Another sad one, from a woman's pov 'He moved through the fair' though this is originally She moved through the fair.

A lot of trad songs seem to be from the male pov.

LRDTheFeministNutcase Tue 21-Jun-11 11:16:49

math, I've never heard that first song but it's described in the novel 'Grace Notes', which I love: it's a very sensitive novel about a woman and her sad experience with her new baby, coming to terms with domestic violence and with her estranged parents (won't say more as I'd spoil it, but believe it or not it is not ultimately a sad book at all!). Anyway, a character in the novel comments that all Scottish (I think he says that song is Scots in origin or maybe the Irish and Scots share it) songs about babies are 'either lullabies or songs about infanticide'.

It gave me a shiver because it's fairly true - I wonder how many women in the past were suffering PND and this is the expression of it?

I always think songs about chilbirth or motherhood are interesting because of that awful (but bizarrely pervasive) theory that in the past parents didn't care much about babies because they knew they might died. I really hate that theory, I've seen it used so often as an excuse to be callous about what women go through.

mathanxiety Wed 22-Jun-11 06:47:41

'Seoithin Seo' -- lovely lullabye in Irish that hints babies were held very dear.

RustyBear Wed 22-Jun-11 07:07:15

Not a traditional folk song, of course, but Billy Bragg's 'Valentine's day is over'

Some day boy you'll reap what you've sown
You'll catch a cold and you'll be on your own
And you will see that what's wrong with me
Is wrong with everyone that
You want to play your little games on

mathanxiety Wed 22-Jun-11 07:10:38

I always wondered about this one 'An Mhaighdean Mhara' -- 'The Mermaid' -- it's a lament for a dead mother and wife. Maybe the myth of the woman returning to the sea from whence she came was less harsh an idea to accept than wasting away from cancer or TB.

RustyBear Wed 22-Jun-11 07:11:40

Of course, there's Steeleye's 'The Royal Forester' which has a rape victim who isn't prepared to let him get away with it...

Now when he heard his name pronounced
He mounted his high horse,
She's belted up her petticoat
And followed with all her force.
He rode and she ran
A long summer day,
Until the came by the river
That's commonly called the Tay.
The water it's too deep my love,
I'me afraid you cannot wade,
But afore he's ridden his horse well in
She was on the other side.

Though as she ends up married to the wanker, I'm not sure it's entirely a happy ending from the modern feminist point of view....

cherryburton Wed 22-Jun-11 07:45:32

Brilliant thread. I'm always perturbed by Gallows Pole and Matty Groves ( although at least the wife got a good dig in before she was dispatched) and all the other songs where young girls get talked into offering up their maidenheads and being left quite undone...

Emma1Hartley Thu 23-Jun-11 11:49:26

Loving this thread. I had my attention drawn to it by someone at Folkcast because I write a folk blog called Emma Hartley's Glamour Cave and used to write about folk at the Telegraph. Thought I'd drop by in the transparent hope of picking up some more readers :-) But also because I wanted to say that I've always thought of folk songs as being a kind of reportage on human nature, and that the singers take on a role when they sing them. If there's an element of sexism that creeps in it would be because of the songs that the singers choose. You can tell a band's preoccupations by the material they choose. So Seth Lakeman sings about girlfriends and being a manly young man, Bellowhead sing a lot about getting ripped off by prostitutes (!), Show of Hands sing about emigration. I don't mean that any of these bands do these things exclusively, but you see what I'm getting at? I guess I'd start to suspect that a band was misogynist if they chose a lot of material about girls having a bad time at the hands of men... Not sure whether a song can be sexist. It's a medium.

Btw a lot of folkies who aren't on this board have taken offence at the suggestion, early on in this thread, that no one listens to folk music. Looks to me like you've disproved that. There are over 250 folk festivals in this country every year. That's a lot of folk music :-)

RustyBear Thu 23-Jun-11 12:25:58

Have had a look at your blog/folkcast - will take a longer look when I'm not at work....

Talking of ShowofHands, where is she?

cherryburton Thu 23-Jun-11 12:32:16

Likewise Emma, will check out your blog!

Off to a folk festival tomorrow as it happens - desperately hoping the rain does one before then!

TeiTetua Thu 23-Jun-11 14:20:57

Seems like Steeleye Span's best-known song has a very ambiguous theme if you look at it. Is the man worth the woman's time or not?

Fare thee well cold winter and fare thee well cold frost
Nothing have I gained but my own true love I've lost
I'll sing and I'll be merry when occasion I do see
He's a false deluding young man, let him go, farewell he

The other night he brought me a fine diamond ring
But he thought to have deprived me of a far better thing
But I being careful like lovers ought to be
He's a false deluding young man, let him go, farewell he

All around my hat I will wear the green willow
And all around my hat for a twelve month and a day
And if anyone should ask me the reason why I'm wearing it
It's all for my true love who's far, far away

SinicalSal Thu 23-Jun-11 14:46:39

Thanks Math, it's years since I've heard those. smile
Maids When You're Young Never Wed An Old Man, class song. It's nice to hear a bit of bawdiness from a woman's POV.
It's only in later years I realised why I was discouraged from singing the doggerel verse as my childhood party piece.
Weela Weela waila horribly creepy and tragic.
'That was the end of the Woman in the Wood
And that was the end of the Baby too' <shiver>

Folk songs have so much to say that wasn't considered fit to be written. Another primary historical source. Does anyone know if there's been anything published along those lines?

loiner45 Thu 23-Jun-11 17:41:22

ooh Show of Hands :-) saw them with MS in Brighton a few weeks ago - off to see Steve Knightley next week on a solo gig....

I think AIG is my favourite contemporary folk song ever....

Emma1Hartley Thu 23-Jun-11 18:09:09

Cousin Jack always makes me cry... sad

RustyBear Thu 23-Jun-11 18:19:26

The SOH version of Widecombe Fair would be my first Desert Island Discs choice.
Closely followed by Fairport's Red and Gold. Though if I was only allowed one Fairport, it would be a close call. Between that and The Hiring Fair.

loiner45 Thu 23-Jun-11 19:00:14

oh Cousin Jack, yes <nods knowingly> but I think I'm in angry socialist feminist mode ATM so AIG suits my mood better smile

loiner45 Thu 23-Jun-11 19:10:53

just read your blog Emma - loved it, have liked it on FB so look forward to seeing more of it!

bilblio Thu 23-Jun-11 21:29:37

Only just spotted this thread, I seem to collect songs that are the opposite. Women getting the upper hand. But maybe that's because I listen to a lot of Kate Rusby and I think she's trying to even things up a bit. I also like the happier songs.

The ones that come to mind are, William & Davey, Awkward Annie The Old Man (Which is based on a traditional song), and my favourite which is possibly the only song I've been known to sing at acoustic nights (if drunk enough) The Yorkshire Couple.

There's also The Widow by The Poozies

Emma1Hartley Fri 24-Jun-11 16:57:37

I was inspired to blog by this thread. Here's the outcome...

What a great thread!

Another lover of folk music here - I shall certainly check out your blog, Emma when I get a moment.

There's a song that gets sung a lot in various versions - Cara Dillon did one called Donald Of Glencoe which tells the story of a young man going off to war (usually) leaving his sweetheart behind after she promises to be true.
Many many years later, he shows up again in disguise and "tests" her fidelity (by accusing her of being untrue or telling her the truelove is with another woman or is dead etc.) then as she breaks down weeping, he reveals himself to be her love returned.

I always think that's a cruel trick. It reminds me of Odysseus' return to Penelope in The Odyssey....

<marks place intending to come back and listen to some of the songs mentioned...>

I think folk's having another widespread revival at the moment - the popularity of the neo/alt-folk brigade (Damian Rice, Mumford & Sons, Laura Marlin etc.) is helping stir up interest both in other alt. folk acts and those performing more traditional material. And yes, artists like Seth Lakeman, Eliza Carthy, Bellowhead etc. have all taken hold of the folk "canon" and helped give it an injection of fresh energy. Splendid stuff.

BornSicky Fri 24-Jun-11 21:05:26


i'm not sure what your theory is, because folk isn't a homogenous lump to start with, and neither are the themes of the artists you mention. I'll specifically reference Seth Lakeman, because I don't think you've understood his music at all (and I don't mean his artistic merit, but his influences and themes).

Much of his writing takes from pieces of history, myths and legends. So whilst there are war songs (King and Country and Take No Rogues), they are primarily on Freedom Fields and based on some historical or legendary moments in time.

He also writes songs about White Witches, mermaids and Cornish mining history.

Importantly though, Kitty Jay is primarily mini biographies about people who met gruesome ends: John Lomas who killed his lover's husband, Henry Clark - a plymouth shipbuilder and Kitty Jay herself. Kitty Jay was a young orphan who was raped by a farmboy and hung herself when she found she was pregnant.

He's not devoid of subtlety and to suggest he's one dimensionally scribbing away about acts of derring-do and "girls" demonstrates a lack of knowledge, and also an undoing of your thesis (though I'm not quite sure what you are implying...).

I'm not as familiar with Bellowhead's work, so I'll leave that to someone who is, but I think you're off the mark here.

sumitkumar Mon 29-Oct-12 14:20:16

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ConsiderCasey Tue 30-Oct-12 08:07:56

Am really looking forward to going through this thread to find some new singers, as don't know much about folk music but here are two kind-of-folksy-I-think offerings of great feminist songs:

As cool as I am - by Da Williams - singer realises womanising boyfriend is bit of a twat and refuses to be pitted against other women.

If no one marries me - Natalie merchant. Lyrics come from a poem by a Victorian spinster who laments that no one will marry her cos she's not pretty enough. Is beautifully sung.

WofflingOn Tue 30-Oct-12 09:06:09

Eppie Morrie
The Naked Highwayman
Tam Lin
The Fair Flower of Northumberland
The wanton laird of Ochiltree

There are numerous folksongs where the women win using the weapons at their disposal, and their intelligence to defeat wealth and strength.

Lio Tue 30-Oct-12 13:46:33

Hi ConsiderCasey, delighted to 'meet' another Dar Williams fan! I think 'When I was a boy' is brilliant. I was gutted to miss her concert in London recently – I had a ticket then got a horrible cold and had to miss it sad

SolidGoldYESBROKEMYSPACEBAR Thu 01-Nov-12 01:37:39

Ooh, anyone into Sam Lee?

mecindylewis Fri 16-Nov-12 11:02:23

you explained it better than i did anyway!!

sumitkumar Wed 28-Nov-12 14:18:00

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HipHopToDude Wed 28-Nov-12 15:28:07

I listened to the lyrics of BROWN SUGAR watching the Rolling Stones documentary on the weekend - and it struck me what a horrible song it is:

"Gold coast slave ship bound for cotton fields,
Sold in a market down in new orleans.
Scarred old slaver know he's doin alright.
Hear him whip the women just around midnight.
Ah brown sugar how come you taste so good
(a-ha) brown sugar, just like a young girl should

Drums beating, cold english blood runs hot,
Lady of the house wondrin where it's gonna stop.
House boy knows that he's doin alright.
You should a heard him just around midnight.
Ah brown sugar how come you taste so good
(a-ha) brown sugar, just like a black girl should

I bet your mama was a tent show queen, and all her boy
Friends were sweet sixteen.
Im no schoolboy but I know what I like,
You should have heard me just around midnight.
Ah brown sugar how come you taste so good
(a-ha) brown sugar, just like a young girl should.

I said yeah, I said yeah, I said yeah, I said
Oh just like, just like a black girl should."

He starts out talking about slavery, and then jumps in to further abuse the young girl himself, admitting he's "no Schoolboy" - ie much older than her. And don't get me started on Angie (I'll never love anyone like I love you, but beg all you want I'm outta here)

Top of the list in our office of songs we liked but now we've listened to them again we are [shocked]:

"Young girl, get out of my mind
My love for you is way out of line
Better run girl,
You're much too young girl

With all the charms of a woman
You've kept the secret of your youth
You led me to believe
You're old enough
To give me Love
And now it hurts to know the truth, Oh,

Young girl get out of my mind
my love for you is way outta line
better run girl, your much too young girl

Beneath your perfume and make-up
You're just a baby in disguise
And though you know
That it is wrong to be
Alone with me
That come on look is in your eyes, Oh,

Young girl get outta my mind
My love for you is way outta line
better run girl, Your much too young girl

So hurry home to your mama
I'm sure she wonders where you are
Get out of here
Before I have the time
To change my mind
'Cause I'm afraid we'll go too far, Oh,

Young girl get outta my mind
my love for you is way outta line
better run girl, your much too young girl
(until fade) "

confused Love the way how he blames everything on the young girl!!! How was this ever acceptable?

sumitkumar Fri 30-Nov-12 05:03:23

Not a folk song but the calm and emotionless way the rape of Becky in coward of the County is sung gives me the chills....

GunsAndRoses Wed 16-Jan-13 02:11:20

Not exactly folk music but nevertheless:

36D - The Beautiful South

Close your legs, open your mind
Leave those compliments well behind
Dig a little deeper into yourself
And you may find

Come over here just sit right down

Needn't comb your hair, needn't pout or frown

I hear you've turned our young men

Into dribbling clowns

36D so what D so what

Is that all that you've got?

36D so what D so what

Is that all that you've got?

Make their day and go ahead

Remove your clothes, lie on their bed

Just a last gasp chance or an outside bet

To the easily led

And before you do just what you do

Here' one thought for you to chew

The men who run the business that you sell

They screw you too

36D so what D so what

Is that all that you've got?

36D so what D so what

Is that all that you've got?

You're just another 365 night stand

But you're so handy, you're so handy

You cheapen and you nasty every woman in this land

But you're so handy, you're so handy

Your picture's hanging pretty on the squaddies' walls

You're Steven's, Andy's, you're Ian's, you're Paul's

Your body's through of fondly in the rugby mauls

But you want more

Your name is always mentioned in the jokes we crack

You're coaching horses and wolf packs

Your clothes has turned the passive into maniacs

But you want more

36D so what D so what

Is that all that you've got?

36D so what D so what

Is that all that you've got?

36D so what D so what

Is that all that you've got?

36D so what D so what

Is that all that you've got?

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