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!

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

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lilith_Fair

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.

"One evening as I rambled
Among the leaves so green
I overheard a young woman
Converse with Reynardine

Her hair was black, her eyes were blue
Her lips as red as wine
And he smiled to gaze upon her
Did that sly old Reynardine

She said, "Kind sir, be civil
My company forsake
For in my own opinion
I fear you are some rake"

"Oh no," he said, "no rake am I
Brought up in Venus' train
But I'm seeking for concealment
All along the lonesome plain"

"Your beauty so enticed me
I could not pass it by
So it's with my gun I'll guard you
All on the mountains high"

"And if by chance you should look for me
Perhaps you'll not me find
For I'll be in my castle
Inquire for Reynardine"

Sun and dark, she followed him
His teeth did brightly shine
And he led her up a-the mountains
Did that sly old Reynardine"

I've never been sure if this shows canniness on the part of the 'young woman' or not. The way Sandy Denny sings it perhaps gives it a twist that suggests that Reynardine doesn't have the upper hand.

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)?

Join the discussion

Join the discussion

Registering is free, easy, and means you can join in the discussion, get discounts, win prizes and lots more.

Register now