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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!

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.

LRDTheFeministDragon Sun 19-Jun-11 23:15:41

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 ...

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.

BeerTricksPotter Sun 19-Jun-11 23:20:23

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

LRDTheFeministDragon Sun 19-Jun-11 23:26:02

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.

LRDTheFeministDragon Sun 19-Jun-11 23:26:52

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.

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