Advanced search

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!

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...

InmaculadaConcepcion Fri 24-Jun-11 20:52:34

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

Message deleted by Mumsnet for breaking our Talk Guidelines. Replies may also be deleted.

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

Message deleted by Mumsnet for breaking our Talk Guidelines. Replies may also be deleted.

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....

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