In Conversation: Folk Songs in 2021

Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Children’s Games (1560): unison emerging from individual touches and embellishments.

Julia Lasica sat down to talk with Benedict Mulcare, most often found optimistically writing plays for the reopening of theatres, fiddling around with his guitar, and wandering around the Bodleian looking through folk song archives. What can the folk songs that he researches teach us in the 21st century?

Nowadays in England, a folk song is one of the last things one would expect to hear being spontaneously sung round the supper table or out in the open air. As Benedict says towards the beginning of our conversation, walking into an English pub and hearing a chorus of regulars singing away as they once would have done would feel, at the very least, ‘contrived’.

But for those who, like Benedict, wish to keep the tradition alive in some way or another, there is a saving grace: archives. ‘I’m quite into researching them’, Benedict tells me. ‘I look for the sheet music in old books and manuscripts, or in online archives.’ Indeed, these latter collections of folk songs have become more and more accessible in recent years. The findings of the collectors who travelled the UK countryside in the 19th and 20th centuries, transcribing and recording folk songs, have been digitised on sites such as the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library.

But there is something particularly special about the experience of encountering a previously unheard folk song in paper form, Benedict tells me. ‘The most exciting type of discovery is when I find a song which has musical notations and lyrics, but there is no audio recording of it being performed. It’s as if someone heard it being sung on a street 200 hundred years ago, captured it on paper, tied it down, and then it rested there on the page until someone else picked it up and started singing it again.’

So is there an element of encounter in this experience? ‘Exactly. There is a very good line in terms of why it feels special to sing a folk song as opposed to anything else which Shirley Collins put into words – she said that when she’s singing, she can feel past generations standing behind her.’

It becomes clear that for Benedict, folk songs are a form through which companionship and community are experienced. He tells me about Salms, a type of Gaelic folk song found in the religious tradition of the Hebrides. One individual leads with the first words of a psalm, and then ‘everyone sings the same line but at slightly different times and with their own embellishments’, Benedict explains. As I type up this interview later, I listen to a salm, and am struck by the sound I hear: legions of voices sing together, in unison, yet rippling off one another, preserving their individual sounds and timings, as if ghostly images reverberating away from a single center.

‘But funnily enough’, Benedict tells me, ‘it is a tradition which very much anticipates singing together on Zoom. I remember trying to sing Happy Birthday to a cousin over Zoom during a lockdown and being reminded of these salms. Although we were all singing the same line, it wasn’t at all synchronised – not least because of the internet glitches.’

Our conversation shifts decidedly into the modern era, and into how it lends itself perfectly to the patterns of folk songs that we have been discussing: the individual singing and the voices, imagined or otherwise, that join them. ‘On a very basic point, to bring up the Wellerman on TikTok – I’m a huge fan of it! I love folk songs and I love that this one is out there. But it also shows how digital media really capitalises on looping things, which I’m really interested in,’ Benedict explains. ‘Drone folk has been around for a while – performers use a single note as an accompaniment, and then weave their singing in and around that note.’

Our conversation has wandered into territory that seems far from what one imagines a folk song to traditionally look and sound like, so I ask Benedict to define what exactly a folk song is to him. ‘I think of it like this – if you took a Britney Spears track and played a game of Chinese whispers with it that lasted twenty years till it became so misremembered, that it turned into something completely different, you would end up with a folk song.’

People’s individual takes and touches on a single collection of words, melodies, and ideas – their fingerprints and comments seem central to each part of our discussion. We close by talking about what a modern equivalent of a folk song could be and settle on the example of the first clap for the NHS, each household and street turning it into their own, using pots and pans, singing, even musical accompaniment. But, for a brief moment, the essential idea of the clap remaining the same.

Later, after the interview is over, Benedict sends me a video of Ragnar Kjartanson’s ‘The Visitors’. Several musicians sit in different rooms of a house and play a piece of music together. They can’t hear one another properly, and rely on the echoes and muffled sounds that resonate through the building. There are dissonances and ornamentations; some performers almost leave the melody all together.

Yet, as I watch and listen, a single delicately uplifting and hopeful melody emerges from the separate rooms and the people within them. A way of being together is recaptured, one which has always been present – just waiting to be picked up once more.