Life is no High School Musical. We are not half as good looking, we cannot dance half so well and we do not, as a general rule, carry basket balls around with us to remind our audience that we belong to sports teams. But one thing we did do a lot in Britain until fairly recently was a lot of singing.
Until the early twentieth century it was very much the norm to burst out into song socially to provide the evening’s entertainment, to keep up spirits whilst working, or, more usually, whilst drinking. And then, for some reason, as if in a game at a child’s party, the music stopped and we all sat down.
The change is a logical one. Throughout the last century manual jobs disappeared to the east and shiny new toys came from the west – like rock ‘n’ roll, with its semblance of anarchy and much later, a new vernacular music, hip-hop. Our society became more diverse, multi-ethnic and metrasexual. And social song got left behind, buried next to Wilfred Owen in a book of war poems, consigned to history. The folk revival of the fifties and sixties is iconic now, but looks more like a five o’clock shadow of a once great institution than it does a rebuild.
So it surprised me greatly this summer when myself and a dozen other people (many were complete strangers) burst into song. We were at Sidmouth Folk Week, a small but well loved music festival in Devon. We had eighteenth century workers’ songs. Songs about whiskey. Something by Bob Marley. We were there for hours. It was raining. But more people joined us – maybe thirty came and went. A few looked old enough to remember the last revival. And they still remembered the songs.
Could social singing come back into fashion? We do live in a post-ironic age where it’s cool to look uncool, where people are less conscious of difference and of separation. The live music scene is on the up, and flash mobs are routine.
We desperately need, especially in England, a positive British identity. We have been lacking it for decades. The left had too much post-colonial guilt for flag waving. The right didn’t believe in society at all. In the meantime, nationalist movements gained strength from a white working class suffering a mid-life identity crisis. Nationalism never went away, it just went bad. And the best way of turning that around is to make Britishness something that is inclusive, not exclusive, something that is social and embracing and owned by the people. Something, perhaps, like social singing.
Jon Boden, lead singer of folk super-group Bellowhead, is spending one year posting a folk song on his blog afolksongaday.com every day. He wants it to kick-start another revival of social singing by teaching us all the old songs we’ve forgotten. Will it work? Maybe. Will it last? Probably not. But I think I might learn some songs. Fancy a sing-a-long?