A brief history of culture in the UK

10-minute read — taken from the Introduction to Singer-Songwriters Volume 1: David Cousins, Arlo Guthrie, Iain Matthews, Ralph McTell, A Stewart, Richard Thompson by Nick Awde

Buy the book at deserthearts.com

But first a couple of questions: Were British audiences looking for singer-songwriters after the Beatles, Kinks, the Who and Rolling Stones had already changed the face of music forever? Or had Britain always had singer-songwriters? Here a look at the strange history of culture in our isles will prove illuminating.

Every country has a surprisingly different definition of what the word ‘culture’ means to them, but the UK especially stands out because of its complex, often disparaging view of culture, tightly connected to class conflict and what we ourselves would acknowledge as a healthy suspicion of the elitism that accompanies ‘culture’, historically a foreign import. And in fact our country does have a definable conflict with culture, its divisions apparent even today, that stretches back in an unbroken chain to the sixteenth century: the Kingdom of England and King Henry VIII’s split with the Roman Catholic Church and Europe.

This seismic political/economic schism saw Henry break away from the mighty Catholic Church in Rome which provided the centralised mechanism that stabilised the fractious kingdoms and princedoms of Western Europe (Christendom), unified by the crossnational links provided by the common culture of the religion, language (Latin) and traditions that we all inherited via the old Western Roman Empire. Henry sought more control over his economy, but what was disguised as a religious row set into motion a self-imposed sequence of shifts in English (later British) society that, like the policy of Brexit, established isolation as the new national event horizon.

By establishing his own state Church of England with himself at its head, replacing the Pope and the Church of Rome (and robbing the clergy dry), Henry was effectively splitting with Europe on far more levels than resolving the dogmatic question of who was God’s earthly representative. The resulting loss to England of the centrifugal force of Western Europe — unified as it was and still is not only by the Pope in Rome but also by Roman Law, the Holy Roman Empire and the Peace of Westphalia (all of which live on in today’s European Union) — meant that stimuli such as the new blood of immigration, common markets and beliefs were excluded physically and mentally by the English Channel and North Sea. And so England was left to confront itself. After Henry’s ill-gotten gains from plundering the church possessions of the kingdom ran out, his strategy and those of his successors turned from defending independence to preserving isolation. Belligerent nation but a backwater sums it up.

As is the wont of paranoid absolute rulers when the going gets tough, national programmes were established to root out and eliminate first the Enemy Within (English Roman Catholics) and then the Other (foreign [= Papist] influences). And when the perceived threat was considered to be held at bay by the times of Charles I, where much of the mutual suspicion both in and out the country had been laid to rest (ominously, by no means all), three curious things were well under way by the mid seventeenth century that had their beginnings in Henry’s unilateral declaration of Schism from a century before.

Firstly, by encouraging anti-Catholicism in the nation’s sentiments and then actually enshrining it in legislation, Henry, his daughter Queen Elizabeth I and their heirs legitimised a hostility that permitted an enabled English society to target an Otherness, whose definition they shifted according to contingency, thus laying the grounds for the later regional reactions to the centrifugal forces of London and the Church of England that constituted the breakaway regional non-conformists/dissenters such as the Methodists, Quakers and Levellers.

Secondly, this hostility put a throttlehold on the import of anything from French wine to high art to ideas. Although the years of Elizabeth’s long reign were seen as a Golden Age of culture and exploration, along with the emergence of England as a world naval (and eventual trading) power, society was characterised by extremes of rich and poor, not helped by a rising population which triggered rising prices which led to further rising poverty. In addition, reduced demand in the early years for woollen cloth, England’s main export at the time, can’t have helped. With the Renaissance blooming all over Europe, ‘Golden’ is a somewhat relative description in its application to England.

However there was gradual benefit — if irony — in the fact that, bar the few decades during Tudor times when English Catholics were hunted down and executed as domestic terrorists along with a lot of sabre-rattling in the direction of France and Spain, the presence of Europeans on British soil built steadily as Protestant refugees from the Continent arrived in our safe haven of anti-Papism. And of course, smuggling was also a major import of things foreign.

Thirdly, the destruction of England’s culture didn’t stop with Henry’s Dissolution of the Monasteries between 1536 and 1541. Iconoclastic movements were permitted to smash the heads off statues across the nation, a highly visible warning to the cultural sector to toe the party line. Of course, this being England, no one actually had a clue what that line was. What there was, was a controlled constriction on the development of culture along with the economy and society, spreading devastatingly to the Celtic areas of Wales and Cornwall, thence to Scotland and Ireland. The Renaissance would hardly have seen its genesis in England.

That underlying principle of isolation therefore persisted with all its possibilities, tested and enshrined in legislation. Which brings us to the ruthless policies aimed at eradicating folk culture within England and the rest of the British Isles and its replacement by officially approved forms, crystallising during Elizabeth I’s time and which continued right up to the late twentieth century. Folk music, for example, is a particularly useful indicator not for what it is today but for what it represents, as a cradle of everything that is ‘folk’ about our islands and indicator of what we have lost, the collective soul cynically taken from us by our government and state church. This was a process also gaining motion in Europe where, as with the national Church of England, the major instrument of conformity-through-destruction was the Roman Catholic Church. But this was less effective since Europe could not be sealed off in the way the British Isles were by geography and ideology in near perfect laboratory conditions. It would be hard in Europe, for example, to replicate the events in the seventeenth century that led to the banning by Oliver Cromwell’s republic of virtually everything that entailed expressing yourself (including Christmas, music, theatre and dancing) — all of which we would place in the category we now call folk.

Culturally this brought about a paucity in the isles centred around the English heartland from Tudor times to the nineteenth century, accompanied by the systematic century-on-century obliteration of the neighbouring Celtic cultures. The singular exception, of course, was our written tradition which thrived uninterrupted, despite censorship and disapproval from government and church, from Shakespeare to Dickens, as did oral literature in the Celtic lands, since oral traditions are not so easily destroyed. However, compared to the great cultural leaps made in Europe, our visual and performing arts suffered grievously, especially as foreign artisans were excluded. Strangled of meaningful interchange with others, music of course suffered the same fate.

It wasn’t so long ago that you could witness this leached legacy. I vividly recall record shops in Eighties Europe where the pop racks were brimming with British acts to the detriment of local talent, but under ‘England’ in the classical music bins with grim invariability there’d be a tiny section with a couple of collections of Byrd and Purcell . . . and then nothing until Elgar. (Apposite then to note that a book of 31 essays by German novelist and playwright Oscar Schmitz was published in Germany in 1914 under the title of Das Land ohne Musiek: englische Gesellschaftsprobleme, which translates bleakly as The Country without Music: Problems of English Society.)

High culture has always depended on patrons in high places, who in the UK finally started to import artists from Holland and Flanders (Holbein, Van Dyck), composers from Germany (Handel, Mendelssohn) as a means of kickstarting our own homegrown creatives. (Indeed the idea of German imports was later extended to sorting the troublesome genetic-politics of our royal family.) Architecture and crafts got a massive injection from the Grand Tours of Europe undertaken by the growing wealthy classes, refugees from Europe and of course there was the stimulus of the British Empire as it evolved.

As for homegrown music and theatre, however, they had intertwined fortunes and had to wait until the nineteenth century to be ‘rediscovered’ by the nation. And even then they were forced to follow a path driven by commercial demands to cater to the growing leisure and mass entertainment markets, most obviously seen in the boom in the tea gardens, resorts and music halls. Needless to say, neither music nor theatre with a local provenance received any wholehearted seal of approval from the ever suspicious authorities and elites — being viewed as less controllable, as is the prerogative of all live phenomena.

It is the well-documented history of British theatre that provides a chilling picture of the pressures that also befell our music. Theatre buildings were closed and performances banned across the country in 1649-1660 by Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan-controlled Commonwealth, aka the English Republic, because they were deemed places of uncontrolled human gatherings, fuelled by the energy of live performance. Performers and audiences were a dangerous mix that were to be kept apart and discouraged in large measure.

The Restoration in 1660 saw the dictator-led republic discarded and the monarchy restored to the throne in the shape of Charles II. But Parliament chose not to restore theatres to their original status, instead it established the ‘Patent Theatres’ or ‘Theatre Royals’, i.e. a handful of officially licensed establishments bizarrely somehow intended to cater for the entire country. The idea was that any performance of ‘serious’ theatre without a royal patent (permission) would be deemed illegal. The performance of music was also affected because though while other theatres were permitted everywhere, they were restricted to genres like ‘comedy, pantomime or melodrama’, i.e. singing and dancing had to be combined on the same stage in order to prevent the whole becoming dramatic or subversively ‘serious’. Again, this was as much about the audience as the performers. Gradually the government lost its monopoly as our thought police, but we should remember that it did keep its right to censor theatre right up to 1968.

Music being a more nebulous thing, more difficult to identify and physically contain, it had naturally found all manner of ways to thrive without needing to go underground. Its links with dance aside, much of the subversive thrust of music developed in blatant plain sight of the authorities with things like political street songs, which were not only sung on every corner but in fact contributed to the economy through sheet music sales as part of the burgeoning printed ballad trade from the 1590s onwards. The deceptively plain-speaking hymns of the Non-Conformists added a further sociopolitical dimension to the increasingly vocal voice of the people.

This highlighted the deeper, more problematic layers of the nation’s isolationism, and our creators of music often found themselves having to appropriate their own culture in order to keep pace with the Renaissance and what followed in Europe. There not being much popular middle ground or aspirational higher ground save for humdrum church chorals and inaccessible foreign court imports, our indigenous folk music made a direct leap to the ‘commercial’ level at the same time as our society took its first steps towards modern consumerism, unfettered by the quality control of the new Europe that was emerging from its Renaissance-chrysalis. Tabloid-style, politics and high society (celebs), gossip and scandals fuelled the British public’s uptake of the scurrilous street songs of Elizabethan times and beyond, the snippets that became our unique canon of highly politicised nursery rhymes, the broadsides (broadsheet ballads) of the sixteenth century, the 6,500 hymns set to the eighteenth-century words of Charles Wesley. We’re still singing most of it today.

By the eighteenth century, as Great Britain became a world power and prosperous, words were assured a safe place in the people’s domain as English literature developed around the novel, poetry, journalism and lashings of satire. Nowhere were music and words so wickedly fused as in John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera of 1728 — a simply stunning ‘anti-opera’ that lampooned society through the fashionable European high art of the day over 45 scenes and 69 short songs set to broadsheet ballads, opera arias, church hymns and folk tunes.

All this was taking place during the Enlightenment in Europe, a period when people converted the Renaissance’s opening up of society and the arts into ideals of social liberty that undermined the authority of the monarchy and the church and paved the way for the political revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The Brits were finally taking their place along with the Europeans and were actually in the lead, opting though for civil society and the Industrial Revolution rather than the overthrowing of hierarchies and monarchies on the Continent (tellingly, one way of timing the Elightenment begins brightly with the publication of Isaac Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica [Latin for Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy] in 1687 and ends ominously with the French Revolution in 1789-99). We were finally connecting with the rest of the world, through our thinking and then our trade. However ‘serious’ music remained the preserve of the Europeans, especially the Germans, whose upper classes were busy funding and promoting composers like Bach, Haydn, Handel and Mozart. We weren’t realistically going to get a look in . . .

And then arrived the imperial, industrialised nineteenth century (and Beethoven and the popular/commercial French/Italian composers), when all culture came under the microscope, indeed every aspect of our lives, was studied, classified and assessed for future use/worth/profit. The same conditions that were creating the platform for our new self-expression were also responsible for the setting for the coup de grace to eradicate our traditional music. Mass-produced organs, for example, were replacing traditional means of creating music in the churches, just one step in the coordinated obliteration of popular culture in the name of (Christian/ imperial/colonialist/socialist) morality (for which read: industrial­isation) designed to undermine and replace the folk culture that protected the country’s still beating pagan heart. The folk singer-songwriter bards who had always been a part of this started to die out too.

The die had been already cast as early as 1559 when Elizabeth’s contribution to the Reformation was to impose the Act of Uniformity which required everybody by law to attend Church of England services and use the Book of Common Prayer (printed in English not Latin, the common language of fusion with the cultures of Europe) — empowering yet isolating through imposed unity . . . And from Elizabethan times onwards there followed the relentless campaigns against Midsummer maypoles, New Year bacchanals, traditional healers (witches), local customs and traditions everywhere. Our dialects and indigenous languages (let us remember there are still four surviving in the British Isles) were intentionally weakened and allowed to wither away — and all their lore with them. And all the while our traditional connection with the land was eroded by the state’s enabling of the aristocratic landowners, whose disproportionate landholdings remain a corrosive blight on these isles. 

No surprise then that by the final decades of the nineteenth century most of our traditions were gone forever. Inspired as they undoubtedly were, the well-meaning cultural revivals since the eighteenth century have tended to be romantic in nature, such as the Gothic Revival, along with restorative reactions like the Arts and Crafts Movement. The reality was homogenisation by means of Hymns Ancient and Modern, high street fashion, railways, clocks, weights & measures, the workhouse.

By the 1880s the British nation therefore found itself aspiring to middle-classdom and so felt confident to look back and appreciate what it was losing in identity in terms of traditional culture, albeit coloured with the pervading romanticism and a desire for sanitised reinvention: Morris dancing, mummer plays, Dickens’ Christmas, Santa Claus (one of the many American Euro-rehashed imports to come), Pugin’s Houses of Parliament. Our home-grown music languished at second tier or lower in relation to the ‘high culture’ urban output of Europe, rated an impossible benchmark for our own work, just as American music would be in the next century. It is no surprise that the English folk revivalists of the late nineteenth-early twentieth centuries had to sail to the Americas to find what we had lost. And it is no small irony that it was emigration that was the instrument of preservation, since so much of our folk had been forced out in the hearts of those who made the Atlantic crossing in search of better lives.

Nevertheless, the groundwork was being laid for British music to take its rightful place in the world — although no one could yet work out how or in what form. As we approached the twentieth century and then tipped over into it, the classical side of things rode on the gentle revolution of Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Holst and Britten (the last being a pivotal symbol of Britishness even if his output was never up to the mark), who between them more than made up for the lost centuries. In the process of creating a distinct identity for British classical music they were also creating that of folk. Indeed, for these composers and their peers the rediscovery of English folk was a shaping force, emboldened by outspoken movements like the English Musical Renaissance, which sought to free British composers from foreign musical influences so they could write in a distinctively national idiom.

British popular music was also (somewhat) unleashed, giving us the chain that took us from Gilbert & Sullivan (The Pirates of Penzance, HMS Pinafore, The Mikado) to Ivor Novello (‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’, ‘Rose of England’, ‘Some Day My Heart Will Awake’) and Noel Coward ‘Mad about the Boy’, ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’, ‘I’ll See You Again’). Meanwhile, linked to the work of the classical composers above, roots folk music was ticking over in between the First and Second Revivals. Dance also saw a related folk revival.

At the same time, the idea of music worldwide underwent a seismic shift with the introduction of recorded music after Thomas Edison’s phonograph, invented in 1877, and Guglielmo Marconi’s radio transmitter/receiver in 1895, which opened up choice for people — or, rather, allowed music to respond to people’s tastes. Mainstream music continued to be dominated by the latest craze from Europe or the USA. In fact by the Twenties it was New York rather than Paris, and increasingly black American: Charleston, tango, rag, jitterbug, boogie woogie, jive, rumba, samba.

By the end of World War Two, when society was readjusting and building new institutions for the new future based on the welfare state and preserving world peace, the majority of the United Kingdom was still looking overseas for a lot of the music that they took into their hearts: Mozart, Cole Porter, Schumann, Glenn Miller, Louis Armstrong, Ella, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Caruso and Callas . . . To be sure these and their British counterparts had soul and appeal, an enduring universality, but the idea of music with a message that shared such qualities yet wasn’t couched in doggerel or satire was missing from the landscape, even if perceived as being not actually needed. But with taboos falling like dominoes as freedom of expression grew on all sides, people were becoming ready for anyone with a message. And it was only a matter of time before those who knew how to write and sing in the right language would appear to step into the role that was taking form within society.

After the painstaking reclaiming of English folk and the reinstatement of Celtic folk through the various folk revivals, spurred on by the parallel efforts in the USA and the galvanisation of World War Two, folk music came to be seen as an art form genuinely representing the people rather than as an academic or niche exercise. This was part of a wider progression reflected in the wartime propaganda documentaries (Crown Film Unit) which led to postwar films such as 1949’s Whisky Galore!, the official war artists working on the home front as well as in the conflict zones, the theatre of Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop (MacColl’s Uranium 235) — it was all convincing (and entertaining) soapboxing that gave British culture and ideas to the people. And, once owned, the people were hardly going to give that back.

Luckily the decades and generations had rolled our national snowball of creativity over and over enough times that it had now grown mighty enough to hold its own. Our music’s response was an open-ended one: to claim and create entirely new genres in response to British society’s own evolution. As we’ve seen, new folk was one such response/genre, from which emerged an even more sophisticated service to society in the shape of the modern (folk-rock/folk-pop) singer-songwriter who filled the gap left by the century-long vanishing of our traditional bards and troubadours.  

Step forward then London of the Fifties/Sixties (both of which decades were equally swinging). Gone was the national idealism, gone was the hard-edged soapboxing, now the nation’s music was spinning in a magical world complete with tribes, languages and economy. In just a handful of Soho streets, folkies rubbed shoulders with popsters, rock’n’rollers, producers, pluggers and labels. Up the road was Denmark Street, the UK’s Tin Pan Alley, with its publishers, agents and studios, while round the corner was Archer Street, where jobbing musicians gathered for pick-up gigs. Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin) played guitar for Al Stewart, Rick Wakeman (Yes) played keyboards for Strawbs, Gus Dudgeon (Elton John) and Tony Visconti (David Bowie) stepped into the producer’s seat for our singer-songwriters. Down the road were some of the capital’s legendary music instrument shops like Macari’s.

The folk clubs and coffeehouses, numbering more than 300 at their peak, proved pivotal in crosspollinating everything in a national network with London at its centre. In the USA the coffee cafes were the breeding grounds for the Counterculture movement as well as music, but in Britain where the brushstrokes are finer, they provided not only a platform for alternative creativity but also a filter for that American parallel experience.

It’s worth pointing out that in the UK coffeehouses have served as forums for coming together and spreading ideas ever since the first coffee stall opened in London in 1652. From Samuel Johnson and the tulip bubble to the Pret a Mangers and co-working spaces of today, they were also a gig circuit in the Fifties and Sixties that provided income for performers who were able to launch out on the strength of this niche market. It has proved essential for creative survival to this present day, given the relentless destruction of the UK’s live circuit by governments, local authorities, record companies and pub chains since the Eighties, which inadver­tently created the modern festival circuit, based very much on the folk model.

With the Sixties came the Beatles, who revolutionised music — and our thinking — by revealing a new way to produce it. Helped in part by the DIY ethic of the folk (and theatre) circuit, the Fab Four with fifth Beatle George Martin in the producer booth proved you could write and play your own songs within a self-contained group. Incredible as it may seem to us today, this was a truly mind-blowing innovation. And once they had empowered countless would-be and actual musicians around the world to do it for themselves, there was no going back. English folk itself could no longer be seen in isolation and, like so much of popular music in general, would always be viewed at least in part through a Beatles filter.

There’s the compelling argument that Brits do groups best, like the Beatles, while Americans do the solo artist in a group best, like Bruce Springsteen. As a variation on the theme, the British singer-songwriters inspired by 1965’s Rubber Soul, the album that opened the doors for so many other genres such as psychedelic and progressive rock, were solo practitioners of the Beatles’ ensemble way of working. Bed Sitter Images, Eight Frames a Second, Fairport Convention, Strawbs, all were debuts that took music in quite an unexpected yet somehow familiar direction, all further complicated of course by the fact that the latter two albums were band efforts.

And so the Brits went from strength to strength until inevitably, bolstered by the USA’s monolithic music business constructing itself around them, it was the North American singer-songwriters who overnight took over the limelight at the turn of the decade: Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Carole King, James Taylor, Jackson Browne . . . This also heralded the point when the UK’s singer-songwriter flame was shared in an unexpected but very British way after the Beatles imploded in 1970. Musical imaginations were suddenly released, free to fix their own horizons now that the top spot had been relinquished. Musicians were also able to resist the centrifugal force of London and instead went out to reclaim the rest of the country after centuries of cultural imbalance.

After an unsurpassed handful of years in the Seventies when the world revelled in glam, prog, punk, reggae and everything else under the sun, new generations of singer-songwriters started to turn up in groups, following in the Ray Davies/Kinks tradition: Elvis Costello & the Attractions, Paul Weller of the Jam, Robert Smith of the Cure. Solo-style exceptions still shone through such as Joan Armatrading and Billy Bragg. And Weller and Bragg sort of answer the question of where all the protest songs went (more of which later).

By the turn of the Eighties it was clear that we had finally won the battle against ourselves for the right to our own cultural expression. And, regardless of what was lost, regardless of the hostility to popular culture that still lingers in places high and low, never was there a more British statement than our new music.

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