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Breaking the Bias: Challenging Gender Stereotypes in Trad Song

by Jennie Higgins...

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Breaking the Bias: Challenging Gender Stereotypes in Trad Song

by Jennie Higgins

Jennie Higgins is a traditional folk singer and historian known for her a cappella traditional arrangements of folk songs that tell women’s stories. Her passions for both the folk genre and feminism have come together through her work with The Folky Union of Women and Thank Folk For Feminism Podcast. Here she specialises in safeguarding young musicians for a more inclusive and sustainable folk scene, whilst championing women’s folk history. She is currently running a Kickstarter campaign for her debut album Where Are All The Women?

Where are the women in folk song? The women that you and I know? This is something that has always left me thinking a mile a minute, establishing the stereotypes and desperately looking for the folk stories that battle against these tropes. But I shall slow down and try to demonstrate my ideas for you so that I’m not just an academic headless chicken running around the Vaughan-Williams Memorial Library. So, let’s start at what is often considered to be the beginning of folk song collecting and preservation through academic means.

During the first folk revival, and somewhat during the second revival, women often found they had a limited voice within the stories and opportunities presented in the folk tradition. Often women were stereotyped as a love interest or a devious woman to be mocked. They were not heroic or hardworking as men were often presented. A prime example of this being Lily Bulero: inequality where the devil kidnaps a woman, to her husband’s relief, only for her to be brought back when she proceeded to kill two devils.

At first this presents as a feminist story of a woman fighting against the actions of a patriarch. In reality it is a story mocking a woman who challenged the gender norm of submission told through the male gaze. Against the backdrop of anti-female culture and idealism of the first revival in England the collected songs themselves were often reminiscent of the strict social structures and societal norms of the early 20th century.

An analysis of a body of common traditional songs in which women feature as either protagonists or antagonists presents an intuitive depiction of the rigid gender roles that were prevalent during pre-1970s. Many of the songs evoked a sexist ideology towards which many women were, and still are, impervious. I could not count the number of times I have encountered a song in a folk club, and it has suddenly dawned on me that this is a tale of violence against women and girls. Women were found often be “victimised, marginalised, trivialised, jeered at, discarded and murdered” in folk song. The women’s narratives that frequently feature love as their foremost theme often find women reduced in their activities. The home is a recurrent setting and cleaning, looking after children or mourning lost love are her typical activities. Whilst much of the traditional material explores themes of a woman’s desire to marry or court a gentleman rather than work or travel.

This sharply contrasts with how males are historically presented in folksong mainstream. Men’s voices and activities appear much more liberal and dynamic. They are often given professions such as a farmer or factory worker, soldier or sailor and appear in social settings such as the public house or bar. When males are the main protagonist of folk stories plots are often humorous and rarely involve melancholy or grief. Home settings or domestic labour are equally uncharacteristic.

So why have women been so historically misrepresented? There are a range of factors including both cultural and social influences over the first folk revival. Collectors were trying to serve a specific purpose in preserving “Englishness”. It is therefore not surprising that most collectors in the first revival were male who did not question gender stereotypes.

There is a lack of cohesive exploration of the women’s voices and contributions in folk scholarship. Publications are generally devoted to Cecil Sharp, A. L. Lloyd or Ewan MacColl. Although these figures were undeniably leaders in the genre’s revival and development, they were by no means the only protagonists in folk’s varied history. Women have been significant contributors. The role of women as both collectors and performers has been an oversight in most historical analysis of the first folk revival.

Female collectors in the first revival are largely discounted from the historical record. A significant number of writers consider Sharp and the early 1890s as the beginning of the first revival. However, there is evidence that collectors were active from as early as the 1840s. 1880 saw female collectors such as Lucy Broadwood take centre stage in recording and circulating traditional practices, this period is rarely included in research yet is an important contribution. Her diverse knowledge of British traditional song, in addition to serving as a source of advice for fellow collectors and musicians, greatly influenced a number of classical composers including Ralph Vaughn Williams and Percy Grainger.

Broadwood was a founding member of the EFSS in 1898 and yet is barely mentioned in the society’s history. Nor was any part of the society’s headquarters, Cecil Sharp House named after her as afforded to many of her male counterparts. As a female she is dramatically unnoticed. Is such a lack of research on Broadwood due to little archival material? With a feminist lens it is clear that there is plenty of material produced by Broadwood in The Full English Archive, but her gender sets her at a clear disadvantage. Her significant contribution has been drowned out by the bass notes of male patriarchy that surrounded her in both the EFSS and the wider culture of English academic society at the turn of the 20th century. Consequently, Broadwood has been relegated to the side-lines of a significant amount of literature that exists concerning the first revival.

Likewise, during the second revival a repressively macho realism prevented the appeal of changing what were deemed traditional songs to include women and their authentic experiences. Ewan MacColl and A. L. Lloyd continued to proselytise for ‘industrial songs’ in the 1960s, editing hymns to describe male struggles in heavy industry in the past and political battles in the present. Therefore, it must be asked if hymns and traditional songs could be adapted to bring to life the male struggle industry why could that not be done for the female? The industry’s characters MacColl and the like considered to be worth researching and writing about were rarely what were considered to be feminine jobs. Women had no obvious role in the first or second revival due to their exclusion from the subject matter.

This trend of restricting women’s narratives and stories has set a precedent for the treatment of women in both the second revival and in the folk genre today, a trend currently being fought against by women in the sector by setting up Esperance, The Folky Union of Women, The Bitt Collective and the Thank Folk For Feminism Podcast.

As a traditional female folk singer, I have often felt misrepresented or just not seen at all within the folk genre. Until I began to look at my back catalogue of songs that I grew up singing. Here was a plethora of women’s stories that I may not always be able to relate to, but others could. This began to form an album of songs sharing a range of experiences that show that women were always there in all their glory and differences.

For this album to happen we need your help. To be able to afford the production of the album following the pandemic we are having to ask for pre-orders of the album via Kickstarter. There are also other forms of reward for pledging different amounts to the album including song requests and house concerts. To Pledge toward the project please follow the link below.

http://kck.st/3AiA1KW