Thursday, January 17, 2008

Jim Moray and the lost stories

I was always a bit of a folkie. I grew up with folk music. My dad knew lots of songs and taught them to me and I went to lots of folk clubs as a youth. To be honest, there wasn't much else in the way of live music to enjoy in 1970s' Cornwall, but folk was never a chore. I’ve always loved the fact that packaged inside every song is a story; that they’re about people - often real people - who lived and loved and died. Folk has had its ups and downs with popularity but, in the past few years, I’ve been heartened by the number of younger artists embracing the gentre; people like Jim Moray, Eliza Carthy, Cara Dillon, Alasdair Roberts, Kate Rusby, Seth Lakeman, Karine Polwart, Bellowhead and others. They're bringing folk up-to-date with new arrangements, new instruments and new songs. And why not? By definition, folk is the music of the people and should be handed down from generation to generation.

I've been particularly impressed by Jim Moray who takes traditional songs and arranges them in brave and creative new ways - like making Early one morning sound like a track by Massive Attack or performing The Week before Easter completely a capella with Brian Wilson-style harmonies. And how about a Coldplay-style reinterpretation of Who's the fool? - a 17th century drinking song? That’s what Moray does and it’s wonderful stuff - equally as dynamic in the studio or live on stage. But he has come in for a welter of criticism from the purists. As Moray himself put it on the BBC series Folk Britannia, there seems to be a belief that unless the ‘Old Guard’ of British folk sanction his work, he will always be seen as simply gimmicky. There are those who claim that if the music isn't performed the same way as it's always been performed then it's not real folk music. That’s ridiculous. What’s the point of having twenty different artists record a song in exactly the same way? Songs and arrangements should evolve so that they don’t stagnate. Keep things the same and they soon lose any kind of resonance with the audience.

There’s a parallel here with faerie tales. And a cautionary tale ...

We all know the stories recorded by the Grimm Brothers (German) and Aesop (Greek) and Hans Christian Andersen (Danish). We even know a few African and Japanese and Eastern European stories. But how many British faerie stories do you know? Ever heard of Cormoran the Giant? Or the Laidly Worm? Or Twm Sion Cati? Or the Fachan? Probably not. Yet these are all fantastic stories that rival any foreign import. And they’re all 100% British. So why don't we know them? Why do we know the foreign imports so much better?

It's all about our attitude to tradition. Grimm and the other writers mentioned above were not scared of change. They took stories that had been part of an oral tradition for hundreds of years and adapted them for their audiences. Then, having established a precedent, other authors came along and did the same thing; altering the stories to match their own audiences. Consequently, the stories evolved to match changes in society and, because of this, they survived. Little Red Riding Hood is a classic case in point. The story started life as a somewhat crude tale told by French peasants. It went something like this:

'A young girl meets a beast called Bzou on her way to Granny's house. Bzou beats her there and kills Granny, storing her flesh in the pantry and her blood in a bottle. Upon arrival, the girl unknowingly snacks on Granny, then performs a striptease before sliding naked into bed with Bzou. As the beast is about to eat her, the girl says she has to go to the bathroom. The beast lets her outside and asks, "Are you merding a load?" but the girl has already gotten away.'

Cannibalism. Child striptease. Defecation. And there are many academics who claim that the story carries a sinister warning about incest. Not exactly Disney material is it? However, it does reflect life in those far off times when life was cheap and children were often treated as objects to be sold, bartered, exploited and abused.

By 1697, when Charles Perrault recorded his version of the story, it had evolved into an allegorical tale intended as a warning to the loose ladies of Louis XIV's court. Our heroine is dressed in red (to identify her with 'scarlet women') and the beast has become a wolf with big arms that were 'the better to hug her' with. In other words, Perrault had made the story relevant to his 17th century audience – uneducated and na├»ve peasant girls engaged in the world’s oldest profession.

Then, in the nineteenth century, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm traded sex for violence and created a version of the story intended to scare kids into staying on the right path. Instead of big arms, the wolf now had big hands, 'the better to grab her' with. The Grimms also upheld the patriarchal standard of the day by introducing a positive male figure (the woodcutter) to rescue Little Red Riding Hood, as she was now called.

And the story has carried on evolving. Roald Dahl, in his Revolting Rhymes (Puffin Books 2001) has a very emancipated Red killing the wolf herself:

'The small girl smiles. One eyelid flickers.
She whips a pistol from her knickers.
She aims it at the creature's head
And bang bang bang, she shoots him dead.'

Picture by me

And in James Finn Garner's hilarious Politically Correct Bedtime Stories (Souvenir Press 1994), Red turns on the woodcutter, calling him a 'Neanderthal' and a 'species-ist' before she and the wolf set up an 'alternative household based on mutual respect and cooperation' and live happily ever after.

Red Riding Hood shows us that the best and most popular stories change with time to suit the audience and the world in which they find themselves. There is a wonderful book by Brian Patten called The Story Giant (Harper Collins 2004) in which the giant in question takes a group of children around the world by way of traditional tales. When questioned about how stories can be ‘lost’ when they exist in books and libraries, the giant explains:

'Their meaning will be lost (…). The pleasure taken in them will be lost. If stories are left unchanged for centuries then the way they are written remains unchanged and they fall out of use through neglect. Stories must be shared if they are to stay alive'.

And that's what happened to our British faerie stories. With the exception of those that were popularised by Joseph Jacobs - and which now survive as pantomimes - most of our stories did fall out of use through neglect. Instead of being told and retold and adapted and changed, they were preserved and archived by 18th century folklorists who collected and stored them away for posterity. It's good that they were not lost ... but the desire to 'preserve' them has left them as dry and dusty as pinned moths in a display case. To all intents and purposes they are dead, which is why our kids don't know any of them. How sad is it that young Cornish kids all know Andersen's Little Mermaid but don't know about the Mermaid of Zennor? Isn't it tragic that kids know all about Pocahontas but have never heard of The Wise Men of Gotham?

We should be celebrating our rich folk tradition, not keeping it in storage boxes or old books for dusty academics to study. Our folk tales should be part of a living storytelling tradition, growing and changing as time goes on. Our stories are a part of what makes us uniquely British and without such things we’d just become some horrid homogenised Anyland with no sense of identity. We should be telling them in our schools. We should be reading them to our kids at night. And Disney should biting our hands off to take them away and make animated versions of them.

The purists and the old farts who resist change because it may 'spoil' our traditions have inadvertently robbed our children of their folklore heritage. It may now be too late to resurrect these stories ... but I hope it's not too late for our folk music. At the moment it is being kept alive and fresh by a small band of folkie heroes who, despite a lack of interest from the music industry are doing what they can to keep the tradition alive.

I was offered two tickets to see Spice Girls at the O2 arena recently. They would have cost me over £100 for the pair and, from what I understand, I'd have been paying to watch five women miming on stage. In stark contrast, I recently paid just £7 to see Jim Moray live in Liverpool. There were no costume changes, no light shows or lasers, no dancers. There was just Moray, a guitar, a battered old keyboard and computer. And he was mesmerising. We should do all we can to support young innovators like Moray and his ilk - many of whom have to self-fund their albums - as they are doing more to enrich our culture and history than any number of girl and boy bands. And certainly more than any X Factor winner ever will.

Visit Jim Moray's MySpace site or his shop here. Both albums are great listening and a third is on the way in May.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree more about our folk stories being a living breathing form that should not become fossilised. As a storyteller based in Cornwall, I tell The Laidly Worm and The Giant wrath, The Mermaid of Zennor and Lutey, The Old Man of Cury. And these stories captivate audiences each time they are told, because they change with the audience. I was telling stories at the Engine Inn at Cripplesease on Friday. One was the story of Reynardine, that sly, powerful, sexy werefox. Purists argue that the story wasn't originally about animal desire. But that's what it grew into: a story which is traditional but erotic, and in which the audience supplies the images in their own heads. In my version, the desire of the woman for the werefox is as wild as his desire for her. All our folk stories have a power and life of their own...and when I walk into a hall or a school and people ask where my equipment is, they don't realise that I don't need any. The story and their imagination stand alone