Recognition of a difference between folk and pop music may perhaps seem inconsequential, but for a composer like Ralph Vaughan Williams the distinction was at the heart of his life’s work. For Vaughan Williams and his mentor, Cecil Sharp, the commercial nature of music often rendered it banal and vulgar — it was music created specifically to feed the ever-changing appetite of the masses. Vaughan Williams recognized his responsibility as a composer to contribute to the greater good of society. He quickly realized, however, that strictly art music was slipping further out of the grasp of general society. He needed a musical form that was both ennobling and popular, and he found that form in folk music.
Perhaps contemporary composers should learn from Vaughan Williams’s example, at least in his clarity of terminology, and at most in his aim to wean the people from vulgar music and draw them with appealing yet uplifting musical offerings. Vaughan Williams portrayed a great optimism in the collective character of a people uninfluenced by politics, entertainment, or pop culture. Indeed, as he said so masterfully,
Can we not truly say of these [English folk-songs] as Gilbert Murray says of that great national literature of the Bible and Homer, “They have behind them not the imagination of one great poet, but the accumulated emotion, one may almost say, of the many successive generations who have read and learned and themselves afresh re-created the old majesty and loveliness. . . . There is in them, as it were, the spiritual life-blood of a people.”1
- Vaughan Williams, National Music, 23. [↩]