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The superiority of folk culture to pop culture

This entry is part of 6 in the series

"Vaughan Williams on Culture"

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The motivations behind Vaughan Williams’s use of folk idioms in his music also clearly demonstrates the distinction between folk and pop music in his thinking. Clearly Vaughan Williams’s interest in folk music was connected to his desire for a distinctly English national music. Indeed, as the title of his work on folk music (National Music) illustrates, Vaughan Williams was motivated by nationalism, and although there are certain pop forms that are most closely associated with individual nations (jazz in America, for instance), it is the folk music of a country that best displays its national character. And as Alain Frogley notes, “Almost invariably, Vaughan Williams’s music has been deemed to reflect essential features of the English national character, of English landscape, and of the English language.”1

The motivation that perhaps best reveals Vaughan Williams’s understanding of the distinction between folk and pop music is his desire to use folk music to improve the musical sensibilities of the masses. In folk music Vaughan Williams saw musical forms that were ennobling and good while at the same time popular.

Both Sharp and Vaughan Williams clearly evidenced their opinions that folk and pop music were different in their rejection of pop music as they collected tunes throughout England. As Julian Onderdonk notes, “[Vaughan Williams] pursued the great majority of his collecting in isolated rural areas and rejected songs betraying the influenced of urban popular [“pop”] music.”2 They considered the pop music of their day to consist of “poverty-stricken tunes” that exerted a “harmful influence upon the character” and that were “banal” and “vulgar.”3 They desperately desired to improve the musical tastes of the people, and they considered folk music the perfect tool in their endeavors. Sharp advocated the use of folk tunes in education, wherein he hoped to “effect an improvement in the musical taste of the people, and to refine and strengthen the national character.”4 Likewise, when asked to edit The English Hymnal, Vaughan Williams “found an opportunity to improve musical standards at large in an area where many people were exposed to functional music who might never attend a concert or an opera performance in their lives.”5 The following two quotes by Sharp and Vaughan Williams are perhaps idealistic in their hopes, but nevertheless reveal their motives behind using folk tunes and their understanding of the distinction from pop music:

For good music purifies, just as bad music vulgarizes; indeed, the effect of music upon the minds of children is so subtle and so far-reaching that it is impossible to exaggerate the harmful influence upon character which the singing of coarse and vulgar tunes may have. Up till now, the street song has had an open field; the music taught in the schools has been hopelessly beaten in the fight for supremacy. But the mind that has been fed upon the pure melody of the folk will instinctively detect the poverty-stricken tunes of the music-hall, and refuse to be captivated and deluded by their superficial attractiveness. Good taste is, perhaps, largely a matter of environment; but it is also the result of careful and early training.6

In the English-speaking countries where artistic impulses are so apt to be inarticulate and even stifled, there are thousands of men and women naturally musically inclined whose only musical nourishment has been the banality of the ballad concert or the vulgarity of the music-hall. Neither of these really satisfied their artistic intuitions, but it never occurred to them to listen to what they called “classical” music, or if they did it was with a prejudiced view determined beforehand that they would not understand it. To such people the folk-song came as a revelation. Here was music absolutely within their grasp, emotionally and structurally much more simple than their accustomed “drawing room” music, and yet it satisfied their spiritual natures and left no unpleasant aftertaste behind it. Here indeed was music for the home such as we had not seen since the days of Thomas Morley when no supper party was complete without music when the cloth was cleared away.

Is not folk-song the bond of union where all our musical tastes can meet? We are too apt to divide our music into popular and classical, the highbrow and the lowbrow. One day perhaps we shall find an ideal music which will be neither popular nor classical, highbrow or lowbrow, but an art in which all can take part. . . . We must see to it that our art has true vitality and in it the seeds of even greater vitality. And where can we look for a surer proof that our art is living than in that music which has for generations voiced the spiritual longings of our race?7

Though perhaps a bit naive, Sharp and Vaughan Williams both demonstrate a clear differentiation between folk and pop music in their motivations.

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About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

  1. Alain Frogley, “Constructing Englishness in Music,” 5. []
  2. Julian Onderdonk, “Vaughan Williams’s Folksong Transcriptions: a Case of Idealization?” in Vaughan Williams Studies, 120. []
  3. Sharp, English Folk-Song, 173; Vaughan Williams, National Music, 38. []
  4. Sharp, English Folk-Song, 135. []
  5. Vaughan Williams, National Music, 31. []
  6. Sharp, English Folk-Song, 172-3. []
  7. Vaughan Williams, National Music, 38-9. []