English Folk Society

Personal narrative Landscape/ Environment narrative Land and Sea Craft Dissent English Liberties
Personal narrative | Landscape/ Environment narrative | Land and Sea | Craft | Dissent | English Liberties



This research reincorporates 'folk' as a means to define community, and thus, as an angle from which to explore the social history of, in this case, England. Folk is an inclusive category, cutting across the concerns of social historians with, for example, class or gender, or the cultural divides between elite/great and popular/little traditions.

Whilst what might illuminate the category of folk society in England, constantly absorbing (and rejecting) new and emergent influences, changes over time, this research is predicated on the notion that what defines community as folk society does not, and that it is therefore possible to arrive at a means to define folk society which is as valid for periods of the past as for the present, that can be applied to contemporary English society, but also to English history. The period of study ranges from around 1600 to the present.

Society, community and culture depend on the manner in which individuals negotiate their relationship with expressions of collectivity, and the productive expression of individuals is represented by their writings, their historical records, their labour - what they produce in their lifetime. In terms that would be recognisable from social anthropology, philosophy of language and performance theory, human expression can be represented by the relationship between the trinity of individual, the expression of the individual, and its audience.

For the relationship between these three to be an example of folk society, the boundaries between each element must be blurred, disguised, hidden or denied. The effect is to deny that the bonds of community are culturally constructed but seem to emerge organically, 'naturally', from within a collective whole. Historically, the subsuming of individuals and their products can be by accident - and thus one is looking for techniques with which to give voice to the anonymous - but can also be by design. The more the design is revealed, however, the less successfully individuals have subsumed themselves within folk society.


Methodology - Intersubjectivity

The definition of folk society applied here posits a particular inter-subjectivity between the creator of a human expression, his or her creation, and the receivers of that expression. Scholars from other disciplines have also studied the means by which the boundaries between the categories have been blurred. Psychologists refer to the concept of 'flow', to describe the process whereby one becomes so involved in or engaged by an activity that one ceases to be conscious of the processes required to undertake it or of actually doing it. Both performers and audiences refer to losing themselves within the performance; evangelists, mystics or those claiming the power of prophesy would deny that their expression were part of self but represented the interests of their collective audience. A craftsperson might claim that the production of a craft-object required individual expertise, but of skill to such a high level that its production becomes second nature, such that the object becomes the subject, entire within itself and possessed of utitlity complete within itself for its consumer.

'Tradition' is a further means, more familiar to the historian, by which the distinction between individual (historical or contemporary), individual-expression, and audience (which must include the historian him/herself) is disguised. Whilst there remains room for individual expression, creativity and innovation, it is invariably done within a tradition, and thus tradition binds together the author, the expression and the audience, though the degree to which any element is recognisably calling upon a tradition must militate against its folk status.

The question, therefore, is how far individuals are aware of the tradition of English folk society?

Oral testimony

minidiscIn order to test this awareness, the research involves accumulating a number of recordings of individuals who might be said to represent aspects of contemporary English folk society.

The oral testimony interviews are conducted over approximately one hour, during which time, interviewees are invited to reflect on the output of their putative 'folk' activity - performance or product - with as little intervention or direction from the interviewer as possible. It might transpire, therefore, that the transcripts of such interviews reveal that the interviewee does not meet the folk definition criteria employed by this study, or, that they meet the criteria in a partial sense, only some of the time, at one moment of their career, or in a limited way, employing some but not all of the criteria.



Examples of interviews conducted are:

Billy Bragg - musician, song-writer, political activist, writer and commentator;
Graham Fellows - comedy performer, through the medium of character and music;
Nigel Griffiths - cabinet-maker, who, like his father before him, makes oak furniture;
Joseph Porter - songwriter, writer, drummer and singer;
Martin Carthy - folk singer;
Clifford Harper - graphic artist, political writer.


Expressions of English Folk Society

Applying these criteria to the 400 years of English history studied here, generates six categories of examples: personal narrative; environment or landscape narrative; land and sea; craft; dissent; and English liberties.

Gladstone, Orton Liberal Club

Personal narrative


Environment/Landscape narrative


Land and sea



Tolpuddle martyrs plaque



English Liberties


English Folk Dance and Song Society


Personal narrative | Landscape/ Environment narrative | Land and Sea | Craft | Dissent | English Liberties