Folk music and feminism -traditional songs and misogyny

(101 Posts)
IntergalacticHussy Fri 17-Jun-11 13:17:28

As i'm sure some of you might have noticed, i'm a bit of a folky at heart, but for a long time now i've been trying to square my love of traditional songs with the awful sexism and misogyny which seems to be an integral part of them.

I mean I'm the first to complain about the depiction of 'ho's' and 'bitches' in mtv videos but some of the depictions of sexual violence and oppression in folk song make Eminem and 50 Cent look positively progressive

Off the top of my head there's 'Pretty Polly' which is one of those songs that got about a bit, starting off in England and being adapted and transported over to the new world in various guises, but the gist of it is always the same: young, naive girl falls for a mysterious bloke and wants to marry him. He gets her on a promise and convinces her to elope beforehand and have sex with him in a forest or somewhere where he digs her a grave during the night, much to her dismay and then murders and buries her. All this is presented in a really neutral, matter of fact way by whoever wrote the song. No justice is metered out, at least not in the versions i've heard.

Then there's 'Blackwaterside' which isn't violent but still incredibly sexist. Young girl (you can see a pattern emerging here - i don't know if these songs were meant as cautionary tales to keep young women in line - probably) goes down to the river and meets a bloke, who again promises to marry her, convinces her to have sex with him then pisses off in the middle of the night. When she asks him where he's going he tells her it's her own fault for succumbing to her 'wanton will' which again is something of a theme in these songs.

I know virtually no-one listens to this music, so it's not exactly a pressing issue, but for me it does show something of the way in which the popular culture of the past played a part in stigmatising and oppressing women, so it's interesting to me from an anthropological point of view.

I just wondered if anyone else had any shining examples? you never know with mumsnet, however obscure the topic!

CaptainBarnacles Fri 17-Jun-11 13:31:41

Really interesting post. I have always seen songs like this as an articulation of women's victimhood and a way of bringing it to light. So instead of brushing illegitimacy under the carpet, they made it something public. Instead of seeing them as sexist, I think of them as descriptions of a sexist society.

But I quite see that they can also be seen as cautionary tales and a way of controlling women.

This is American, not British, but the Carter Family's Single Girl, Married Girl is a great feminist song.

loiner45 Fri 17-Jun-11 13:33:12

that's an interesting question - I'm a folky too and I tend to hear songs like that as condemnations of the men involved rather than cautionary tales to keep the women in line! wishful thinking maybe:-)

HAve you heard the Imagined Village / Benjamin Zephania reworking of Tam Lyn? youtube video of it here

dittany Fri 17-Jun-11 13:35:17

Ye Banks and Braes is a lovely song by Burns about a young woman who has been used and then cast aside by her lover.

Thing is Robert Burns who was shagging all over Ayrshire was the man he was writing about so I don't know why he thought he got to write a sensitive song about one of his victims. Sociopath.

I think you'll find misogyny in every kind of genre of music that men are involved in making. It's always been a mistake just to focus on rap.

TheCrackFox Fri 17-Jun-11 13:35:42

When I was at school in Scotland in the 1980's I remember learning a traditional Scottish Song called something like the "Wee Cooper of Fife" and it was basically about a man who lost his temper with his wife so decided to hit her with a walking stick but put a sheep skin over his wife's back so it didn't hurt too much. I remember thinking this is deeply innappropriate to teach a bunch of 8yr olds this song.

MillyR Fri 17-Jun-11 13:38:21

Feminist folk songs? How about Blue Blazing Blind Drunk, which is about domestic violence from the woman's POV. Or WhiteThorn, about the sorrow of losing multiple children during successive childbirths. Andrew Lammie is about honour killing and conveys it as a tragedy. Felton Longing is about a mother searching for her child. The Birth of Robin Hood is partly about a woman choosing to have sex with who she wanted, and not getting into trouble over it. In fact that is quite a common theme in folk music.

We listen to a lot of folk music, and played a lot of it to the kids when they were younger, and DD has performed in folk festivals. I have paid some attention to the content from a gender point of view, and I do think a lot of it is very positive about women or reflects women's experiences and work.

EnnuiGo Fri 17-Jun-11 13:40:31

Not a folk song but the calm and emotionless way the rape of Becky in coward of the County is sung gives me the chills....

EnnuiGo Fri 17-Jun-11 13:44:06

Some of these folk songs come form the era / genre of Punch and Judy shows - when selling or beating your wife was not only seen as the norm but sort of laughed off with the man being the 'village joker - beats his wife but a good sort really and can really quaff his ale' hmm And the Scolds Bridal too...

I'm helping out at Shrewsbury Folk Festival in August <squeeee> - will keep an eye out for this sort of thing....especially since generally the female singers and performers in the folk world seem a pretty feminist and strong bunch....

loiner45 Fri 17-Jun-11 13:51:09

oh that's got me on a roll! this is why I love folk music.

I think there is misogyny in old F Songs, because it was there in the societies in which they were written and sung, but I do think the contemporary folk scene has some very strong females in it, who are building on the traditional but going beyond it - Eliza Carthy singing one of these old songs can bring quite a different sense to it I think

EnnuiGo Fri 17-Jun-11 13:52:32

Phew -glad to see you back loiner - i thought i'd killed the debate by Squeeing on a feminist thread grin

loiner45 Fri 17-Jun-11 13:58:32

lol - no I'm here <whispers> aren't we allowed to squee in here then? have had a visitor, the friend I really discovered feminism with in the early 80's - we went along to conferences together, safety in numbers :-)

She is not into folk music sadly but we did just have a reminisce about going to see the likes of K.D. Lange and Chris Williamson.

last yr I took my 20 yr old DD to Cambridge folk fest (my first time) and I think she's a convert - she's going again this year with a friend!

dadof2ofthem Fri 17-Jun-11 14:36:58

all the folk songs that spring to my mind are quite the opposite
-whiskey in the jar- guy gets betrayed to the solders by his lover and ends up in prison
-seven days drunk- drunk old fool so drunk he doesnt know his wife is sleeping with someone else
black velvet band- also about betrayal, i think.
i dont think it's attall fair to say that all male written music will have an element of mysogyny, most songs of all genres are love songs or about longing .

SybilBeddows Fri 17-Jun-11 16:03:01

we listen to seashanties a lot - it is (obviously) a very male tradition, sometimes quite anti-woman.

some random lines that spring to mind:

'Row, row, row bullies row, Those Liverpool judys have got us in tow'

'I have a wife in Louisville, another in New Orleans'

will think of more

BooyHoo Fri 17-Jun-11 16:10:28

not sure if this is along the same folky lines but my dad was a christy moore fan and i have some of his CD's. tehre is one song that always made me laugh. cant remember the title but it went like this. a man was always getting drunk and coming home and beating his wife. his wife was a seamstress (now starting to think that may be the song title) and one night after he came home drunk she set about stitching him into the bed so he couldn't move and then she beat him very badly with, i think, the frying pan (how original hmm) and told him he would never touch her again. the only thing that annoyed me about it was that she stayed with him. although i am guessing that as christy moore is irish, he was singing about a catholic family and so leaving him wouldn't have been possible.

BooyHoo Fri 17-Jun-11 16:11:56

just googled. the song is called 'a stitch in time'

onclefestere Fri 17-Jun-11 16:19:12

Some are a little different though, and celebrate women getting free of dull lives - the Raggle Taggle Gypsies?

QueenOfFeckingEverything Fri 17-Jun-11 16:25:59

Funnily enough this was the topic of conversation in our car just the other day (we inherited a large collection of folk music on tape with our car as the previous owner had excellent musical taste but no tape player at home!).

The song that sparked the discussion was Stitch In Time which for anyone who doesn't know is about a woman who has a drunken husband who beats her, so she stitches him into his bed when he's in a drunken stupor and does the same to him with a frying pan and various other household implements. Anyway, there was I singing along absent mindedly when I thought, hang on, this isn't actually very nice blush and of course then I started thinking about all the other songs and what they are about.

Will read with interest and come back to say more later.

QueenOfFeckingEverything Fri 17-Jun-11 16:27:31

Oh Booy x-post grin

BooyHoo Fri 17-Jun-11 16:31:25

grin queenof

you explained it better than i did anyway!!

ElephantsAndMiasmas Fri 17-Jun-11 16:46:27

I think folk music is one of the best sources we have for learning about the past that isn't in history books, so yes we see a lot of misogyny (because there's always been a lot of it about), but also a lot of other stories that don't fit in with this.

And I really really don't know why everyone's assuming that men were the ones who composed folk music. It's modern poetry/music that is so hot on authorship, with men wanting to put their name all over everything. Ever heard of Anon? I know I've posted it before, but it seems appropriate)

ANON (Carol Ann Duffy)

If she were here
she'd forget who she was,
it's been so long,
maybe a nurse, a nanny,
maybe a nun -
Anon.

A girl I met
was willing to bet
that she still lives on -
Anon -
but had packed it all in,
the best verb, the right noun,
for a life in the sun.

A woman I knew
kept her skull
on a shelf in a room -
Anon's-
and swore that one day
as she worked at her desk
it cleared its throat
as though it had something
to get off its chest.

But I know best -
how she passed on her pen
like a baton
down through the years
with a hey nonny
hey nonny
hey nonny no-
Anon.

Takver Fri 17-Jun-11 16:48:04

OP, was having a very similar thought about some of my musical choices the other day - and their appropriateness for cheerful singing along with my dd.

Just for starters : 'Old Maid in a Garret'

And (admittedly not folk), love the song, but really . . . Peggy Lee singing Black Coffee - not only about as far from feminism as you can get, but smoking too grin

dittany Fri 17-Jun-11 16:49:50

"i dont think it's attall fair to say that all male written music will have an element of mysogyny"

It isn't fair. That's why I didn't say it.

I said all genres of music that contain music written by men will contain misogyny. That doesn't mean every piece written by a man is misogynistic. Just that if you go through folk, rock, hip hop, classical music etc etc, there will be misogynistic pieces in all of them.

ElephantsAndMiasmas Fri 17-Jun-11 16:53:42

Also there are all kinds of folk songs. Some are news songs, like forwarding someone a link to the Daily Mail and saying isn't it awful - lots of these probably started as songsheets sold at executions, detailing the supposed crimes of the person being hanged, usually in the form of a "confession". Lullabies of course, romances, warning songs (all that "take heed by me" stuff), rude songs etc.

One of my favourites from a feminist point of view is The Lady Leroy - woman has a secret boyfriend. She dresses up as a man and charters a boat from her father. When he realises it's her and sends a boat after her, there is a sea battle which she wins and the couple escape smile

There are also quite a lot of songs where men are the victim of the girlfriend's family, come to think of it. All part of the patriarchy of course.

pointydog Fri 17-Jun-11 17:02:44

Did you do Singing Toegther, crackfox?

There was a wee cooper who lived in Fife
Nickety nackety noo noo noo.

TheCrackFox Fri 17-Jun-11 17:12:20

Singing Together certainly rings a bell.

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