Bert:An American Folk Revival Essay

‘Collecting folk music isn’t just a matter of recording tunes, there are details to be got, measurements to be made. A folklorist work is a mixture of science and art’. A.L Lloyd , born Albert Lancaster Lloyd, was an English folk singer and collector of folk songs. Differing from other folk revival figures, Lloyd researched the folk music of Spain, Latin America, south eastern Europe and Australia, as well as specialising in British folk.  While Lloyd did record some of his own folk music, most alongside Ewan MacColl, he established the industrial subgenre of folk music through his books, collections and writings.

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Nothing like unemployment for educating oneself

Born in Wandsworth to a father who worked job to job, and a mother who worked as a maidservant in a London house of a Greek millionaire, Lloyd was exposed to folk songs from a young age. After his service in the first world war his father would sing songs of Barbara Allen and Bailiff’s daughter of Islington.  His mother was also a sweet singer, reciting performances of the Sussex gypsies. By the age of fifteen Lloyd’s mother had passed and his father slowly became semi-invalid, so Lloyd became an assisted migrant and spent the next nine years of his life sheep-minding on the plains of New South Wales, where he uncovered even more folk songs from fellow workers who sang while they worked. This was the beginning of Lloyd’s unconscious collecting of folk songs, as he would copy the songs into exercise books, not to collect but to learn. Upon returning home in the 1935, the slump era as Lloyd calls it in the sleeve notes of the First Person LP, Lloyd spent some of his time ‘shuttling between the Labour Exchange and the British Museum Reading Room’ studying folk music and social and economic history.

Following his Museum education Lloyd spent a spell of labouring in the Antarctic whaling fleet in 1937, and in 1938 writing a radio documentary about the seafaring life there for the BBC. Though the experience didn’t teach him many new songs, it gave deeper meanings to songs already in his collection. During this time, Lloyd had joined the communist party of Great Britain and became strongly influenced by A people’s history of England (written by Marxist historian A.L Morton) and he also published his own article in the Daily Worker (now named the Morning Star), The people’s own poetry.

Lloyd continued his career in the BBC for many years, in 1939 he was commissioned by the BBC to produce a series of programmes on the rise of Nazism, The shadow of the Swastika, which caused a great stir as it was deemed too antifascist. But during his work with the BBC, Lloyd endured many difficulties; ‘In the war there was this witch hunt temporary witch hunt about it, and Laurence (Gillian, who was head of the BBC’s features group) couldn’t really have him on the staff, so Laurence Gillian being the man he was immediately put him on a part time contract. Every action of his work came out of being a communist and being a communist came out of his two things one is his working with other people and his great respect for other people, and the other was the thing that he learnt’ said R.D Smith. However, Lloyd still continued and prospered within the BBC; with shows such as The voice of the Gods, which researched into folk rituals and chanting, recording chanting such as the Whirling Derbyshires recorded in Hull.

bert-with-his-books

Bert with his books

Using his radio career to its full potential, Lloyd called for a contest, a contest of miner songs. As no one wrote the miner songs down they were beginning to slowly die out, the contest was Lloyd’s way of preserving the songs, songs that came out of the hazards of working life, and were ways of miners communicating with each other. Lloyd believed that there were three cultures; ‘high culture for fine taste, and pop culture for fancy dreams, and both are commodities for the big dealers, the international entertainment cooperation. but they’re not all we’ve got; we’ve got a third culture, a secret stream, a hidden seam, that’s quite independent of the fine arts and the mass music and the market place. A homemade culture, that’s hardly known outside the community that produces it it’s a culture that’s intimately, affectionally concerned with the daily lives of people like mine workers, cotton mill operatives, engineers, a real folk culture of our industrial towns.’

During the second world war, Lloyd started a newspaper called the Turet, which included a poll of ‘Do you want a new social system after the war or is the present one good enough?’. 39% of the tank regiment Lloyd was in voted that they wished for a new system, 7% said that they didn’t know, but no one said that the present system would do.

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A.L Lloyd and Ewan MacColl

In 1952, Lloyd aided English folk singer, Ewan MacColl, with a radio series called Ballads and Blues, where MacColl and Lloyd would sing ballads, and Humphrey Lyttleton’s band would play the blues.  After the radio series finished clubs such as the Skiffle club were fading and the folk song clubs were multiplying, the revival was on.  Lloyd worked with MacColl on various occasions, the most popular being child ballads. Music, however, was not the only way in which Lloyd broadcasted, he also published many books on folk music, such as The singing Englishman, Come all ye bold miners, and Folk song in England.

In the early 60s, Lloyd associated himself with Centre 42, an enterprise which was concerned with the importance of arts in the community; a touring festival whose aim was to devolve art and culture from London to the other main working class towns of Britain. Led by Arnold Wesker,and MacColl, Lloyd provided the musical content. The festival brought attention to folk artists such as Anne Briggs, the Ian Campbell folk group, The Spinners and The Watersons.

Lloyd was present in the folk community until his last days, as director of Topic records, releasing Sea songs and Shanties, English and Scottish folk ballads, and Bold sportsmen all. While Lloyd is not most recognized for his own music such as our other figures discussed in this series of essays, his role as a folk music collector and preserver helped to revive folk music in the British folk scene, which then followed on to inspire artists and future works.

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