A. L. Lloyd and Folk Song in England

A. L. Lloyd was a remarkable man – ethnomusicologist, journalist, translator, radio and television producer, and lifelong communist. 2008 marks the centenary of Lloyd’s birth, so we are happy to be publishing several of his books, including the seminal Folk Song in England, which is here introduced by Vic Gammon, one of the most eminent of today’s writers on folk music.


It is very welcome news that A. L. Lloyd’s book Folk Song in England is to be made available again. First published in 1967 the book was the outcome of a long-term, and one might think often lonely, interest in a subject which was largely seen as marginal and had lost what little intellectual cache it had in the first decades of the twentieth century. Yet the moment was also opportune, for in Britain, as well as the USA and other parts of the globe, a so-called ‘second’ folk revival was in full swing. Lloyd was undoubtedly one of the instigators of this revival but the book was also a product of it, in some ways an attempt to give the movement some historical, intellectual and political grounding.

Lloyd was a fascinating man, a self-made intellectual with a facility for languages who had a rich and varied working life. His work included a stint as a farm hand in Australia after he was shipped off as an ‘assisted migrant’ at the age of 16, a sailor, a script-writer and broadcaster, a translator, an essayist and journalist (contributing to left-wing periodicals from the 1930s but most notably with the important magazine Picture Post often in partnership with the award-winning photographer Bert Hardy), an editor and collector, a film-maker (notably with Barry Gavin), a singer, an occasional actor (he was the shanty man in John Houston’s 1956 film of Moby Dick) and quite late in his life a part-time university teacher.

He became a member of the Communist Party as a young man and remained loyal to its ideas throughout his life. The Communist Party, which was intellectually of great significance in twentieth century Britain notwithstanding its small size, was in a sense his university and its version of Marxism was the foundation of the way he understood and interpreted the world.

Folk song was at the core of his wide range of interests. He seems to have started copying songs he heard into notebooks during his spell as an Australian farm-hand as well as educating himself through postal libraries. Back in 1930s England he developed this interest, becoming something of an expert on traditional song in the USA. In 1944 he produced a pamphlet for the Worker’s Music Association, The Singing Englishman, in which he explored his radical historical view of the subject. This can be seen in many ways as a forerunner of Folk Song in England. (It is available online here with a perceptive introduction by Georgina Boyes).

Folk Song in England was a product of the cultural moment of the 1960s which it reflects in a number of ways. Lloyd’s thought drew on a number of important intellectual traditions. Radical historical writing going back to Marx, continuing through the Hammonds, Cole, Postgate, and in his own times by such writers as A. L. Morton and E. P. Thompson, were crucial to his intellectual formation. Folk song could only be understood and appreciated in relation to history. But equally, the uneven, diverse but intriguing field of folk song studies could be mined for insight and understanding. Lloyd had a developed knowledge of US collections and writing in the field and drew on these for insight and inspiration.

He also looked East and both his linguistic ability and his Communist Party connections were crucial; he would go on to translate the important writings of the Romanian scholar, Constantin Brăiloiu.

Finally there was the home-grown folk song scholarship, particularly the work of Cecil Sharp, whose 1907 English Folk Songs: Some Conclusions was, in some ways, the problematic foundation of the subject in this country. Lloyd’s relationship with Sharp is complex and interesting; his writing is at once critical and yet makes use of Sharp.

Lloyd has not been without his critics. The editors of the 1950s magazine Ethnic were strongly distrustful of Lloyd’s approach. Frank Howes’ The Folk Music of Britain – and Beyond (1970) can be seen in some ways as a conservative response to Lloyd, a defence of Sharpian orthodoxy by one who knew Sharp. Howes espouses the view that ‘folk song is recalcitrant to history’. David Harker has drawn attention to the inadequate editing of some of Lloyd’s published work (and, it must be said, has set immaculate standards in his own edited anthologies although these seem little known among folk song enthusiasts) as well as disagreeing with significant aspects of Lloyd’s interpretations. Georgina Boyes has attacked Lloyd’s romanticism and his too ready acceptance of ‘survivalist’ ideas. David Gregory has tried to understand Lloyd’s intellectual development in a sympathetic way. I have acknowledged Lloyd as a crucial influence on my own work but not been reluctant to engage with his interpretations when I felt this was necessary.

Critical engagement continues, as it should, but for far too long new generations have been deprived of the ability to experience Lloyd’s work as copies of Folk Song in England have become harder and harder to get. What none of Lloyd’s critics have ever matched is his ability as a writer, nor do I think many have matched his enthusiasm for the material. People who knew Lloyd (as I did too late and too briefly) remember this genial and generous character, yet sharp as a razor, who seemed to like nothing better than to share his enthusiasms with others.

Do not read his book uncritically, but for goodness sake do read it for pleasure. To engage with the subject seriously you have to engage with Lloyd’s work. For a whole generation of interested people it opened up the possibility of a different way of understanding English history and culture and the place of folk song in both. I am sure it still has that potential. I remember the historian Raphael Samuel once saying to me ‘Bert Lloyd was a great popular historian’. That will do as a testament.


Vic Gammon, Senior Lecturer in Folk and Traditional Music, Newcastle University and author of Desire, Drink and Death in English Folk and Vernacular Song (Ashgate 2008).

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