Horror of horrors folk music is not politically correct!

(December 14, 2009)

Horror of horrors folk music is not politically correct!

More precisely, songs such as ‘The Bonny Black Hare’, ‘Gentleman Soldier’, ‘The Ups and Downs’ and hundreds of others are apparently no longer acceptable for singing in pubs, clubs and other public places. They are not for public performance and in fact they are politically incorrect.

I heard this a few nights ago and it has taken me a while to absorb the impact.

Do we really have a political correctness lobby that dictates what people can sing – folk or otherwise?

Of course there are CDs with ‘Explicit Language Advisory’ stickers and computer games listed ‘Over 18’. However, much of that is surely self evident. If you buy a CD by Eminem or Slipknot it’s a fair bet the lyric will contain at least one ‘f**k’ so one should not express righteous surprise. Then again, any computer game called ‘Assassin’s Creed’, Bloodlust Vampire’ or ‘Urban Death Kill’ will feature violence; what else? These ‘cautions’ are there to advise adults and protect children but given the genre and subject matter – what else would you expect? I cannot imagine that many people buy those items, sit down to listen or play with a ‘nice’ cup of tea and suddenly find their senses outraged.

Returning to the assertion that some folk songs are politically incorrect; this view (accompanied by much ‘tut-tutting’) was put forward by a group that I can only assume are some sort of PC activists. They set me thinking about folk songs and their content being politically incorrect. Is this true? Is any folk-orientated political correctness lobby important? Is it just the province of a nanny state? Does anyone, or should anyone care?

Too many questions. Time for some answers.

What is political correctness – and does it have anything to do with music?

Political Correctness (better known as PC) are two words, that according to their so-called ‘far-seeing’ defenders help to improve communication, reduce offence, promote harmony and create a language of acceptability. (It also by the way, keeps these otherwise useless creatures in a job – one important reason why it proliferates.) Unfortunately, those two words have done nothing more than create a creeping paralysis of resentment and confusion that shows no sign of stopping. Far from improving communication and reducing offence, PC is creating an incomprehensible language and contributing to a fractured society. The more we fear offending and follow a PC course, the more we develop a bland and timid culture (and the more we restrict music, musicians and a host of other artists). And by the way, isn’t setting ‘acceptable’ as a goal pretty damn poor, surely the aim should be a language of excellence not mere acceptability.

Although it is a modern disease PC is not new. George Orwell invented it in his novel ‘1984’ only he called it ‘Newspeak’. The tyrannical government used it to alter words to mean what they wanted them to mean and to seduce the people into moribund indifference. Managed by faceless bureaucrats and enforced by the Thought Police the double-talk of ‘Newspeak’ controlled everyone. And guess what? Today’s more rabid guardians of PC increasingly copy the same behaviour and approach. There are even suggestions that our current government fits that bill exactly. (Although I suspect that view is probably politically incorrect too and drifting off the non-PC folk music theme ever so slightly.)

However, before we work our way back into music let’s get some points straight.

·         Most PC is nonsense – ‘personhole’ or ‘access-hole’ for manhole, ‘visually challenged’ for blind, ‘senior citizen’ for old. And who came up with ‘chair’ for chairman or chairwoman. For god’s sake, a chair is something to sit on NOT a description of an individual or their role. 

·         No right-minded person doubts that we should strive to remove the language of racism, mental or physical prejudice, religious intolerance and other social evils from our society. However, crippling that society’s ability to communicate in the process is insane.

Also, let’s be clear on one more point. The minute a society decides to influence or legislate on what people can choose to write in a song then it is horribly close to fulfilling George Orwell’s ominous view of the future. Of course, there are those lyrics we may not care to hear and there are those that will always offend someone, there’s an easy answer – don’t listen. Last time I checked most DVD and CD players come equipped with an off-switch.

Non-PC folk

Only a brief scan through my collection served up dozens of folk songs that crashed the politically correct barrier on multiple counts. So what? The language in these folk songs is bawdy, vaguely suggestive, somewhat coarse and full of innuendo - yet harmless. Slightly different to the overtly biological language that certain artists use. The most recent example I heard (heavily edited) was: “She was a ****** ** bitch and she gave out class, she ****** my **** and I ****** her ***.” Somewhat lacking in the cheery subtlety and earthy folksiness of ‘Bonnie Black Hare’ I think, and guaranteed to have the legions of light and joy frothing at the mouth with unabashed rage. Mind you, take time to read an unabridged version of ’Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ and you will find similarly expressive language.

So the mantra should be: if you don’t like it don’t listen. However, if the band playing in the local pub suddenly throws in a bawdy song is that politically incorrect? Is it failing to read the audience or is it a minority of NIMBYNOTEs being misogynistic? (For the unaware NIMBYNOTE = Not In My Back Yard and Not Over There Either.)

Bawdy songs and ribald lyrics

If a band breaks into a bawdy song don’t stand there tutting, wait for the next song and enjoy that instead. As I said earlier, as long as they don’t incite racism, religious intolerance and other social evils, songs do not need banning.

So why do bawdy folk songs spread in a way that bawdy pop songs don’t? First, the bawdy folk song never receives radio airplay (unless the DJ fails to understand the implications in an obscure lyric). Second, bawdy pop songs don’t exist unless they fall into the ‘explicit language advisory’ category because they need to receive airplay to exist. Those that do exist (below ground) also tend toward the biological rather than the bawdy (see earlier remark). And some, once the wave of establishment-fuelled, righteous hysteria has died, are fairly tame - have you seen the English translation of that famously banned song ‘Je T’aime’?

History gives us the 17th century ‘Wit and Mirth: Or Pills to Purge Melancholy’ a large collection of songs, of which a goodly number fit into the bawdy or ribald bracket. There are hundreds of humorous, vulgar folk songs about errant wives and husbands, deflowered virgins and drunken sailors indulging in hetero and homosexual relations. There are songs about relationships between men and women fornicating everywhere from pubs to country mansions to the same in the open countryside. And none of them set out to offend. They set out to make people laugh.

With much of these and similar songs the offence I feel often lies in the interpretation added by the mind of the listener.

So why has PC raised its head in folk? I asked that question of the ‘tut-tutting’  PC activists. Some answers I received follow:

·         Children frequent pubs more often and parents may feel offended. Children in pubs in the evening? Not in the pubs I frequent.

·         Families drink together more often and don’t want the embarrassment caused by bawdy songs. Embarrassment? Why? Because the adults wonder if the kids understand the inferences.

·         The world has ‘grown up’ and bawdy Benny Hill-type humour is now unacceptable. That may be, and Mr Hill may well have had a puerile sense of humour -  but does it mean that we throw out the baby, the bath and the bathwater?

·         Folk music is anachronistic and a throwback to ‘olden days’ when people were less enlightened. Oh please!

PC - the creeping infection

The legions of light and joy or whatever they’re called these days still regard Mary Whitehouse as sainted as Mother Theresa. (What, she wasn’t a frustrated, interfering barmy old bat then?) They still exist and they still proclaim their right to shut down anything they don’t like. Of course they have a right to object but not a right to ban.

And make no mistake the tentacles of PC are insidious. Today, people called ‘chairs’ tomorrow bawdy lyrics banned. All PC does is enable pointless academics, intolerant activists and muddle-headed, narrow-minded ‘do-gooders’ to peddle their own brand of prejudice. And that bigotry seems intent upon turning everyone’s culture into a featureless mush.

Those who inflict PC on us argue that they are recovering our morals and protecting each individual’s right to be different. Crap. They are removing individuality and reducing everything to universal ‘beige’ while promoting pointless cracks in society.

So is some folk music non-PC?

I bloody-well hope so. And I hope that people keep writing the odd non-PC song. And long-live bawdy and ribald humour. Woe to the day that someone actively prevents musicians from writing such songs. Beware the day that PC ceases to be a stupid bureaucratic joke and takes over. Why? That’s day we start some serious cultural rot.

Laugh if you will but when the ‘Thought Police’ turn up at your door because you refer to your neighbour (who is bald) as bald, not ‘folliclely challenged’ do not act surprised.

Don’t express incredulous disbelief when the pub door crashes open and all those listening to ‘The Ups and Downs’ are accused of indulging in aural pornography.

And remember, when the concert is closed down and the band arrested because they’re singing a non-PC song – that’s when it’s too damn late to complain.

So, do we need PC in folk music? No thank you. Do we need PC at all? Not from where I stand. Do we need to re-energise something called ‘common sense’? Of course we do, before we all find ourselves unable to communicate with each other.

Should you disagree (and you’re most welcome to do so) then take the PC view. Put all this rambling down to the opinions of a ‘heavy set, facially hirsute, senior citizen’.

However, please don’t use that language near me - ‘fat, bearded, old bloke’ doesn’t bother me at all.

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