Are football songs the new folk music?
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment when Neil Diamond’s 1969 song “Sweet Caroline” became an alternative English national anthem, but last year’s delayed Euro 2020 football tournament would be a good place to start. Tony Perry, a DJ for major sporting events, is often credited with being the ‘first’ to play the song and introduce it to the English canon when he played it during the England-Germany match at the Euros on June 29, 2021, but he doesn’t take all the credit. “The song is very well known and has been associated with the sport for years and years, so I certainly wouldn’t claim to be the only person to do it. But it hadn’t been played specifically in a game against England. , so it was definitely my fault,” he told me.
The beauty of “Sweet Caroline” is different than a song like Gala’s “Freed from Desire,” which Perry says is a guaranteed crowd pleaser, or Calvin Harris and Dua Lipa’s “One Kiss,” heard by Hundred Cricket. grounds and Villa Park. “Sweet Caroline” – with its euphoric chorus construction, simple lyrics and, of course, its triumphant, sing-song trumpet line – “BA BA BAAA” – is no longer a song that actually needs to be played through the loudspeakers. to be appreciated. It is heard in spontaneous outbursts of crowd chanting in stadiums, by groups of friends returning from the pub, and on the Tube after a particularly exuberant evening. It has taken on meaning far beyond its various recorded iterations – almost like a new kind of folk song.
Although, when we think of folk music these days, we might imagine a specific type of band and sound – fiddle, traditional drums, tunes that immediately evoke a particular kind of Scottish or Irish patriotism – the definition of folk music cannot be reduced to a genre or a music. attributes alone. In fact, it is difficult to define it concretely. Steve Roud, the creator of Index of Roud Folk Songsa database of 25,000 folk songs collected from English oral traditions around the world, defined folk music as “face-to-face, non-commercial, local, untrained” – but said these are not “hard and fast rules”.
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Dr. Alexis Bennett, professor of music at Goldsmiths University and a folk musician who currently teaches a folk music course at the Dartington Music Summer School, explains that folk music can be understood broadly as music that is “orally transmitted…transmitted from person to person organically, often in a social or domestic setting,” as opposed to music taught in a social setting. formal. It didn’t require literacy or music lessons to be learned – it just needed to be heard.
Nor are the folk songs formally recorded in final form, either on disc or in print, unlike songs like “Sweet Caroline”. For Bennett, folk music is “alive”, not “carved in stone”, which makes the recordings “problematic”. So while “Sweet Caroline” can still be learned by ear and sung by “the folk”, it cannot evolve further because it has been, as Bennett puts it, “frozen” by recording (or, in this case, multiple records).
It’s a complicated question within the folk scene. At the turn of the 20e century, as the Industrial Revolution moved people from the provinces to the cities, rural folk songs were also left behind. Urgency arose around “collecting” songs before they died out, and many people dedicated themselves to the task, including Lucy Broadwood – a descendant of the John Broadwood & Sons – who traveled around the country, visiting pubs (no small feat for a woman at the time) and documenting the songs. The only way to preserve them, since the culture they came from was, for the most part, dying, was to write them down – which some say undermined the culture.
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Football chants – those that arise spontaneously from stadiums, unlike songs like “Sweet Caroline” – have been identified by veteran folk musician Martin Carthy as “the only surviving embodiment of an organic living folk tradition”. The chants are known purely by ear, evolving as famous victories, players and rivals come and go, passed down through generations of fans. And yet recorded music is such a fundamental part of our lives that it cannot be entirely separated: the melody of “Vindaloo”, for example, the 1998 track by Fat Les written as a parody of football songs, forms the basis of many of these songs. (In rugby, the meaning of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” has caused controversy precisely because it is a folk song: it is thought to have originated as a slave song, and in recent years has caused some to question whether it was appropriate to sing it at Twickenham. Arthur Jones, professor at the University of Denver specializing in African-American music, say it Guardian it was “ridiculous” to suggest you shouldn’t sing it if you’re not black.)
In pop, recording also strengthened and undermined the integrity of folk music. Bennett tells me traditionalists in the folk scene don’t like pop “covers” like the 2010s era of Mumford & Sons – people who “grab a banjo and wear a vest and put on a Peaky Blinders hat”. But, similarly, the folk scene relies in part on the recording industry and streaming services to keep going, simply because it doesn’t have as much “organic” prevalence (although Bennett, with many others, still plays in pubs).
Although “Sweet Caroline”, as static as it is, can never fit a purist definition of a folk song, it is also significant that it matters to people. And while it can be “frozen” during sports matches by being played in its original, recorded form, the song itself extends beyond the confines of the stadium. “It’s not just the people in the stadium in front of you: if a track clings to that memorable moment, it spills out of the stadium into pubs, schools, boardrooms,” Perry tells me. “The best thing that comes out of all of this is that loads of kids are singing the song – even if they don’t know what it’s about, they don’t know who Neil Diamond is or the fact that it has been around for a very long time.”
When the England women won the Euros on July 31, 2022, their second goalscorer, Chloe Kelly, was interviewed just as ‘Sweet Caroline’ led the chorus and the rest of the squad took a lap of honor. She dropped her mic to run and join them (just in time for the “ba ba baaa”). Perry notes that part of the beauty of these songs is precisely that they are fixed at a certain time – fans remember them in association with a winning match or a particularly fun day, and send him a message thanking him for playing them. And yet, the same sense of personal meaning also allows them to be fluid: they stay with us and transform in different contexts. So while ‘pure’, unrecorded folk music retains its specific power, beauty and cultural significance, the folk process continues to happen all around us: in music for the people.
[See also: The success of women’s football is feminist revolution by stealth]