A Feminist View of Anglo-American Traditional Songs
Our traditional songs, intriguing and entertaining as they are, are more than just a way of passing the time pleasantly. Music - whether it is Bach, the Beatles or the ballads - does not exist in a vacuum. Music is just one of the various ways in which we interpret and express our social, economic, psychological, organisational relationships. Folk songs reflect aspects of the history of our society, complete with certain assumptions about its values and customs. They do so quite charmingly so that we often sing them without comprehending the true nature of their content. For instance, women (now widely regarded as an oppressed majority) have been so thoroughly internally colonised (to use the current jargon) that we cheerfully sing songs in which we are battered, victimised, marginalised, trivialised, cubby-holed, jeered at, discarded and murdered. This workshop deals with the position of women in these songs. I am dealing exclusively with traditional Anglo-American folk songs because that is the only field with which I am sufficiently familiar.
Almost all of the songs in which women are the central figure involve (1) men (2) love (always heterosexual, familial or maternal) and (3) the family. Songs in which men are the central figure cover these three areas but they also frequently place men in venues that do not involve women: in field or factory, on the battlefield, in the bar, or in various humorous plots both bucolic and urban. There is far more variety in man-hero songs than there is in woman-heroine pieces.
I organise this workshop into six different categories and, depending upon the length of the workshop, I will have time to sing examples of, or extracts from, songs in each section.
1. THE NORM at home and in love - in which we look into: (a) woman as property of her parents or of her husband; (b) woman as unclaimed property (the poor old maid) compared with man as unclaimed property (the cheerful bachelor); (c) woman loved and left (often pregnant and/or murdered); woman as a victim usually lamenting her fate but sometimes bravely confronting it; (d) women's view of men in the songs: fickle, opportunist; beware of man for he is a deceiving creature; but it is necessary to catch and hold him in order for a woman to be respectable and have money; (e) men's view of women in the songs: women are a trap which men must avoid; pregnancy seen as blackmail; women as nagging wives; (f) woman as powerless: things happen to her. Men make things happen. (g) the fallen woman - hardly any songs about women who are cheerful (or even philosophical) about involving themselves in sex outside marriage; (h) women outside marriage are tragic or laughable: the single mother, the lusty (and rich!) young widow, the deserted woman; (i) the mother-in-law: her mother is a figure of fun; his mother is a powerful, manipulative female, not funny at all; (j) no happy love songs about marriage: after marriage, both men and women in the songs warn the listener never to marry.
2. The NORM at work - in which we look into: (a) housework - very few songs, and none that don't mention the tedium; (b) lullabies as womens' work songs; (c) work outside the home - these are invariably complaints or, in the case of more recent pieces, agitational or union songs.
3. ENFORCING THE NORM - these are pieces which (a) describe and recommend socially acceptable behaviour for women; (b) which carry an inbuilt warning: behave or else this is what you'll get - and you'll deserve it. Often casually violent in nature; wife-beating is usually treated flippantly and humourously as part of the expectations of marriage; murder is treated as lamentable but normal, to be expected of a man who doesn't want a child, who feels himself trapped, etc.
4. BUCKING THE NORM - these are songs in which we are strong, positive, adventurous and lusty. We choose NOT to marry, we defy domestic violence, we assert our sexuality even in old age, we are daring and feisty. We are strategists, tricksters, highwaywomen, strikers, wage-earners, and so on. But - almost all of these songs still revolve around men, love and the family.
5. SUBJECTS THAT AREN'T MENTIONED, or that may be mentioned in very veiled terms: incest, illegitimacy, adoption, single parenting of an older child; puberty, periods, sexual relations or problems, contraception, abortion, childbirth, menopause; unphysical abuse (verbal, psychological, etc); friendship, lesbianism; size (fatness, etc), disablement; lower wages or demeaning work for women; women as carers for older parents or for children who have come back home to live. Incidentally: daughters are rarely born in the ballads . . . the mother always bears a son. There are grown daughters, usually ones who are marrying above or below their class . . . but not newborn ones.
6. HOW ARE MODERN SONGMAKERS ADDRESSING THE ISSUES IN #5? In this section I give examples of songs dealing with the above issues. This is a very exciting session because of the variety of the songs, some of which are by men as well as by women.
To Sum Up - it is important to understand what we are singing about. Coming to grips with the above issues does not mean we have to be anti-male in our attitude. It doesn't mean we can't be funny. It doesn't mean we have to stop singing the songs. But it might be advisable to put them into a modern context or to comment on their true nature before singing them. After all, the songs are not intrinsically false or pernicious. They are musical snapshots of the past and they are immensely precious because they are part of our history. Women may have been omitted en masse from the history books but the songmakers of the past gender politics and our new contributions to yesterday's tomorrow.