[Musician with Stringed Instrument, England, 14th Century.] NYPL, Picture Collection. Digital ID 810488.Until the advent of recorded sound, the indigenous music of England, Scotland, and Wales was passed down through the generations by word of mouth.
The most well known forms are sea shanties, which are mostly call and response songs (a type of work song often sung acapella, used to coordinate movement during tasks like sailing, harvesting crops, or waulking wool); ballads, which are songs that tell stories of love, war, protest, the supernatural and/or crime; hornpipes and jigs; music to dance to; music hall or bawdy songs; songs that are a bit crude and meant to be humorous; and carols, which are songs performed at major festivals throughout the year.
As early as the 19th century, song collectors began travelling to rural areas of Britain in an attempt to preserve and protect the tradition. In the early 20th century, collectors such as Cecil Sharp and Ralph Vaughan Williams continued to gather and record for posterity a multitude of verses and tunes. British folk music enjoyed a popular revival during the 1960s and 1970s, its musicians drawing primarily on the wealth of songs chronicled in the Child Ballads, and in the library of the English Folk Dance and Song Society. Another generation has been carrying on the tradition since the early 1990s.
To remain a living tradition, folk music must continously reinvent itself. A successful folk song is the proper blend of old and new. Here are some of the best recordings from the British folk revival, in rough chronology, from the 1960s to the present.
Essential, by Martin Carthy.
One of the most influential folk artists for over 40 years, Carthy released his first album in 1965, with Dave Swarbrick on fiddle. Carthy's rendition of the traditional ballad "Scarborough Fair" was adapted, without acknowledgment, by Paul Simon in 1966. (Preview)
The Lady and the Unicorn, by John Renbourn.
In 1963, Renbourn and fellow guitar player Bert Jansch recorded their first album together, Bert and John, a mix of jazz, blues, and folk. Renbourn's acoustic guitar fingerpicking style has rightly been described as "folk baroque." Medieval and Renaissance music are strong influences in this beautiful solo album, released in 1970. (Preview)
Cruel Sister, by Pentangle.
Pentangle, named for the emblem on Sir Gawain's shield in the story of Sir Gawain and The Green Knight, was founded in 1967 by John Renbourn, Bert Jansch, and Jacqui McShee. All songs on this jewel of an album are adapted from traditional ones. (Preview)
Liege and Lief, by Fairport Convention.
Founded in 1967 by Richard Thompson and Ashley Hutchings, this band was among the first to use electric guitar in the traditional folk song. This album represents a breakthrough in British folk, thanks, mostly, to Sandy Denny. With her trad music influence and her incomparable vocals, she and Fairport created a brand new genre: English folk rock. (Preview)
The Lark in the Morning, by Steeleye Span.
In 1969, Ashley Hutchings left Fairport, wanting to get back to a more traditional sound. He joined up with Martin Carthy, Maddy Prior and Tim Hart, and Terry and Gay Woods. This band had not one, but two terrific female vocalists! Steeleye Span was only the beginning for Prior, who has remained one of the strongest and purest voices on the scene, for over 35 years. (Preview)
Morris On, by Ashley Hutchings, Richard Thompson, Shirley Collins, et al.
This riotous album of Morris Dance songs and tunes, released in 1972, combines traditional and modern instruments — and Morris Dancers, complete with sticks and bells! (Preview)
Silly Sisters, by Maddy Prior and June Tabor.
This is an amazing acoustic collaboration of two of the best voices in English folk, featuring Carthy on guitar, released in 1976. (Preview)
Airs and Graces, by June Tabor.
Tabor's voice was made for the ballad. This collection of traditional ballads, recorded in 1976, is plaintive and beautifully performed. (Preview)
Hang Up Sorrow and Care, by Maddy Prior and the Carnival Band.
A collection of popular English tunes from the 17th and 18th centuries, "These Witty Ballads, Jovial Songs, and Merry Catches were most ingeniously recorded for the enjoyment of all Lovers of Musick..." This album, released in 1995, is a lot of fun! (Preview)
Definitive Collection, by Waterson Carthy.
Carthy, whose first album was released in 2004, is comprised of Carthy, Norma Waterson, and their daughter, Eliza, with the melodeons of Saul Rose (1996–2000 and 2007 through the present) and Tim Van Eyken (2000–2007). A veritable supergroup! (Preview)
Anglicana, by Eliza Carthy.
The daughter of Martin Carthy and Norma Waterson, Eliza is the most compelling of the latest wave of folk musicians. Touring since she was 14, she has taken British folk music to the next level. Speirs and Boden play on this album, released in 2002, as the Ratcatchers. Great stuff! (Preview)
The Works, by Spiers and Boden.
Spiers, a melodeon and concertina player, and Boden, a flamboyant vocalist who plays fiddle and guitar, formed this traditional acoustic duo in 1999. This album represents their first 10 years, with guest appearances by Eliza Carthy and Martin Simpson (who played on three of June Tabor's later recordings). (Preview)
Burlesque, by Bellowhead.
More than just an 11 piece oompah band, Bellowhead was put together as a festival band by Spiers and Boden in 2004. Music hall big band meets folk, and the tradition continues... Adrian McNally, of the Unthanks, says in The Guardian, "Folk song and brass-band music may be different musical disciplines, but often speak for — and are spoken by — the same people." (Preview)
The Bairns, by The Unthanks.
Rachel and Becky, daughters of George Unthank, a well-known folk singer from Northumberland, formed the original version of this group, Rachel Unthank and the Winterset, in 2004. In 2009, they became the Unthanks. They are eclectic, to say the least, blending all sorts of haunting strangeness with the traditional, to wonderful effect. (Preview)