7 December 2021


Stephen Sedley and Martin Carthy. Who Killed Cock Robin?: British Folk Songs of Crime and Punishment. Reaktion Books, 2021.

Music, especially popular music, can be held up as a mirror of the times from which it came. The lyrics can tell us about what society regarded as noteworthy, thus giving us valuable insights into our collective past. Although music seems to be mostly taken up with affairs of the heart there are other subjects that are included in the massive body of work that comprises human-produced music. 
The recent genre of Country and Western, for instance, is notorious for including subjects such as work, animals, places and even crime as much as love. The music from our past also has this grand sweep that covers many different activities in which humans participate.

Folk music, especially in Anglophone countries, is generally divided into two main categories: contemporary and traditional. The contemporary is probably best illustrated by musicians such as Simon and Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, Tracy Chapman and Linda Ronstadt. The traditional has music played by Steeleye Span, Stan Rogers, Bellowhead and, of course, Martin Carthy. There may be some crossover in the two styles between these artists as music can be as fluid an art-form as anything else. Naturally, as with many other musical genres, there are subsets such as folk rock, folk metal, folk punk and indie folk, to name but a very few. This of course only covers folk music from the United States and the United Kingdom. Every society under the sun has traditional music.

Who Killed Cock Robin is a book about the indigenous music of the British Isles. Even more specifically it concerns music pertaining to crime and punishment. One of the authors, Sir Stephen Sedley, is an expert in this field having been a barrister, a judge and a law professor. Thus his take on this subject is something well within his field of expertise. His interest in folk music goes back at least to the start of his legal career. This is his second book on the subject, the first being The Seeds of Love, being an anthology of folk songs.

The second author, Martin Carthy, is a venerable musician who is regarded as a stalwart of the British traditional folk music scene. His career has spanned in the region of sixty years and his work has influenced some of the world’s most famous musicians. He has played with some of the big names on the folk scene. Indeed, within folk music he is a big name himself. Again, his is an insight that is valuable indeed.

The layout of the book is simple enough. Each chapter covers a particular subject, usually a particular offence or punishment. The songs themselves are introduced to the reader by title and melody. The rest of the lyrics follow then there are a few paragraphs setting out the historical context and the history of the song itself, when it had been performed (including by contemporary artists), explanations of any unusual vocabulary and any place they may have in The English and Scottish Popular Ballads edited by Francis James Child (referred to as ‘Child’) and the Roud Folk Song Index compiled by Steve Roud (known here as ‘Roud’). The epilogue is an examination of the eponymous song in a similar fashion to the rest of the music covered in the book. There is a bibliography and a short list of broadside printers who published the music in the past.

Folk music is as much a part of a nation’s fabric as the heavy stone churches and castles. The songs are as much of our past as the inglenooked pub and the Gothic town halls. Seldom, however, do they receive the recognition due to them, especially now when the internet prevails and everything seems to have some sort of variation of Andy Warhol’s eerily prescient fifteen minutes of fame. Even folk music, as the craze around the (sea shanty) The Wellerman early in 2021 and Gaudete in 1973 showed us, can be subject to this.

This book touches on art, history and sociology, showing us the importance of popular music goes beyond entertainment per se. Whilst acknowledging that it has a niche appeal, it is something that hopefully should appeal to a broader market than the one it is ostensibly aimed at. In short, it is rather charming and deserves a wide audience.
  • Trevor Pyne

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