A. L. Lloyd and Australian Folk Revival Singing Style
© Graeme Smith 1996
In our current recapitulation of the debate about the accuracy of the collections and the recordings of A.L.Lloyd, the question of singing style is continually present, but it has not received the sort of analysis it requires. The opinions of the critics are fairly uniform: Lloyd's singing is "whining" and "gutless"(John Meredith), "inclined to may you vomit" (Duke Tritton through Meredith), "totally un-Australian" (John Meredith), and reminiscent of "an old ram with its balls caught in a barbed wire fence" (unnamed, through Brad Tate).
Jamie Carlin accuses Lloyd of affecting a fake dialect in his Australian singing which he never did in his English songs. On the other hand collector and folklorist Wendy Lowenstein has defended him by pointing out that no-one has ever defined an Australian style (Edwards 1996: 694-5, Carlin 1996: 697).
I would like to discuss here the Lloyd style, suggest something of its origins, consider its impact on Australian revival performance and contrast it to other approaches to singing Australian traditional bush songs.What do we hear in the recordings of a singer such as Lloyd? For the purposes of analysis, we can attempt to separate linguistic components of text and dialect or accent, from musical elements of melody and vocal style. We can attempt, like all listeners, to immerse ourselves what Lloyd is trying to convey through his singing, in the obvious content of the song and his suggestions of what this music means, and within the partially conscious, partly intuitive gestures of the singer, his sounding and embodied voice and the musical output.
Jamie Carlin comments that his singing is nasal and off-key, and atypical of his general English singing style, in that it involved a contrived accent. Here he seems to be conflating different aspects relating to musical and linguistic issues, which doesn't help analysis (Carlin 1996: 697). Disagreeing, I would argue that the vocal and melodic style which he adopted on his Australian songs was not greatly different from that of his English songs. We would expect his "Australian" accent to sound contrived.
It is, of course, almost impossible for a non-native speaker to consistently produce an accent or dialect which would fool a native listener. This, combined with the necessary distortions produced by the sung voice mean that Lloyd doesn't sound like an speaking Australian. It is significant, though that he adopted a contrived and stereotypic "uneducated" dialect form, with dropped ending g's, use of "me" for "my" etc. But he tended to do this in his English country songs too. This affecting of a dialect through a generalised grammatical slumming is, of course, extremely common, being an almost universal feature of external interpreters of lower class art, to emphasise the "primitive" in the style, and it is an affectation which many Australian revival performers have also taken.
I would identify his most prominent vocal techniques as:
As is common with stylistic effects of this kind, it is sometimes its hard to know if the deviations are carefully intended effects or a evidence of a lack of control the singer would wish to eliminate if they were able. Quite often this doesn't matter, as the individual "grain of the voice" of each singer, "faults" and all, is arresting in its own right. This is certainly the case with Lloyd, but when you investigate his style and his apparent intentions, he would seem to be close control of his vocal style.
From the consistent use of feature such as these - his use of melodic ornaments, his use of subtle variations in vocal intimacy, the shape and the placing of his slides and vibratos - his singing takes on a striking individuality.
Where does this style come from, and what is its significance? Firstly, it is not a mimicked "traditional" style. It is distinctly individual and mannered. It incorporates techniques used some by English traditional singers, though, in comparison to Lloyd, much more sparingly. Vic Gammon has pointed out that this singing style is part of Lloyd's argument about the nature of English folk music, its emotional history, and the layers of social meaning which are embedded within it (Gammon 1986).
Consider now the general historical argument which Lloyd advances in his book Folk Song in England. According to Lloyd, English rural folk song developed in two historical-stylistic periods - from about 1550-1750, and from 1750 till the late nineteenth century. The first period produced a strong, robust melodic style, with symmetrical melodies, and clear foursquare phrasing, rhythms and harmonic structures. Typical of this era are the tunes we see in Chappell's Popular music of the Olden Time and other collections of pre nineteenth century songs. However, from the mid 1700s, the enclosures and the ensuing agrarian revolution resulted in the pauperisation of the lower classes in the countryside. In response they took up an introspective, withdrawn, folk song style. From this period onward, melodies became vague, allusive, meandering, less sure.
This was not all loss, for in this development they became emotionally and melodically more expressive. This song type, with its modal melodies, varied and additive rhythmic styles and potential for melodic variation is that which came to be regarded as the classic English Folk Song, particularly as propogated through the first English revival by such as Cecil Sharp, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst. Gammon suggests that these collectors and composers emphasised this style because it suited their late Victorian tastes rather than because it was dominant in the musical imagination of English rural musicians.
Lloyd's English and Australian songs are powerfully influenced by this late song style, not merely in the melodic types which he selects to perform, but more importantly in the interpretations which Lloyd gives to all his basic melodies. His melodic flexibility, his ornamentation, his profuse use of scoops and glides, all work to present his vocal melodies as repositories of little melodic secrets rather than as simple, clearly structured and commonplace. His persona is that of the introspective singer, and even when he moves from an intimate delivery into declamation, the emotional force always seems to be directed inwards.
But as Gammon points out, few English rural singers recorded by twentieth century collectors display the melodic or emotional style which Lloyd describes. Singers like Joseph Taylor, Harry Cox or Sam Larner could scarcely be described as vague or meandering; in fact the only singer who consistently displays the characteristics which Lloyd describes is A L Lloyd. Gammon suggests that to Lloyd, these songs represent "the demise of the English peasantry, the class robbery of the enclosures, the destruction of the conditions under which English folk song flourished" (Gammon 1986:160).
However, this is not to say that the techniques and stylistic features which Lloyd used are not to be found among English singers. Significantly, they are most prominently found amongst travellers, both Romany and non-Romany, rather than in the mouths of sedentary rural workers and farmers (Lloyd 1975, Richards 1987: 139-40). Lloyd's mother was keen on "sympathetic parodies" of the singing style of local gypsies in Kent, and perhaps Lloyd takes some of his inspiration from there (Arthur 1983: 436). The deep melancholy which often seems to sit just under the surface of his work, even at its most boisterous, may have its roots in the sudden loss of his whole family in his mid teens, which lead to his emigration to Australia. Leslie Shepard, in a biographical essay, notes that Lloyd had "a certain enigmatic reserve and I [Shepard] suspected a secret sorrow" (Shepard 1986:130)