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‘[A] single, true, certain authenticity’: The authenticity wars in English twentieth-century folk and medieval music revivals


At intervals throughout the twentieth century, serious disputes about authentic musical values arose amongst performers, collectors, scholars, directors, reviewers, and audiences in the folk and medieval music spheres. Analysis of these controversies offers insights into the deep emotions, fantasies, and desires in arguments around authenticity in medievalism. This essay considers two examples of English musical revivalism, one exemplified by the folk song collector Cecil Sharp, the other by Christopher Page, the medieval literature and music scholar and director of music group Gothic Voices. In the writings of both men, emotional concerns about the purity of English musical traditions reveal the role music is given in the maintenance of English nationalism, and more generally in defending notions of identity and social order against feared sources of contamination.

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  1. 1.

    Musicologist Elizabeth Randell Upton and musicologist and ethnomusicologist John Haines have also, in Haines’s words, categorized ‘modern performances of medieval music as a phenomenon of musical revival’ (Haines, 2013, 73).

  2. 2.

    I am conscious, as I write, of David Matthews’s words in a recent essay: ‘[W]hat we call a revival is in fact predicated on the certainty that nothing will revive, and that everything remains in the past. That past is dead and has no further generative capacity’ (Matthews, 2018, 217). Revivals have the supreme advantage of being able to pick and choose what is resuscitated and can camouflage any less rose-coloured aspects of the beloved past, although the choice may not be spoken – or even thought.

  3. 3.

    Florrie Forde, born in Fitzroy, Melbourne, performed this song in London (Forde, 1908). It is difficult now to understand the animus aroused by songs like this.

  4. 4.

    The accent on Englishness can be seen as a further, more exclusively nationalist step in the centrality already given by Europeans to European music as a matter of ‘blood’ rather than mere curiosity. In the opinion of François August Gevaert, writing in 1890: ‘[T]he musical interest which the old [European liturgical chant] melodies offered to the artist […] is not a matter of pure curiosity, as would be the music of exotic people – Chinese or Hindu – where we encounter bizarre melodies and rhythms, piquant perhaps but at bottom strange to our manner of feeling.’ As Treitler adds, ‘As simply as that Gevaert identifies at once the absolute divide between what is “ours” and some (bizarre, strange) Other’ (Treitler, 1991, 281).

  5. 5.

    An example of the early twentieth-century recordings made by the folk song collectors is ‘Brigg Fair’ (Taylor, 1908), collected by Percy Grainger in Lincolnshire. This was the music which was pitted against songs like ‘Oh! Oh! Antonio,’ recorded in the same year.

  6. 6.

    The Representation of the People Act 1867 (Parliament of the United Kingdom, 1867) enfranchised a large proportion of the urban male working class in England and Wales.

  7. 7.

    According to Thomas Falconer, the English jurist and explorer (1805–1882), the Elementary Education Act was ‘a necessary supplement to the Act extending the electoral franchise to a large class of persons who are to elect the members of one branch of the legislature to which is confided the care of the great public interests of this Kingdom’ (Falconer, 1871, 6).

  8. 8.

    See, for instance, Arthur de Gobineau’s The Inequality of Human Races, first published in 1853. See also Charlotte S. Burne’s Handbook of Folklore for the contributions of the English folklorists to explanations of the ‘varying degrees of civilization’ found in different countries (Burne, 1914, 3).

  9. 9.

    The woman’s voice begins after a minute and a half of instrumental prelude (start 1.46–2.57). The entire track runs for 11.30 minutes on YouTube.

  10. 10.

    Brown, a member of the other faction who had recently died, had, according to an earlier essay by Page, coined the phrase, the ‘English “a cappella heresy”’ (Page, 1992, 453).

  11. 11.

    There is a suggestion of special pleading in the 1993 essay which is not supported everywhere in Page’s writing. The notion of the selfless striving of singers is at odds with his remarks in a 1997 interview with Bernard D. Sherman: ‘By the fourteenth century, there are clear references, most of them disparaging, to singers in England who sing elaborate polyphony so that they will be congratulated afterwards by laypersons’ (Sherman, 1997, 95).

  12. 12.

    See Melanie L. Marshall for the association of vocal purity with Englishness: ‘The “pure” sound of women’s early music singing […] is akin to a sound of white Britishness’ (Marshall, 2015, 43).

  13. 13.

    A space seems to be left here for a multiculturalism which was not superficial, but Page did not specify what it might look like.

  14. 14.

    As the word itself suggests, only a linear temporality can uphold identity and guarantee authenticity.


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Dell, H. ‘[A] single, true, certain authenticity’: The authenticity wars in English twentieth-century folk and medieval music revivals. Postmedieval 10, 439–451 (2019).

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