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Albion’s Hidden Numina

1,703 words

Reyardine [1]In the summer of 1969 the members of Fairport Convention were gathered together at a country house in Farley Chamberlayne in picturesque Hampshire. There they were to record their most celebrated album, Liege & Lief, the definitive statement in English folk-rock. The country retreat setting was partly therapeutic as the band had earlier that year been involved in a tragic road accident whilst on their way back from a gig in Birmingham. The drummer, Martin Lamble, and guitarist Richard Thompson’s girlfriend, Jeannie Taylor, were both killed. Clearly, the remaining members of Fairport were looking for a new musical direction as they sought to put the past behind them. 

They found a new voice by revisiting some traditional English folk songs and playing them as though they were contemporary rock songs. In 1969 this was heady stuff, and even now it’s easy to pick up on the creativity and energy that went into the crafting of this seminal album. With the immortal voice of Sandy Denny delivering the vocals there is a genuinely timeless feel to the album. It could easily have been a case of “the worst of both worlds,” with neither the folk elements being disciplined enough, nor the rock elements being wild enough. As it is, the traditional structures of the folk songs avoid a sense of pastiche through the musical brilliance of both Richard Thompson and Ashley Hutchings and the album is a perfect integration of the traditional and the modern.

It is tempting, although probably erring on the side of the crass, to think of Fairport’s creation of English folk-rock as being birthed in blood, occasioned as it was by the fatal road accident. Given the darkly numinous nature of English folk song, particularly as represented on Liege & Lief, it would nonetheless be an apt interpretation. One of the songs on Liege & Lief that is expressive of this dark nature is “Reynardine,” a sparse, understated tale of a young woman meeting altogether the wrong sort of man.

One evening as I rambled
Among the leaves so green
I overheard a young woman
Converse with Reynardine
Her hair was black, her eyes were blue
Her lips as red as wine
And he smiled to gaze upon her
Did that sly old Reynardine
She said, “Kind sir, be civil
My company forsake
For in my own opinion
I fear you are some rake”
“Oh no,” he said, “No rake am I
Brought up in Venus train
But I’m seeking for concealment
All along the lonesome plain”
“Your beauty so enticed me
I could not pass it by
So it’s with my gun I’ll guard you
All on the mountains high”
“And if by chance you should look for me
Perhaps you’ll not me find
For I’ll be in my castle
Inquire for Reynardine”
Sun and dark, she followed him
His teeth did brightly shine
And he led her above mountains
Did that sly old Reynardine

Two things are particularly striking about this song. The first is that whatever sinister action is going on, it takes place “off stage”; the song itself simply relates a conversation. Few English folk songs manage to avoid a murder or a rape, so the lack of dramatic narrative is notable. The second is that Reynardine appears to be a werefox. Reynard is a common English name for fox, so the name Reynardine means fox-like or little fox. Perhaps it’s the veiled allusions to his shape-shifting abilities that give this song its especially chilling air. “His teeth did brightly shine,” just before he leads her off to who knows what fate in the mountains.

Although Fairport’s is the best version of this song, it was very popular during the folk revival of the 1960s and ’70s and was recorded by Martin Carthy, Anne Briggs, Bert Jansch, and other luminaries of the folk scene. The sinister, supernatural elements of the song seem to have exerted the sort of bewitching, hypnotic spell over singers that Reynardine himself casts over his victim.

reynardine_by_kiwidoc_by_kiwidoc [2]

If “Reynardine” seems to embody much of the atavistic qualities of Albion’s Anglo-Saxon and Celtic history, it may come as a surprise to learn that it is effectively a modern forgery. In a scholarly study of “Reynardine”’s history[1], Stephen Winick persuasively shows that the version of the song that is now so popular was effectively created by A. L. Lloyd.

Lloyd was one of the best known and most active scholars of the folk revival. He claimed to have heard “Reynardine” sung in Suffolk by Tom Cook. Now, the earliest documented oral version of “Reynardine” was collected in 1889 and consisted of only two verses. An even shorter, four line, fragment was collected in 1904 from an eighty-year-old woman in Ireland. Although she remembered little of the song she claimed that it was about “a faery in Ireland who turns into the shape of a fox.”[2] This fragmentary recollection inspired a couple of Irish poets who created their own versions of the tale. A. L. Lloyd’s version of “Reynardine” (which he gave to Fairport — see above) contains elements of all of these versions of the song. Winick’s detailed analysis demonstrates beyond any reasonable doubt that Lloyd pieced together his version from these other sources and passed it off as traditional.

Reynardine [3]

What is so interesting about this tale of forgery is that the supernatural elements of the song can only be traced back to the old lady in Ireland who could remember just four lines. The earlier version of the song had no supernatural elements to it. Lloyd seems to have realized that the shape-shifting, werefox aspect of Reynardine’s story conveyed a sense of greater antiquity and so he created a version that accentuated this. In effect, he augmented the traditional credentials of the song by creating it anew.

In fact, this wasn’t the first time that Lloyd had misrepresented the origins of a song. In 1951 he was commissioned to collect miners’ industrial songs by the National Coal Board. One of the songs that he claimed to have collected was “The Recruited Collier,” supposedly supplied by J. T. Huxtable. In truth, the song was a version of a poem published in 1803 by Robert Anderson. Later researchers have been unable to find the elusive Huxtable.

These two examples both demonstrate a desire on Lloyd’s part to enhance the appeal of particular songs by inventing a source that would give credibility to the songs’ authenticity. The two examples given derive their authenticity from the idea that they were collected from an existing working-class tradition.

In the case of Reynardine there was an attempt to add supernatural elements to an existing song in order to suggest that it was of some antiquity. In the case of “The Recruited Collier” Lloyd pretended that the song was a creation of the workers rather than a poet. Interestingly, each of these examples belongs to a different current of the folk revival. On the one hand there was the tradition of magical, semi-pagan songs harking back to some mist-filled vision of Albion. On the other was the Marxist project led by Ewan MacColl (and supported by A. L. Lloyd) which sought to use workers’ songs in order to strengthen a sense of proletarian solidarity. Both MacColl and Lloyd were members of the British Communist Party.

It may seem strange but these two currents were generally felt to be in complete harmony. As long as the “magical” tradition was seen as deriving from genuine peasant stock it was part of the history of the proletarian struggle and could seamlessly take its place in the Marxist scheme of things. I think that this particular way of viewing working class artistic history, and of making it fit into a Marxist narrative, lies behind the current trend of folk horror and hauntology. A good example of this is Robert Macfarlane’s recent Guardian article [4] on the eerie English landscape. Somewhat in the manner of Mark Fisher’s Ghosts of My Life [5], Macfarlane evokes a grimoire of uncanny entities only to explain them all away as political responses to late capitalism. Now, in fairness, many of the cultural artefacts that Macfarlane discusses are quite consciously operating in just such a political fashion, but this just begs the question of why this should be so. After all, these are contested issues and the Marxist interpretation, despite its present ubiquity, is not the best lens through which to view indigenous folk lore.

No one would deny that the history of English song and its wider folklore carry a political charge related to class conflict. This is self-evidently part of the story. But the problem comes when this analysis seeks to include all manifestations of working class art under its wing and to deny the validity of other interpretations. In doing so it downplays or explains away the sinister, numinous, and weird aspects of cultural life that arise naturally from working people living in close proximity to the land. To put it in blunt terms, it is political warfare carried out against the numinous aspirations of the people. The practice of right wing hauntology [5] seeks reverse this trend and to make the numinous its first concern.

All of which brings us back to Reynardine, the sly werefox luring young women back to his lair to do what one can all too easily imagine to them. In tinkering with the extant oral tradition and embellishing it with what were literary touches, A. L. Lloyd managed to improve on tradition. Or, to put it slightly differently, he demonstrated that tradition is a living current, not a scholarly, antiquarian pursuit. In doing so he was seeking to bolster the credentials of working-class tradition so that it would contribute to an emerging proletariat consciousness. But, like the current wave of hauntologists, he was playing a very dangerous game. For, if you seek to waken the hidden numina of the English working classes for ideological reasons, you might find that they are more suited to entirely other ends. The Marxist tradition of industrial folk song already seems hopelessly outdated. The sinisterly numinous current of English cultural life is eternal.


1. Stephen Winick, “A. L. Lloyd and Reynardine: authenticity and authorship in the afterlife of a British broadside ballad,” Folklore, Volume 115, Number 3 (2004).

2. Ibid.