Bert Lloyd: Folk Song as Ritual Song

At the weekend I presented a paper at the Folk Song Conference at Cecil Sharp House titled, A.L. Lloyd: Folk Song as Ritual Song. It was a fantastic event with many fascinating subjects covered. Naturally after I thought I would put my paper on my blog for anyone who might be interested in Bert Lloyd. It is a work in process & I think I will be making a bigger project out of it in the coming years. As part of my research I transcribed parts of his 1944 book The Singing Englishman which I have put after the paper. They are well worth a read.


Among other things in a complex, varied & interesting life, A.L. Lloyd (Bert) was a key figure in the second English folk song revival in the 4 decades after the second world war.

He was a lifelong Marxist & was an atheist from his teenage years but did have an interest in pagan ritual, shamanism & folk magic.

He was born in 1908 & died in 1982.

My favourite folk record is Frost & Fire A Calendar of Ritual & Magic Songs. It’s the debut album of The Watersons, released on Topic records in 1965. It was Melody Maker album of the year. The sleeve notes are by Bert.
From it’s inception Bert was closely associated with the Topic label. Topic began as the record label of the Workers Music Association, the musical wing of the Communist Party of Great Britain.
Bert wrote many of the sleeve notes to Topic releases.

I’m a Bert Lloyd fan but having read a few of these sleeve notes I would say that he sometimes appears to present poetic truths as objective reality.

That said he is very readable.

It’s worth taking a little time to examine the liner notes to Frost & Fire.

Seasons of anxiety, seasons of joy. The common people had their rites of propitiation and triumph, older than the rituals of the Church and closer bound to their daily lives. This record takes us through a year’s calendar, displaying songs that accompanied these ceremonies, season by season.
What are the songs really about? Let’s begin with Adam and Eve. The first men plucked their food from bushes and trees, and in open country they become hunters. They learned to tame animals, to grow food plants, and turned herdsmen and agriculturists. When plants and beasts abounded, life was good. If they withdrew, people starved. Fertility was vital. Its stream dwindled in winter, ran again in spring time. Gradually people got the idea of trying to stimulate that fertility by performing stamping dances to waken the earth, leaping dances to provoke crops to grow high and bulls to breed. They tried to bind the potency of nature to themselves, dressing in green leaves or animal skins to perform their magic ceremonies, ritually eating and drinking enormously at certain seasons to take into themselves extra portions of the vital spirit dwelling in sacred animals and plants. Man was on the point of inventing the gods.
The most gifted man in the community took the lead. He was the medicine man, the priest, the king, the representative of divine power. He was the one who dressed in skins or leaves, who killed the sacred animal, cut the sacred tree, led the earth-shaking dances of springtime, lit the reassuring bonfire of midwinter, headed the bands of heroes who marched through the village at critical seasons, singing and dancing for good luck and fine crops, and extracting their rewards for driving off the demons of sterility and want. And because the medicine man was the representative of all that’s fecund, in early times he was killed even before his potency faded so that another vigorous representative could take his place and the continuance of fertility assured. Eventually, as manners softened, the ceremony involving this ritual slaughter, a rite compounded of anxiety, hope and remorse, changed its character. Instead of the king, a slave, a prisoner of war, an animal even was sacrificed, and finally the ceremony became a symbolic spectacle, a pantomime dance of death and resurrection that comprised the first folk play and thus the beginning of all theatre.
When the Christian church arose, it ranged itself against the beliefs and customs of the old nature worship, and prudently annexed many of the seasonal ceremonies. Thus the critical time of the winter solstice, a rich period for pagan ritual, became the season of the Nativity of the new god. The season of the great spring ceremonies became the time of his slaughter and resurrection. So it happens that in many songs on this record pagan and Christian elements are inextricably tangled. So much is talked of myth and sun worship and such, that it’s necessary to recall that behind most of these calendar customs and the songs attached to them lies nothing more mysterious, nothing less realistic, than the yearly round of work carried out in the fields. We’ve divided our cycle of customs according to the calendar seasons–winter, spring, summer, autumn and winter again. Less formally, we might better have divided them according to the economic seasons–the ploughing, sowing, augmentation and harvesting of crops. For it’s due to their relation with economic life, not to any mystical connection, that the song-customs have persisted right up to our own time. Just as one doesn’t need to be an ancient Greek to be moved by the plays of Aeschylus, so it’s not necessary to be anything other than an ordinary freethinking twentieth century urban western man with a proper regard for humankind, to appreciate the spirit and power of these songs. To our toiling ancestors they meant everything, and in a queer irrational way they can still mean much to us.

From the 1930s, before his interest in folk music became a more dominant part of his life, Bert had been interested in myth. He felt that one of the consequences of modern industrial society was the loss of myth as a spiritual & symbolic resource for artists & musicians.

Bert’s first article on folk song was published in February 1937;“The People’s Own Poetry” in the Daily Worker.

One of the recommended books in the reading list at the end of his article was “The English Ballad: A short Critical Survey” by Robert Graves, written in 1927, which traces the development of the ballad from its earliest times down to the 20th century. Included are examples of romantic ballads, sea chanties and street ballads, as well as a long introductory essay. 3

In 1948 Robert Graves wrote The White Goddess: A historical grammar of Poetic Myth, a key text in the post second world war neo-pagan revival. It is a monumental but contentious work. Folklorists justifiably get exasperated by the factual inaccuracies, many people treasure it as a great poetic work & for some it is a holy text. It’s never been out of print.

In 1938, working for the BBC Bert managed to get the first location recording of a folk singaround broadcast.

“There is in Suffolk, within the sound of a Trinity House foghorn, a remote hamlet reached by narrow, high-hedged, lanes. Among it’s few cottages & farms is a single inn, The Eel’s Foot. To the passer-by this beer house, for that’s all it is, is like many another country pub; it’s small & undistinguished apart from its curious name. but on Saturday evenings the Eel’s head is the scene of a dramatic rite which after years of acquaintance is still quite exciting.”

The communal session in the Eel’s Foot was Bert’s first experience of folk music ‘in the wild’ & the vernacular community ritual he witnessed was formative.


In 1944 the Workers Music Association published “The Singing Englishman”, this was Bert Lloyds first attempt to synthesise folk song with his Marxist world view.

It’s an easy & entertaining read.

It was a pioneering work but some elements of it are somewhat fabulous to the 21st century reader with over 70 years of research in the meantime.

Some of the theories of song origin are obviously inspired by the works of Margaret Murray. Bert makes enthusiastic references to a supposed politically subversive singing pan-European witch cult, organised into cells or covens which were ‘of course, wildly persecuted & had to work as strictly undercover groups’

Margaret Murray was a first wave feminist, the first female UCL lecturer on Archaeology & president of the Folklore Society 1953-55 who is most remembered for her books “The Witch Cult in Western Europe” (1921) & the bestselling “The God Of The Witches” (1931.) She hypothesised that a Neolithic nature religion survived as an underground cult until at least the late 18th century.


While generally discredited nowadays in the 30s & 40s it was commonly thought that Margaret Murray’s Witchcult theories were credible.

She is a key figure in the modern neo-pagan revival, a great influence on Gerald Gardner the founder of modern Gardnerian wicca. Gerald Gardner was a member of the Folklore Society from 1939 & briefly on it’s council in 1946. I need to find out whether Bert was a member of the Folklore Society & whether their paths crossed.

Bearing in mind The Singing Englishman was published in 1944 & Gardner’s book Witchcraft Today was published in 1951 it is not possible that Gardner’s published work had an effect on Bert.

Meetings between Gerald Gardner & Bert are not reported in either biographies of Gardner or Bert.

Bert was however acquainted with magician Aleistair Crowley at the time when Bert worked in Foyles in the foreign book department in the early 30s.

In the criticisms I have read of The Singing Englishman I have not read about the obvious influence the work of Sir James George Frazer had on Bert. I say obvious because Bert name checks Frazer several times in The Singing Englishman.


Frazer is famous for his book The Golden Bough: A Study Of Magic In Religion, the first edition being published in 1890.

Frazer attempted to define the shared elements of religious belief and scientific thought, discussing fertility rites, human sacrifice, the dying god, the scapegoat, and many other symbols and practices whose influences had extended into 20th-century culture. His thesis is that old religions were fertility cults that revolved around the worship and periodic sacrifice of a sacred king. Frazer proposed that mankind progresses from magic through religious belief to scientific thought.

The sleeve notes to Frost & Fire are certainly influenced by Frazer.

In 1958 Bert wrote & produced a BBC Radio program called “Musical Pre-History” a 40 minute look at the music & ceremonials of prehistoric Europe. I was unable to locate a transcript or recording of this but will continue to try.


In 1959 The Penguin Book Of English Folk Songs was published. It was a collaboration between Bert & Ralph Vaughan Williams, the president of the EFDSS. It was a very influential book. Many repertoires have been furnished from it.

Bert’s song notes on John Barleycorn go thus

This ballad is rather a mystery. Is it an unusually coherent folklore survival of the ancient myth of the slain & resurrected Corn-God, or is it the creation of an antiquarian revivalist, which has passed into popular currency & become ‘folklorized’ ? It is in any case an old song, of which an elaborate form was printed in the reign of James I. It was widespread over the English & Scottish countryside, & Burns rewrote a well known version.

This is more measured than his Frost & Fire sleeve note from 4 years after.

Sometimes called The Passion of the Corn. It’s such an unusually coherent figuration of the old myth of the Corn-king cut down & rising again, that the sceptical incline to think it may be an invention or refurbishing carried out again by some educated antiquarian. If so he did his work long ago & successfully, for the ballad was already in print in the early years of the 17th century.

Which in turn is more measured than Bert’s Singing Englishman analysis from 20 years previously.

Among folksongs whose origins lie in primitive magical religion but few have preserved anything of what they started out with, though just now & then you come across a song supremely beautiful, supremely dignified & supremely candid that has kept popular & dignified & even become increasingly so through the periods when all was decadence & the song was taken for a drinking song as happened with John Barleycorn, the song of the death & resurrection of the Corn King, who features in magical cults all over the world from the Hebrides to the Himalayas & for all I know beyond.

In 1967 Bert made a BBC radio documentary called “Voice of the Gods” which was a study of the sacerdotal voice & an exploration of the use of sound in ritual. I have located a copy in the national archive & will be making the trip to the Library of Birmingham to have a listen!

14Also in 1967, 20 years after The Singing Englishman, Bert’s Folk Song In England was published. Although no less left leaning in it’s overall vision, Bert dropped some of the disputed statements & ideas he had made in The Singing Englishman about witch cults.

It was more a history of class struggle with folk songs as lower class songs which ‘arise from the common experience of labouring people & express the identity of interest of those people, very often in opposition to the interests of the master.

For Bert song was not only a personal experience but also philosophical & political statement. He concluded that a song had to, in some way, form people’s opinion.

“It might be oblique: as for instance in “Lovely Joan” in which a clever girl upends male superiority & succeeds in extricating herself with aplomb, or even triumph, from an awkward position, or it may be a song that to some extent undermines the conventional mystification of Christianity or bourgeois illusion generally. Songs that tend towards a collective or communal feeling away from an entirely personal navel gazing one. Songs expressing an attitude either of social responsibility or of irony towards the more illusionistic kinds of institution that our masters try to fob us off with. I like to feel that my audience isn’t quite the same after I’ve finished with than when I began.”

The conclusion that song had to form opinion is telling.

Bert was a sophisticated master communicator. He was a journalist, a folk singer, a mentor to many performers.

He was a highly influential figure so naturally when some aspect of his work is re-examined it is important & we take notice.

I’ll finish on a great anecdote about Bert which came from Mike Waterson in 2008 at the Bert centenary concert which was here;

“Bert was the man who knew everything that I wanted to know about folk music. I remember once I went to hear him give a two hour-long lecture at Keele Folk Festival & I was awe inspired by his description of the “Outlandish Knight”, he took it back & back until it ended up as two vases in the British Museum – a thousand years old & I was gobsmacked. Afterwards I sat outside on the steps of the lecture hall & when he came down I said, “Bert, that was incredible.” He said, “Michael, in the light of further evidence everything I’ve said today could be utter bullshit.”



I transcribed parts of The Singing Englishman which I gave out as handouts which I leave for perusal here.

The Singing Englishman Excerpt 1
What strikes most people about English folksongs once they get to know them is their deep melancholy. Their style of tune comes from the church modes of the middle ages & it often seems to have stamped them unmistakably with the bitter sadness of the black death and the baronial oppression of the 14th century. & before the century had come to a close, the effect of the oppression & plague had brought radical changes in the relation of the labourers to the soil & to their masters. The spread of a disease which at it’s height, wiped out one in two people in London, one in three in the Eastern counties, put the finishing touch to the peasant revolt movement in 1381.

The outbreak of lawlessness which followed the dislocation of town & country life, with its consequent labour troubles, filled the green woods with outlaws & rebels. It was about this time that people began singing a song called The Cutty Wren.

Pretty certainly this was a magical song, a totem song, which about this time took a strong revolutionary meaning.

Mythology & folklore do not concern us here, but it is worth remembering that by many people the wren is still considered a power of evil. In countless legends the wren features as a tyrant. It was called the king, the Little King, the Kings of the Birds. It is still called the “hedgeking” in some parts of England. To kill a wren meant that great misfortune would overtake you; but nevertheless the annual custom of killing the wren was common here & in France. Down to the 18th century there was a wren hunting ceremony on Christmas Eve on the Isle Of Man.

Whether the masters liked it or not the servants would all take the day off, go to church, & when the bells rung at midnight they would set off to hunt the wren. When they caught one, they killed it, put it on a long pole with it’s wings extended, & carried in procession to every house. For a few hours until dawn they had the freedom of the village & could do pretty well as they pleased, even in the master’s house.

In The Golden Bough Frazer reports that they sang:

we hunted the wren for Robin the Bobbin
We hunted the wren for Jack of the can
We hunted the wren for Robin the Bobbin
We hunted the wren for everyone

In the song of the Cutty Wren it would seem the tyrant wren had become a symbol for baronial property, preparations for whose seizure & redistribution to the poor was such a formidable task, to be carried out in great secrecy.

These wren songs which Frazer speaks of as being sung on the hilltops at midnight, may well have been sung at witches’ sabbaths: but before the end of the 14th century the Church was commonly labelling as witches sabbaths the meetings of secret political societies & indeed it would seem that quite a lot of ritual & dancing did go on there & pretty surely they sung songs like the Cutty Wren.

The Church called it witchcraft & that was giving a dog a bad name & they knew it. But the witch cults were very likely concerned in the political agitation of the time to some extent. In the villages, especially the remote villages, some still worshipped nature gods of a pre-Christian kind & more & more peasants patronised this primitive religion during the 14th century when they felt that state & church had ganged up on them & made their lives nigh on unbearable, & they had to turn to something for consolation. These desperate men had nothing to hope for from God as they saw it: God was the monasteries & the priests & the monks & these they knew all about; so they put their hope in the Devil. & sometimes poor friars, many of whom were men of strong social conscience, were themselves so desperate that that they joined the witch groups too.

This is something that was happening everywhere, in Scotland, France & Germany even more than England. Everywhere the organisation of the witch groups was the same, & there seems even to have been quite a bit of international to & fro between witches in the different countries. Of course they were wildly persecuted & had to work as strictly undercover groups. A community would have a sort of sub-district committee of twelve or thirteen witches called a coven: the coven leader whom the other witches were not supposed to know, would be responsible for a kind of district committee, & the district leaders to a higher authority still. The coven or district leader was looked upon as the master & he was the object of adoration at the Sabbaths, where a great deal of hysterical fun & games went on & some say the master kept an artificial phallus handy, but that has little to do with the political thing. Certainly the organisation of the witchcults was perfectly adapted to illegal political work.

Certainly a lot of the witches’ songs in adoration of monstrous animals were taken over & given new revolutionary meanings at the time. & certainly the authorities exaggerated the connection between the witch cult & political societies though some experts say that, for instance, Joan of Arc really was in a witchgroup & that explains a lot of otherwise mysterious things about her political life & wildfire success. That is something it is hard to be sure of; but we do know the witch songs & the rebel songs were often much the same.

By & large we really don’t know anything about the folk music of this time, but it would seem just as the lollard heresy was beginning it’s attacks on social abuses & on the established church, just as the Great Society was preparing armed revolt on a national scale, just as the common people were emerging for the first time as free men or wage labourers & beginning their long fight for political freedom, a typical style of folksong came to life, & that style was to persist with little alteration right up to the time we live in now.

Excerpt 2
In the folksongs there is not much flight into mysticism. There are very few references to the legends & rituals of the Church. You would think the power of medieval religion would have impressed itself so deeply on the peasant’s imagination as to have ruled out any other possibilities.

There are carols: but most of them are on apocryphal or semi-pagan themes & all the mystery the official church relies on is taken right out of them, as in the cherry tree carol where the pregnant virgin is walking with her husband in an orchard.

you do not find many songs corresponding to Roman Catholic ideas. But you do find a lot of songs which have a close connection with the gnostic writings of the early Christian fathers, or further back in history still with the dark old pagan times. & some of them are good songs too in their queer sinister way like Down in the Forest

Pagan & early Christian themes overlap in such a song: the hall is evidently the Church & the sanctuary of the Grail even; the bed is an altar, it is the couch of the wounded keeper or the Maimed King; the dog is Joseph of Arimathea with the grail at the sepulchre or at the foot of the Cross; the knight is the daily sacrifice- is Christ himself.

There are many well known songs that are of similar origin to this: the counting songs like 12 Days of Christmas, the 12 Apostles.

There are many theories about who these songs mean, but I attempt no interpretations. I would remark on this, though, that in Eastern Europe, the service for the second night of Passover ends with 2 chants, the first one is strikingly similar to the 12 apostles in content

Excerpt 3
Animal totems were important in primitive magical religions, & they were important to the early Christian fathers too, because no new religion comes about without having in it some traces of the old. Clement of Alexandria recommended the fish as a suitable propaganda symbol for Christians to chalk on walls & long before Christianity had spread to the educated classes & become the official religion of the Roman Empire, there was a great deal of fish & river symbology about it. There was also a great deal about the three vestures of light or robes of glory, about the recognition & adoration of the illuminated humble soul, about free holy pardon & the mystical union of the Bride & Bridegroom in the house of the father & about the mysterious Fisher King: & sometimes you get all these elements combined in one song as in The Royal Fisherman, which the blacksmith at Potter Heigham in Norfolk called Harry Cox still sings.

Another kind of religious songs that you would sometimes hear is what they used to call ‘Egyptian Hymns’; that is, the songs the gypsy tinkers & the pedlars of cane baskets & carpet beaters would sing through the villages perhaps as a guarantee of good character.

Excerpt 4
Coming back for a moment to the witch cults in the Middle Ages we have already stated there was a defiance about their anti-clericism which was almost a political thing. The witches were not just people who tried to work spells. They were devotees of a special nature religion. They took this religion either because they were backward or desperate or had a grudge against society or at any rate the church. This religion, this cult, goes back to pre-christian times; it, or something like it, seems to have been the ancient religion of Western Europe. The god the witches worshipped was sometimes a man, sometimes a woman, sometimes a monstrous animal. To Christians, every non Christian god was an enemy of the Christian god, so they said the witchcraft members worshipped the Devil. The god of the witches could change his shape if he chose, & so by transfer of power the witches believed or pretended to believe that they too could transform themselves into animals at will. You can still hear songs from the old days that once had a deep magical meaning and were songs of the adoration of animals other than the Holy Lamb & pretty certainly these songs too, like the song of the Great Wren were sung when the witches met up in the moonlit hills & danced around the master.

Things change very much & instead of being dark & sinister many hymns in praise of the monstrous animals are now just dirty songs for a truckload of troops to sing, like the well known Derby Ram. Though perhaps things have not altered that much after all, for on the evidence of Lambert Danaeus & others these witch songs were somewhat rough to say the least & I suppose one might expect songs praising a fertility god to be. Plenty of them are well enough known: the Toe of the Mallard, Jolly Old Hawk, Lovely Old Mackerel

In all these songs only faint traces of the old adoration remain & in their debased & more modern versions they are harmless enough to figure in collections of nursery rhymes & that indeed is just what they do.

Among folksongs whose origins lie in primitive magical religion but few have preserved anything of what they started out with, though just now & then you come across a song supremely beautiful, supremely dignified & supremely candid that has kept popular & dignified & even become increasingly so through the periods when all was decadence & the song was taken for a drinking song as happened with John Barleycorn, the song of the death & resurrection of the Corn King, who features in magical cults all over the world from the Hebrides to the Himalayas & for all I know beyond.


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