One of the more tedious forms of mass-produced think-pieces in our internet era is “Is [surprising and unexpected piece of pop cultural ephemera] actually a feminist masterpiece?” At the risk of falling into this I’d like to pose the following question: Is folk music feminist? Well, the answer is no because folk music is a massive category of musical styles and forms stretching back hundreds of years so it’s far too broad a category to draw conclusions about. But let’s restate the question. Is folk music more feminist than people give it credit for? And I’d say yes, yes it is. The usual disclaimers here apply, I am an asexual man, take my opinions about feminist issues and sexual politics with a grain of salt, etc, etc but I really do think that within the vast corpus of folk music exists a number of surprisingly feminist themes.
This may seems surprising, given that folk music is the music of old white people. But folk music is also an extremely populist genre. Though the term is now used to refer to an entire style of music, technically it refers to music of traditional or unknown authorship, music passed from generation to generation orally, music written by communities about their daily lives. This is why I’ve always loved traditional music, because it has the capacity to cut to the core of people’s hopes and dreams in a way nothing else does. Women are people. Women are actually a lot of people! And women wrote and sung and passed down songs as much as men ever did. That’s not to say that all folks songs about women have progressive messages. The number of songs cheerfully recounting men murdering their girlfriends/wives/random women/etc is sort of astounding, just for example. But you also have folk songs forthrightly laying out condemnations of the institution of marriage, folk songs acknowledging women’s sexual agency, and folk songs about defiance, about spitting in the eye of those who would attempt to control you.
That’s what I want to talk about today.
(Trigger Warning: Violence against women, sexual assault, rape)
It Turns Out Women Like Sex
I think people are always surprised by how sexual folk music can be. It has a reputation as being quaint, old-fashioned, stuffy. But as I’ve said, folk music is written by the People about lived experiences. Thus, themes of sex and violence are extremely common. Folk music may be less graphic than modern music, but it is rarely less explicit. Take, for example, the opening lines of the murder ballad “The False Lady”: “Abide, abide, my love, she said, / bide and stay all night. / You’ll have pleasure all in my room, / By a coal and candle light, light, / By a coal and a candle light”. What’s noticeable about this, I think at least, is that it is the women in this song enticing the man into sexual congress. Now, in this case it’s because she’s an Evil Temptress who ends up murdering him with penknife while kissing him (Then shes gets into an argument with a bird about it. Look, it’s a weird song). But this theme of female sexual agency is interestingly common throughout many folk songs. The commodity model of sexuality is a Victorian innovation in many ways, and while a potent societal construct, never fully described the lived experience of most people.
There are many, many folk songs about why Sex is Evil and how Women Who Have It Too Much Are Whores but their are also many folk songs that are quite frank about women initiating and enjoying sex. Take, for example, a verse from the song “The Trooper And The Maid”: “She’s made her bed both long and wide / And made it like a lady / She’s taken her coatie over her head / saying ‘trooper are you ready’? The entire seduction sequence in the song is like that, totally described as led by the ‘Maid’ with the ‘Trooper’ an unvoiced and passive recipient. Another example is the delightful “Cowsong”, in which a girl uses her sexual wiles to trick a boy out of his cow (FOLK MUSIC IS WEIRD OK). The song ends with an admonition to all young lads to avoid being seduced by devious young lasses.
My favorite example of this, however, is the gold standard for all murder ballads, “The Ballad of Matty Groves”. The adulterous affair at the heart of this song begins when Lord Arnold’s wife all but browbeats the poor peasant into sleeping with her: “And when the meeting it was done, she cast her eyes about / And there she saw little Matty Groves, walking in the crowd / ‘Come home with me, little Matty Groves, come home with me tonight / Come home with me, little Matty Groves, and sleep with me till light‘”. The young Groves reluctantly agrees to the affair, but the couple is surprised by the return of Lord Arnold, who kills them both. And yet, the song does not present the wife’s seeking out of sex as a negative thing. I mean, it’s bad that she gets murdered, but unlike some songs there’s not sense of divine justice or ironic punishment. In fact, the entire incident is cast as a noble act of defiance to an oppressive beast of a husband. “And then up spoke his own dear wife, / never heard to speak so free, / ‘I’d rather a kiss from dead Matty’s lips than you or your finery’.”
The Institution Of Marriage Has Some Serious Downsides
There is an entire sub-genre of Appalachian folk songs about how awful getting married and having children is. This….isn’t quite as radical as it sounds on the surface. The tone of these songs is generally fairly tongue-in-cheek. They’re songs of amused exasperation, not rage or rebellion, at least so far as I can tell. The best known version is called “Lord, I Wish Were A Single Girl Again”, and most of the complaints are along the line of ‘I used to go flirting all day but now I don’t have time’ or ‘I love my baby but I hate changing diapers’. Though, while researching this essay I did stumble across a version with the line “And now here I’m married, and what do you think / he bought me a new apron and he showed me to the sink” which strikes me as a fairly trenchant observation of the dynamics of a traditional marriage. Still, while these songs may not be songs of revolution, I do think it noteworthy that ordinary women were making these complaints about marriage as an institution.
But, I’ll admit the entire reason I included this section is the song “Wagoner’s Lad”. This is an old, old song, with versions appearing as far back as 18th century England. The verses tell a familiar story, there is a girl, she’s in love with the wagoner’s lad, her parents won’t let her marry him because he’s poor, she is sad. The chorus, however, which appears to have nothing to do with the story, simply states: “Oh hard is the fortune of all womankind / They’re always controlled, they’re always confined / Controlled by their parents until they are wives / Then they’re slaves to their husbands for the rest of their lives.” That’s not a complaint about your parents not letting you marry the boy you love. That’s a direct attack on the entire patriarchal basis of society. And it’s in a traditional American ballad.
Violence And Women, To And From
As I mentioned earlier, a lot of folk songs are about violence against women. Actually, a lot of folk songs are about violence in general, but women in particular often get short shrift, not just in that they get murdered, but that their rendered down into mere plot points. There is no better example of this than the American murder ballad “Little Sadie”, which begins: “Well, I went out one night to make my rounds / I met little Sadie and I shot her down.” Who was Sadie? Why did our protagonist kill her? Did they have a history? We don’t know, and we don’t find out. The rest of the song concerns the murderers attempt to escape justice, his capture, and his conviction. Sadie is just a prop. This is unfortunately common, which is why I want to take a moment to highlight a few murder ballads in which the womenfolk strike back.
One song I’m particularly fond of it “The Outlandish Knight”, a parable about the dangers of strange men. After being seduced by aforementioned knight, the lady is taken to the sea and informed she will be cast in. However, she manages to trick her kidnapper, tossing him into the water and riding home with her parents none the wiser. I share this mainly because of the climactic line, which is truly amazing: “Oh, six pretty maidens have you drowned here / but the seventh hath drowned thee!”. Badass. Still, the best example of this genre is “Willie Taylor.”
As I said earlier, an unfortunate feature of murder ballads is women victims who are mere props. This song may be the opposite. When her fiance Willie Taylor is impressed into the navy on the eve of their wedding, our nameless protagonist embarks on a quest to save him, disguising herself as a man and joining a ship’s crew. Eventually, in the heat of battle, her gender is revealed, and she confesses the truth of why she infiltrated his ship to the captain. The sympathetic captain tells her where she can find Willie Taylor, but warns that she’ll find him “Walking along with his lady gay”. Despite my hope that this would turn out to be his friend who just happened to be lesbian, it is actually his new girlfriend. So, the young lass at the center of our story tracks down Taylor one fine morning and guns him down on the street corner in broad daylight. I’ll let the song speak for itself as to what happens next: “When the captain came to hear it, / Of the deed that she had done, / He made her a ship’s commander, / Over a vessel for the Isle of Man.”
How To Avoid Rape
Sexual assault is a disturbingly common topic in folk music, though perhaps not surprising when one considers how prevalent a problem it remains even today. What I’d like to talk about her is the specific genre of songs about Plucky Girls Who Outwit Their Rapists. In all of these songs, a girl or young women is threatened by a lecherous man or group of men, uses some scheme to distract or trick them, and often escapes not only with their virginity but with a substantial fortune. A typical version of this scenario comes in “Maid On The Shore”, in which the eponymous maid is kidnapped by a passing sea captain. Luckily, she is able to sing him and his crew to sleep, at which point: “She’s robbed him of silver, she’s robbed him of gold / She’s robbed him of costly ware-o / Then took his broadsword instead of an oar, / And paddled her way to the shore, shore, shore, shore.” I like these songs because they’re about female power. The tactics depicted within are usually not actually very practical methods of avoiding sexual assault (other examples: In “Martinmas Time”, our heroine dresses up as a soldier and tricks her harassers into paying her to go away. In “Merry Green Broom” she uses, um, magic sleeping herbs I think?), but are rather humorous and inspirational tales about women using their wits and wiles to outwit their tormentors, stealing their gold as well as a symbolic emasculation.
“Eppie Morrie” is different. It is almost brutally realist, depicting the kidnapping of a young women by a rival village in one of the endless clan wars of the Scottish borderlands. It is disturbingly graphic, describing an actual attempted rape while the other songs mentioned earlier always involved the plucky heroine escaping long before she was in any real danger. And Eppie Morrie escapes her fate not through a plucky scheme or sneaky trick, but by sheer, raw fighting. “He’s kissed her on her lily breast
and held her shoulders twa / But aye she gat and aye she spat, / and turned to the wall, the wall / And turned to the wall / They wrestled there all through the night / Before the break of day / But aye she gat and aye she spat / And he could not stretch her spey, / He could not stretch her spey.” This is a song about defiance. It’s a song about spitting in the eye of yout enemy. It’s a song about resistance to the last, about fighting through the long and lonely night without hope of rescue because you refuse to let the bastards win.
It’s also deeply problematic song. Though the line is not present in the version of the song I posted, in many variants when the serving maid is informed that Eppie Morrie has survived the night with her virginity intact, and turns on Willie (the would-be rapist) and snarls “Wally fa you, Willie, / That ye could nae prove a man / And taen the lassie’s maidenhead! / She would have hired your han.'” If you can’t decipher the Scots, she’s berating Willie for “not proving a man”. If only he’d raped her she’d have had to marry him! There is a reason that the emphasis in all these songs is the preservation of one’s virginity. There is an implicit assumption in all of them that if one was raped, then it’s too late, you’re a failure. I don’t think I need to explain why this is terrible. That doesn’t mean these songs need to be cast aside. I personally find “Eppie Morrie” to be deeply inspiring. But it’s a reminder to us to avoid dichotomies, to remember that everything is flawed, and that nuanced analysis is possible despite that.
I don’t really know to end this essay. Folk music is great y’all. It’s weird and messy and disturbing and soaked in blood but it’s also achingly real at times. It reveals the truth of how people saw their lives, how they wanted to remember things, how they wished to forget. To people first experiencing it, folk music can seem strangely modern. That’s because people don’t change. People’s needs and desires and wants fundamentally remain the same today as they were in the 18th century.
Feminist analysis may be a relatively modern concept, but that doesn’t mean that women didn’t have sexual needs and desires, didn’t resent the suffocation of the patriarchal state, didn’t fight back against those who sought to kill or harm them. Folk music is our unwitting window into that world.