Maybe that's what songs are for."
I've loved music for many years. As I've grown, my tastes have grown with me. And as I'm a poet at heart, I've noticed that what develops most over the years is an increased appreciation for the stories behind and around the music. The passage of time has imbued me with a respect for the importance of songs: something which has been at the front and center of my mind since last weekend, when the final piece of a lifelong puzzle fell into place.
An English folk singer by the name of Vin Garbutt told me the following story, which I'll re-tell in my own words.
When the spectre of war cast its shadow over England in 1914, the village of Fulstow, Lincolnshire, was one of many to rise to its duty. Ten young men left the village one morning to fight for their country – including one as young as sixteen, who was later found to have lied about his age. None would return.
One man, private Charles Kirman, survived longer than the others. He lived through the battles of the Somme and Mons, fighting in the trenches and living through hell for two long years. One day, exhausted from the constant trials of the front line, he returned to his general and asked for a rest. It's widely believed he suffered from shell shock: a condition we now call post-traumatic stress disorder and take extremely seriously. Charles Kirman, a decorated hero of the war, could go no further, and admitted as much to his leaders.
At the break of dawn the next morning, he was stood against a wall and shot. The British military branded him a coward and deserter.
When the war was over, the British government sent a plaque to the village of Fulstow to commemorate their dead. Only nine names were inscribed upon that plaque, and the village sent it back with disgust. The village would see all of their heroes celebrated; but the government wouldn't honour the name of a 'coward'.
When war came again, a quarter-century later, Fulstow would once more receive thanks and commiseration from the British Government. Two plaques were sent to the town with the names of the dearly departed from two wars: but once more, the name of Charles Kirman was absent. And so the village of Fulstow rejected again the honours out of respect for their fallen hero.
It wasn't until 2006 that Charles Kirman's service during the war was properly acknowledged, and Fulstow received a plaque bearing his name.
The story is remarkable for several reasons. For one thing, it's a terrible, wonderful story – full of heroism, pride, and dreadful wrong-doing by the powers which govern the lives of common people. For another, the story was captured in song by some school students in Fulstow (by a band wonderfully known as 'Better Dead Than Naked'). I don't know when the song was written, but I think it's within the last ten years or so. The way Vin tells the story, he learned the song recently after hearing the band play it (I think one of the band members was a distant relation and he ended up at a gig). How wonderful for pupils of the young generation to capture such valuable social history, and how wonderful for a celebrated folk singer to adopt the song. Finally, the story is remarkable because, if it wasn't for folk music, I'd never have heard it.
The whole story embodies the power of music and the values of both the songwriter and performer. One man or woman can wield a guitar, entrance an audience, and tell a story of monumental importance. Not a story that will change the world, or will grant super-human powers: but a story which can keep history alive, and teach us of the troubles that others have gone through.
The road to the world we live in today is littered with stories of everyday courage, pride, hardship and sacrifice. History goes beyond the events of the textbooks, the technologies that transformed our societies and the politics which drove our people. History was lived and breathed by people, who loved and suffered and worked and bled. The history of the low peoples of the world should never be forgotten: and nothing out there venerates that history better than song.
Folk artists like Bob Dylan, Martin Simpson and Vin Garbutt keep this storytelling tradition alive, and in doing so ensure that the histories they sing about stay relevant. Steve Earle and Hayes Carll are American storytellers in the same vein, keeping the history and culture alive and reminding us all where we come from. Younger folk artists like Seth Lakeman retain the storytelling of their forebears, but tell those stories through exciting, high-tempo music. These values – born of folk music and carried through to other genres – are some of the most important aspects of music.
On the night that I heard the story of Fulstow and Charles Kirman, Vin Garbutt used a phrase: song collector. And I realised that that's exactly what folk singers (and indeed the blues singers of old) do: they collect songs, collect history, and share them for all to hear. It's an old fashioned sort of skill, but a valuable one.
So many stories have been captured through song. The tale of John Henry - who beat a machine in a race to lay a train track, only to die of his exertions – has been well told in American folk music. The story of the solider Ira Hayes, written by Peter LaFarge, is still highly relevant today and inspired my own story, The Ballard of Eiy'ra Haiz. Modern catastrophe, too, is captured: the American government's neglect of New Orleans after hurricane Katrina was immortalised by the likes of Steve Earle, John Butler, and many others. This is living history, and music will remember it even when society has all but forgotten.
Folk music can be defined in many ways – but I think its defining characteristics are that it's about protest, and it's about the way people live. Of course, different genres do this too, to greater or lesser extents. But I think folk is unique in that to protest and to chronicle are its very purpose. Folk music is more than entertainment or escapism: it's about remembrance, respect, our history and our future.
There was a time when folk music and books were the only way to preserve the stories of a generation. These days knowledge is cheap: there's radio, television, internet, and hundred different storage media which can remember our lives for us. But technology is no substitute for thoughts, and I'd argue that folk music is as important today as it ever was. Perhaps more so, as a wave of technology threatens to strip us of our memories entirely.
Because there's more to remembrance than memory. It's easy now to record, store and preserve information. But the act of reliving our pasts and connecting to our present is something we, as people, should hold dear. So here's to the song collectors who do something which is only going to become more important as a brave new future approaches: keep us human.