What better time of year than St George's day to celebrate English folk music? The version of Englishness folk music celebrates rejects narrow nationalism for a combination of resistance to oppression and rampantly burgeoning fertility. If the music tends to the sturdy rather than the rhythmically intoxicating, the stories told are intriguing and heart-breaking. Here are five of the best contemporary versions.
Folk music is intrinsically populist: it champions the poacher over the gamekeeper, the peasant over the landowner, the powerless over the powerful. Maggie Holland's " A Place Called England " is a prime example. The heroine rides out "on a bright May morning", like a modern Piers Plowman, and finds a definition of Englishness that rejects "flag or empire" and the "fat landowner/on his arse in his four-wheel drive" in favour of mud and horticulture. Holland's own version, accompanied on the banjo, has a bright truculence, but June Tabor's reading, accompanied by a jazz orchestra on the album A Quiet Eye , is sublime.
An older cousin of this song might be " The World Turned Upside Down ", which tells the story of the Diggers, a millenarian sect who insisted that "the earth was made a common treasury/and not for private gain". It was written by Leon Rosselson, who has an unmatched gift for setting polemic to music; there are many covers, including one by the Scottish singer Dick Gaughan, but Billy Bragg brought exactly the right defiance to it on the Between The Wars EP. " The Blacksmith " is a traditional tale of a faithless blacksmith, sung by the lover he seduces and abandons. It contains one of the most heartless lines in all of English music, when the blacksmith shrugs off the narrator: "If I said I'd marry you, *t'was only for to try you/ But bring your witness, love, and I'll not deny you." Shirley Collins has a fine version but Maddy Prior made the song her own with Steeleye Span .
Richard Thompson's " Beeswing " dates back no further than the late 1980s but might have come from Thomas Hardy. Its narrator falls in love with a free-spirited laundry girl, who leads him an increasingly peripatetic dance from Kent to the Gower peninsula. The narrator remains infatuated with her; the audience's sympathy slips away.
Thompson has said that the song was inspired by the disappearing singers Anne Briggs and Vashti Bunyan, and by the tales of a tramp who passed through his East Anglian commune in the 1970s. It has been covered widely, including an uncharacteristically rickety version by Christy Moore but the best performances are by its author - either on Mi rror Blue or live.
" Tam Lyn " is, strictly, not an English song but a Scottish one, the story of a faery knight rescued from bondage by his lover. But when Simon Emmerson set out to cover it for his project The Imagined Village , Martin Carthy suggested that the song needed "someone like Benjamin Zephaniah". Emmerson enlisted Zephaniah, who recast it as the tale of an asylum-seeker who impregnates a girl at a May Day club night and needs her support when facing a deportation hearing.
With its reggae rhythms, Sheema Mukherjee's cascading sitar solos and a fiddle frenzy from Eliza Carthy, this is how English folk sounds at its best: outward-looking, generous, and not a whiff of aspic.