The Monday Book – The People’s Past

Monday book review by Jack Beck – –

The People’s Past (Edward J. Cowan 1980)

I recently reviewed ‘The Folk River’ by Fraser Bruce which describes the Scottish folksong club scene of the 1950s and 60s very accurately. So I thought it would be useful for me to re-visit a book I was given as a present by a friend when it was first published in 1980. Cowan’s book is actually a collection of papers presented at a series of lunch time seminars during the then recent Edinburgh Folk Festival. The idea was to completely turn the usual ‘fringe’ on its head and have a fairly academic event to the side of the much more populist and folk entertainment style main festival.

What’s really interesting is that most of the contributors are specialists in fields not associated with folk arts but have a personal interest in them. There are experts in art history, Scottish history, bagpipe history, and literature. In addition there are a few actual folklore scholars such as Norman Buchan and Hamish Henderson.

If you think it might be a bit dry you’d be wrong. It’s actually very readable and I suspect the various chapters may have been adapted from the original papers by the authors for that very reason.

Hamish Henderson described the vehicle by which folksongs and ballads were carried down the centuries and between different cultures as ‘the carrying stream’ with eddies, boulders and banks, and he appropriately has three different chapters in the book to expand on that.

For anyone interested in how Scottish folk culture unusually intertwined with the more ‘upper class’ or even ‘dumbed down’ strands of the nation’s arts, compared to other European nations, I can thoroughly recommend this book.

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