Music and ‘four nation’ identity

Music and ‘four nation’ identity

This week, PhD student Collin Lieberg argues for a more nuanced view of national identity in music and against the conflation of ‘English’ and ‘British’ when writing its history.

Much as Daryl Leeworthy and Simon Jenkins have pointed out in previous blog posts, many modern studies (on almost any topic) revolve around England as ‘Britain’, and usually London as ‘England’.  This is no different in musical studies, where ‘British’ bands are almost invariably from London or moved to London.  This was true for many of the Britpop artists of the nineties, as Andy Bennett has analysed, but was especially true of the ‘British Invasion’ bands from the sixties as well.[1]  The fact that ‘British Invasion’ has become a term used in reference to the success of British artists in American adds to the ambiguity of ‘four nations’ identity for musicians.

In my own research on the ‘British Invasion’ artists I have invariably been driven to recognise the ‘Englishness’ of the bands involved.  Some of the biggest names of the ‘British’ invasion – the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Animals, the Who and the Kinks – were in fact English, and they all lived in London at their peak.  Indeed, both the Kinks and the Who, originally from London, have been called ‘quintessentially English’ bands – the Kinks most notably for ‘Waterloo Sunset’ and their Village Green Preservation Society and Arthur albums; the Who because they wore the Union Jack as a fashion statement.

Which is not to say there were not musicians from the ‘four nations’ creating music.  American-born producer Joe Boyd, who has spent most of the past fifty years living and working in the UK, told me that most English and Scottish musicians could not help but sound different from their American counterparts because their modes, melodies and sense of rhythm were different than American musicians.  Furthermore, he claimed the ‘Celtic’ modes of Scottish and Irish music were different from ‘English’ approaches.  Boyd pointed out that the Fairport Convention album Liege & Lief (which he produced) has more of a Scottish feel because it has jigs and musical elements typically associated with Scotland – the traditional songs ‘Matty Groves’ and ‘Tam Lin’ have often been placed in Scotland despite appearing throughout the British Isles.  The next album, Full House (also Boyd produced), has a more ‘English’ feel because of the influence of fiddler Dave Swarbrick and bassist Dave Pegg.  To Americans they were both ‘British’ albums, but to those living here they had distinct ‘Scottish’ or ‘English’ personalities.

Other musicians all get lumped together into a broader ‘British Invasion’, such as Them, the Incredible String Band (ISB) and Mary Hopkin.  Them, Van Morrison’s band before embarking upon a solo career, were Northern Irish; the ISB were Scottish; Mary Hopkin Welsh.  Hopkin, in particular, displayed her identity through her music in two compilation albums, The Welsh World of Mary Hopkin (1976) and Y Caneuon Cynnar (The Early Recordings) (1996).

‘England’ has been conflated with ‘Britain’, leading to ideas of its dominance over the rest of the nations.  Whilst identifying ‘English’ identity has become complex with issues of pastoralism, urbanism and class all playing a role, ‘British’ identity became even more vague.  To the American audience, anyone from the Isles was British, regardless of their origin.  Yet those artists were also drawing upon their own influences and foundations which went mostly unrecognised outside of the territory.

Having a more nuanced view of national identity in music, especially in regards to how a ‘four nations’ approach might affect traditional views, would lead to a greater understanding of how intertwined and diverse the four nations are.

[1] See Andy Bennett, ‘“Sitting in An English Garden”: Comparing Representations of “Britishness” in the Songs of the Beatles and 1990s Britpop Groups’, in Ian Inglis (ed.), The Beatles, Popular Music and Society: A Thousand Voices (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2000), pp. 189-206.

Collin Lieberg is a third year PhD student at the University of Warwick. He analyses American and British popular music of the 1960s. Specifically, he looks into ideas of national identity and what it means to be ‘American’ or ‘British’ and how the musicians of the era fit into those categories and how they influenced each other. You can read more about him on his university page, and follow him on Twitter @collinlieberg.
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