Representations of Place in Music

Steve Knightly

by Dr Heather Skinner

I have always been interested in folk music, from being introduced to Welsh folk songs at school, and then through attendances at folk clubs in my teens, to much more recently when I ran a folk music club in my local town before I emigrated to Corfu in 2013. Around 15 years ago, at a folk festival in the South West of England, I first encountered the duo “Show of Hands”, although Steve Knightley and Phil Beer had been performing together as Show of Hands since the mid-1980s, and have performed as a trio with Miranda Sykes on and off since 2004. Show of Hands performs and records a mix of traditional and original songs. Apart from the sheer exuberance of the performers, what really struck me about their music was the inextricable link between their songs and the places about which the lyrics related. Indeed, the band’s own Facebook page stresses that “being rooted in Devon and the West Country … is part of the very fabric of this band and our material is closely entwined with its social history and geography”.

As my academic research into places developed I started to see potential in a research project that considered the way rural England, and English rural identity was being represented in contemporary folk song, and decided to use the lyrics written by Steve Knightley as my dataset, from 16 CDs released between 1999-2011, 13 of these by Show of Hands, and 3 with Steve Knightley performing as a solo artist (although some songs from the solo CDs also appear on either earlier or later Show of Hands CDs). Only original songs were included in the analysis, and where different versions of the same song existed these were amalgamated into one piece of data for analysis. From 16 CDs this left an initial data set of 110 lyrical songs. Defining the themes that started to emerge during the first sift through the songs was an iterative process that continued throughout the research project. The initial, and then second sift, checking lyrics for relevance to the research theme, resulted in a data set comprising the lyrics of 60 individual original songs.

As I began reading the literature on some of the background issues, it became evident that, even though music is known to influence peoples’ thoughts and attitudes, there had been very little research about the way this had related to places. We knew little about the representations of place through song, and the role these representations may have in the construction and communication of place identities. Where research had been undertaken, it tended to focus on the urban rather than the rural place (and as we all know, “New York, New York” is not only “a wonderful town”, but it’s also “so good they named it twice”.) The concept of representations of Englishness had also been deemed to be problematic in some of the literature, and remains a contested construction, although the concept of the ‘English rural idyll’ remains fairly widely supported. However, such a rural idyll does not feature heavily in Show of Hands’ song lyrics. English rurality instead tends to be typified by both historical and contemporary lack of opportunity, hardship and deprivation for those living in the countryside, in small towns and villages, and along the coast of the South and West of England, and the band’s song lyrics tend to be more heretical in their challenge to any perceptions of a rural idyll for those occupying these places. There are a number of common themes running through Steve Knightley’s lyrics:

  • Being ‘stuck in a one street town’ / leaving / returning
  • Sailing to sea and/or going to war
  • Social commentary on issues affecting rural communities
  • Crime / illicit activity / rogues
  • Tourism
  • Exchange

My analysis has led to the development of a conceptual framework, identifying somewhat of a mismatch between the place brand image (from an outside-in perspective), that focuses on the rural idyll, compared with the inside-out place brand identity, that focuses much more on the dark side of rurality, including crime, and illicit activity, leaving and returning, loss of opportunity, of industry, of rural activities and traditions, and of an English cultural identity and of the hardship and deprivation facing communities in small rural towns and villages, including in coastal regions. However the inside-out identity perspective recognises the attachment that rural community dwellers show to place and community, and to heritage and rural traditions.

A full version of the paper “Representations of Rural England in Contemporary Folk Song” by Dr Heather Skinner, Chair of the IPM’s Responsible Tourism SIG, is to be published in a forthcoming special issue of the international journal Arts and the Market, focusing on Music, Culture and Heritage.