Although best known as one of the most original twentieth-century British writers, Angela Carter was also an accomplished folk singer and musician. For my latest interview, I talk with musician Polly Paulusma, who is currently researching the topic of Angela Carter and folk song for her PhD at the University of East Anglia. In the course of our conversation, we discuss Carter’s involvement in the folk revival during the 1960s, the recent Folksong event at the RWA in Bristol, and the impact of folksong on Carter’s prose.
Caleb Sivyer: For those people unfamiliar with what you do, could you begin by saying something about your background and work?
Polly Paulusma: Yes of course. Well, I started writing songs when I was about 10 years old. I always felt lyrics were just as important as melodies and chords, and this love of music-and-words led me, via a Cambridge English degree, to sign to Björk’s record label One Little Indian and to become a singer-songwriter for the best part of a decade. I toured the USA, Europe and the UK, supported Bob Dylan and Jamie Cullum, played Glastonbury, and released four records. During a pause for kids I began teaching literature, and founded a small folk record label, and around this time I noticed a connection between Angela Carter and folksong. My curiosity led me to a previously-undiscovered recording of Carter singing and a wider archive of her folksong notes, which I am now using as the cornerstone of my PhD research as a CHASE scholar at UEA which centres on Carter’s influence from folksinging.
CS: I first met you at an academic conference in Bristol that focused on the work of Angela Carter (Fireworks: The Visual Imagination of Angela Carter). There you gave a wonderful presentation of your current research on Carter and folk music. Could you give an outline of this research and how you came to this project in the first place?
“I was reading Carter, and then nipping down to the hotel bar for a drink and hearing truly heart-renting renditions of dark ballads dripping with blood and incest and therianthropy and magic…”
PP: My research project came about serendipitously; I was attending a folk music conference for my record label around the same time that I’d been asked to supervise a Cambridge student on her dissertation on Carter. So I took a pile of books with me to the conference, and they were stacked up by my hotel bed. And so I was reading Carter, and then nipping down to the hotel bar for a drink and hearing truly heart-renting renditions of dark ballads dripping with blood and incest and therianthropy and magic… and then nipping up for another chapter of Carter… and I couldn’t help but make the connections.
CS: Can I just interrupt to ask about this strange hotel that featured dark ballads?
“Folk music is currently enjoying a fourth wave of revival, which is really what brought me to traditional folksong in the first place…”
PP: Yes — it was the designated hotel of the conference — one of the great things about music industry conferences is the music, and it goes on into the wee hours… perhaps academic conferences could do the same! I saw some incredible folk artists playing material from all over the tradition, three days of wonderful folk music from some of our finest young artists. Folk music is currently enjoying a fourth wave of revival, which is really what brought me to traditional folksong in the first place…
CS: Okay, so back to Carter and folksong. Was it just the subject matter of folksong that you could hear in Carter’s writing?
No, it was more than the subject-matter… I thought I was going mad but I was sure I could ‘hear’ folksong rhythms in Carter’s prosodic choices… I think it was the singer in me that recognised a fellow singer, and I became convinced on that trip that Carter knew what it felt like to sing these songs. I followed my nose, worked through my MA with help and supervision from the author of her recent biography, Edmund Gordon, who helped me pick up some leads around the Bristol area, and it was there I discovered a folk-singing friend of the Carters who had been guarding a treasure-trove of papers and recordings for years. To hear for the first time the recording of Carter actually singing, after all the digging I’d done, was a wonderful moment.
“I thought I was going mad but I was sure I could ‘hear’ folksong rhythms in Carter’s prosodic choices…”
CS: Was your MA dissertation on Carter then?
PP: Yes — I began my MA with this singer’s hunch, and bent my whole course on Contemporary Literature, Culture and Theory at King’s College, London to the project, choosing modules that would increase my understanding of Carter. I studied Perversion to get a handle on Sade and Carter; I also studied Popular Musicology with Prof Keith Negus over at Goldsmiths. When it came to writing up the dissertation, I had fantastic biographical guidance from Edmund Gordon as well as literary supervision; but I had space only to focus on one tiny aspect of folksong’s influence and only on Carter’s earlier novels. I have been so grateful for the chance from CHASE and UEA through the PhD to explore more aspects of this influence and across her entire corpus. Because, really, you can see folksong’s influences all over her works; as a form its Gothic-rich store of imagery and motifs is largely unknown in English faculties; this is something I hope will change in time.
CS: How did Angela Carter become involved in the folk scene? What was her role?
PP: From my understanding, her Yorkshire grandmother had sung her songs as a child, but it was only really when she met her husband-to-be Paul Carter in London in the late 1950s that she became really interested and involved in ‘the scene’. The second-wave folk revival of the 1950s-1960s was an exciting time to be involved in folk music; polemic figures like Bert Lloyd and Ewan McColl were driving its development as part of a wider left-wing movement. As well as a chemistry teacher, Paul Carter was a producer, field recordist and sound engineer, and in the late 1950s and 1960s he was responsible for recording important revival artists such as Peggy Seeger and Anne Briggs. The Carters’ mutual friend in Bristol, Christine Molan, recalls them dashing off on ‘secret’ missions to record singers, and Angela Carter wrote later about these trips in pieces like her essay on the singer Fred Jordan in New Society. She also authored album sleevenotes for Topic Records releases, and her 1965 undergraduate dissertation discussed the connections between medieval poetry and folksong. She founded a Bristol folkclub with Paul, and together they sang and listened to others singing fortnightly for a number of years. After they separated at the end of the decade, Angela Carter seems to have become embarrassed about her folksinging practices and rarely mentioned it again; but I can hear its influences embedded in her imagery, in certain motifs and tropes, and most interestingly to me all over the intrinsically musical ways in which she writes.
CS: Do we know which sleevenotes Carter wrote and have you or anyone else read them?
PP: I do, but I might let you read all about them in my finished piece!
CS: I’m curious about the reasons why Carter might have left behind her interest in folksong after the end of the 1960s? Do you have any ideas? Might it be because this hobby was connected with her husband Paul, who she separated from at this time?
PP: I think that’s exactly what happened. I think when she left Paul, moved to Japan, then moved back to the UK, she was keen to disassociate herself from her past existence and past relationships, keen to carve a new life. So she barely mentions her folksong connections after that. Christopher Frayling told me that during her Bath days she actually used to poke fun at the folkies… so really she was disowning the whole scene, which is why I think its impact on her creative output may have been missed up until now. But I feel that little critical glimmers reveal that its influence was bubbling away under the surface all along — for example she mentioned folksong in an essay entitled ‘Alison’s Giggle’ as late as 1983. So she obviously didn’t just ‘forget’ all this material; it just went subterranean for her. The argument of my research is largely that, despite her best efforts to conceal it, folksong influences leaked out all over her prose, from Shadow Dance right through to Wise Children and even in the posthumous American Ghosts & Old World Wonders….
CS: At the RWA Strange Worlds exhibition there was a recording of Angela Carter singing a traditional folksong entitled ‘The Flower of Sweet Strabane’. Where did this recording come from?
PP: This recording is part of the recently-discovered folk archive, and was recorded by chance on 15 January 1967 at the Cheltenham Folk Song Club by Denis Olding. There is also a recording from the same night of her playing a concertina medley. While I’m glad she didn’t ‘give up the day job’ of writing to pursue a musical career, she was really surprisingly good! It’s just amazing that these recordings have survived. For now, they are the only ones we know about; but with her and Paul singing so regularly over a sustained period of time, it would be wonderful if more recordings emerge. I also think that there’s a great deal that could be said about Paul’s pivotal activities in the folk revival — he’s one of the unsung heroes of the revival and Christine Molan is writing more about his work.
CS: Can you say a little about this last aspect? What kinds of things did Paul (and Angela) Carter do as part of the revival?
PP: Reg Hall, a folksong authority, remembers how even in the early days of their relationship the Carters would go on special excursions to see gigs; Paul remembered a trip he took with Angela and Reg down to Sussex to see George Spicer singing at The Cherry Tree. Christine Molan remembers how Paul and Angela would go together to record artists in the field, recordings that would be released on the Topic or Collector labels, which were at the centre of the revival. Paul was instrumental in the foundation of the Collector folk label, having been involved in its jazz incarnation. But he wasn’t just interested in recordings. Together Paul and Angela founded a live folk club in Bristol at The Lansdown, and the club’s manifesto which is part of the archive makes for very interesting reading. They were keen to create a space which would encourage others to sing traditional material. I believe she was as drawn to folksong as she was to folk- and fairytales as art forms without owner, owned by the people, a true artistic expression of the socialism of which she was such a strong supporter.
“Paul and Angela founded a live folk club in Bristol at The Lansdown, and the club’s manifesto […] makes for very interesting reading. They were keen to create a space which would encourage others to sing traditional material.”
CS: As part of the celebrations of Angela Carter’s connections to Bristol, there was a folksong event held at the RWA which you helped to organise and run on the day. Could you talk about how this came about?
PP: Christine Molan realised that it would be lovely to reconstruct a night at the 1960s folk club amid all the paintings and artworks inspired by Angela Carter, and she gathered up members of the original club and because of my work with her she invited me along to sing too. I sang as part of this recreation and also offered to record the results so that a record could be made of the event. What an incredible opportunity for me to be amongst the people who sang with Carter, to breathe and feel for myself, first hand, the experience so that I can better understand the musico-literary implications of folksong performance. The songs we sang rang absolutely true with the songs I have identified as influential on Carter — because you can see their sticky fingerprints all over her works — it was a wonderful event and extremely useful for me and my research.
CS: How did Carter’s passion for and appreciation of folk music influence her writing? Scholars have already examined the influence of folk and fairy tales but do you think that folk music has been neglected?
PP: Yes — I think that, while it shares some of the narrative elements, tropes and imagery with folk- and fairy-tale, folksong as a form is predominantly performed rather than textual, it is a living musical form, and aspects of somatic performance and musicality fed Carter’s imagination in ways which fairytales and folktales did not. So by laying Carter’s prose side by side with specially-selected folksongs, I hope in my forthcoming research to demonstrate a musicality and orality to her work which, for me, has created a whole new dimension to my appreciation of her oeuvre.
“Christine Molan realised that it would be lovely to reconstruct a night at the 1960s folk club amid all the paintings and artworks inspired by Angela Carter, and she gathered up members of the original club.”
CS: I realise that you are in the process of conducting this research, but could you give an example or two from Carter’s oeuvre? Are there particular texts that demonstrate this musicality and orality?
“Here’s a phrase from The Erl-King: ‘the ferns have curled up their hundred eyes and curled back into the earth’ — just ‘hearing’ this phrase with my ‘mental ears’ and I hear the dactylic rhythms of folksong.”
PP: Yes I can give examples, but they come from all over her work. Here’s a phrase from The Erl-King: “the ferns have curled up their hundred eyes and curled back into the earth” — just ‘hearing’ this phrase with my ‘mental ears’ and I hear the dactylic rhythms of folksong expressed in lyrics such as “he’s leapt on a horse, and she on another” — the subtle syllabic emphases are absolutely consistent with the rhythms of folksong. Or how about this from Heroes & Villains — “the curded white blossom of hawthorn closed every surrounding perspective” — just the weight of the words, the way one says it, and the ‘greenwood’ space of folksong is evoked. You can almost hear the pattering hooves. Marina Warner was right when she wrote of Carter’s prose,
“Open any page and a full score rises from its word-notes, of winds howling, teardrops falling, diamond earrings tinkling, snapping teeth, sneezing and wheezing. Storytelling for Angela Carter was an island full of noises and sweet airs, and like Caliban, who heard a thousand twangling instruments hum about his ears, she was tuned to an ethereal universe packed with sensations, to which she was alive with every organ.”
I hope that my research, through bringing together musicological and literary techniques, will be able to explore in more detail exactly how Carter’s folk-musicality added further layers of meaning to her prose.
CS: I hope that you will be publishing some or all of your research as this seems like both an exciting and original take on Angela Carter.
PP: That’s the hope and intention! Thank you for this opportunity to share with your readers my work so far.
In addition to researching Angela Carter’s connections to folksong, Polly Paulusma is a highly successful musician. She has released a number of albums, including Scissors in My Pocket (2004), Fingers & Thumbs (2007) and Leaves from the Family Tree (2012). In 2003, Polly was signed to Björk’s record label One Little Indian and then in 2012 she launched her own label Wild Sound. Polly has toured with a number of other musicians, including Bob Dylan, Jamie Cullum, Joseph Arthur, and Coldplay. In a review of her debut album, Uncut Magazine described Polly as “the finest young female British singer-songwriter to emerge over the last 12 months”. To find out more about Polly’s music, head over to her official website here. You can also follow her on Twitter at @pollypaulusma.