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Neither Maid nor Man: Tarren explore gender variance in British Folk song

Danny Pedler of Tarren explores gender variance in traditional folk music during their Cecil Sharp House residency. Watch 'Neither Maid nor Man' and read about their journey.

Does gender variance exist in traditional folk song? That’s the question that new-folk trio, Tarren, asked at the start of their residency at Cecil Sharp House in October 2023, made possible through funds awarded by the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS). Tarren spent a week at the home of English Folk music and dance in London researching traditional songs and creating new music celebrating gender non-conformity in Folk music. The result of this residency is the new song, ‘Neither Maid nor Man’, which you can watch above. Tarren’s Danny Pedler has put together this fascinating article on the trio’s quest to find gender variance in traditional folk song.

Where to start?

The folk band Tarren poses in an artist's studio. Sid Goldsmith (he/him) sits on a stool with a stringed instrument on the left, Alex Garden (they/them) stands in the middle holding a violin, and Danny Pedler (he/him) sits on a chair with an accordion on the right. The studio is adorned with dried floral wreaths, botanical prints, and various art supplies.
Tarren are: Sid Goldsmith, Alex Garden and Danny Pedler

There is a lot of Folk music. Like, a lot. There are thousands of tunes and songs created and passed on and collected throughout the last 400 years, and for every song, there could be more than 50 variations of it. To find examples of gender variance, first we had to find a place to start.

Who are Tarren?
Tarren is made up of Bristol-based artists Sid Goldsmith, Alex Garden and Danny Pedler (Pedler // Russell). They combine cittern and concertina, fiddle, and accordion to create their unique sound.
We tried to group some of the songs together. There is a wealth of different song ‘types’ in Folk music made up of songs that follow a certain story, format or theme. To name a few, there are ‘love meetings’; songs where a man and a woman meet and usually decide to get married alarmingly quickly. There are hundreds of sea shanties (usually rhythmic songs sung to keep people entertained or working in time on sailing ships), protest songs, hunting songs, mining songs, industrial songs, carols and harvest songs. So, there’s a lot. Surely we’d find a song type that challenges traditional gender norms?

The Warrior Woman

There is not a huge amount of research on gender in folk song specifically, but one valuable source is Dianne Dugdaw’s Warrior Women and Balladry. We have borrowed the phrasing of this song type from her.

Songs about warrior women, like ‘The Female Cabin Boy’ [Roud 239], ‘William Taylor’ [Roud 158], ‘The Female Highwayman’ [Roud 7] and all their variations, were an extremely popular type of song in the 18th and 19th centuries. The earliest surviving examples are narrative ballads printed on sheets of paper and sold by ballad sellers in towns and cities. These songs all follow a similar pattern: a woman is wronged, dresses up like a man and via her disguise encounters dangers she would not normally have faced and performs heroics outside of the constraints of the domestic role assigned to women at the time.

Then straight my green gown
Into breeches I’ll make
And my long yellow locks
Much shorter I’ll take

I’ll get me a switch
And a sword by my side
A horse, boots and spurs
And I’ll get up and ride

Extract from ‘The Wandering Virgin’ [Roud V8229], an English Broadside Ballad from the 17th century

Then, when disguised, the woman warrior enlists for a soldier or boards a navy ship. However, sometimes she may choose a less militaristic venture and become a highwayman holding up travellers for their money. Typically however, these are all firmly male scenarios.

It is clear from reading a lot of these songs that the heroine is not celebrated for throwing off the yoke of early modern female subjugation, but instead is exemplified as a paragon of man-ness (Dugdaw, 1989). Through the heroines’ various acts, these songs revel in idealised ‘manly’ traits like bravery and virtue. In fact, the word ‘virtue’ is from the Latin ‘vir’ meaning ‘man’. In other words, the woman has excelled at being a man, not broadening what it means to be a woman. Indeed, the heroines’ motives for embarking on her disguised adventure are usually to follow a man who has been conscripted; the motive is based in a typically ‘womanly’ devotion to her true love. There is no sound of glass ceilings smashing here.

These songs are careful to leave everything back in its place when they’ve had their fun: the heroine returns to her life of domesticity and forsakes the glory she could have gained.

She who was seaman and surgeon’s mate
Reserved by the hand of fate
She now is made a lawful wife
And liveth free from care and strife

An extract from ‘The Bristol Bridegroom’ [Roud V29410], found in a Broadside Ballad printed in Birmingham between 1757 and 1796

Why were these songs so popular?

These women warrior ballads were extremely popular, sung across the country and inspiring many variations for 200 years. We read a lot of them during our research and, take it from us, they haven’t aged well. We were often cringing at the misogynist language and poor poetry. These songs give the impression that they’ve been churned out; new songs written with the same, hackneyed storylines to be sold to the masses. It’s got a feeling of the Marvel universe about it.

Looking back on these songs centuries later it’s tempting to think that an early-modern populace, oppressed by our standards, would find these songs about usually low-born women excelling in male environments inspiring and offer hope. Surely that’s the reason why these songs were popular?

Well no, it seems these songs were popular because of their outrageousness; they are designed to be sensationalist, perverse and sometimes erotic, but with no lasting damage done to the status quo. The sensationalist narratives of war and robbery twinned with an unlikely main character was a winning formula, and to make everything a bit saucier, there are numerous erotic encounters thrown in. We were surprised to often find homoerotic sub-plots spread throughout the stories where, dressed as a man, our heroine is wooed by her fellow soldiers or the captain of the ship. This is not uncommon for contemporary tales – Shakespeare often conflated the virtuousness of a cross-dressing heroine with homoeroticism in his more light-hearted works (Jardine, 1983).

As folk songs were a primary source of entertainment for common people until the age of music hall (1850 onwards), it seems most likely that these songs were popular because people wanted the light relief that these sensationalist stories provided. The disruption of traditional gender roles in these songs was done ironically. The songs do not protest but rely on an established gender binary in society: ‘the heroine reaffirms those codes in her own parody of them’ (Dugdaw 1989). It is often assumed that women did not take part in folk dance and song, as history often writes them out (Dellow, 2019), but we know they did. We cannot know why women sung these songs, however. Using modern notions when analysing the past makes us implant signifiers of gender variance into a time where it was not part of society’s consciousness. We know that humans across the globe and throughout time haven’t conformed to cultural gender norms so after answering the question of whether gender variance exists in folk song, we’d like to ask ‘why doesn’t it?’ At this point, we’ll echo the musings of the indomitable Angeline Morrison, which seem rather relevant:

“I wonder is music used to create those power structures or do the power structures come first and then they use music in order to further their cause?”1

Neither Maid nor Man

Folk music is a living tradition; it lives through reinterpretations and additions. Our song ‘Neither Maid nor Man’ aims to introduce stories of gender non-conformity into the folk canon. The first three verses are slightly rewritten versions of ‘The Female Cabin Boy’ and ‘William Taylor’ to reflect our research into the ‘warrior woman’ song type. We then introduce a story of our own Alex coming out as non-binary in the 21st century.

Folk music is an exciting place to be right now. The music has found a chord with a younger audience who are bringing LGBTQIA+ issues to the fore. There is amazing work from trans and queer artists making folk a more welcoming place, a place where there is space to be neither maid nor man.

‘Neither Maid nor Man’, the new song taken from Tarren’s forthcoming album, Outside Time, is out today. Order it directly from tarrenmusic.com. The cover art for the single and the album was created by Man in the Woods.

  1. Bashiru, M. (2022). British Folk Music: Where Are All the Black People? [online] Spotify. ↩︎