What the folk?

Recently I was reminded of how strongly the debate still rages – what is folk? I was at the No Direction Home festival at Welbeck Abbey, and Will Hodgkinson had been asked to come and talk about his book The Ballad of Britain. In 2009 he took a trip round Britain to cast his eye on the state of the folk revival. Sadly he couldn’t make the festival, but the discussion went ahead in the lovely literature and comedy yurt. New descriptions for folk music genres have been explored by Rob Young in his book Electric Eden, and by Jeanette Leech in Seasons They Change – acid folk, twisted folk, psychedelic folk.

Academically I’m a folklorist, though it doesn’t really give you a day job. I was lucky enough to be an undergraduate in the department of Dialect and Folk Life Studies at the University of Leeds back in the early 1970s. Undergraduates mixed with postgrads studying all sorts of interesting aspects of folklore and traditions including music, song and dance. Later I did an MA in Folklore and Cultural Tradition at Sheffield.

Back in those days folk rock was the prevalent alternative form of folk music, with performers like Richard Thompson, the Strawbs, and Fairport Convention. Traditional songs were borrowed and adapted – sometimes ‘stolen’ and claimed as newly written – Simon and Garfunkel’s Scarborough Fair comes to mind. Some even made it on to Top of the Pops – Steeleye Span’s All Around my Hat and Sandy Denny singing Si Tu Doit Partir are among my memories – exciting times for folk music.

Not long ago I joined C P Lee for one of his Bob Dylan walks round Manchester. The Free Trade Hall was identified as the place where Dylan was accused of treachery to the traditionalists – ‘Judas!’ Strong words. Dylan had been to England and had hung out with the traditional singers and musicians who were part of the growing folk club scene. His friend and lover Joan Baez had a repertoire of Scottish, Irish and English ballads, recorded for Vanguard in the early days of her career. We were taught folk songs and dances at school, thanks to Cecil Sharpe’s influence on teacher training between the wars. Read Georgina Boyes’ fantastic book, The Imagined Village, (now back in print) for the bigger picture. The group took their name from the book by the way.

My parents loved Scottish and Irish folk music – from Margaret Barry to Robin Hall and Jimmy MacGregor by way of The Clancy Brothers with Tommy Makem. My dad also loved Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, and I still have some early vinyl from his collection. I was not alone growing up in the 60s, listening to live and recorded folk music as often as I listened to the Beatles, the Stones, the Small Faces and the Kinks.

Our Catholic upbringing also gave us a kind of Irish social life, where people sang or played party pieces at gatherings of family and friends. I will never forget hearing She Moves Through the Fair for the first time, sung by Angela Mangan, aged about 15. The song haunted me until I could identify it and track it down, too young and shy to find out more about it at the party.

And then came the acoustic singers and songwriters. Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Neil Young, John Martyn and Al Stewart. How did you define them? From the States came country and blues influences, the left wing politics of the Seeger family and Woody Guthrie. Mix that with Salford’s own Jimmy Miller, better known as Ewan MacColl. Folk became a kaleidoscope of influences. If you played a folk club did that make you a folk singer? Who knew?

The problem starts when one faction claims ownership of the territory. On the one hand you have – or had – the traditionalists, finger in ear, contrived local accent and slightly tuneless delivery. On the other hand, the influence of pop, rock and commercialisation. Now I know, as a member of an informal group of harmony singers,that sometimes you just have to put your finger in your ear, especially if like me you are easily distracted and can’t always hold a tune. Back in 1974, listening to field recordings of people who couldn’t sing in tune in a tutorial, I had light bulb moment. I realised that the performers weren’t necessarily the ones who had a good voice, but they were the ones prepared to perform and who could remember the words. Nowadays I’d think of comparing it to karaoke.

And of course much of the folk revival in this country was a Victorian construct – a political desire for a national identity and Merrie England. Some so called traditional songs collected in the early 20th century were hymns and music hall songs. Tunes were borrowed and new lyrics were added. Lyrics were tidied up and bowdlerised.

What makes it folk music could be in the method of transmission – from singer to singer, musician to musician. But in our electronic and digital age that is no longer the only way to share and learn a song. Listen to the songs Lennon and McCartney wrote – there’s a significant amount of playground lore and urban folklore in their early lyrics, reflecting their 1950s childhood in Liverpool. Ray Davies, Kirsty MacColl, Damon Albarn – they all reflect a similar awareness of how and where we live in their work.

And just consider for a moment a song like Ewan MacColl’s The First Time Ever I  Saw Your Face. A love song in a folk ballad style, it transformed into a huge hit for Roberta Flack – a far cry from Dirty Old Town. So in the discussion over what folk music is, Lavinia Blackwall claimed that Trembling Bells were psychedelic rock. I certainly recognised that her voice has as much in common with Grace Slick as it does with Sandy Denny. Alex Neilsen however sang one of his own songs, the Bells of Oxford, unaccompanied and containing imagery and a turn of phrase worthy of any traditional ballad. Lavinia was defensive about her beautiful voice – ‘classically trained’.

Whilst it’s fascinating to hear field recordings of an old lady from Kent singing in the early 20th century, and lovely to hear Anne Briggs or Shirley Collins singing old songs in a simple and unadorned way, for me there’s nothing like listening to a voice like Lavinia’s, with its power and beauty. It transcends labels like classical or traditional or psychedelic. To hear her sing The Quiet Joys of Brotherhood was a magical experience. There we were, sitting in a yurt, listening to a classically trained singer who defines herself as psychedelic rock, singing a song whose words were written by a Californian hippy poet, (Richard Farina), with links to the 60s folk scene (married to Joan Baez’s sister) and set to the tune of a Northern Irish air (My Lagan Love).

 This debate on how to define any aspect of culture – not just music – as ‘folk’ isn’t going to go away. There is no definitive answer, just many possibilities. Open to argument but never worth falling out over. It’s a big enough concept to embrace all its potential. A spider’s web. A kaleidoscope. A tapestry woven over time, the shuttle going back and forth from past to future to create the patterns you shouldn’t try to unpick. The heartbeat goes on.

Words: Nicky Crewe

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