“There’s only one thing worse than a folk singer, and that’s a Stalinist folk singer.” – Ian Birchall
Several years ago I was enthusiastically involved in getting Red Pepper to publish a piece by Steve Higginson (of the estimable Soulpool), demolishing the myth of progressive, national-popular folk music.
When we look at the various collectors, mediators and transmitters of folk song, we are not talking about the sons and daughters of the downtrodden proletariat. We are dealing with a group of people who did what radical intellectuals have always done: tell us what is good for us … Folk music was invented, altered, or expunged and re-written based on the collector’s conception of what working people should have been singing. … Meanwhile, another kind of folk music – the music that the “folk” themselves listened to and identified with – was belittled and ignored.
It got a bigger reaction than anything else in the cultural pages that year. Mostly, it has to be said, not positive. Still, I liked it. Apart from anything else, it confirmed my gut feeling that awkward, scruffy music that’s directly inspiring and culturally assertive is more radical – as well as being more fun – than a tidy three chords with a political message. I’ll take the Clash (or the Mondays, or the Fugees) over Leon Rosselson, any day of the week. This isn’t to say that Leon Rosselson sings what working people should have been singing, any more than Roy Harper or James Blunt does: as Rob says in comments, his songs are all his own and don’t pretend to be anything else. But what I think radical singer-songwriters can often be accused of is singing what working people should have been thinking. This is where the post-Cecil Sharp tradition of well-meaning song-collecting connects up with the radical (or at least Communist) tradition of agit-song: the song has to say the right thing, which inevitably means limited scruffiness and high predictability. Sometimes, to say a song has a radical edge seems to mean that everything else about it has been polished smooth.
So I might be tempted to agree with Birchall, were it not that I’m now a folk singer myself (at least, I’m a regular at the local folk club). I don’t think traditional music is especially true and pure and proletarian; I do think it’s reached me by a different route from the music of Kylie or Arctic Monkeys, and a route that involves a lot less centralisation and a lot less commerce. I don’t think singing without amplification is a sanctified relic of an unspoilt past; I do think it’s more direct, more immediate and more involving than amplified music. (You can’t talk over it, apart from anything else.) And I don’t think folk is the Art-Form of the People; but I do think it’s an art-form made by people, and specifically people who I might see in the street or on the bus the following day. I think all of these are good things; even if Frank Sinatra was proved to be more of a working-class hero than Woody Guthrie, they’d still be good things.
Apart from that, when I talk about folk music I doubt that Birchall and I are talking about the same thing. Personally I’m thinking of my local folk club, which has an eclectic floor policy; the MC may at some time have turned away some aspiring performer as inappropriate, but if so I don’t know what they were planning to play. I’ve heard piano there and harmonium (performer’s own), as well as mandolin, banjo, pipes (both bag and bellow), double bass, didgeridoo and on one occasion a trumpet. People play from sheet music; sometimes people read poems.
We don’t get many message songs down there, but we do occasionally hit the broader problem of predictability – knowing where the song’s going, and how it’s going to get there, the moment it starts. To put it another way, it does sometimes get a bit Radio 2. I think of it like this:
|1||The Trier||Turns up, has a bash, gets polite applause|
|2||The Regular||Turns up week after week, can be relied on to put a bit of thought into it & do something listenable|
|3||The Real Thing||Actually good enough to get paid for this stuff|
|4||The Pro||Nice songs, nice performance. Very consistent, very professional.|
|5||The Star||Jaw-droppingly brilliant. Everyone should be listening to this stuff. No, really.|
The consistent, dependable Pros have their fans – they wouldn’t do it otherwise – but personally I think it’s a wrong turning; think KT Tunstall as opposed to King Creosote (although KT’s new album is supposed to be a bit of a return to form). In the absence of Stars I much prefer the edgier, more unpredictable Real Things and Regulars. Of whom there is, at least in this neck of the woods, a plentiful supply.
So, yes, some folkies – some singer-songwriters, to be more precise – get a bit samey, whether they’re carrying political baggage or not; but no, this isn’t true of all of them (or rather us). And yes, some inflated and problematic claims have been made for folk music, particularly regarding its class basis; but no, this doesn’t mean that folk music has no distinctive value. The point is not to set up Elvis against Pete Seeger or Guthrie against Sinatra, but to step away from the CD rack and look at the conditions in which folk music is played and heard. So get down that folk club. (Only not ours – at least, not all at once. I had a hell of a time finding somewhere to sit last week.)
Next: the radical case for Morris dancing.