Young bones groan

Just recently, I’ve got heavily into traditional music – specifically, traditional English, Scottish and Irish music. One of the effects has been to make me feel a bit ambivalent about the local folk club – which is ironic, as it’s going to the folk club that exposed me to traditional music in the first place.

I went to the aforesaid club the other night, and a terrific night it was too. There were 16 acts – a total of 18 musicians and two poets – and some of them were stupendously good. Good value, too – singers’ nights are a quid in, and you make that back on the beer, thanks to a cricket club licence (the bitter’s £1.60).

Here’s what I heard. (All numbers arranged for vocal and guitar unless otherwise stated.)

- “Skip to my Lou”, vocal and maraca
- “Changes” (from O Lucky Man!)
- “The ballad of Sir Patrick Spens” (a parody), unaccompanied vocal
- something C+W (possibly traditional)
- two poems by a Danish poet (in translation), recitation
- something bluesy (possibly traditional), vocal, harmonica and guitar
- something bluesy and jazzy (just possibly traditional)
- “When I’m cleaning windows”
- “The house of the rising sun”
- a song about the death of Kirsty MacColl set to the tune of “The lonesome death of Hattie Carroll”
- a love song (original), vocal, guitar and harmony vocal
- a song about housing development set to the tune of “Johnny B. Goode”, two guitars and vocals
- “La vie en rose”, unaccompanied vocal
- two original poems, recitation
- something C+W (possibly traditional), vocal, harmonica and guitar
- “I guess it doesn’t matter any more”, vocal, guitar, harmonica and percussion
- an original song about a Scottish hermit, vocal, guitar, harmonica and percussion
- an original song and two covers

So that’s four poems and eighteen songs, which divide into

original (6)
covers (7)
American traditional (1) (viz. “Skip to my Lou”)
songs in American traditional styles, which may have been any of the above (4)

Traditional songs were either a small minority or a tiny minority, and there was nothing at all from an English, Scottish or Irish traditional source. (The Sir Patrick Spens parody almost qualified, but it was original material – and it did mock traditional ballads & their singers, albeit quite fondly.) I can’t help thinking that’s a bit weird, for a folk club.

Poking about on the Mudcat site I found this comment by Jim Carroll from a couple of years ago:

I came to ‘folk song’ at the beginning of the sixties through the ‘folk clubs’. In those days, while there was much debate on HOW the songs should be performed, there was virtually no ambiguity about WHAT you would hear if you turned up at a folk club. You chose your club on the basis of performance, not on material.

This changed fairly rapidly and the revival divided into two camps, those who adhered pretty well to the ‘traditional’ definition of ‘folk’ (some of whom saw it as a form to create new songs relevant to today), and those who went along with the broader ‘singing horse’ interpretation. Gradually the latter won the day and began to dominate the field; many of those who had gone along with the former crossed over and became experimenters and you got the mini-choirs, the ‘Electric Muse’, the fifth-rate comedians and the singer-songwriters. Those of us who preferred our folk music the way we had originally come to it, abandoned the term ‘folk’ and adopted ‘traditional’ as a description of the type of songs we preferred. We jogged along in our own particular enclaves in spite of the finger-in-ear and purist sneers, until gradually we became swamped and there was a massive exodus away from the scene, mainly because people no longer knew what they were going to get when they turned up at a ‘folk club’. What was left dwindled, the electric crowd and the mini choirs moved on to fresh fields and pastures new, some of the comedians found their niche in television; what remained was largely the ‘singing horse’ crowd tinged heavily with the ‘near enough for folk song’ philosophy. That seems to me, with a few notable exceptions, is how matters stand at present.

The ‘singing horse’ crowd – ouch. As it happens, somebody used the “never heard no horse sing” line the other night – and I confess I’ve used it myself (introducing a song by Beck Hansen on one of my first outings). These days I tend to think, with Jim, that that’s a very poor definition of ‘folk’ – not so much because it’s open to anything, as because in practice it seems to be open to anything except actual folk music.

I don’t want to sound too grudging; it was a very good night of acoustic music, and the closing act in particular is well worth paying a pound to see, if not two. (His name’s Mark Simpson and I expect him to go a very long way. He reminded me of the young Cat Stevens – and back then the young Cat Stevens was essentially God, as far as I was concerned.) But I do wonder what’s happened to the folk scene, that it’s doing so well – and getting so many people performing – without there seeming to be much folk involved.

Another up-and-coming local act got a big write-up in the local paper the other day:

Manchester duo The Winter Journey conjure up gorgeous tapestries of rustic country folk music. Like a merry meeting of Nick Drake, Belle & Sebastian and BBC’s Springwatch programme, it’s the sort of music which effortlessly evokes images of woodland retreat and summery splendour.

Make no mistake, The Winter Journey are definitely worlds apart from your typical Manchester acoustic folk act. As you’d expect from a band named after a short story by the celebrated French author Georges Perec, The Winter Journey are a group dripping with quaint romanticism, bookish sophistication and lots and lots of cool refinement. Think Stephen Fry were he to form an acoustic folk group, and you might be getting close.

[the album] sits up there with the best debuts by a local act this year – a bewitching journey through Seventies pastoral folk, but with a daring sonic palette which squeezes in influences from Elliot Smith to Gainsbourg to Krautrock. … it’s also an album oozing a warm-blanket intimacy. – Each of the eleven songs strives for a pure, old-world innocence and romance, and firmly intent on keeping those values safe from the big, bad avaricious world we live in.

“There definitely is a dusty vinyl quality to the album,” explains Anthony. “It’s the sort of record which tries to ignore the modern world and popular culture. It’s almost from another age, and that reflects our retro influences.”

I love the idea of harking back to the pure old-world innocence of the 1970s, when folk was pastoral and vinyl was dusty. (Emitex, that’s what you need. Kids these days.)

Anyway, I’ve listened to some of their stuff on their Myspace page; it’s pleasant enough in a close-miked, mostly-acoustic, slightly creepy way, like Nico recording demos with James Yorkston. (Or Espers. Actually quite a lot like Espers.) What it’s not, of course – and never claims to be – is traditional music in any way, shape or form. It’s in the genre of Seventies pastoral folk, supposedly: it gets the ‘folk’ label because it sounds a bit like Vashti Bunyan, in other words. (I’m not touching the Nick Drake comparison. The first album was half orchestrated, the second was a genre all its own (acoustic TV-theme jazz-funk) and the third was the sound of a man singing like an angel while waiting to be swallowed by his own loneliness. Nobody sounds like Nick Drake.)

Anyway, calling the Winter Journey ‘folk’ on this basis makes very little sense – they sound a bit like a lot of people, not least the Velvet Underground. But somehow ‘folk’ is the label to claim, even if you then go on to claim a score of other influences. In fact the ‘folk’ label seems to have an odd combination of attraction and repulsion: folk is cool, but what’s really cool is to be folk-and or folk-but-also (folk-and-Serge-Gainsbourg-but-also-Krautrock in this case).

The problem with this is that it destroys any prospect of actually defining ‘folk’. You go from

1) artists called ‘folk’ because they do folk material
to
2) artists called ‘folk’ because they do their own material in a similar style to group 1)
to
3) artists called ‘folk’ because they do their own material in a style that’s similar to group 2) only different (‘worlds apart’, even)

And repeat. Give it a couple of years and, for all we know, The Winter Journey may be a touchstone of what contemporary folk sounds like – with new ‘folk’ acts coming through that sound a bit like them, only different.

Me, I’m a folk singer who also sings his own songs; they go down well in folk clubs, some of them, but they aren’t folk songs. (Not even the Patrick Spens parody.)

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7 Comments

  1. Posted 21 July 2008 at 15:42 | Permalink | Reply

    I went to a folk club, when living in Newcastle, that is supposed to be the oldest in the country. Very strange. People suddenly getting up and singing unaccompanied at the front of the room. Being asked, during the half-time break, “do you sing?”. The chap giving the guest spot starting all his songs with introductions much longer than the songs themselves. And some of the best music I’ve ever heard in person.

  2. Posted 24 July 2008 at 10:45 | Permalink | Reply

    Interesting post. There seems a new genre called “Acid Folk” that seems very popular at the moment, a kind of Wicker Man soundtrack type music.

    Personally my taste inclines towards people like The Young Tradition, The Watersons, Anne Briggs and Shirley Collins, I would like to play with other musicians in an ensemble but have found it hard to find people who really grasp this kind of sound and music. I’m not sure if really innovative work is being done in the field of traditional music compared to these masters.

    I visited Cecil Sharp House recently, thought they could do more with the place as a folk music centre, to make it more of a resource for young musicians, but enjoyed my visit.

  3. Posted 24 July 2008 at 10:53 | Permalink | Reply

    One thing that intrigues me living in South Wales, where around hundred years ago, the English language replaced Welsh as the dominant language is whether there are distinct English language folk song that emerged from South Wales, there was a particularly vibrant working class culture around the coalfields, but I haven’t found any albums or books on this specific theme of Welsh English Language Folk Music.

    There was a old traditional singer called Phil Tanner in the 1930s from the Gower but most of his repertoire of songs is similar to those of singers in England (I believe he originated from Somerset).

    He popularised the Gower Wassail, which I guess meets my criteria of an Welsh english language folk song.

  4. Posted 24 July 2008 at 10:54 | Permalink | Reply

    Sorry for those who down’t know the Gower is a peninsula in South Wales

  5. Posted 24 July 2008 at 11:03 | Permalink | Reply

    Of course the Christmas Carol, Deck the Halls is derrived from a form of Welsh music called Canu Penillion, a kind of form of improvisation where vocal is alternated to music. The “Fa-la-la-la” bits in the carol would have originally been harp riffs.

  6. Posted 26 July 2008 at 21:53 | Permalink | Reply

    Very interesting piece. It’s funny then, isn’t it how Robyn Hitchcock has been slotted as ‘folky’, HMHB too, Ultramarine – a 1990s and later electronica band guested Robert Wyatt -, Boards of Canada are said to be electronica folk. Much of the time it seems to be a term used as a catchall if there is any hint of pastoralism either lyrically or musically… If it were that wide one would wonder at the utility of the term… :)

  7. Posted 8 August 2008 at 02:05 | Permalink | Reply

    You make a good point. The goalposts have definitely shifted. I remember when I was at school there was much polemic in the pages of Folk Review from the likes of Dick Gaughan and Pete Bellamy about whether one could truly call singer-songwriters “folk” at all: specifically about the extent to which they were likely to be writing songs that would become the “traditional music” of the future. I suppose the exemplar there would be Ewan MacColl: when I listen to the old Radio Ballads I can’t always tell which songs are Trad. arr. MacColl and which are MacColl. Or this one which has been around for ages and has come pretty much detached from knowledge of its author (I’d certainly forgotten who wrote it). “Anon” being the larval form of “trad” I’d say it was on its way. And there are plenty of what you might call genre songs, like “Dorset Be Beautiful” and “Drink Up Thee Zyder” on the same journey.

    The point I’m trying to make is that some members of your group 2 may in retrospect seem to have been in group 1(*). I can’t think of a transformation that would breach the group 3/group 2 boundary though.

    (I just had a flashback to the very first – William Hartnell – series of Doctor Who, when his daughter Susan is listening to some contemporary British pop and comes out with some such line as “That’s great! but I’d never realised the Beatles sang classical music”.)

One Trackback

  1. By Thousands or more « The gaping silence on 8 August 2008 at 10:39

    [...] or more In comments, Rob wrote: I remember when I was at school there was much polemic in the pages of Folk Review from [...]

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