Over the years Tim Carroll has written about folk in its various genres and guises. For those who are interested, most of his ramblings are in 'FolkWords Writes', shown below are short versions of some of his observations to perhaps prompt comment, start a debate or set minds thinking.
"The minute you decide to take 'family entertainment' to another external venue, such as the local pub or anywhere Joe-public gathers, you fall foul of expectations. People expect far more (and rightly so) in a public arena than in someone’s front room. People are understandably far less tolerant of you and your cousin Albert wailing away, even if they haven’t paid a ticket-price for the privilege. You are subjecting them to your amateur efforts and you should be ready for the response. Equally, if you and cousin Albert are good and are the next folk act 'waiting in the wings' and ready to ‘break’ into the public ear then be prepared for a different response – but for goodness sake listen to yourselves and be ruthless about your chances before you inflict your talent on others."
"The problem is that folk (traditional or otherwise) is regularly branded as boring (much the same way as classical music) because in the face of many other mass-appeal genres it’s appealing to a niche market. And as with any niche pastime, whether it’s listening to folk or anything else, the majority of people outside that niche make a judgement without ever having heard the music. That’s my point about ignorance – they don’t know and they have no inclination to find out. The niche may be minute or sizeable, the problem remains. Time for a short aside: There was once a time when my ignorance of African folk music meant I was in danger of heading down the ‘I haven’t tried it but I don’t like it’ route. Thankfully, the ‘eclecticism’ gene kicked in and now, although it’s not my all-time favourite music I can appreciate it and some of it I like. That is where folk along with other music needs to benefit from people willing and able to overcome their ignorance and learn about it. And for that to happen, niche music needs to become more accessible."
"Music and controversy – not necessarily good bedfellows but they are often partners in the same sentence. Whether the discussion focuses on style, definition, acceptance or rejection it takes but a moment for music to generate high feelings. And these feelings are not confined to any one genre. The ongoing discussions about folk and what precisely defines it shows no sign of diminishing, indeed after a couple of pints it’s the standard default topic in a plethora of pubs and clubs. There’s everything from considered opinion to raid fanaticism, sometimes with the actual music stuck somewhere in between."
"When any song makes the tenuous and sometimes perilous journey from the writer’s head into hundreds of others and remains, it’s generally because there’s an infectious hook or a captivating melody but often it’s because the lyric either tells a story or makes a point. That statement can apply equally to music from three hundred years ago or to music written yesterday. Some stories and themes remain immutable whatever happens in the world."
"Although ‘the point’ of a traditional song often transcends the paths of time to remain relevant in the modern world that doesn’t mean that writers must remain there. They don’t have to restrict themselves to the past – there are just as many tough social, political and economic themes today. And if there was ever a time when songwriters could find a wealth of material to work with then ‘today’ is certainly right up there with the best."
"With folk lyrics there's often a question over authenticity. How close to the original version is today's rendition of a one or two-hundred year old lyric? Does it really matter and should we even care? The answers are either labelled ‘inquisitive development’ or ‘heretical sacrilege’ – depending of course on your point of view. Indeed, we may ask the same question of the tune. How many variations are there from when a song was first written to today? The answer is probably dozens as subsequent musicians alter the tune and tinker with the melody. So does this tinkering and adjustment have any bearing on the genre? There are divided camps with strong opinions coming from each but is there some case for middle ground?"
"A touch of conservatism pervades English folk to prevent the genre from moving on. If it exists, does it actively stop the tradition from remaining current and relevant? There are many performers that try to push the boundaries and cross the divide between ‘museum-piece’ tradition and contemporary popular folk. That doesn’t include those that drive into experimental folk of all types. Rather it means those that take the look and feel that folk knows so well but moves it into the world of ‘today’ rather than ‘yesterday’. These people are in a way, the vanguard of a new age of living traditional music. That is not only a ‘good thing’ it is a cornerstone of folk music developing into yet another and another generation."
"There's a tendency to equate 'traditional' with sacred and immutable. The old folk view, despite active denials to the contrary, still exhibits a tendency to equate 'traditional' with sacred and immutable. At best, such approaches can consign any art form, music included, to the developmental freezer – held in cold storage but not moving on. At worst it can be the death of any living art form. The technique which looks at the tradition but then writes for today; including the myriad of influences that surge round today’s musicians, allows the art form to develop. Without artists prepared to take the tradition and work with it (not destroy it) that development would not happen at all."
"There is no such thing as niche music. Music hides in niches. That’s because of the so-called music that pours out of broadcast media. Unadulterated, boiled pap that should cause universal vomiting were not much of humanity sadly immune to its sound. Of course, there is good music in every genre – folk, acoustic, rock, rap, blues – the classification is endless - but it’s hiding in cracks that masquerade as specialist niches. There’s good, mediocre and bad folk and acoustic music. I’ve heard enough bad folk to make that assertion. Unfortunately, what splurges across our ears 99% of the time is not good music of any type. Some of it’s not even music. It’s shite pretending it’s music. It’s excrement of the highest order (or should that be ordure)."
"What caused this to happen? Most of the time this marginalisation grew from the triteness of certain televised music shows that do nothing for music but much for spectacle. Consider for a moment that travesty of taste and talent - ‘The X Factor’. Each time this mind-crushingly tedious self-congratulatory emotional enema rolls across our TV screens thousands of people cringe, tens of thousands watch and several hundred tune in to find the infinitely small percentage of talent that tries to force its way through the orgy of colour, light and sound that is undoubtedly shite."
"Does music reflect life and change due to its influence or does music act as an impetus for change? Ask the writers of 60’s protest songs or those who rode the punk music wave and they would say that music (with social pressures and awareness) creates change. Is it still true? Was it ever true? Many styles of music, especially the enduring genres that live under the terms folk and roots, reflect what's happening to people and their views of the world they inhabit. They are styles that write about people. Their narratives record more than the emotions and lives of individuals. They record the political, environmental, social and military issues that affect us all. They also impact on the way people think. They change views, catalogue injustice. They become living history, guardians of and communicators of tradition. Equally they evolve and develop into whatever influences their creators."
"They make a point but do not endure – any more than the 60's endured. Not surprising, I suppose styles change and develop and what’s new and different for one generation almost certainly falls from favour with the next. There’s nothing so satisfying for the ‘next generation’ as to tear down, deride or replace the styles and tastes of their parents. That includes forming fashion, slang and musical styles designed to make the oldies shudder. What is surprising however is the way that folk music above all other styles endures."
"The genre of medieval folk – if there’s enough of it around to be called a genre - has been up and down in the folk world and interestingly, has since the late nineties, undergone something of a resurgence. Be that as it may it could hardly be called mainstream. Definable medieval folk first reared its head in the early seventies. It probably grew out of the electric folk and progressive folk movements of the earlier sixties. Despite the name, at that time it was rather more than medieval. That’s because the term was used indiscriminately to classify any artists that incorporated elements of medieval, renaissance and baroque music into their work and dressed in quasi-medieval attire – however medieval or not the final music may sound."
"This musical niche flared briefly and then appeared to fade, roughly in time with the advent of progressive folk which took many medieval folk artists into other directions. More recently, medieval folk rock has revived in conjunction with other forms of medieval inspired music and literature. Are we all harking back to some future time because the current one is so grim or do we just like ‘old stuff’ for the sake of it – or is there really something in medieval folk?"
"American folk music is great, American folk songs are great, especially when they’re sung by Americans. They’re even OK when sung by English people (well mostly). The only exception is when some English singer decides to adopt a weird American accent. That raises a question. Why do so many English singers persist in singing with an American accent all the time? (And while we’re on the subject there is not one American accent anymore than there is one Irish accent.) Strangely it’s not even a generic American accent - it’s a horrid mid-Atlantic drawl."
"Unless you move in folk circles or attend folk events, the mention of the ‘F’ word is likely to cause you problems. Now this has nothing to do with colourful language and verbal abuse hurled around by a Scottish-born chef, although the use of either ‘F’ word in certain communities seems to be just as damning. It’s the spontaneous reaction the folk ‘F’ word often produces. Outside the confines of its own pale, the folk version of the ‘F’ word regularly creates powerful negative emotional reactions. There must be more to it than the music."
"Ask anyone that gives you the standard, ‘I hate bloody folk music’ reaction to expand a little on the remark or to define their hatred, and the music is rarely the first definition. The accusers usually censure folk with a comment about, ‘the old bearded farts that sing about the clearances or potato famines three hundred years ago’. Fair enough, there are a few old farts in folk music but is that enough to hate the entire genre? If we continue in that vein we’ll end up subjectively hating pop music because Scooch and ‘Flying the Flag’ did for pop what Alaric and his Visigoths did for Rome."
"Increasingly we expect little to last and the mantra ‘new is always better’ reflects the transient nature of today’s society. Unfortunately, when we create music that does nothing more that follow that principle it’s usually crap music. The media dedicates hours of television and radio, gallons of ink and acres of newsprint to the antics of an increasingly mindless breed of ‘musicians’ or should I say media stars. Whether these so-called musicians or the media are to blame is irrelevant. While musicians with something to say work hard and long to perfect their art, trivial crap pours out of idiotic music-company manufactured bands and singers. Yes, and those are the same companies that scream ‘foul’ as artists increasingly find alternative ways to reach their audience."
"Now some may argue that tales of farming, factory and seafaring life as having no place in the modern world. Those people state that adding a new folk edge to old themes is counterproductive. They reckon that folk themes should be about the Gulf War and the rise of terrorism. That may be true but most of those old themes speak in some way about the human condition – and that doesn't change. That’s precisely why songs about recent wars, current civil unrest and worldwide disasters are just as valid – they speak about a condition that doesn’t change. So why are old and new themes portrayed as mutually exclusive?"
"Ask a hundred people to define folk music and you’ll get an even larger number of definitions. Depending on the prejudices and pastimes of the people you talk to, definitions will range from the sensible and considered to the derogatory and overtly biological. There’s an even split between the lovers and haters of folk music, with a large raft of indifferent opinion somewhere in between.
"Over the years, I have asked both folk-haters and folk-lovers (and many of the 'somewhere in betweens') to succinctly describe or define the style and give me the benefit of their opinions about its present and future. Now I readily admit that such ‘research’ - based on talking to a cross-section of people and getting subjective responses, will doubtless horrify the statisticians and market researchers, but hey-ho each to their own. The fun aspect to writing about any topic (and folk music is not alone) is to air the prejudices held by various groups. It is only a moment before the richness of opposing views makes the subject more alive and interesting than ever."
"Defining music is nothing new. Most musical styles have individuals who strive to find or create definitions. Folk in all its guises from traditional to new has a wide and eclectic audience so maybe nobody cares. But if that’s the case why do I keep running into people desperate to put a label on folk? The definitions persist and differing views continue to ring out like another clang on an old bell."
"Top artists performing in the wide arena of ‘folk music’ are the tip of an iceberg. Beneath the surface is a seething, creative morass of bands and singers that form the backbone of folk. Each in their own way, helping to support and grow towards that peak of success. Along with well-known artists, singers, bands and songwriters strive to build their place in the structure. Some may never rise above the foundations, but structures need foundations to stay up."
"Perhaps it’s a need to find their place that makes many bands in their early days dish out covers of artists and bands popular at the time. That allows them to get a hearing (unless of course they are crap musicians). They are playing songs that everyone knows, understand and possibly relate to – an easier route perhaps than 'diving in' with their own self-penned material."
"Today, the web enables artists to place their music in open forum without playing a note at a live gig. They beaver away, develop a niche audience and build a loyal following. They never travel miles to perform a two-song floor spot. They achieve (in some people’s eyes) success without having ‘served their time’ as a struggling artist. Is this good? Well yes or no – it depends on your view."