Folk is just another ‘F’ word

(June 12, 2008)

Forget parliamentary debate about performing rights or how many people can sing in a pub before you need more licences than the DVLA, or comments from Kim (Martin Carthy calls me a prat) Howells – folk is under fire from ignorance.

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.

The next line of attack is usually ‘folk clothing’

Now I’m sure there may be such a style as ‘folk clothing’ but in my experience it’s too varied and wildly eclectic to be a style at all. Surely there at least has to be some commonality for it to be a style and folk has less style than most other musical groups. The comment you often hear is similar to: ‘they all wear cast off hippy crap or tweed caps and waistcoats’. Again, fair play there’s much hippy gear, a good few tweed cloth caps and you can find waistcoats by the barrow load in folk venues.

But hang on a minute here are not these comments cursing the lifestyle rather than the music and the artists? It’s a little like slagging off hip hop simply because you hate baggy trousers that hang round your crotch and show your underpants, and people that wear gold jewellery. Now I have to confess that hip hop does little for me, but it’s a musical style I know nothing about. So I don’t comment on the music or the lifestyle (if there is one) that goes with it.

This is a little like that other target of ignorant hatred – the ‘C’ word. I mean country music – what else? When I lived in the USA I discovered that many country music followers feel the same emotion as folkies when it comes to being the butt of mindless humour and outright prejudice. And that’s the point; you’ll usually find that any wild reactive comment stems from ignorance. The angle is: ‘I don’t know anything about it so it must all be rubbish’.

Interestingly, when you get a bunch of folkies together - (is ‘bunch’ the correct collective noun, perhaps it should be a ‘beard’ or a ‘waistcoat’ of folkies?) – they’ve all experienced the ignorance reaction to the ‘F’ word.  Without sounding too much like rabid disciples from the Steve Knightley school of: ‘It’s my flag too and I want it back’ perhaps the time has come for folkies to be proud of the ‘F’ word.

Maybe it’s time to put the record straight

Of course there are the stereotypes, but folk today has good-looking, youthful musicians and fans that dress in the height of fashion. It also has recognised masters of the art that push the musical boundaries with instruments and effects. In almost any other genre these people would be icons of form and style – for their music as well as their fashion. Eric Clapton was once called God, with everything he said about music taken as gospel. So perhaps ‘godfather of folk’ is not enough for Ashley Hutchings. You can now buy Leona Lewis shoes so possibly there’s market for Seth Lakeman t-shirts.

Has the time come for the folk ‘F’ word to become synonymous with style and musical edicts from musicians? Has the folk ‘F’ word reached the point where its breaks its PC bounds and fights back? Should followers of folk embark on an education drive to raise the profile of its trendy types and put the folk-haters back in their place? Or do folkies just smile knowingly and let them wallow in their ignorance?

That may be one course but I’m rather drawn to the idea of an ‘F’ word hit squad.  Maybe next time the ‘F’ word is met with howls of ridicule folkies should retaliate.

Perhaps laying about them with cricket bats carved with quotes from Ashley Hutchings or perhaps hurling photographs of Seth Lakeman embossed in acrylic bricks – not too PC but who cares?

After all, they’re the type of people that use the ‘F’ word in public.


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