Medieval folk – something more than dressing up in costume

(February 24, 2009)

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?

So what is medieval folk - and should we care?

If pushed, one could define medieval folk as artists playing existing forms of early music, those who created original medieval-influenced music, and those that included features of early music, or specifically, early instruments that characterise early music. One facet of medieval folk that often affects the artists and the audiences is creating lyrics through the use of actual or ‘cod’ medieval language. Another is affecting medieval styles of dress or blatantly wearing medieval costume – accurately or not.

Perhaps the first artists to fuse medieval and renaissance music appeared in the British progressive folk movement of the late sixties. Prime amongst such bands was the Incredible String Band with their seminal album ‘The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter’. Take a look at the cover to see the fusion of ‘hippy’ and medieval dress. Other artists in the genre included the folk band Pentangle, who included early music and medieval influences in many of their tunes. There was also The Third Ear Band who mixed medieval sounds and instruments alongside classical and eastern influences.

Medieval folk rocks

It’s common knowledge that Fairport Convention’s album ‘Liege and Lief’ was arguably the prime creation point of electric folk and the revitalising of our love of the ‘old’. Of course, ‘Liege and Lief’, although not based in medieval times, helped the general rise of tradition by blending folk songs and modern instruments with rock and folk rhythms. Forget the medieval musings for a moment - it’s far more accurate to say that Fairport Convention’s fusion of English folk music with rock instrumentation focused on early modern and nineteenth-century ballads and dance music. In contrast, that other bastion of English folk rock, Steeleye Span, tended to explore more period music ranging back into the middle-ages. They also used more diverse and ancient instruments. Their album ‘Below the Salt’, contained several early music songs including the a cappella carol ‘Gaudette’ – and the cover was a statement about medieval folk if there was one.

The creation of electric folk or what came to be accepted as folk rock, led several performers of early music to join the growing number of folk rock bands. Amazing Blondel, for instance composed their music in a renaissance style, but did not use ‘electricity’; however, their approach often caused them to be billed as medieval folk. Gryphon was the ‘main’ British band in the genre. Originally an acoustic band performing folk and medieval tunes, they morphed into an electric folk band that marketed themselves as ‘medieval folk’.  

Medieval folk had a flowering in France. Brittany-based bands Ripaille released a well-respected eponymous album. The most enduring French electric folk band Tri Yann, who play traditional Breton Celtic music, are probably the best known Celtic folk band in France, also dallied with medieval music.

Even though in no way a medieval folk band, Jethro Tull experimented with old styles. Their frontman, Ian Anderson was often compared with a medieval troubadour. And it’s not hard to see why – apart from the costumes (including the codpiece) and his flute - the band added medieval elements to their music. Possibly, the best remembered albums from the band’s distinctly old-world era – although not medieval period, are ‘Minstrel in the Gallery’ and ‘Songs from the Wood’. Indeed, both album covers did much to reinforce the image.

More medieval than before ...

Driving the creation of more hybrid genres of early music is the rise of interest in medievalism. Everything from medieval and renaissance fairs, battle and festival re-enactment to medieval markets sprang into life. There were bands that wandered around the English folk festivals with their brand of medieval folk. However, most performers in the genre had to wait until another 'folk resurgence' came around (this time in the mid-nineties) before the rise of medieval folk made it worthwhile slogging round the clubs and festivals to promote their music.

More recently there has been more interest in medieval folk, this time form established electric folk musicians. Maddy Prior, once of Steeleye Span, works with the acoustic early music group The Carnival Band playing 16th and 17th century traditional music. Perhaps the most successful and fronted by Ritchie Blackmore (he of Deep Purple and Rainbow fame) is Blackmore’s Night. With Richie playing electric and acoustic guitars and Candice Night handling lyrics and lead vocals, Blackmore's Night bills itself as a Renaissance-inspired folk rock band. Although, they frequently describe their music as ‘renaissance rock’ – which is possibly a more accurate description than medieval-based music – they are leading lights in medieval folk.

So where does it take us? Actually, the continued interest in medieval music may well have little to do with the world wistfully looking over its shoulder to a better time. It probably has more to do with medieval folk being damn good to listen to.

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