Folk music revives and revives

(June 16, 2009)

Ah yes – yet another English folk music revival wanders through the folking world. That’s what we’re living through in case you had failed to notice. How many of these have we seen? How many more to follow?

Whatever their number, anything that revives or keeps folk music live and kicking has to be a ‘good’ thing’.

The first kick in the folk-pants revival

We know this came through the mammoth effort by worthies such as Cecil Sharp and Vaughan Williams to record and archive traditional English. The next step to revival brought forth a hero in Ewan McColl. Probably best described as folk with a left-wing political stance his drive for revival focused on a distinctively English style of folk music.

This ‘English’ movement promoted English folk to tell English stories and reacted against the American dominance of popular culture. The American ‘infection’ as many saw it had displaced the traditional music of England as the nation changed to an increasingly urban and industrial focus. (Nothing changes then - the American influence remains as strong as ever but mostly on pop music these days.)

Interestingly, this rise in folk popularity was the beginning of many new folk clubs in major industrial towns, despite that fact the songs sung in them often harkened back to a rural pre-industrial past. This was also the point of adoption of so-called ‘abandoned’ people-driven music - folk music - by the middle classes. However, these people immersed themselves in the ‘rural fantasy’ rather than recognising and understanding the rural themes and messages included in the songs.

By the middle of the 1960s there were hundreds of folk clubs in Britain. These became the ‘circuit’ that most folk and acoustic acts worked their way around. This created learning trip round the circuit that not only increased musical skill and knowledge it also led to an ever-growing font of English traditional songs and tunes. Importantly, it found more adherents to the experience of exploring and singing about the themes and realities of rural life – more so than the rural fantasy alone.

It’s well-known that during the 60’s the worlds of folk and rock started to move closer to each other and folk rock was born. An increasing number of bands experimented with electrification – plugging in the guitar and bass (and steadily everything else) and amplifying the result. The folk rock scene soon developed a wider eclecticism as some bands became less ‘folky’ than others. The history is well documented but a swift run through the key names includes the usual suspects – Pentangle, Sandy Denny, Fairport Convention, Dave Swarbrick, Steeleye Span, Albion Band, Ashley Hutchings, The Strawbs and many, many more.

Growth, decline and fall, and another revival

Folk or more precisely, folk rock became increasingly popular especially with the wave of interest that followed folk rock’s broadly accepted milestone offering ‘Liege and Lief’. Despite the increasing number of folk-rocker audiences, when many traditional folk performers ‘electrified’ cries of protest rang out from the pure or traditional acoustic folk music world. There were cries of ‘selling out’ and ‘abandoning the tradition. This of course was reflected in the schism between trad. folkies and contemporary folkies that to some extent persists today.

This rise in more universal acceptance inevitably resulted in folk rock finding a place, although tenuous and eventually temporary, in the pop charts. There were such delights as ‘Day Trip to Bangor’ by Fiddler’s Dram, Steeleye Span’s ‘All Around My Hat’ and ‘Angel Delight’ from Fairport. Folk rock not only took off within the genre but extended its reach into the pop world. More folk rock albums were sold and more people went to folk rock events. Even traditional folk rode on the coat-tails of the folk rock bandwagon as folk club attendances increased.

Then during late 1970 and into early 1980 folk fell off this ‘popular’ perch. Folk (rock or not) dropped out of the ‘chart’ world and returned underground. Around this time there was a steady decline in folk popularity - the folk clubs declined or imploded into smaller, more exclusive venues or lost their struggle for survival. Some turned inward and let themselves turn into parodies of the folk world. Others became the province of a few hardline folk zealots who condemned any attempt to move folk back into the real world. This was a time when many folk venues turned away many a folk performer and lost much of their audience.

This fall from grace experienced by folk rock and to some extent folk in general (and most other types of musical expression) is often laid at the door of the rise of punk rock – among other influences. Punk changed the beliefs of popular music, on the way overturning certainties about musicianship and song writing. Punk in all its forms had no greater target than the ‘old-fashioned’ and outdated music of the preceding generation. Aimed chiefly at the excesses of stadium rock, the new gods of punk power also attacked folk rock and especially folk. They both fell before the wave of punk, as did the old gods of both ‘stadium’ and ‘progressive’ rock. It seemed at the time as though punk would sweep all before it – which for a while it did.

Then again folk hung on by its fingertips and did what in many respects (despite the efforts of Luddite-like folk traditionalists) it’s good at – it evolved. That included developing folk punk.  Although the exponents of folk punk were broadly young folk, their message caught the ear of many folk rock folkies. Perhaps the folk traditionalists were just as appalled by folk punk as the rest of the music world. However bands like the Pogues and The Levellers, grabbed the folk rock audience and introduced it to folk punk with a political and social edge. And much of that audience liked what it heard.

So through another so-called death and rebirth, folk endured.

More precisely folk morphed and another branch popped out of the folk tree - and as the wheel turned another revival arrived.

Then folk took another turn and revived - again.

The impetus for the latest revival can be laid at several doors.

First among these were bands like Fairport who drove their Cropredy Festival from a small village hall event to a large annual festival through trial and tribulation to the re-born Cropredy Convention. Although the audience mix still leans towards a predominately middle-class melange the festival now sits around 20,000 people. Of course there are also other well-established folk events such as Cambridge, Sidmouth, Trowbridge, Towersy – the list goes on – to new and upcoming events.

Today, folk events multiply. There are small, one-day (or occasionally one afternoon) local gatherings, focused events such as canal festivals and major folk festivals – whatever their origin their ranks continue to increase.

Much as I hate to place any praise at the door of technology (yes, you’re right grumpy old Luddite) the unstoppable rise of My Space and its sound/look-alikes has also driven an acoustic and folk revival. Just as the likes of HMV and other music stores decided to reduce folk music from the single gondola to the far dusty corners of retail so the Internet and technology came to its aid. Those folk bands that could not squeeze a toe past a record company’s sour faced secretary can broadcast their music far and wide. Those talented people to whom the expenses of a sound studio equalled a second mortgage can now record (and often damn fine recordings too) their own albums and press their own CDs. And although this opportunity is open to every musical expression it fits well with folk and acoustic.

Then there is the rising tide of young folk artists – important people because much of the revival is also down to their influence. The sons and daughters of long-time folk artists continue down the generations and deliver their own brands of folk. Of course there are changes – lyrics are altered, tunes are modified and new styles arise but folk persists. Are these young folk seducing members of their own generation into folk from other genres or is the folk world is spawning new audiences? Who knows? One point is certain, where there are new performers there are new audiences and followers and where once the average age of folk was grinding inexorably upwards it’s now beginning to slide backwards once again.

Now all this does that mean that we are at the mercy of the new at the expense of the old. It means that they both co-exist to ensure that folk music (in all its forms) experiences another burst of life and marches on.

The purpose may change but the passion endures.

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