Folk artist or folk artisan?

(May 25, 2011)

“Why does everyone think they can just get up and do it?”  Play and sing folk songs, that is ... what else? There are numerous responses to that question ranging from ‘because they think they can’ through ‘because no one minds’ to ‘because it’s not yet proscribed at do who can do what’.

The slightly more considered view is that playing and singing folk music has yet to progress (were that the right term) beyond the range of everyone to the province of a select or ‘approved’ few. It is still relatively easy to play and sing folk from a logistics view point – it does not require tons of audio equipment, you can do it alone or with almost any number of friends, the music are freely available, many songs are easy to learn – the list is endless. It is still an accepted ‘folk’ art form within the reach of everyman.

Or did the question centre on the ‘amateur’ aspect of folk music? In which case should the question be: ‘Is there a certain skill level required to get up and do it?’ Simple answer – yes there is, if you want to do it well and avoid the Fred Wedlock-related experience of: ‘ the imprint of a Guinness bottle’. Folk is not only for the consummate professional neither is it the simply the province of the inept amateur - both can co-exist on many levels - and show me another equally egalitarian art form where that goes on.

'The rise of the folk professional has in many ways done away with the amateur'

Perhaps not so much the inept amateur for they persist almost in spite of themselves (unfortunately), but the gifted amateur – if truly gifted – doesn’t remain so for long. The wider acceptance of folk music, through improved media access and a greater understanding that it is more than ‘diddlee-dum’ music, has increased the number of working folk artists and the exceptional that get heard soon develop a following. All of which is good – although it doesn’t always mean that said artist can earn a living by being a folk musician. (But that’s another story.)

So why should folk musicians of worth not just get up and do it? The answer I’ve had varies but the generic response is: “Why then shouldn’t any old artisan be allowed to jump up and do something irrespective of how badly they do?” Hold on a minute, does the amateur status somehow equate to artisan status and how and when did that come to devalue what you do? Early use of the term ‘artisan’ applied to those who made objects or provided services. It did not apply to unskilled or amateur workers. Artisans were divided into two distinct groups: those who operated their own business, and those who did not. Those who ran their businesses were called ‘masters’, while the latter were ‘journeymen’.

Artisans are semi-skilled ‘workers’

The misunderstanding clearly held by many today is that artisans are semi-skilled ‘workers’ often itinerant and always in the employ of someone. The most influential group among the artisans - the masters, if you like, the business owners were respected exponents of their art and recognised for their level of skill. Such men usually held a high (if not lofty) social status in their communities. So to call a folk musician an artisan is not the derogatory term some clearly hold it to be.

Returning for a moment to the original thought, there is no reason why the folk artisan should not ‘get up and do it’. If they are good enough for the audience they’re playing to and if that audience is prepared to listen then though they may not be ‘half a dozen albums into popularity’ or remain persistently un-nominated for folk awards then good luck. Long may you run, because if you do, and people get to hear, then we may continue to refresh and energise folk music.

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