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Traditionally folk music is boring

(July 24, 2012)

Now that’s going to lob a feline among the columbidae. I can almost hear legions of ‘Piers the Ploughman Affiliates’ beating their ploughshares into swords to prepare for the conflict. Probably because there’s nothing more irksome than an observation that touches a nerve. It’s true - in some points of view - traditional (and all other) folk music is desperately boring. Actually, depending on your own point of view so is progressive rock, English church music, Gregorian chant, classical music, modern jazz, country, blues, medieval music, rap, bubblegum pop - and anything else you don’t happen to like.

That is of course, the essence of why some people find folk boring and some do not. It’s nothing more than preference. It’s what you like. Personally, I like meatballs and spaghetti ... not sure too many would agree. I also happen to like folk music, progressive rock and medieval music. And possessing fairly eclectic tastes, I appreciate a wide range of music from blues to punk (not too sure about modern jazz though). I may be passionate and ever so slightly evangelical about folk but given the title of this site, that’s to be expected. However, my evangelism does not mean that I’ve graduated to ‘folk zealot’ and shut out everything else just because it falls outside my (admittedly fairly liberal) descriptions of folk.

That point is I believe one of the issues that faces folk and almost every other type of music today - the zealous belief in one style or genre to the (often ignorant) exclusion of everything else. In fact, without getting too deeply sociological it’s a trend in society: “If it ain’t on my restricted ‘like list’ it’s crap.” That view is the province of the closed mind and despite living in the most over-communicated society the world has ever known, that seems to be a ‘tribalistic’ view that proliferates – in music as much (and more in some cases) than with anything else. (See Tribalism in music is unavoidable’ - FolkWords - November 2007.)

Now some may argue that preference is primarily a case of nurture-over-nature. If your parents force-fed you folk from an early age you’ll become a dyed-in-the-wool folky, rock chicks breed rock chicks and punk boys follow their fathers. That assertion is far too simple and one that is not for debate right now, although it is interesting ... but that’s another story. And incidentally, I and many thousands of others are living proof that such assertions are totally invalid.

Anyway back to the statement: ‘folk is boring’. 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.

Where’s the likelihood that folk music will make itself more accessible?

I don’t think so. It’s going to be what it’s going to be and has always been. Mass appeal is not something that’s going sweep through the folk world. That’s it unless of course folk music undergoes a sudden unexpected breakout from ‘niche’ music to ‘popular’ music ... and that’s not likely. There is an interesting point however, and that’s the issue of effort that sometimes comes into the debate at this point.

It’s arguable that we live in a world where anything requiring effort and depth of understanding is less than popular. And that’s a shame. Irrespective of your personal preferences, most musical styles deserve more than a cursory listen before they’re branded as boring. In any style you can find boring if you look hard enough – not every Charles Dickens’s book is a classic and neither is every Ewan McColl song. Equally because something is old it doesn’t necessarily acquire value in proportion to its age. There are boring trad songs that were boring ten minutes after they were written and remain so hundreds of years later.

For me the incessant thump and mindless lyric of manufactured celebrity-driven corporate-manufactured pop demands no more involvement than the average tumble dryer on fast spin. And I have given it a reasonable listen but for me it’s not working. The difference with corporate-manufactured pop is this type of music permeates through every speaker system in every shopping mall and retail outlet, it pours out of most radio stations, and in doing so it catches the ears of an immense sea of humanity. Happy with its effortless embrace and (importantly) its affiliation with those modern-day Western apocalyptic horsemen ‘celebrity’ ‘fashion’ ‘consumerism’ and ‘fame’, the vast press of humanity looks no further for its satisfaction.

The outcome is immediate tribal gratification, with smaller less vast tribes tolerated or derided depending upon their size and power. Does power really impact music? You bet it does. For if the fat cats driving the corporate machines thought for one minute their prancing, ‘fashionista’ celebrities did not offer mass appeal they would drop them in a heartbeat. Do they consider writing songs that could have anything other than immediate gratification mass appeal? Not on your life.

So is the accusation of ‘boring’ a fair one?

As initially stated it all depends on taste and preference. If the statement is changed however to, folk music that does not develop is boring, there may be something to it. Now that doesn’t mean that those musicians that only want to play folk in the tradition and refuse to embellish the tunes in any way are wrong it just means that they are happy playing what they play to their niche audience who are happy to listen. It doesn’t mean that all folk falls into that category but while we have stereotyping in this world (and that’s forever) whatever brand of folk you purvey you will run head on into the boring indictment. It also means that for many the preference is to listen to something else ... just don’t throw a hissy-fit if someone calls it boring, because to their ears it is.

I continually come down on the side of exploring and expanding horizons. Perhaps that’s why I rarely endorse the generalisation that folk or any other form of musical expression, is boring (although I still have a problem with modern jazz). Probably it’s more accurate to say that there are boring bands and musicians currently playing everything from traditional to medieval, and new folk to weird and strange folk. The folk itself is fine it’s just the calibre of the performers that’s questionable. Folk isn’t boring but to certain degrees it has backed itself into a bored niche ... despite revival after revival much of the predictability remains. Those artists, bands and labels leading the break out and moving beyond the ‘same old same old’ continue to make folk interesting. The folk they produce experiments with ancient folk and strange folk. They take the weirdness of dark and pastoral folk and embellish it with to create something new. They even regurgitate traditional with a new sound and feel. It is highly likely that some, perhaps many, don’t like it. Some may even call it a step too far to call it folk. The point is the boundaries are never fixed.

The increase in new folk and all the sub genres it encompasses is perhaps one road to expanding the niche and reducing the ignorance. By the way, it also means long-established folkies need to accept that although they may not like it their traditional heritage belongs to the same tree as their weird cousins. Present the world with a united folk front. So to the old diehards and the new strange brew I say stop the in-fighting and unite - protect your right to experiment but protect your heritage too. Relish each other’s tradition, artistry, style and inventiveness because if you don’t, then no other bugger will.

So perhaps the future lies in casting a despairing become benignly tolerant eye towards heaven when the ‘boring’ word appears and trying ever so gently to assuage the ignorant with a little understanding and a lot of expanded thinking. If not ... who cares anyway, 

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