The trouble with folk music is folk will insist on playing it

(November 23, 2012)

“The trouble with folk music is folk will insist on playing it. There's always some poor folky-yokel in a country pub wailing away at so-called folk music. Leave music to the professionals and keep the amateur folky-yokels out of my ears.”

My word I do enjoy listening to members of the public on a rant. If nothing else it gives me topics to air on this site. So folk ain’t for folk unless it’s professional and folky-yokels are wailing away in pubs to the detriment of folk music – now there’s food for thought. I presume that means amateur rock, pop, rap, jazz and everything else in the amateur musical catalogue is OK but folk is only for the professional, established singer songwriters of a certain quality that receive payment for their work.

I can already hear the surge of indignation from here. The bones of such views, usually stem from the allegation, often founded that some amateur music folk included, is regrettably rather poor. But who is defining poor or professional, and why does that matter?

Professional or not professional?

Well for the sake of argument, that modern arbiter of definition, Wikipedia sees it thus: ‘A professional is a person who is paid to undertake a specialised set of tasks and to complete them for a fee.’ The ‘professions’ today include doctors, lawyers, architects, accountants, engineers, nurses, teachers and even footballers and golfers. In some societies, ours included, 'professional' has come to include well-educated individuals paid for being engaged in creative and intellectually challenging work - I know a few musicians who would argue that description defines precisely what they do.

That more traditional guardian of definition, the OED defines professional as: 'adjective - relating to or belonging to a profession: young professional people; worthy of or appropriate to a professional person; competent, skilful, or assured: his professional expertise; their music is both memorable and professional; engaged in a specified activity as one’s main paid occupation rather than as an amateur: a professional boxer.' Fine now we’ve got ‘professional’ more or less nailed down let’s move on.

Actually, professional has little to do with this observation. It doesn’t matter if your view of folk music (and any other amateur music) is similar to the Victorian piano-gathering, where after meals the family would gravitate to the parlour and sing around the piano. However bad the music was it amounted to little more than the family having fun. And outside of that family, however good or bad the music the rest of the planet has no right to comment and in my view they should sod off. Today that family fun (forgetting the odd cynical and possibly libellous observation) could mean gathering around the Scrabble or Monopoly board, the PlayStation or Xbox or howling together as cousin Albert fires up his accordion. It matters to the rest of the filthy unwashed not one jot.

Family entertainment or something else?

However, the minute you decide to take that family entertainment to another external venue, such as the local pub or anywhere Joe-public gathers, you fall foul of expectations. People expect far more (and rightly so) in a public arena than in someone’s front room. People are understandably far less tolerant of you and your cousin Albert wailing away, even if they haven’t paid a ticket-price for the privilege. You are subjecting them to your amateur efforts and you should be ready for the response. Equally, if you and cousin Albert are good and the next folk act waiting in the wings and ready to ‘break’ into the public ear then be prepared for a different response – but for goodness sake listen to yourselves and be ruthless about your chances before you inflict your talent on others.

Now does that slap in the amateur folk-face mean that amateur rock, pop, rap and jazz are all fine and folk is not? Absolutely not, what it means is that amateur rock, pop, rap and jazz usually require something more than a man or woman with guitar (or accordion). It also means that with the possible exception of insipid average-jazz (usually inflicted on diners on Sunday lunchtime in quasi-gastro pubs) the other musical forms really do not have a huge army of amateurs operating in local pubs. Should those amateurs decide to operate in local clubs - where most refine their craft before they attempt to ‘break’ and fail to come up to the mark they will quickly learn what the audience thinks.

The amateur folk artist in the pub is somewhat different – they proliferate and often because of their chosen venue, the pub – places where nobody actually tells them that their playing ability verges on the negligible. Transpose those performers to certain folk clubs and they will undergo a completely different experience – not only will audiences let them know by vacating their seats and heading for the bar the hecklers will soon make themselves heard.

So the result is the folky-yokel in the pub carries on regardless (unless the pub changes hands) trotting out the same old folk music and on the way continues to do irreparable damage to the genre. Casual visitors to the hostelry will go away with the same old impression that ‘folk’ is a profoundly dire musical genre that ‘folk will insist on playing’ despite that fact that what they heard bares as much relation to folk as the word ‘politician’ does to the description ‘public servant’. Does this view anger or irritate us ‘folk’ folk? Do lovers of ‘folk’ agree or not? And does the word ‘amateur’ imply something less valid and accomplished than the word ‘professional’? Keep an eye on this space there’s more to follow.

And I really do love listening to members of the public on a rant it really does provide food for thought ... as long as you can see beyond the opening comment.

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