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"Why do we do what we do?"

(February 15, 2013)

Is there an answer to that one? Is it buried so deep that we no longer remember? Is this line of thought heading into the shadows of Descartes or do I care? If the answer to the question: 'Why do we do what we do?' comes down to why people play, sing or write about folk music then there must be thousands of reasons. Some accidental or deliberate, some driven by desire or compulsion, others because it's there and it just happens. Considering the answer from my perspective, I thought why do I do it? Well here are some observations, although these musings may not be as expected.

Writing is in my blood. There's a drive to work with and enjoy the intense pleasure generated by using the glorious descriptive tool that is the English language. Responses to that drive have over the decades, ranged from indifference to interest, enjoyment to anger, praise to derision. With over 35 years as a working 'wordsmith' under my belt I have developed a fairly thick hide when it comes to negative reactions to the material I write but there's always the minuscule hope that people will like it. Doubtless, the same applies to many musicians - it's in the blood, they simply have to do it, indeed many would be hard pressed to give you any more detailed response. Since man first made music, musicians have offered their reasons including, compulsion, desire, need, drive and ‘as basic as breathing in and out’.

Whatever ‘hunger’ is satisfied by writing, singing and playing and pouring the results out for people to hear, the time eventually comes when someone, either in writing or by voice, comments on that outpouring.

The longer you live in the world the less inclined you are to take too much notice of the fickle views of other people. Of course, even for the well-established a poor review of a book, an album or a performance can still chafe but it’s rarely the ‘punch in the gut’ feeling generated the first time some critic 'chews up' your work. The maxim: “If you have nothing good to say then say nothing at all”, is in the view of many artists a state ‘devoutly to be wished’. Talking to musicians and authors over the years they often hope that should a certain pack of journalistic jackals not like a book, album or performance they would say nothing rather than raid their Thesaurus for negative comment.

So does this lead me to re-visit the FolkWords view when it comes to reviewing and making comment?

I reckon so.

'Tread softly for you tread on my songs/words/music' (delete as applicable - borrowed freely from W.B. Yeats)

What follows below is a short selection from the many recent and not-so-recent missives received by FolkWords. These all follow a similar theme. Recently I re-read some of them and they prompted me to reconsider the opening question: 'Why do we do what we do?' from a personal view.

“So what gives you the right to review the work of singers, songwriters and bands? Can you play an instrument?” “What do you know about song writing or melodies?” “Why write about some artists and not others?” Surely, if we go to the bother of sending you downloadable links why don’t you in turn, bother to write about us?” “This is my third reminder about my album.”

Whether those senders held expectations of responses or not, it’s time for an open reply. It has been said that music critics and reviewers once wanted to be musicians but could not make the grade. Not sure how many subscribe to that point of view but I’ve encountered it a few times. Possibly, it says more about the originators of the statement. Somewhat similar is the phrase, ‘Those that can, do, those that can’t, teach’ – but don’t get me started on that one.

 I’m given to understand there is a desire to mask one’s failure in any particular field of endeavour by standing outside it and berating those that do achieve success. That is, I’m told, the reason most critics are critics – music, film, theatre, literary or otherwise. The observation has also been made that most critics are not unbiased. They carry with them the garbage of their failed efforts. Many are apparently influenced by major labels, artists, magazines, broadcast or online media. They are also the ‘paid lackeys’ of publishers or corporations and the independent, quasi-revolutionary would be iconoclasts that hate everything.

Just for the record, I don’t work for anyone but me and to my way of thinking FolkWords is not ‘work’ it’s a labour of love. I’ve done ‘work’ and this isn’t it.

Although it’s stated fairly and squarely on the FolkWords site, I’ll repeat it for the purpose of this meditation (careful, almost back to Descartes): “FolkWords’ reviews are free, honest, unbiased, fair, written without influence and without corporate contamination and we're happy to stand by what we write. All submissions are reviewed on an 'as received' basis, so sometimes there's a bit of a backlog. Never fear, if you've sent it to us and we've received it, we'll listen - and if we like what we hear we'll post a review.”

Before someone trawls through the back pages of FolkWords and points out reviews on more than music, I have on occasion also reviewed a couple of books and offered my considered opinion.

Returning quickly to ‘masking failure in a particular field’, as far as I’m aware no one at FolkWords harbours secret desires to be a professional musician. FolkWords’ reviewers are authors, writers and journalists that happen to love folk music, and possess a wide experience of its many life forms. FolkWords has no alliances (financial or otherwise) with any aspect of the music industry (artists, labels, publishers, magazines or online media) makes no money from music industry or venue sponsorship, and does not harbour any rabid anti major-label or anti major-artist feelings. In fact, FolkWords reviews the work of major artists and raw talent with equal eagerness, and is happy to review ‘folk’ that’s swimming in the mainstream as well as that wafting in from the far-fringes.

The ever-expected caveat or 'get-out clause'

However, here comes a caveat ('knew they would have one' ... 'wait for it you might be wrong').

FolkWords does not write about everything it receives.

Should I decide not to write about material submitted to FolkWords ... that’s it - a barrage of emails and ‘friendly reminders’ will not change the situation. Clear it up any?

There are thousands if not hundreds of thousands of artists that don’t submit their work to FolkWords for review – those we cannot write about. Equally, there are a great many that do – those we can write about. That includes the unknown, lesser known and renowned. Sometimes we make what we consider to be valid observations, which an artist may not like but there’s no desire to overtly criticise. Sure, I can wield a spiteful, abrasive, sarcastic journalistic pen as well as the next person. I did for many years, but now I write FolkWords from an entirely different perspective.

CDs, EPs and downloads, whatever the channel, everything that arrives at FolkWords, receives a hearing. That means we listen. That's not just a quick check on the lead-track followed by a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ decision – it’s listening to the entire submission, often many times. Then we decide if we write about it.

Presumably, artists send their releases to published, broadcast and online media hoping for positive reviews, which may 'spread the word' and increase their chances of bookings and/or sales. However, I have pointed out on previous occasions both on FolkWords and in conversations with artists, reviews do not open some magical gateway to sales, bookings or success. All they can ever do is let a wider audience know who is doing what, which could allow some of that audience to consider (possibly) listening to artists’ work or perhaps (maybe) visiting a website or gig. The rest is up to the music.

I pause here to emphasise that I do not suggest ways for artists to promote and market themselves or their product. I leave that to more qualified individuals, of whom there are a great many. I am merely in the business of writing, because as stated earlier, it’s what I do.

Right, back to the caveat ('told you' ... 'hold on, just wait a minute')

As stated, I write about what I like. Not to ‘influence’ but to bring to attention.

Interestingly, I do not consider myself a 'music critic'. Yes, I write about music. I offer considered opinion as a by-product of my explorations into folk. I write reviews because I enjoy delving into music – in this case folk – out of a deep and abiding interest. I write about what I believe worth writing about because in some way I 'tune-in' (pun intentional) to what’s being said.

Naturally, I’m overjoyed if people read, and I dare hope, enjoy what I write. However, I’m not out to influence my readers as to what they ‘should listen to’ and to convince them ‘what’s hot and what’s not’ – I leave that to the critics. That’s the key point about my views on music, especially folk music. I do not want or expect to influence anyone else. I’m offering my opinion – not issuing an edict. Disagree? That’s fine by me. Want a discussion? That’s fine too. Want to indulge in a vitriolic exchange? Not with me. I’m too wise, too old and far too tired for that. Of course, should my opinions (and those of fellow reviewers) irritate or infuriate no problem - hit the delete button. Should they interest you or prompt debate. That’s great – look forward to hearing from you.  Do I want to pour negative opinions on artists? No, most emphatically not.

FolkWords remains committed to writing about folk. That includes the sometimes serious and frequently not-so-serious Observations and Comments, the occasional FolkWords Interviews, the often tongue-in-cheek FolkWords Blog, the FolkWords reviews (still remaining free, honest, unbiased, fair, without influence or corporate contamination) and all the other indiscriminate ramblings and musings you’re liable to find there.

As some old guy I see in the mirror on a regular basis once said: “If you define your folk as acoustic or electric; traditional or nu, medieval or folk rock; Americana, bluegrass or country; progressive, psychedelic, punk or thrash. If your folk influences come from the West, the East and any points in between. However your influences ebb, flow and coalesce to create new, different, familiar or strange threads of folk. And however you weave those threads into the rich tapestry of folk music - talk to us, we'll listen.”

And why do we do what we do? No idea.

That is all. Carroll out.

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