So, why folk music?
My musical taste is fairly consistent – I generally like electronica and stuff where the rhythms and textures are more important that the melodies and the lyrics. This explains my love of drum and bass, shoe-gazing indie, ambient music, drone rock, discordant electronica, breaks, techno, deep house, dub and even happy hardcore. There are exceptions of course, but this is a handy rule of thumb when trying to work out whether I will like something or loathe it. I also prefer a nice open, spacious sound which explains why I’m not so keen on trance, modern dubstep, euphoric DnB and most pop music, which is generally too noisy and over-produced for my delicate ears.
But folk sticks out like a sore thumb. It’s all about melody, all about musicality, all about lyrics. It also has an image problem. It often smacks of serious, bearded men with tankards of real ale, aran sweaters and one finger in their ear, wearing socks and sandals in a pub garden, surrounded by morris men* and people talking earnestly about hurdy-gurdies. And this is sometimes true. I’ve been to many folk gigs and seen these people. I’ve even seen them dancing, with a serious look on their hairy faces!
What is it, then, that draws me to folk music and to the people who play it? And how did I get interested in the first place?
I’ve always been fascinated by the Englishness of it. There just seems to be a type of sound or a key that evokes in me the same kind of feelings I get when looking out across green fields and rolling hills on hazy August afternoons and I find that really stirring. It also has a feeling of drama and of something wild, unpredictable and untamed.
At first, I heard hints of this sound in other music. Some of Paul Weller’s solo stuff has it, and Dodgy’s In A Room has it. It’s difficult to define what it is, but I know it when I hear it. I didn’t recognise it for what it was at first and it was only as I discovered music with a more deliberately folky feel that I started to understand it and seek it out.
I first heard Beth Orton on Radio 1 while I was working in a warehouse sticking labels on boxes. The track Someone’s Daughter was being played a lot by Jo Whiley and caught my attention. Not long afterwards I discovered her lovely Trailer Park LP and fell head-over-heels in love with it. Interestingly and perhaps crucially, the album was produced in part by trance and ambient producer William Orbit and in part by Andy Weatherall, another noted dance music producer who both lent the LP a dreamy electronic feel that perfectly complimented the more folky stylings. Moreover, Beth Orton also provided the vocal for Where Do I Begin, a delightfully folk-tinged chunk of breakbeat mayhem by the Chemical Brothers.
It wasn’t until 2006 though, that I finally decided to investigate the world of folk music proper, and I bought myself a copy of that year’s Radio 2 Folk Awards CD. I was instantly captivated, first by the instrumental delights of bands like Flook and Swap, but later by the powerful rhythmic fiddle-folk of Seth Lakeman, the drama and energy of Bellowhead and the stunning voices of Chris Wood, Martin Simpson and Julie Fowlis. All the Folk Awards CDs are worth checking out by the way, if you’re at all curious.
You can’t listen to music like this for long before the lyrics start to come into focus. One in a Million by Chris Wood brought tears to my eyes, as did Never Any Good by Martin Simpson. Spiers and Boden made me laugh out loud as they introduced me to the drama and humour of traditional songs about murder, death, crime, shagging and all manner of high jinks. The voices of singers like Karine Polwart and Jackie Oates made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck and the good, honest Northern-ness of The Unthanks made me go weak at the knees.
Then there’s the history – the song collectors like Cecil Sharp and Frank Kidson, key figures in the folk revival like Ewan McColl and Bert Lloyd, singers from the 60’s and 70’s like Sandy Denny, John Martyn, folk-rock bands like the Oysterband and Fairport Convention and songs whose origins are in poems from the 1880s or traditional folk tales written in the 16th Century. It’s fascinating and complicated and exciting and can be appreciated on so many levels by everyone from the casual listener to the completist collector.
Live folk is even more amazing. Pop and rock are great live but (with a few exceptions like the Bees or Dave Grohl and Taylor Hawkins from The Foo Fighters) I’ve never seen members of a rock band swap instruments on a whim and be able to play them flawlessly, as I often have with folk bands. The skill levels are so incredibly high – if you can find me a rock guitarist who can play like Martin Simpson, or a pop drummer who can play like John Joe Kelly from Flook, or a band who can play with genres and styles as effortlessly as Beshezzar’s Feast then I will let you pee in my pewter tankard. I know pop and rock aren’t about musical virtuosity and multi-instrumentalism – they are all about sex and rebellion – but it’s still an eye-opener when you first witness it. If you ever get the chance to see the 11-piece folk live monster that is Bellowhead, or to watch Seth Lakeman play Kitty Jay to a small, packed venue then do it without hesitation! It could quite possibly change your life.
But don’t confuse folk with folky. You can take your banjo-soaked, euphoric pop and fuck off (yes Mumford and Sons, I’m talking to you). Folky won’t cut it unless you bring something exceptional to the table, like Laura Marling and her astonishing voice for instance.
And it’s got to be British! I love Scots folk, especially sung in Scots dialect or Gaelic, because it’s full of dramatic, brooding, doomed love songs and wild imagery to match the rugged Scottish landscapes. Further afield and it gets complicated. I do love Irish instrumental folk, and can appreciate the skill of their singers, but I feel a tiny bit removed from it for some reason. And it’s the same, only more so, with American Folk – I like a bt of Bluegrass, but Dylan, Baez and Seeger leave me cold.
So, hopefully I’ve explained a bit of what attracts me to the music. Please don’t mistake my love of Englishness with a dislike of anything or anyone else. I love my English roots and heritage but I’m not a member of the EDL or anythng like that! I frequently marvel in wonder at music from all over the world; it just doesn’t make me think of haystacks, crumbling castles, dramatic deciduous woodland, rainy summer afternoon and warm beer in quite the same way as English folk music does.
(* Morris dancing is brilliant by the way, if it’s done properly. Find a good group of morris men and watch them dance or do a mummers play and tell me I’m wrong!)