‘Cool folk’ – looking for the ‘cool-factor’ in folk

(March 06, 2007)

“Let’s face it folk music isn't cool.” Despite the temptation to shrug off that remark I decided to consider the possibility that ‘cool-folk’ may not exist and indulge in a little research to find if there’s a cool factor to folk and whether or not we should bother anyway.


So why isn’t folk music cool? Is it because the boundaries of immediate fashion, fickleness and the elusive ‘fifteen minutes of fame’ that our ever-more vacuous society craves still define cool? Cool is for cults, fads and whims that arrive in a flash and (usually) leave with a whimper. Cool is transient, fickle and peer pressure driven. Cool is also sharp, vogue, attractive and stylish.


Does folk music follow those patterns? I think not – no wonder it’s not cool.

 Folk music has tradition, heritage and longevity on its side. Its roots go back hundreds of years into the social consciousness of society. It’s an evolving, developing consciousness that respects its roots while continuing to grow.

And that growth includes those bands driving folk into the 21st century and beyond. But anything that’s associated with ‘old’ cannot be cool. Folk music is full of quirks and unique gems – and individuality – yet another antithesis of cool. Despite its own need for notoriety, cool doesn’t identify well with idiosyncrasies and folk has them by the barrel load. How can any musical taxonomy that includes dancing men waving handkerchiefs, ancient instruments, pints of beer and bearded ageing hippies be cool?


Also, because it involves words such as tradition and heritage folk music is dangerously like something one’s parents might enjoy; that means it’s not even on the ‘cool-o-meter’ scale. And even if it was, no ‘cool dudes’ worth their salt are going to admit it. At least not in front of their cool friends. It’s a bit like confessing to being a member of the Scout Movement among your tough mates (even if you enjoy it) it just isn’t cool.


Who are the ‘cool’ among us?

Interestingly, I discovered that it depends on how you apply cool. Over the last few weeks I asked a straw poll of people how they apply it – should they ever use the word. To keep the responses to the point of this (admittedly limited) investigation I asked respondents to consider cool musicians and bands. (Omitting at this stage, any bias towards folk music.) Seemingly John Bonham, Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa, Keith Moon, Janis Joplin, Paul Kossoff, Phil Lynott, John Lennon and Jim Morrison are cool. Hang on - they’re all dead. Is that a requirement for cool? As for bands, The Beatles remain cool, so seemingly are The Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin, ZZ Top, Yes, Pink Floyd, U2 and Thin Lizzy (so Phil Lynott scores twice – must be cool).


Too avoid referencing too many so-called ‘classic’ bands I added a bias and asked my respondents to reflect the ‘modern-cool’ view. I now know that bands such as Radiohead, Panic at the Disco (who?), Gorillaz, Cold Play and Good Charlotte are high on cool rating. As for modern musicians, I’m told Eminem, Akon, Snoop Dogg (who again?), P.Diddy and Coolio positively freeze with cool. Hang on again. Does cool mean you have an incomprehensible made up name? Obviously not, because it seems Rod Stewart remains cool as do Sting, Bono and Robbie Williams – few surprises there then.


Notice anything here? Unprompted, spontaneous definitions of cool tend not include any folk artists.


I’m also told that by definition, cool people are adored; they are attractive, intelligent, witty, self-confident and incredibly ‘laid-back’. These cool qualities make a cool person. By the way, the stereotype of cool also includes those at the crest of a wave, in the media spotlight and those who lesser people copy - because they’re cool. Cool has overtones of style because if you’re not stylish then you’re not cool. So now I understand, you don’t need to be dead or have a made up name – just style conscious, dress savvy and mimicked by hundreds of people.


Does folk display such traits? I think not. Folk is becoming less cool by the second.


Unfortunately, cool has let its mask slip. It’s regularly used as an all-purpose ‘responding’ word that removes the need for thought. Arguably, the roots of cool lie in the phrase ‘cool as a cucumber’ used to describe someone who could easily deal with life because they were in control. However, cool has metamorphosed to mean something like ‘whatever’ or ‘so what’. Now people throw ‘cool’ around like a verbal ping-pong ball. It can be an interjection or acknowledgement that follows almost any sentence. Someone will say something such as: "I sat in a bloody three-hour traffic jam this morning." The response is often: “Cool.”


So the word itself is falling from grace. Does that mean it’s good that folk isn’t cool? Probably not.


Let’s return to ‘cool folk’. How about folk musicians? Are there cool folk icons? Well another straw poll (this time specific to folk artists) threw up some predictable names.  From the spontaneous responses it appears that Tom Paxton, Bob Dylan and Willy Nelson positively exude cool. Kate Rusby, Seth Lakeman and Damien Barber are cool, so are Sandy Denny, Dave Pegg, Phil Beer and Steve Knightley, Eliza Carthy (but Martin isn’t to some people – this is getting so complex and a little weird), Shane McGowan and John Martyn. And John Tams is right up there on the cool-rating too.


And cool folk bands include? This is an eclectic mix. So cool folk bands are The Dubliners, The Chieftains, The Demon Barbers, Show of Hands, Jethro Tull (I think they’re a rock band), The Albion Band, Circulus, The (now defunct) Eighteenth Day of May, The Oyster Band, Gaelic Storm, The Pogues and the Kipper Family (!). This just gets weirder by the minute.


(Make what you will of the results but don’t blame me all I did was ask the questions and write the words. Personally I think Martin Carthy is pretty damn cool.)


Cooling folk or enduring folk?


So, back to the original question - why isn’t folk music cool? Has this small inquiry unearthed any truths?


Perhaps it’s that link with tradition. Although compared with pop, rock, rap and a host of others, its popularity is minute, folk endures. It builds on its heritage and the bathwater doesn’t go out the window while the baby’s still in it. Folk music’s lack of general appeal and absence of cults, fads and fashions is its strength. If it was cool it could suffer the same fate as millions of so-called cool icons and fade away. Perhaps ‘fifteen minutes of fame’ is cool and hundreds of years of heritage are not. That’s lucky then.


Possibly it’s because folk music isn't elevator music that burbles away in the background. It demands you listen to it. Its themes make you think. Its tunes are intricate. It makes you want to dance. It makes you want to sing. It’s not musical wallpaper. Folk lyrics are not just a random collection of words hurled together, they’re usually written for the singer as well as the audience – not simply to be cool.


The absence of cool may stem from the people who occupy the folk-world rather than the genre itself. Maybe these people ignore fad and fashion, so if it’s missing from the people does ‘cool’ vanish from the music as a result? Most of the ‘folk world’ does not to give a toss about the latest fashions. Equally, it seems not to give a toss about the rabid desire for cool. People who would rather walk in a wood, watch a canal boat drift by or down a pint of Wadsworth’s listening to a folk band at a festival are unlikely to be considered cool.


Maybe cool is absent from folk because neither the audiences nor the artists crave its presence. Perhaps folk-people don’t need to be at the sharp edge of society. Those people are happier with the simpler side of life, after all, that’s where folk music originated, with the common people of society.


So in the end perhaps we have to accept it – folk isn’t cool. And it appears that we should be pleased. Nothing that folk music, it’s artists and audiences hold dear have anything at all to do with cool. Of course those folk artists and bands considered cool could revel in their fame, though I doubt they will. When they set out on the folk trail, however many years ago, they knew there would be precious few signposts on the way saying: “Cool over here.” 

Cool may be transient but talent lasts far longer, so nothing to worry about there.

All I can suggest is this - the next time you’re told that folk music isn’t cool you know what to say: “Cool.”


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