A view from a hill

(April 03, 2007)

Discussion and definition


Ask a hundred people to define folk music and you’re likely to get an even larger number of definitions. Depending on the prejudices and pastimes of the people you’re talking to the definitions will range from the sensible and considered to the derogatory and overtly biological. There’s an even split between the lovers and haters of folk music, with a large raft of indifferent opinion somewhere between.


Over the years, I have asked both folk-haters and folk-lovers (and many of the somewhere betweens) to succinctly describe or define the style and give me the benefit of their opinions about its present and future. Now I readily admit that such ‘research’ - based on talking to a cross-section of people and getting subjective responses - will doubtless horrify the statisticians and market researchers, but hey-ho each to their own.


Responses from 'folk-haters' include these enlightening observations:

“A bunch of weird-beards with one finger in their ear singing about dead sailors and soldiers in 19th century England.” 

“Not that Irish bloody dumdy-diddly music.”

“A bunch of sad sods sat in smoky pubs gathered round a bloke that can’t play the banjo – but thinks he can.”

“Like a load of Morris Dancers aren’t they?”


From folk 'fans' the remarks are less acerbic but equally informative:

“It’s the traditional music of this country (England) gathered from the traditions of common people.”

“Rural music from all over the place, it’s worldwide and it’s sung in a traditional way.”

“Music of the common people who put their life and times into story-songs handed down from generation to generation.”

“It used to be traditional Ewan McColl style that changed into sanitised Fairport Convention folk-rock, now it’s changing style again and anything seems to go.”


From those who fall into the ‘between’ category, responses range widely:

“It’s dead music, traditional and all that but not relevant today, it’s bit like old-fashioned painting (art that is - not decorating).”

“Sounds something like the music from Riverdance.”

There’s a bunch of old men that crop up every time we have a beer festival at the pub and play that Old English music.”

“The ‘join-in community stuff’ we had to sing in the Scouts at campfires.”

“It’s always there in the Virgin store in the ‘Celtic Compilations’ section.


That’s just a small selection but it gives a flavour nonetheless. Believe me, I’ve heard them all and many more besides. The fun aspect to writing about any topic (and folk music is not alone) is to air the prejudices held by various groups. It is only a moment before the richness of opposing views makes the subject more alive and interesting than ever.


If you take one accepted classic definition, then folk music is: “Music of oral traditions, simple in style, mainly from rural roots, often lacking an identifiable composer and performed by non-professionals.”  It’s also defined as: “Music that’s used and understood by broad parts of a population, especially by the lower country or rural classes. By type it’s usually characteristic of a nation, society, or ethnic group.”


The common heritage


People often attach words such as ‘old-fashioned’ and ‘traditional’ to folk music. Although such descriptions can be derogatory, usually they are more a statement of belief than truth. The belief that folk music is nothing to do with youth obviously disregards the wealth of young talent charging through folk music in the 21st century. But more of that later.


Sometimes people attach a negative connotation to the word ‘folkies’ (used to describe lovers of folk music) personifying them as old, bearded (if male), with a love of real ale and slightly ridiculous in dress. However, few folkies find the word deprecating. What they do find is a strong identity with their own heritage. Now here’s the important bit – most of those folkies are open-minded enough to love the way that heritage still continues to grow and develop.


Take almost many musical genres and what do you notice? The music is generation-focused. Most generations hate the music of the previous one. Take those people who grew up with their parents saying: “That’s not music it’s just a noise.” It’s a fair bet that when they in turn grow up and have children they will use the same turn of phrase. How often does that happen with folk-based music? Not often. The truth of that statement is born out by the crowds that attend folk gigs or go to folk festivals – the age ranges are wide and the styles varied.


True or not it’s fair to state that folk music still displays the common heritage of a particular people. It’s rarely generation focused to the extent that the music of one generation is actively derided by the next. That heritage is not fixed to any particular period or time it’s all pervading and well regarded. Whether you call it folk, world or roots music, there’s a common point of reference – people and their heritage. Folk music (in all its forms - and I do mean 'all') binds people and carries a gene of tradition that all cultures need.However, that tradition is not a dead object to simply be venerated it's a living, breathing object that will conrinue to develop.


And as with anything that includes the word heritage, their will always be the view that it has nothing to do with today and cannot evolve. A false belief if I ever heard one.


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