Folk resurgent and revived - again. And so the wheel goes round.

(March 21, 2008)

Folk resurgent and revived - again. And so the wheel goes round.

Seemingly, now we are in the 'oughties' (what a hideous expression) we are experiencing another English folk resurgence, which is good but haven't we been here before? The answer may well be yes but this time there's a difference. This time round folk is picking up on the future as well as reliving the past. This time the radio 'airwaves' carry more 'folkwaves' than ever before. This time round folk is more eclectic and appealing to a wider audience (apparently).

Also, this time the folk resurgence is stronger than before because English culture is under threat as never before (well not since 1066 anyway). This threat appears not so much from direct attack or national subjugation as cultural apathy. There was no invasion, more a gradual surrender, which although unnoticed by many prompted a few to rise and take action. The action took many forms not the least of which is another folk resurgence (more fo that later).

So how what about this resurgence? Before we go forward, let’s take a quick glance over the shoulder, for a (very) brief 'revival' review.

English folk has seen many so-called folk music 'revivals'. Such worthies as Cecil Sharp and Walter Pardon have been variously described as 'leading' or 'responsible for' these revivals. Sharp - sometimes called the 'father' of the English folklore revival, collected and published songs and tunes in journals. Pardon - who if we are into dispensing titles, could be called the 'custodian' of English folk songs and heritage - kept a wealth of songs and tunes alive.  Arguably the first 'revival' involved an increase in the recording, broadcast and public performance of English folk music. Depending on which historian you believe, this started in the early 1950s, happening again in the 1960s - involving such pillars of folk as Shirley Collins, Ewan McColl and Steve Benbow.

 During the tail end of the 60s BBC Radio 2 became the place to hear broadcast folk music with the first in a succession of evolving folk programmes, the first being ‘My Kind of Folk’. In 1970 ‘Folk on Friday’ began, presented by Jim Lloyd, which became ‘Folk on Sunday’. Tony Capstick presented ‘Folkweave’ between 1975 and 1978 and 'Folk on Two' began in 1980, and still runs today as 'The Mike Harding Folk Show'.

The late 60s and early 70s saw the continued rise of folk icons such as Martin Carthy, Dave Swarbrick and Christy Moore (to name just a few). ‘Politics’ and ‘protest’ fuelled folk. During this time the application of electric instruments increased within the folk style and the 70s became the period that established the folk rock genre. These were the decades when bands such as Fairport Convention, Horslips, Albion Band and Steeleye Span took over the 'folkwaves' and could do no wrong. Then for reasons best known to itself the world changed and even folk-rock slid off the pile, not into obscurity but into a niche.

There’s more to ‘Celtic’ ancestry than having a great-aunt from Limerick, but in the 80s you could forgive yourself for thinking otherwise.

Throughout the 1980s Irish traditional music rolled into favour. Irish bands were the ‘in thing’, including The Pogues, The Chieftains and De Dannan. Some bands such as The Pogues received so much airplay it became hard to avoid listening to their brand of folk. Apart from the well-established mainstream few, during that time it was hard to find good English folk music - either performed or recorded. In England, pub performances dwindled and the folk section in music stores decreased. The success of some heavily marketed 'Irish' bands, the ever-present Riverdance and the rise and rise of the 'Irish' theme pub did much to stamp an Irish (or so-called Celtic) impression on folk music in England.

Part of this fascination with Irish music and 'Celticism' in general, was down to the weird English opinion that someone else's roots were more interesting than their own and partly because of aggressive marketing by record companies and pub chains. The increase in so-called Irish pubs, featuring live music of widely varying quality, also resulted in a huge raft of 'Plastic Paddies'. These people suddenly discovered that they had a great aunt who had once traveled through Limerick on holiday and decided that fact alone gave them sufficient claim to an Irish heritage.

After all, these ‘wannabe Celts’ contended, being ‘Celtic’ (whatever that means) was far more interesting than being English. Although at the time, the perception of ‘Celtic’ equated with more with Irish rather than the great raft of nations and cultures that fall under the ‘Celtic’ banner. Strangely though, neither the Welsh nor the Scots decided to suffer from the same disease. They were happy with their own culture.

Tedious though this keening wish for ‘Celtic’ ancestry may be, it did help to wake the English to their tradition. Those who had expounded English folk for years suddenly found they were riding on a resurgent wave. Young people who were well on their way to becoming 'closet folkies' suddenly found they could talk about their music without facing howls of derision. Little bastions of folk across the nation in places such as Cornwall, Norfolk, Durham and others, found their message spreading. The increased understanding of Irish music also did much to expose young musicians to folk in general. These good people helped to liven up the English tradition as they moulded it to fit their world. The new generation of folk has something to say. And suddenly they’re not afraid to say it.

Since the late 1990s, we’ve seen the 'rise and rise' of folk, in both the performance and broadcast of English traditional music. BBC and local radio and television schedule more folk music, heritage and folk-history programmes, the Radio 2 Folk Awards become more prestigious each year – now promoted months not days before the event. Folk music appears once more in many English pubs and the number of festivals continues to increase. The new folk generation, sometimes the children of the musicians involved in earlier folk music revivals (such as Eliza Carthy, daughter of Martin Carthy) take the lead as folk revives.

 In this chapter of folk resurgence, there is as much emphasis on acoustic as electric instruments. The rise of folk rock placed electric instruments 'front of stage'. This current rise of folk tradition coupled with the skill the artists, brings acoustic to the fore – once again. Folk rock remains but acoustic is as popular. Skilled musicians ensure today's folk music holds some presence in the mainstream with artists such as Eliza Carthy, Damien Barber, Kate Rusby, Seth Lakeman and many others.

So where does revived English folk fit with today's England? And what was the catalyst?

The English folk tradition is accused of being mostly white, usually rural and broadly middle class. There are some who censure it as being nothing more than a vague hankering after a past time. This is usually defined as a time that has become sanitised and romanticised by history and distance. Life in the countryside, so called folk-life, in the 18th century was bloody hard - none of your 'curly headed ploughboy whistling over the hill'. It was back breaking, tough work and had little romance at all. Simplicity perhaps but that's it. Life in the military or on the seas was equally gruelling and damn dangerous as well. In fact, life in general was hard and uncompromising. However, much of the folk music of the time had nothing to do with the culture it pretended to portray. Many of the songs in open circulation were written about the people not by the people.

Although life may have been one long toil a hundred or so years ago, hardship and want still exist, soldiers still die, sailors still leave home and the human condition that inspired many folk songs still inspire musicians today. Today's musicians are far more in the mould of people writing for the people – and that’s a big difference. Yet there is something else at work. Have the English woken up to the gradual smothering of their culture? Accepting Englishness is on the rise. There is an increasing realisation that English heritage has something to give. Are the English once again recognising themselves? Apart from the increasing interest in folk music and tradition, just take a look at the number of Union Flags fluttering in the breeze. Incidentally, this has nothing to do with the rabid racists who have made the red cross of St. George a symbol of the manic right.

The rise of folk music is often linked to oppression. Strangely it's often strongest in countries that feel their own identity is under threat from an imperialist power. By contrast, folk music dwindles in countries that are powerful and dominating, with global empires. Is that because they don't need to defend their culture, which is systematically laid over everyone else's? Or is it because they are too busy writing marital music? Or have they already killed off all the musicians? Whatever the reason, reviving tradition often happens when a nation's culture and heritage is under threat.

This current drive for resurgence may not involve words as strong as 'under threat' but there is a definite feeling among many people that 'Englishness' is being overcome. Does that stem from the ever-increasing control and influence of Europe? Does it have something to do with the unrelenting influx of other cultures with stronger cultural identities 'taking over' England? Or is it simply there is a need for a national identity now that England is no longer forcing its identity on everyone else?

Whatever the cause, we are experiencing a 'rise and rise' of English folk music. The tradition is on the rise once again and there is now more to English folk in the media than one broadcast programme a month. Although, it's still not unusual to hear cynical tongue in cheek comments about folk music from presenters of 'mainstream' programming.

Folk musicians are using the resurgence of tradition to hit back at the 'wilderness years' when the English tradition and heritage nearly decayed. Just listen to Kate Rusby and Steve Knightley sing about tradition and roots. Knightley's song 'Roots' is an impassioned shout for restoring pride in English traditions. The roots themselves are not only growing they are spreading. They are taking folk to far more people as more artists find their expression in folk even though they use wide and varied instruments, techniques, styles and technology to achieve their goals.

Multiple folk threads help fashion the rise of folk music - electric, acoustic, psychedelic, magic, gothic, pagan, rock - whatever word you care to attach to the front or back of 'folk'. And that's nothing but good. Perhaps this acceptance of the widening folk boundaries is because of cultural threat, whatever the reason today's folk musicians adapt, challenge, mess about with, contaminate (some would argue) and manipulate folk. However, the music they produce carries folk forward.

Folk looks to the future but preserves a relationship with the past. That view enables folk to resurge and revive. This is the stuff that keeps folk alive and allows its beating heart to continue. It just happens that on the strength of the latest 'revival' its beating heart beats louder.

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