Who’s going to be the first folk musician to write a song about the credit crunch?

(September 14, 2008)

Now then, now then – as Mr J Savile was wont to say – who’s going to be the first folk musician to write a song about the credit crunch? Which of our folk artists will bewail the failing banks, rising inflation, the imminent recession or falling share prices?

There doesn’t seem to be much of a queue forming as I write.

Perhaps, despite folk music allegedly being the province for the common man to write about common problems, folk music artists find little or no inspiration in these issues. Indeed, maybe outside the bonus-driven, cocaine-fuelled confines of the City, no one cares.

Ask the same question about the vanishing farmlands, the destruction of the countryside, the loss of our heritage or country cottages being turned into holiday homes and there are far more contenders. Folk music is falling over itself to cover those issues.

So does this mean that despite the purported desire of folk musicians to write about everyday life, only some parts of everyday life actually qualify? Possibly, it’s folk music fulfilling the common accusation that its exponents only hark back to problems from history rather than those of today. Or is it perhaps that those folk musicians writing about today’s issues find little or no identity with the world of finance and commerce?

Taking it to the roots

Of course, those such as Steve Knightley (one half of Show of Hands) have long been advocates of defending English rural life and its traditions. And long has Steve regaled us with his incisive songs on the matter. His song ‘Roots’ tells a piercing story about the destruction of the English way of life. The lines in ‘Roots’ that start of decrying - ‘pubs where no-one ever sings at all’ - move on to encompass ‘over-paid soccer stars, prancing teens, Australian soap, American rap, estuary English, baseball caps’. He’s simply taking on all the aspects of modern society that most of us hate. Then there’s his song about ‘Country Life’ and the plight of the rural poor that suffer from: ‘No trains, no jobs, no shops, no pubs.’ The realisation that the increase in holiday homes in parts of England means that ‘one man's family pays the price for another man's vision of country life’. Not a syllable or a note about the problems facing world finances – no surprises there then.

There is of course another reason for folk’s lack of interest, and that may mean attaching yet more significance to the continuing relevance of folk’s roots – that of the common people talking to each other about common issues. Those issues have to touch the artists, inspire their view of life and what they see around them. It’s easy for those who fall under the folk music spell to identify with the images and issues conjured by raped landscapes, dispossessed villagers and the erosion of traditions.

Are we or should we be concerned?

There is far less romance and artistic angst attached to worlds that are so far removed from the worries of the common people. For instance the worlds of high finance and international banking. And is that the problem? So many issues today are beyond comprehension and concern for Mr and Mrs Everyman. Especially when they face the more tangible and immediate worry about putting food on the table and heating the home.

The trouble is that financial and political issues have an unhappy habit of filtering down to the ordinary people. Inevitably the impact means everyone becomes politicised and involved to some degree. Becoming politicised and writing about political issues that affect us all has long been the province of the folk artist. So does that mean modern folk excludes the more serious and pressing issues?

Among writers of songs and lyrics that cover the political world of ‘today’ is Simon Hopper, lyricist with the Simon Hopper Band. His song, The Ballad of the Suffolk Five is about the murders that took place at the end of 2006. Simon is on record saying that he was struck by the situation that caused these women to be so vulnerable and also by the way they were labeled in the media as prostitutes every time the case was mentioned. Often, when reporting the case, the media referred to the girls as 'the five prostitutes', not five girls. It was as if the fact they were selling their bodies to feed a drug habit made them less important or worthwhile. An issue that clearly caught his attention. Many of Simon’s songs often carry a strong socio-political lyric and ask questions that many think but  would not consider putting to music. With equal wit, insight and perception he covers Eastern European immigration, rabid nationalism, oppression and religious extremism.

Still the voice of the common people?

Perhaps folk is not so much exclusive in deciding what to leave out, but cautiously inclusive about what it leaves in. It’s back to writing songs about those issues that each individual artist considers surrounds and affects the common people. Is that position the true reason for the continued existence of folk music? Not perhaps the voice of the common people but the voice of those who feel the urgent and or demanding need to express their feelings about life. A life they identify with; a life that really means something to them, to share that view, and in doing so touch us all. And that is possibly why some folk musicians are accused of choosing a subject and then droning on about it interminably; and alternatively ignoring others entirely.

At present, the woes of the financial sector seem to be theirs alone. But if the feared recession blossoms into a full scale depression and if the common man starts to feel the pain, will the folk song find another source of inspiration? If mortgage failures rise and it becomes increasingly hard to feed, house and clothe the family will the folksong record the issues?  

Is it only time before we hear songs about home repossessions along with the ravages of flooding from over-building and the plight of cold pensioners in winter? And will the government face the majority of the criticism? Is the political folk song, formally the protest many years ago, set to experience a steady return? Once politics becomes close to home rather than ‘play-time in Westminster’ does it mean more? There’s much to be said for promoting the wisdom of the common man over the sophistication of the bureaucracy. After all, what do ministers with two Jaguars and multiple homes know about Mr. and Mrs. Everyman? It takes a folk singer to point out they’re creating someone’s vision of hell.

Arguably the most active, aggressive and vocal of folk’s current protesters is Billy Bragg. Songs like ‘England, Half-English’ talk about the problems of racism in Britain, immigration, racist abuse and seekers of political asylum. He contests that the problems are all fuelled by the media. The song uses the lions on the English football team's shirts, Britannia and St. George and the nation's supposed favourite dish – curry, to prove that every aspect of British culture has been forged, shaped and influenced by repeated waves of immigration from Roman times to today.

And although Bragg and many others speak out widely and loudly against local and national issues such as fascism, racism, bigotry, sexism and homophobia, few of their themes yet reference the credit crunch. Doubtless someone will tell me if folk artists are writing songs bewailing the unfortunate loss of jobs in the financial sector or the problems encountered by buy-to-rent landlords and similar issues.

In the meantime I’ll wait for the arrival of a wave of financial folk songs.






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