Pointless prejudices remain with us from the cradle

(September 24, 2010)

Something lurking in the depths...

Some hoary old chestnuts will not go away. No matter how hard you try to ignore them they keep returning. Some are vaguely amusing, some tedious, others are downright sick-making. Whatever reaction they prompt their repeated appearence remains constant.

There’s always a chap in the pub who knows the time of every bus from Middle Grungeling to Little Strangleforth. He also knows the specific gravity of every real-ale ever brewed. The loony on the train will always sit next to you – even if there are dozens of empty seats nearby. Spotty youths with a litre of gel in their hair drive cars that put out 10,000 decibels of sound. And politicians will always screw their expenses – and if possible their secretaries. And by the way, this seemingly endless repetition of all that’s horrible, mundane and annoying does not exclude music; and not even folk music.

There's always the radical, the reactionary, those pushing for the new and those gripping tight to the old.

As with everything in life folk has its share of castanea sativa

There are always folk-reactionaries that believe nothing in folk should change. There is no new folk, only folk and that sits within proscribed boundaries. Presumably these people still draw water from the well and treat bone injuries by amputation. There are also those that preserve a rabid hatred of folk based on the belief that it is old-fashioned, boring or not proper music. Questioning all or any of these views will lead you into the most convoluted debates – I know I’ve been there.

So outside the cognoscenti why do many people cringe when you mention folk music? Is it fear of the old guy that sounds like a nasally-challenged donkey when he sings? Is it reaction against a longing for the ‘old ways’? Is it a worry that if you find yourself surrounded by Morris Dancers you will have to become one? Is it that folk music is plain boring? Perhaps it’s that folk is so far up its own exhaust system that it comes across as faintly comical? Or is it the instant and frequent reaction to anything that lives outside your immediate experience?And let's face it on immediate and cursory examination folk is not within everyone's experience.

More prosaically folk has become a by-word for all that people hate about English tradition. From ‘The Antiques Road Show’ to ‘Last of the Summer Wine’; from ‘Remembrance Day’ to ‘Maundy Thursday; from ‘May Pole Dancing’ to ‘Harvest Home’ the reaction is similar. The tainted image of all those pastimes that remains in ‘peoples’ head’ is contaminated and no matter how you try to alter that opinion the ‘first thought’ image remains. Unfortunately, the 'folk' word suffers the same problems.

The idea of a ‘first thought’ image is one that pops into your head at the mere mention of a word or phrase.

Maybe the ‘first thought’ image colours everyone’s view

Take any number of words in the English language and you will find a ‘first thought’ image appears. Often, that fills at least some portion of the populace with fear and or loathing. ‘Youth’ – that’s a good one to start with; always guaranteed to elicit a negative image somewhere. ‘Immigrant’ – that’s another word designed to produce wildly differing images.

The list is endless; consider types of people – drunk driver, pusher, income tax inspector, estate agent, mercenary, lawyer or prostitute. Depending on your viewpoint (and occupation) each one instantly creates a firm and not always complimentary image. Consider descriptions – old, disabled, tattooed, overweight, communist, student – similar rules apply. (We could be here all day so let’s assume you get the idea.) It’s enough to state the type and intensity of the image depends on an individual’s occupation, experience and opinions; that or their inbuilt, inbred beliefs.

And that in itself is interesting. Do rational people really think there are inbred beliefs about folk music or any form of music for that matter? Yes some do. Do people believe that when their parents and friends condemn a musical style, it’s true? Yes some do. Do people really think that all rap music is the province of drug-taking hoody-wearing black Americans? Yes some do. Do people really think that psyche-folk is the province of tree-hugging hippies. Yes some do.

Those beliefs (or more accurately) pointless prejudices are with many of us from the cradle. Both friends and family usually drive them into receptive young brains because they are outside the accepted family, group or gang belief or tradition.

That’s an interesting thought. We know that folk music does not begin and end with tradition. It thrives on both its history and its future. It’s happy to let its future evolve and grow, yet retain its past. And that’s despite the factions within the genre that despise one another. However, too many people find the word ‘folk’ fills their heads with unpleasant images, views and false expectations. It conjures ‘old’. If not old, it conjures ‘old people’. It also evokes images of country yokels and cloth cap-wearing would-be country folk. For so many this has an immediate negative effect usually based on no prior knowledge or experience; purely prejudice. It’s probably the same effect the words ‘rave’, ‘rock festival’ and ‘all-nighters’ have on many parents’ minds.

So why do these images occur? The word folk conjures images; as does rock, heavy metal, rap, garage, hip hop and classical, but must that always be negative or result in immediate classification? Do people attend the Last Night of The Proms expressly to hear classical music or do they just turn up for the ‘craic’ (as my grandmother often said.)

If you’re old enough, cast your mind back to a group called The Nice – one of the first to mix classical and rock music. There then followed Deep Purple and more recently Metallica. All these groups took a similar route through their chosen genre and mixed it with another. Now I’m certain that many die-hard classical music fans remain horrified that such musical iconoclasts infected their ‘holies of holies. Equally, many rock fans cried ‘sell out’ and vowed never to buy another album from the offenders. So no surprises when Dylan faced a torrent of disfavour as his accusers cried: 'Sell out' when he added electric guitars to his country and folk roots. And no wonder folk rock and other derivatives underwent the same process.

There’s more to folk music than ‘folk’ or ‘music’

It’s far more to do with the capacity of the music to be workable and respond to innovation than anything to do with its longevity; although the two often go together. And that’s why folk music still exists. And once music reaches that point - workable and long-lived - whatever form it takes it’s open to flourishing inaccuracy. It’s open to ‘first thought’ (usually inaccurate) images.

The ramifications of folk extend far beyond its image. There are a few musical styles that claim a heritage that rivals folk. However, few are as malleable or ductile as folk.  Few have their beginning hundreds of years ago yet still thrive today. Few still have artists taking a fresh new look at the genre and building on the past with equal fervour as they create the present.

So, here’s a question: ‘Where do we go to from here? More accurately the question should be: ‘Where did we go from to here?’ Folk music is what it is in whatever form, yet it’s changing. It’s not the definitions nor is it the usage. There’s more to it than that. It’s moving in many directions and on the way creating many more images. It's now part of a world that's awash with a myriad of different styles and tribes. No longer confined it has the potential to break out. The trick is to broadcast those images in the same way that pop transmits its images. But wait one moment; does this all come down to how effectively a style promotes itself? If the answer is yes then are we doomed to rest where we are? Or do we remain fat, dumb and happy and not give a damn?

Actually, if that’s all there is to changing the image of folk music – the ability to publicise itself – the view would probably be right. But folk has far more to it than that. Fashion and trend mean little, tribalism has less influence. Folk has more to do with what’s happening to people and less to do with what people think about it. That in itself opens another topic and we’re not done with this one yet...... 



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