Accents of folk - your own or from somewhere else?

(January 08, 2011)

Popular music (from rap to rock) sings with a mid-Atlantic, quasi-American accent

This is possibly engendered by the style of music or perhaps to empathise with an increasingly slavish love of all things American. Perhaps the same is not true of folk music because folk has a different accent and needs not the American twang. Perhaps it needs something different. This may beg the question why an Australian enunciation is not popular in song. It appears that their soaps are all-pervading but that’s a question for another time. Anyway, soaps from down-under aside, the real question is: Does the world of British folk have an identifiable accent?

There are of course the regional brogues that add much to folk. Without too much thought it’s easy to identify leading folk lights that use their natural ‘burr’ when they sing. These range from Cumbria and Lincolnshire, to Norfolk and Yorkshire, and every other English county in between. Each one, and there are dozens, adds an indefinable edge to the particular rendition of their own and other peoples’ songs.

Many individuals that have carved their place in the English Folk pantheon glory in an identifiable regional accent

Some of those that lack an identifiable tone of voice adopt a hybrid Brit-folk intonation. Some do it well – some do not. The need to take on such an accent is perhaps similar to the need to adopt a mid-west drawl espoused by almost every Country singer. The same is true for the Plastic Paddy universal Irish accent so beloved of Pogues impersonators. (Actually, saying an ‘Irish accent’ is as incorrect as saying an ‘American accent’ – there’s no such thing, there are dozens of regional varieties.)

It’s also argued that some songs demand the singer uses an alien accent or tongue. Well apart from the accent required when singing in a foreign language, it begs the question why sing the song? Or why not sing it in your natural accent? Embracing an alien accent is often all about approval - it proves one belongs to a genre, almost guarantees a level of tolerance and readily identifies where your musical feelings and heritage lie.

When I hear some of the ‘trendy’ contemporary folk artists sing, there is a feeling that they are in danger of sounding rather more American than many other folk artists. Is that once again by virtue of a tendency towards rock vocal styling? Perhaps, but does it also mean that in certain circles the range of English folk accents still prompt a negative response? That may be true but there are also a range of modern folk artists that do sing with their native timbre. There is the oft quoted view that the ‘rural vocal’ tag or the ‘rough folk accent’ has done more to damage folk than anything else. Possibly it has led to pointless parody and even raised a smile or two. I think that belief belongs to an earlier view of folk – probably that view engendered by the Rambling Syd Rumpo character – where folk equated with rustic, foolish and added all the derogatory humour that label provoked.

'Accent derived’ snobbery and instant rejection - on the wane but you don’t have to dig too far to find it bubbling beneath the surface

And it’s usually in the minds of those that remember the earliest folk revival. For many, their first taste of folk was in some smoky upstairs room in a pub in the early 60s where traditional singers would lope through a 25 verse song in a mid-Lincolnshire accent. Neither the accent nor the singer did themselves, the song or anyone else any favours. It was doubly galling when that same singer would then ask for a pint in a mid-Southern England accent.

The label of ‘buffoonery’ associated with rural or regional accents is less caricatured these days by the broadcast and published media. Is that because there are far more regional accents in the media? Or is it because the vehicle for the humour - folk music - has become less marginalised and thus less acceptable to lampoon? And do we have the niche radio and TV stations to thank for that?

Whatever the case, there is no doubt that for many there is a range of English folk accents that are as distinct as those from America, Scotland or Ireland. And it is equally certain that like their Celtic and Colonial cousins, those accents add an indefinable something to the music.

So to all folk singers - sing out with the voice you have. Glory in the accent of your heritage. Go with the intonations of your birth. They are yours and define you for what you are – unless of course you would rather be someone else.

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