Not another ‘history of folk music’ – more a look at the British folk melting pot

(August 06, 2013)

Defined by almost everyone from here to eternity, any assessment of folk music usually boils down to ‘music transmitted by mouth, music of the lower classes or music with unknown composers’. That sets it apart from music created for select or universal consumption, for commercial ends with known albeit sometimes unrecognised composers. The other definition is ‘music that has existed beyond recorded memory’ or more prosaically, for so long nobody remembers when they first heard it. Both could be ripe for change. So what about the look and feel of British folk – is it changing, metamorphosing or just undergoing natural evolution as an increasing amount of folk from other cultures pervades the genre?

Anyone with an awareness of folk, knows that there have been numerous ‘folk revivals’, from the first efforts of folk song collectors, through the 1960s, to folk rock and today’s folk explosion. Modern folk music, if you will call it that, is held by many to be completely distinct from traditional folk and by others to be just one more variation on a constant theme. It gets really interesting when you here present-day acoustic artists commended for ‘writing in the tradition’ – but whose tradition? Some are actually writing acoustic music from a mix of sources that doesn’t appear to fit happily in any classification - the melting pot is definitely bubbling again.

It's time to revise the image

When many hear the phrase ‘folk music’ an immediate set of images come to mind. These include the products of prejudice, media mis-information and parody. Broadly speaking, excluding bigots, closed minds and media mendacity, the overriding image the phrase generates in the British Isles is one of white Anglo Saxons singing about sailors, soldiers and wars, landlords and highwaymen, lost lovers and foolish virgins. However, it’s time to revise that image, especially in Britain’s multi-cultural society. British ‘folk music’ not only includes a huge number of artists both ‘plugged-in’ and ‘unplugged’ turning out first class folk music – it also encompasses folk that relies on a heritage forged from a vast range of influences, cultures and races.

It’s argued that in the headlong rush to ‘develop’ an increasing number of cultures lose their identity and as a result their folk arts (music included) and cultures. Yet it appears that in British society at least, ethnic-based and multicultural folk music is becoming part of a national identity. And mixing perfectly with the tradition. Despite dire warnings that any homogenous society eventually loses itself in a cultureless swamp in this country it is not hard to find distinct folk music from Bangladesh to Brittany, Galicia to Greece, India to Ireland and Nepal to Nigeria lurking in many parts of Britain.

The existence of many of these are not just down to select groups of musicians they are assisted by local initiatives, dedicated radio stations, online media, networking sites and dedicated clubs. And the cultural fusion that results is exciting. These islands have an increasing number of artists performing and writing the American concept of folk, often called Americana - and many excellent British exponents of Americana have been as close to the ‘land of the free’ as I have to Mars, equally some fine performers of Sri Lankan folk are more at home in South East England than South East Asia. This is a situation to be savoured for it only serves to allow each cultures music to grow from influence with another.

Mixing up the melting pot

There is not one ‘indigenous folk tradition’ but thousands and it’s that variety that we should celebrate as an ever-integrated part of society. For example, in today’s Britain it’s possible to hear music from different regions and nations from across the African continent, to listen to music and dance forms from the Caribbean and Latin America, experience Indian and Iranian folk music, and the wide spectrum on offer through Chinese traditional music.

The true integration comes when cultural and folk essences flow and meld to create folk-fusions reflecting the society of its artists. From Afro-folk to Indian-folk and gypsy-folk to klezmer-folk, there are fusion-folk bands across Britain writing and playing a startling melange of music that is breaking boundaries and creating ‘something completely different’ – to purloin a well-known catch-phrase.

A long time ago the Celtic connections with Ireland and Scotland created new folk sounds, the same links were forged with Breton music, more recently Eastern European and Nordic music, now the flood gates are open. And all the while the richness of all increases.

So are we heading for yet one more ‘folk music revival’ a renewed interest in traditional folk or are we living through a time that will transform folk into a new genre? I think we are on the verge of a new folk enlightenment where boundaries fall, energies increase and the resulting amalgam of style, culture and influence could be stunning. Watch and listen - it will be amazing.

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