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There was something doing the rounds on Facebook this week that got me thinking. Well first it got me annoyed and then it got me thinking. Enough, in fact, to write the blog (or should that be rant) myself this week!

It started with a copy of the London Underground map, only it’s titled a ‘Map of English Folk Music’ and the coloured lines are labelled Songwriting, First Folk Revival, Bands, Squeezeboxes, Fiddle, Guitar etc. It sounds like it could be quite funny and clever, but in fact, I didn’t think so, and nor did some of the people whose names appeared on it.

So I got to thinking, what precisely was it about this image that bothered me so much? And after a while, I realised that it was precisely the same thing that bothered me last week when I heard Howard Goodall being interviewed on Radio 4 about his Story of Music programme on BBC TV.

What riled me with Howard was his presentation of music as a linear progression from something primitive and simple in the past, to something grand and sophisticated. This seems to stem from the belief that classical music is somehow the culmination of hundreds of years of effort, and that other traditional and ethnic musics are somehow less important. I was also frustrated to hear him write off exploring music of other cultures as not relevant enough to include in a six part series, even though the UK has had links with the Indian sub-continent for centuries and trade along the silk road goes back millennia, bringing music, instruments and folklore with it. Surely the early arrival of the bow in Northern Europe deserved a mention!

So back to the Map. Is the attempt to classify and pigeon-hole folk music and folk musicians to this degree is to be barking up the wrong tree? I can see what they were trying to do – make a simple guide to the main aspects of English Folk Music. But does that really achieve anything?

I think I might be getting to the nub of my irritation here. For a start, there are so many folk instruments, it would necessitate the expansion of the underground throughout the UK to accommodate all the possible contenders And yet, not a whiff of a hammered dulcimer, whistle, crowd or harp, all of which have been played in England at least as long as the guitar and the fiddle. And what about ‘found’ objects – spoons, bones, tables, washboards, saws…? There are so many instruments that make up ‘folk music’ that it would be impossible to categorise every last one of them and still have a coherent map. Not to mention how you can represent amateur and professional folk musicians who excel at playing more than one and should therefore appear on several tube lines in the diagram.

And then, the revivals, of which there have been 2 according to the map. Isn’t every rediscovery of traditional song a little revival? There are always articles popping up in the Guardian about the new fashion for folk music – this week I was pleased to see that it was the Child Ballads that made it into the Review section. There have been revivals on and off since people started collecting songs back in the Victorian era. Revivals do not necessarily require electricity and record studios. Even the fashion for collecting wasn’t new then – Shakespeare, Rabbie Burns, Ravenscroft etc were all collectors in their day.

And what of the tireless amateur musicians? Would they not need a whole underground system of their own? It’s all very well listing all the people who have sold records, but they are but one tiny part of the English Folk Music scene. There are many people who week in, week out, sing the songs of their fathers and mothers, and make new ones of their own. And they are the ones who buy the records of the people that made it onto the map. There are few songwriters in the folk world who haven’t steeped themselves in traditional material or other people’s songs, or, like me, have started out as a song writer but then turned to other older wells for inspiration. Where do you put those people?

So my point here? Are not both these representations of music – the TV show and the Map – attempting to distil something undistillable. It seems we are looking at 2 different definitions of Music here, one which requitres clear genres of music for sale that the staff in HMV would know where to put a new CD on the shelves, and one which is about people making music. What I’m saying, is that music doesn’t boil down to a few linear progressions. It’s a web of relationships, cross-fertilisation, experimentation. It can’t be frozen in time, because careers and hobbies take lifetimes, and people change, and so do audiences. People look to field recordings made in the early 20th Century, as well as modern technology. I might listen to some 60’s folk revival recordings to inspire my songwriting and versions of traditional material, but my version of English Folk music can also be informed by Arvo Part, Danish field recordings, Sigur Ros, and Delibes, not to mention our loop station. And you can’t really show that on a map.

And so I was immensely relieved to see someone’s answer to the Map. It was a colourful scribble, with no stations at all, just all the colours messed up and random. Like Music.

posted by Kate

 

 

Kate and I kind of belong to two ‘communities’ (or should I say subcultures?), the Pagan Community and the Folk Music Scene. They are oddly similar, maybe even a similar size, though its harder to quantify the number of active folk music fans as there are no questions about your musical taste in the Census (though wouldn’t that be cool!). There is also a lot of crossover in membership.

Both Folk and Paganism have a combination of national events and small local groups. They have their own celebrities, who are World Famous in Folk Music or Paganism, though no-one else has heard of them. Occasionally these people get to go on the TV or Radio, where they are mostly treated as special cases and not usually included in the bracket of the ‘normal’. There are also a lot of caravans involved in Folk Music and Paganism..There is one more wonderful thing they have in common, and I will call it by the slightly poncey title of the Complete Right to Amateur and/or Incompetent Creativity. That’s CRAIC for short. Do you see what I did there?

You see we all live in an a world where music is dominated by two factors which kind of feed off each other, firstly, easy access to recorded music and, secondly, the increased professionalisation of performers. The recorded music industry makes available great music, and I am grateful for that. There is an inevitable side effect though, that is especially obvious with instrumental music but also affects sung traditional music.

Obviously the best musicians are going to get recorded most, but it isn’t the case that a really good fiddle player will get to be on say, 10 CDs, whilst a fairly good one will get on 7. No-one wants the fairly good fiddle player on their record, so a small number of excellent musicians will monopolise all the top level recordings. The music industry only needs one or two players of any given instrument or singers of any given style, as, thanks to the wonder of recording technology, those two musicians can be in everyone’s home and car.

This reduces the diversity in style and makes musicians judge themselves, and one another, in comparison to a very small pool of excellent full time professional performers. It also effects audience expectations. If the only whistle music they have heard is Michael McGoldrick or Brian Finnegan, what are they going to think of my humble tootling? Or yours? Now you may say that the fact it is easier than ever to record a CD and market it yourself may end this situation, and I hope that is right, but I still think I have a point.

The worst side effect of this uniformity is that it might put people off playing and singing. Lots of people start, but a lot stop when they realise they may never be ‘as good’ as their favourite musician. These are unrealistic expectations though fuelled by lack of exposure to, and lack of value given to, live, amateur performance.

However that live amateur performance happens, thank the Gods, in spades at the average Pagan Camp and the old fashioned type of Singaround Folk Club, and long may it continue. Let’s use the Pagan camp and the Folk Club’s power of CRAIC™ to resist this sterile cultural hegemony!

The CRAIC™ Manifesto

As Pagans and Folkies let’s encourage everyone’s participation. Artificial boundaries between ‘audience’ and ‘performers’ are harmful to our culture.

Collective performances by everyone are more valuable than solo performances by skilled individuals. Collective performances build community, togetherness and love. And all that Hippy Shit.

Playing and/or performing is rewarding and marvellous in itself, regardless of any outcome. Acts of pointless beauty are to be encouraged.

Singing songs and playing tunes keeps them alive, but it is variation that keeps them evolving.

Listen to others for inspiration, but not comparison.

The ultimate test for any piece of dance music is its ability to get people’s feet moving, not how many notes it fits into any given second.

The ultimate test for any song is how much it moves the audience and the performer, not how in tune the notes are.

Now is a good day to start learning something new.

Remember the Lady says:

and ye shall dance, sing, feast, make music and love, all in My praise., for Mine is the ecstasy of the spirit and Mine also is joy on Earth.


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