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There are Three Ways of Being Folk
- by Chris Sugden
Issue 20 March/April '97




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The first Way is to perform "folk" material. This can be traditional, as defined by Cecil Sharp or whoever (a much dodgier definition than many realise), or it can be what we used to call contemporary, as defined by just about anybody who chooses to stand up and claim folkdom. This approach, however, has equal and opposite problems. In one direction it can lead to the famously stated idea that all songs are folk songs because "I ain't never heard a horse sing", which has been used over the years to excuse almost everything. In the other direction people become folkier-than-thou, which can be annoying, and occasionally amusing (Tom Brown, who learned his songs on the herring drifters, once finished singing a song only to be told earnestly that he'd got the last verse wrong! Then again, the late lamented John Purdy was distraught to learn that Keith Marsden had written the song "Bring Us A Barrel", as it was part of his repertoire, but "No song under 150 years old is worth knowing"). And somewhere in between the two are all those interminable arguments about "What is folk?" that used to go on.

The second Way is to be involved in the "folk scene". This, of course, is a social rather than a musical definition, and that can lead to all sorts of musical and non-musical consequences. It led to Bob Dylan being booed at the Albert Hall for betraying the gang and electric (if only he'd waited a bit he could still be a folkie today). It led to Richard Thompson - a man who has clearly been influenced by folk song - making the first track on his first solo album side-swipe at the scene in the form of "Roll Over Vaughan-Williams". It led somewhere bizarrely to Norma Waterson's distinctly non-folk album being chosen as Folk Roots' album of the year in 1996 (she even tried to argue on Women's House that is was a sort of folk album. There's that singing horse again). Conversely, it means that none of the "unplugged" music of recent years has been considered "folk".

The second Way is the most commonly used Way today. It solves a lot of problems - or at least it sweeps them under the carpet. But musically this definition of folk has now spread so wide as to be almost meaningless.

And so we come to the third Way - performing in a manner consonant with or informed by the folk tradition. This raises its own problems, but they are much more interesting ones than those which arise under Ways one and two.

For instance, a recent piece of mine about the folk revival caused a bit of a stir, and one or two people took up the cudgels with me, but it turned out that they had misunderstood my distinction between the revival and the tradition. This confusion is, of course, quite possible under Way number one.

For instance, Tykes' News has recently been much exercised about the quality of folk clubs, following a letter from someone who had visited such an institution to hear guitarist John James. Now I love John, and think he's one of the wittiest people alive (I'm not qualified to judge him as a guitarist), but "folk"? That can only be arrived at by working under Way number two.

I blame Cecil Sharp. He was desperate to save folk song from oblivion, but he was also rather keen to save it from the people who were singing it. so, to a great extent, it was Way number one which defined folk, until the folk boom of the fifties and sixties brought in Way number two. But those people that Cecil and the rest saved the songs from most likely went by Way number three. They would include in their repertoire whatever seemed to be suitable to their style of singing - including much that Cecil decided wasn't folk song and so discarded.

And they had a particularly unmusical approach. "Velvet" Brightwell of Suffolk famously said "I used to be reckoned a good singer before them tunes come in", and Tim Laycock told me recently of some old people who response to his singing of an unaccompanied (but not traditional) song was "It's really nice to hear a song without any music because then you can listen to the story".

But now, when I go to a folk festival and listen to what's happening in singing workshops, I more often than not hear people being taught to sing tunes rather than words. So, did "Velvet" have it right. Have "them tunes" taken over irreversibly?

I hope not. And i have a vision. I think that we could work towards a folk equivalent of real ale. Real ale aims to be an honest, natural product, not altered to suit some idea of modern tastes. It is appreciated by a minority, but is still commercially viable, and promoted for its own intrinsic qualities. Our music could be like that. Then we wouldn't have to reduce it to the lowest common denominator in order to suit the mass market. We could promote it on its own strengths. We could allow it to be an acquired taste.

The Campaign for Real Folk - I'll drink to that. Bring me a Barrel, and make it cast conditioned.

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