The Living Tradition
|Roy Bailey - by Robb Johnson Issue 26 April/May '98||
I like the Albert Hall: most of my favourite artists have concerts there ... Bob Dylan, Jacques Brel, Leonard Cohen, Elvis Costello (before he lost the plot), Jackson Brown, Roy Bailey ... But a friend, who's usually of a sound and perceptive nature, was somewhat caustic on the subject of Roy's gig there: "The ultimate wank!" she snorted, and perhaps those who cherish folk's admirable democratic and anti-elitist traditions may well agree. But my friend and I had both enjoyed seeing Jackson Brown there; indeed, everytime I've been there I've bumped into someone I know from the folk world ... There is something of a double-standard at work here, which has nothing to do with artistic merit (after all the Spice Girls movie features a gig at the Albert Hall), but much to do with how Folk music is presented and perceived from without and within. Roy's actually a GREAT singer, as in Billie Holiday, Edith Piaf, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, etc - listen to his ironic acappella reinvention of The Standard "Their (My) Way" - but he's defined by working in the English Folk Tradition, a musical-ghetto, I would have said, but ghettos are seen as pretty lively places, so let's say backwater. Beyond a few safely niche-marketed artists who occasionally achieve outside recognition, generally involving either something grisly like folkrock or a heritage industry pigeonhole, no-one either side of the backwater's demarcation lines shows any inclination towards crossing over the great divide. Which is one of the reasons I think Roy and Albert is a Very Good Idea indeed: I like gigs in back rooms of pubs as much as I like baked beans and baked potatoes, i.e. a lot, but not all the time.
I asked Roy why he chose to sing in the English Folk Tradition, and if he was conscious of any limitations imposed by that decision.
"I'm often asked the first part of this question: the late 1950s saw the emergence of two powerful movements, one musical and one political. On the one hand there was skiffle music. American folk music of a kind. Songs about American history, about John Henry and building the railways, songs of trade union struggles like "Which Side Are You On?" "Hold the Fort" and so on ..."
While he enjoyed his share of Frank Sinatra's "Songs For Swinging Lovers", it was the immediacy of skiffle and the music of The Weavers that made most impact emotionally and intellectually. "The important thing I think (in retrospect) was that they related to me in terms of class. I began to view the world in terms of class rather than geography in my late teens and early twenties."
"The second movement was the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. I was caught up in that even if only as an observer and occasional participant. Songs and politics came together. The emergence of what was known as the folk revival was a musical and political movement of incredible creativity and depth."
Whilst a mature student in the 1960s, Roy began exploring the English Folk Tradition, encouraged to do so by Ewan MacColl, Bert Lloyd and Martin Carthy.
"Then I met Leon Rosselson and began to hear new songs written about my world, of an urban culture. Leon invited me to join his group The Three City Four. Martin was about to leave the group and had suggested to Leon he should meet me. I was about to move to London to teach in an FE College in Enfield, so I readily agreed."
Regarding the second part of the question, Roy said "I've not thought through the possible limitations and consequences of choosing to sing in this tradition. Certainly at the time there were no limitations of which I was aware. I knew what I wanted to do and since there was no thought of making my living from this there was no pressure to sing anything other than what interested me." Singing was a release from the day to day routine of an academic career teaching in higher education. "And I didn't have to finish each song with 'more research needs to be done on this matter before we can be sure as to the accuracy and validity of this argument!' If I experienced limitations it was more to do with the very English view that if you do more than one thing seriously, then you're a dilettante and are not serious about either. I was serious about both. My academic career enabled me to avoid the economic problems that went with trying to make a living from a decidedly minority musical interest, and freed me to follow whatever musical pathway I wanted to. Fortunately, I discovered there are people out there (quite a lot in fact) who have a similar interest as far as folk songs are concerned."
Roy agreed that Folk music is not taken seriously by the "arts industry", but added "In a way that is also its strength. It's sustained by people who genuinely like the stuff. They too are not wholly devoted to making money. I know there are promoters who are making a living (why not?) but anyone can start a folk club. Book a room in a pub, put the word out, invite singers and musicians. It's as easy and as hard as that! The folk club network was overwhelmingly, and to some extent remains, a 'bottom up' movement not a 'top down' industry. I like that."
I asked Roy how his strong political convictions had developed. He was wary that the benefit of hindsight might give a misleading impression of intentionality to one's life.
"Our current circumstances, economic and ideological, are probably more the result of chance encounters, unwanted challenges and unintended events, a kind of kaleidoscope that keeps getting shaken up. I think this is why I like the tale imputed to Jeffrey Barnard who is said to have put an advert in the paper requesting anyone who had met and known him, to let him know what he'd been doing over the past 40 years or so as he was about to write his autobiography! But as I recall, my political education began in earnest when as a 16 year old I met three young socialist students, one English, one Iraqi and one Thai, at a Further Education College in Southend. I'd left school having failed the 11+ exams, but with the encouragement of my parents I went to the local Tech to do "O" level GCE's. When the invasion of Egypt occurred in 1956 my Iraqi friend's stories of family and friends, of Arab struggles against imperial England and the western economies generally, meant I resisted the definitions of Arab people presented by the British propaganda machine. I felt an affinity with ordinary people whether from 'the west', from the middle east or from Asia. These early experiences and friendships helped me to view the world less as a number of nations and more as ordinary people trying to make ends meet, to grow, to raise a family, to educate their kids and to care for their parents. All this made more sense to me than concepts like 'the national interest'. When I finally went to University at the age of 25 I was attracted to the world of Karl Marx and the writings of his supporters and critics. For me class is both a social and an economic category. There remains, whatever Tony Blair may say, a fundamental contradiction between the owners of capital and those who own nothing but their labour power. For one, wages are a cost of production, for the other a source of income. We're back to the business of trying to make ends meet, to raise a family, to educate the kids and to care for our parents. So my world is a world of class not of countries."
Roy mentioned how this perspective had conflicted with Ewan MacColl's strictures about English people singing only English songs and Scottish people singing only Scottish songs etc. "Ewan, Bert Lloyd and Charles Parker among others, were resisting the cultural invasion of Britain from the new imperial culture of the USA. But I was attracted to songs about justice, peace, equality, work and play by, what I viewed as 'ordinary people', wherever they came from, regardless of nations. I have a lot of sympathy, now, for that resistance; the Folk Revival was seen by many was an indigenous stand to encourage and remind us that we had our own traditional music and song and we should not allow it to be swamped by the music of the USA. Britain, however, was too interested in the mythical 'special relationship' with the USA to resist. France, Spain, Portugal and other continental countries for a variety of reasons (language, politics, history) were less enthusiastic and their traditional cultures retain some of their integrity."
As indicated in the previous answer, Roy is unimpressed by New Labour: "'Business as usual' is a line from a song of yours that I sing. If I remember rightly you wrote it shortly after the election of 1992. I had hoped after May 1st 1997 that I might find it dated and inappropriate ... I'm still singing it! Need I say more about the Blair government?!"
I wondered whether the apparent failure of the traditional left, both in Eastern Europe and here in Britain, meant that hopes of a just resolution to the tension between exploiter and exploited were fundamentally Utopian?
"If, as you put it, the resolution is Utopian so what? What's wrong with that? I think most of us would have said in 1990 that the very idea that Nelson Mandela would be President of South Africa in 1993 was Utopian. It happened. Utopia is not something unattainable. It is a vision of what we desire. It is how we measure the present. Without it we'd have no idea of where we were wanting to go. Who knows what forces will shake the kaleidoscope in the future and produce wholly unexpected patterns? Our contribution is to sustain the ideals which inspire us even in the face of Tony Blair and his government. These things pass. As sure as songs of resistance and dissent have been written and sung for hundreds of years and are being written and sung today, so they'll continue to be written and sung in the future. Of that I have no doubt."
The Albert Hall concert represents a celebration of a remarkable 'career', however inadvertent its evolution - but then, that's one of the characteristics of folk music as opposed both to popular and high cultures: it's something you do at the end of your working day, to give expression to your experience of the day's work of trying to make ends meet. I asked Roy to reflect on the highlights of that career.
"After so many years there really have been many highlights ... but a highlight to me may be rather dull to someone else. The Vancouver Folk Music Festival must be a major influence and significant experience for me. I went to the Festival every other year during the 1980s with Leon Rosselson and Frankie Armstrong. Throughout those years I had the good fortune to meet wonderful artists with whom I shared much of what I've said earlier - about the world we live in and the way songs can express our anger and joy, despair and hope ... I shall be forever grateful and proud of my relationship with Tony Benn. He is a remarkable man - gentle and generous - his knowledge and experience are quite daunting. It is an immense privilege for me to share a stage with him and to think of him as a friend."
Roy has just completed a new compilation, Pastmasters, to be released in March, drawing from the score of recordings he's produced over the years. "In searching back through the recordings I felt a quiet satisfaction as to the repertoire I've chosen to build and the musical direction it reveals," but added "I hope I've a way to go yet."
Recent projects have certainly explored and expanded his art. There was his participation in Gentle Men, last year's Passendale Peace concert; "Not only was it very moving but I really enjoyed singing and recording with a jazz band." There's also the release of a video of The Writing on the Wall, with Tony Benn; "This is a first for me and probably a last as well! Seeing myself on video was as horrific as hearing myself for the first time on tape 40 plus years ago! My self image is nothing like what you see! Tall, slim and elegant comes down to short, fat and clumsy. No, I'll not be making too many videos!" ...
Indeed, new areas of creativity has been the dominant characteristic of Roy's recent work, and the appropriately-titled New Directions In The Old is a real triumph. After welding Folk Music's most respected established musicians together in the majestic Band Of Hope, Roy has worked with the finest talents of the younger generation to produce an equally impressive album, but one that is altogether different, and perhaps even more ambitious in its variety of tone. There's a very personal feel to the album, but also an epic 28 verse traditional ballad, the Lass Of Lochroyan, something of a departure from his customary repertoire, as well as Leon Rosselson's dazzling and demanding Bagpipe Music, and the Bailey trademark, an anthemic chorus song, Calling Joe Hill. I know Roy has been concerned that after his last illness, the purity of his voice has diminished. For me, what he feels he might have lost in technique is more than compensated for by the qualities of depth and intimacy that his singing voice has developed. It has been said of Billie Holiday that by the mid fifties she only had a range of about three notes, but with those three notes she could sing miracles. Whilst by no means suffering the same physical depredations as Holiday, the quality of mortality that has entered Roy's voice is, paradoxically, now one of its greatest strengths.
In many ways, Roy Bailey can rightly be considered the champion of The People's Music in England. His ability to welcome and embrace audiences, whether at large festivals or small clubs in pub back rooms, without compromising the integrity of his personal political vision, is in itself a remarkable quality. So the Albert Hall should be both no problem and also something a bit special, something to remember all round. I think, with Roy at the Albert Hall, folk music is again making manifest that it is only a minority, backwater genre if everybody insists on defining it thus. The first step towards redefinition is self redefinition. We are the people's music. And we're at the Albert Hall ... as well as in the back room of a pub near you, a festival near you, a barn dance near you, a road protest near you, a benefit near you, a good night out near you, a busker near you ...
Over to you, mainstream. Are you listening?
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