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Sounding Off: Nell McLeod

For Folk's Sake...
By Nell McLeod

For folk's sake...

Of all the many things that rile, vex and grate, right at the very top of the list of things that irritate me, is fully matured adults openly sniggering like schoolgirls at the 'f' word. There's a general fear among musicians inhabiting all genres that getting too close to folk music will inevitably lead to embarrassment; an idea that the folk scene — uniquely among every other movement in the world — has somehow not progressed beyond the 1960s stereotype of thick jumpers, socks and sandals, and the dreaded finger‑in‑the‑ear.

This highlights a huge problem facing folkies (real folkies, that is) everywhere: no one they attempt to describe their interest to actually knows what 'folk' means (despite their sincere assertions to the contrary). Let me do my darndest to encapsulate this far‑reaching genre. 'Folk' is descriptive of the traditional music of a country, or of any music that has been very closely inspired by that tradition. So, pretty damned eclectic. Even as a life‑long folkie, I do not credit myself with the knowledge of every vastly different style of traditional music that has come out of this country alone. From Northumbria to Norfolk, Cornwall to Kent, the music and songs written by the long forgotten are as diverse as the landscape. So what's so terrifying about the idea of going out and hearing some of this stuff? The people who first penned this stuff didn't waste their spare time writing rubbish; the vast majority of it (when performed at the same level you'd expect of any reputable musician) is bloody well accomplished. I wonder that anyone — especially musicians — has the gall to write off such a diverse genre of music so quickly.

Of course, the problem is compounded by the fact that many 20‑something navel‑gazers have appropriated the word to describe their own insipid music. Now, in the imagination of the average joe, 'folk' means not traditional music, but one of the aforementioned drips playing an acoustic guitar. This trend has been adopted in the media, also, which now gives virtually no coverage to genuine folk.

The scene is currently at the most vital point it's been at in years; absolutely full to the brim with young, talented people who easily transcend the stereotypes. Indeed, one of the most impressive areas of the current folk scene is the hugely active youth movement that has developed over the last decade or so. This particular group have developed and led educational projects that would be envied by any youth worker hired by local government to do the same thing. Amazingly, they are almost entirely voluntary.

And yet — with some exceptions — traditional music receives very little recognition and support. Sidmouth International Festival had been going for 50 years when the organisers were forced to pull out. The event was one of the first to invite dance and music groups from overseas and it attracted more than 60,000 visitors to its eight days every year. It seems baffling that such a perfect example of inclusive, creative Britain would be allowed to disappear so suddenly when it seems that so much energy is put into far less 'organic' initiatives.

One fundamental problem with the folk scene is that it is undeniably middle‑class, though I maintain that it needn't be this way. I'm amazed by the inclusiveness that proponents of the scene extend to fellow musicians and non‑musicians alike. The imbalance here seems to be something of an irony: the folk scene is not only one of the most inclusive musical scenes, but also one of the most quickly rejected by the outside world.

The lack of respect that talented and experienced traditional musicians suffer is a unique cultural phenomenon — from drunken young women attempting Irish dancing when faced with an English music session, to respected TV presenters smirking at the mention of Morris dancing. Were the same reaction openly given to a group of Banghra dancers, it would be considered a scandal. Of course, this is an issue of respecting other cultures, but what gives people the right to mock any genre in which they've demonstrated absolutely no interest or ownership?

It seems to me that if people are really insistent on maintaining this stance, they should at least learn what the folk scene really is. Making some effort to truly understand what you're rejecting is the decent thing to do. And, regardless of the genre in which you work, wouldn't you hope that your fellow musicians would do the same for you?

About The Author

Nell McLeod is Columns Editor for Sound On Sound. Her love of folk music is equalled only by her profound affection for hamsters.

Published June 2010