I’ve wanted to write something about folk music for some time, and there have been many brave attempts, followed by a lot of spectacular deletions. You see, it’s my passion and I want to do it justice.
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Well scrub that! I can’t write objectively about something I love so much, so this is the blog equivalent of bungee jumping in the dark: I have no idea what I’m about to write. Folk music as a subject attracts academic discussions, cosy chats in the back rooms of pubs and heated debates about ‘what folk music really is.’ All I can hope to do is touch the surface in a piece like this; no conclusions will be drawn… as far as I can tell.
I first heard folk songs from my dad, without knowing what they were. He used to be a jazz musician, and somewhere in the flock-lined depths of his musty old banjo case he kept a yellowing loose sheaf of songs, complete with chords. In between expertly vamping out tunes like ‘California Here I Come’, he would sing ‘The Raggle Taggle Gypsies’ and ‘The Fox’. Simple but wonderful songs; just right for a child with a fertile imagination.
I had no idea that these were part of a folk tradition: my five-year-old self couldn’t even spell ‘tradition’! I quickly recognised that songs can tell a story and whisk you away to a parallel universe peopled with talking animals, strange gods and beastly angels.
I could walk through the enchanted forest and gaze at the bright wonders locked within – as long as I didn’t stray too far from the path. There be dragons! When I grew up I forgot about the magical kingdom and mutated into a bored, pizza-faced teen.
Once again, my wonderful father intervened and came back from town clutching a handful of (very worn) Joan Baez singles. ‘I think you might enjoy these,’ he said. So I played them and I did! Joan’s singing and guitar playing lit up my world with songs of the sea, loves lost and found – strange buried treasures of the luminous spirit.
There is a folk song for every human emotion and situation because it represents our collective experience. A song can start out as a personal statement, but once other people hear and sing it, that experience becomes a shared one: something we can all relate to and use in our everyday lives. I have found that folk music contains a great deal of distilled wisdom. Perhaps some of it will rub off one day.
Early collectors believed they were gathering songs for posterity, and treated them like museum pieces. ‘If I don’t record these soon they will vanish forever’. They were wrong, because while they were busy collecting, the next generation of singers and performers were already emerging, reworking old themes into new songs and singing old ones in different ways.
The tradition is dynamic and manages to reinvent itself across different generations. This is sometimes called the ‘folk process’ – songs can and should be changed to suit the singer.
Samuel Pepys collected traditional songs, and so did the rural English poet, John Clare. William Blake sang them to his friends, and indeed most people know one or two, even if they think otherwise.
The truth is, there isn’t one musical form which can be described as ‘folk’. Songs can be rooted in an industrial or rural tradition. There are work songs, sea songs, songs about unemployment. Some songs belong to the Romantic movement, while others are brand new and completely focused on current events. Folk music is both old and new, and therein lies my fascination.
Let’s not forget that the tradition is crammed full of tunes too; there are 1000s of them! One blog entry isn’t enough, so I’ll revisit this subject later…