It’s easy to forget that the British folk scene which I’ve dipped in and out of for many years now, has at least some historic and emotional links to the African-American Civil Rights Movement of the 50s and 60s.
This is not the whole story, of course. People with even a cursory knowledge of music scenes will acknowledge how incredibly complex they can be, and how stubbornly they defy description. I will not get bogged down.
There is, however, a metric mega-load of difference between a traditional musician and a folk performer. Folk is something we can adopt for ourselves. A conscious choice, like buying a new coat or a bucket trip to Slovenia.
Traditional performers do no such thing. They seamlessly grow up with their music, absorbing it from the communities they were born into: a luxury few of us have in our deeply fractured world.
A fish does not simply swim in an ocean. It is in some sense the ocean itself. When it dies the ocean remains but the fish returns to it, helping to generate biodiversity. This is an apt analogy for a life well lived. Something I call ‘folk-ways’: an authentic, joined-up existence. ‘No ocean, no fish’ is very logical, but how about, ‘No fish, no ocean’? It’s a less common perspective, but one relies on the other for its existence.
Sadly, folk-ways are easily (usually?) misunderstood, having been partially hijacked by well-meaning middle class liberals. This is doubly difficult for me, as I loosely belong to that group.
All the same, I know that ‘folk music’ (the phrase seems woefully inadequate), has its real roots in working class communities where people fought for self-preservation and self-expression every day of their lives.
I also know that ‘traditional’ can end up as shorthand for everything which real folk-ways are not. It sounds fusty. No-one wants to be a fogey, in the same way that no-one welcomes syphilis or bankruptcy into their world.
People might quickly conclude that folk music and its related traditions are completely irrelevant, having fizzled out years ago in remote rural communities. But this overlooks the rich vein of urban/industrial music which sprang from the desperate dirt of the Industrial Revolution, and continues its unexpected evolution to this day. We are not historians. There are no bones for us to exhume.
‘You thought I was dead’, whispers a secret voice, ‘But I’m part of you. You will eventually die, but I cannot vanish while there is something left to be said in the world.’ It feels truly mysterious.
All this brings me full circle. I’m making the point that in spite of outward appearances, the music I instinctively love is not white, middle-class or British. It is not Black, Asian or strictly regional either.
Instead it feels deeply ingrained, and as such deserves our respect because it belongs to all of us, and ‘folk’ is refreshingly free of copyright restrictions. These traditions come from the same source as ourselves, but they cannot thrive for long in a cultural void, a museum or someone’s grumpy little clique. You cannot bottle a storm, but you can sing one up. You can dance up a storm. You can become the storm.
Following folk-ways is unlikely to bring you much kudos in this wicked old world, but on a personal level it can hook you up with something older, wiser and infinitely larger than yourself. It’s called the Universe, and you may have noticed some of it on your travels. There is much more where that came from if you will only let it in.
A question. Would you rather stand alone on the shore of an ocean, or jump into it and feel that you are part of it for a while? Instead, you could live to be old and never get your feet wet. Most people make the latter choice. Don’t be most people.