Folk off and live …

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.

Folk me up

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…

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