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Contemporary Folk 4. Culture Club

Despite some mainstream success the genre prefers to stay rooted in folk traditions and artists tend to frequent their own circles, releasing albums on independent labels and playing folk clubs and coffee houses.

As we began with the preconceptions and prejudices concerning the ‘folkie’, I will end with a look at what is assumed to be the natural habitat – the folk club. In the 50s and 60s, coffee bars began to spring up offering new informal places for young people to get together and became an attractive venue for folk musicians; with Soho seen as the London equivalent of New York’s Greenwich Village scene. Musicians began to form their own clubs and creating small communities with common interests – music was mixed with politics, acting, charity – generating the old ‘oral tradition’ that would prompt artists (such as visitor Bob Dylan) to adapt and reinterpret old standards in their own styles.

By the 1970s a stronger brand of personal politics and philosophies was apparent in the folk scene, although activists had by now become more likely to be labelled as singer/songwriters – with folk singer already being perceived as an archaic term. The prevailing style became less overtly political and more personal and its home had become the folk club. For some though the folk club scene at this time was intense, dogmatic and reluctant to embrace change and ‘populated by virtuoso Luddites’. Folk music clubs became inextricably linked to folk music – delineated by it’s locational boundaries, membership and social structures – and becoming increasingly middle class. Experimentation was discouraged and some musicians would begin to find that they were not folk enough for folk clubs. (Brocken, 2013, page unknown)

As with the individual, these notions of folk clubs seem to have become stuck in the 70’s – as culture and technology shifted at incredible pace through the 80’s and 90’s, folk music and musicians were more likely to be lampooned than championed. As I write this in 2015, how have folk clubs and the folk scene adapted?

Cambridge Folk Club (from website) The Cambridge Folk Club is a live music club, embracing all styles of acoustic and folk music. Our performers are local, national and international musicians who are creative, talented and original in their performance.

Royston Folk Club (from website) [We] were very sure that [we] want the musical mix at the club to be eclectic and entertaining…. Hence folk both trad and contemporary are featured in the diary and welcomed at the open mic as are: blues, blue grass, singer songwriters, instrumentalists and even a foot stomping folk dance. In fact if it is acoustic and good your welcome and an electric bass or an evenly tempered electric guitar wont get turned away.

Returning to my interviews – I asked how about their experiences at folk clubs and venues, and how they think current audiences feel about the folk music genre.

“I don’t think folk artists prefer to frequent their own circles and coffee houses and folk clubs, it’s just that that’s where they can attempt to earn a living. There is a market for a touring musician to go around different clubs, and earn a few hundred pounds a night, once they get respected and known. They don’t need to be having mainstream success on the radio to make a decent living out of it. However the internet has brought a lot of opportunities for singer songwriters who might be inspired by musicians such as Dylan and Joni Mitchell. and more recently Mumford and Sons, who inspired a lot of people in the genre although they distance themselves from that now. Mumford and Sons themselves never proclaimed that they were a folk act but because they had folkish instruments and they dressed in a traditional way they were given that moniker which I don’t think did them any harm at all.” Helen Meissner; Management and Promotion – Folkstock …we thought we were folk music because we liked Mumford – but the more that we went to folk events the more we realised it was about stories, about people and about what folk music music meant to the people who went to those events… …A lot of folk musicians come from a very musical upbringing and they can pick up pretty much any instrument and play it, not necessarily perfectly but just able to join in. I really noticed this at events like the Cambridge Folk Festival where they’d have group circles and you could just pick up a ukelele or a guitar and just jam with someone, it’s just a really nice environment in that sense. Lauren Deakin-Davies – Writer / Performer (Delora) and Producer “Musically in the last few years the Mumford and Sons thing, with them labelling themselves that way, it brought a bigger audience to the folk scene and made folk mainstream for a little bit, suddenly you had lots of people checking out those little acoustic clubs. The idea that the main guy is playing the kick drum on his own or doesn’t need the big old drum kit or that rock orchestration and arrangement – they were a huge influence. I know most traditional folkies won’t think of them as folk but in terms of bringing an audience that was a huge thing that happened for the folk scene. And certainly made the audience a lot younger I would say.” Griff Jameson; Writer and Performer – Fred’s House “Generally I have found the folk scene to be a very embracing, encouraging and supportive community – both artists and audience. I think the term ‘Folk’ in the UK perhaps still has slightly outdated connotations, but the impact of artists such as Mumford and Sons, Laura Marling, Johnny Flynn and cross over artists such as George Ezra and Ben Howard are making folk a lot more accessible and broad as a genre. Singer/songwriters can be classed as acoustic folk just by playing their own instruments – it’s encouraging for new artists to develop if they feel they can be a part of a genre without being limited to it.” Young Female Folk Artist


It seems that folk music is going through another resurgence and unlike some of those previously mentioned preconceptions is willing to embrace change, technology and variety in within it’s genre distinctions. While there will always be those who will demand ‘tradition’ above all, if there is any consistency to be seen within the view of folk music from both inside and out it would be an expectation and desire (or a demand?) for authenticity.

Traditional folk music does find it hard to crossover to the mainstream, but as is typical of many niche genres, often the practitioners who find commercial success are quickly disowned. However, in the broader sense – particularly in the influences of the early troubadours like Dylan – we can see that the as pop becomes folky; and folk becomes poppy the lines between the two are becoming so blurred as to be indistinct. iTunes doesn’t even carry a folk music category in it’s store; but the singer/songwriter section includes individual artists such as Bob Dylan, Peggy Seeger and John Martyn alongside James Bay and George Ezra – and also extends it’s range to include bands from Fairport Convention to First Aid Kit. Perhaps the record labels and stores feel that to be labelled as Folk, at least as far as commercial sales are concerned, still isn’t very appealing.

Laura Marling

Laura Marling

Here’s a last word from one of my interviewees…

I think folk music is going through a renaissance period (entering the third folk revival). In the same way that in the second revival the genre became more mainstream, now the genre is growing and evolving with new artists who are adding their favourite influences into the mix. Although referencing some parts of Trad, a lot of contemporary artists are mixing jazz, soul, rock, pop, country and even classical music into the genre. Many of the artists have their own labels by necessity, as many record companies have limited funds. Gary Smith – Music Fan (Laurel Canyon)

The Full English at the BBC Folk awards 2014

The Full English

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