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Contemporary Folk Music 1. Introduction

“What draws me to traditional music is that the songs are there to do a job, to tell a story, to make work easier. There’s no pomposity or celebrity or ego.” Jack Sharp – Wolf People Cox, T. (2013) ‘Wolf People: “Folk songs are there to tell a story”’, The Guardian, 20 July.

The folk genre has featured quite largely in my own life over recent years; coming firstly from having never considered myself to be very interested much in folk music, then discovering a diverse and interesting range of artists, musicians and music lovers who are, in many different ways, wholly influenced by a passion for a style that seems to come in and out of fashion with unerring regularity.

This short series of blog posts is part of a project in my first year of study for a Music Production degree at IMW / City & Islington College.  The purpose was to investigate the folk music genre in relation to its place in the current music industry – to consider how it is viewed and particularly what prejudices or bias the ‘folk’ label might bring with it.  I was interested to see what the view is from inside the folk world using research and interviews, and add in some outside perspective through further interviews and surveys.

I had hoped to find some concise description that would define Folk Music, to help to set the parameters for my project report. Initially a simple definition seemed elusive; however I stumbled across the following from a music genre website which gave me an initial premise from which to start my investigation.

Prior to the mainstream success of Bob Dylan folk performers tended to interpret classic songs of the genre or wrote broad-based, topical or political songs. After Dylan, folk singers and their music opened up to pop/rock production techniques and instrumentation, and the songs about the personal instead of the

social. 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. AllMusic (no date). Contemporary Folk | Significant Albums, Artists and Songs | AllMusic

In this, and the following posts, I used the statement above as a basis to consider the social history and development of the genre.

What the Folk?

“By the late 1980s… ‘the folkie’ [had become] a pathetic specimen who claimed to be a guardian of his national heritage: all chunky-knit woollen polo necks, spiky facial hair and nerdy National Health specs; a fondness for ‘as I went out a-roving’ balladry bellowed cacophonously out of tune with a finger in one ear; a pewter tankard and a kipper tucked into his belt; and a veneer of eco-friendly political correctness thinly masking unreconstructed sexism.” Young, R. (2012) Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music.

As the description above (based on Kenneth Williams character ‘Rambling Sid Rumpo’) demonstrates, the traditional folk musician – via the Fast Show’s Bob Fleming to Vic & Bob’s Mulligan and O’Hare – had become at best a figure affectionate mockery, and at worst the subject of savage ridicule, and if my own preconceptions are anything to go by, this may yet be an image that folk music and folk musicians are still having to work hard to shake off. [Young, 2012, pp. 557 – 558]

Rambling Sid Rumpo

Mulligan and O’Hare


Martin Carthy

Marika Hackman_owenrichards_006_0

Marika Hackman

However, have a quick look of the Wikipedia entry for ‘English Folk Singers’ [link] and you’ll quickly find a list that doesn’t obviously conform to the joke; and the range of musical style also suggests that to be labelled a folk singer or musician in 2015 doesn’t easily pigeonhole the music that you create or the image that you present. Nonetheless, as the saying goes – where there is smoke there is fire. So how did this image of the intense, and slightly ludicrous folk artist come to be so prevalent? And what is the experience of musicians themselves? What is it that continues to draw young artists to a genre that  could have died the death of a thousand cuts some time ago?

Next Post: History

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