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Contemporary Folk Music 2. History

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.

According to the English Folk Dance and Song Society what defines and constitutes ‘Folk Music’ is that it pertains to music and culture that is passed from one generation to another with some element of aural transmission, from one person to another by ear rather than in written form. By it’s nature this tends to mean that as tunes are passed on they take on variations in style, rhythm, pitch, lyric and melody – meaning that the same song may be found in numerous versions depending on where, when and how it is being played [Beginners’ Guide: English Folk Music]. In it’s most traditional interpretations, this may mean that authorship is forgotten, or unknown and it is almost a badge of authenticity for a song to be played and appreciated, and preserved for posterity with the knowledge of who first wrote it a subject of no real interest. For example, in the opinion of renowned folk musician Peggy Seeger, it would be considered an honour for a song to ‘become’ a folk song because people had forgotten who wrote it. In Ireland, the song ‘The Shoals of Herring’ is now sung – retitled ‘The Shores of Erin’ – as if it was an old traditional fishing song, despite being written by Ewan MacColl in 1961. (Interview: Peggy Seeger, 2014)

The Shoals Of Herring by Ewan MacColl

In the case of contemporary musicians, the composers are known and are usually still living and when creating tunes and songs they may use the styles, forms and structures in traditional forms as inspiration [Beginners’ Guide: English Folk Music]. However, where to draw the line – at what point the absence of traditional form means that the tune or artist no longer qualify as ‘folk’ – is one that continues to cause much debate among those for whom folk music is a passion.

The roots of this dilemma may stem from the attempts to define folk music in the first place. The term made its first appearance in English dictionaries in 1889, when the Century Dictionary defined it as “A song of the people; a song based on a legendary or historical event, or some incident of common life, the words and generally the music of which have originated among the common people, and are extensively used by them.” (Young, 2010)

Published in 1907, English Folk-Song: Some Conclusions by Cecil Sharp was an attempt to determine the nature of folk music and song. At Cecil Sharp House there is a large collection of traditional music (mostly collected by Sharp himself) and although Sharp has become a bit of a divisive figure among folk scholars [Irwin, 2011]; his work has in turn inspired others – such as Sam Lee ( – to travel the country ‘harvesting’ songs. However, with the march of time, every new technology and every new advance, has meant that the original idea of the aural tradition is now being put to the test – at the very least being forced to adapt to new definitions. The advent of recorded music and television has created a wholly new route in for the potential folk aficionado. And with it, the question of what constitutes folk music has started to morph, no longer confined to songs about ancient lore, or specific techniques in delivery or attachment to small communities but extended to include new writers of more personal songs. [Young, 2012, p. 8]

In the UK, prior to the 1950s even the acoustic guitar was largely unknown as an instrument used to accompany folk songs. The truly traditional folk music collected and published by Cecil Sharp was arranged for a piano or sung acapella without too much concern for mitre or key. The idea that an electric guitar has no place in folk music is based on a premise that neglects to consider the true traditionalists should insist on no instrument at all.

As the TV and radio began to grow, artists of all genres would start to get airtime but pop-folk artist Steve Benbow  appeared regularly and perhaps began to cement the public image of man and his guitar peddling gently appealing folk music. [Young, 2012, pp. 161-162]. Then as musicians began to improvise with modal scales they discovered more freedom to improvise, along with exposure to many ‘traditions’ that were no longer confined to geographic or cultural boundaries.

But as fast as the times were changing, there were some within the folk communities that were more intent on setting strict doctrine. The Critics Group formed by Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger had a policy to enforce performances that were true to their own background.

“This policy was meant for OUR club, not for other clubs. The policy was simple: If you were singing from th

e stage, you sang in a language that you could speak and understand. It didn’t matter what you sang in the shower, at parties, while you were ironing or making love. But on stage in The Ballads and Blues Folk Club, you were a representative of a culture – you were interpreting a song that had been created within certain social and artistic parameters.” [Seeger, P. (no date) Ewan MacColl Controversy,]

To find out out if this hardline approach perseveres, particularly in traditional folk clubs, I undertook some interviews with members of the folk community to gauge their opinion on how the folk community currently responds to different styles.

“I feel that there are two main strands in the folk world now. There is traditional folk which tends to be rearrangements of traditional songs – Cecil Sharp House has a great collection – and people collect them – Sam Lee is a great advocate of this – by travelling around the country and ‘harvesting’ songs. And then there is the less traditional, more relaxed approach which is broadly singer songwriter. Often the songs are objective assessments of a third party situation, so they’re not necessarily personal songs, although they might have a personal element in them… …But it’s safe to say there are some traditionalists who don’t like the broadening of the genre and stick to what they enjoy. There are others who like to hear the lyrics and understand a story rather than just a heavily repetitive chorus or a hook… …Some clubs are very traditional and you have to be careful about which artists to promote but there is room for everything. It’s just about knowing where you pitch the artists. A lot of clubs are broadening their horizons now and you find more of a folk, roots and acoustic mix” Helen Meissner; Management and Promotion – Folkstock “We get quite cold emails sometimes if the venue is a particularly ‘trad’ folk place, but we have played some very folky clubs and we notice that the people involved in the club tend to be old rockers anyway. They are just kind of chilled out and will just start talking to us about classic rock. I think it’s a bit of a shoe-in really that we listen to similar music. Our argument is that if Crosby, Stills and Nash or Lissie, who is more contemporary, call themselves Folk Rock then we fit a similar bill. It’s not our argument then, it’s the industry labelling it that” Griff Jameson; Writer and Performer – Fred’s House

While there are some clubs, performers and consumers are dedicated to maintaining a more traditional approach the broader view is that the community is generous and welcoming to new artists and new ideas without feeling that the ‘Folk’ label is being diluted. Even Peggy Seeger, former hardline advocate of the traditional, has embraced more esoteric interpretations of the most personal of her repertoire. MacColl wrote The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face for her, and both of them were vocal in their distaste for covers of the song, in particular the hit version recorded by Roberta Flack. [Brocken, 2013, p.249). However in 2012, Seeger contributed to a dance beat version of the song on Broadcaster’s Folksploitation project. [Irwin, 2014]

Broadcaster: First Time Ever featuring Peggy Seeger

But you can understand why some would like still like to see the traditions respected and protected. As the way people listen to and buy music is changing there must be some fear that there will be casualties and that some forms of music, perhaps particularly those generational hand me downs, won’t make it. Although as numerous re-inventions, re-imaginings and resurgences can testify – folk music doesn’t seem to want to go away quietly and the answer may lie in definitions of orality. In our modern age of social media the sharing of music is more convenient and more widespread than ever. For some such as folklore historian and musician Bob Pegg, the answer is to reassess our definitions of aurality rather than have some vague notion of what folk is – and that in his view it may stretch beyond the “illusion created unconsciously by people who talk about it”. [Young, 2012, p. 429]

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