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Friday, 8 April 2011

Nu-folk and wtf is folk?

Here's some folk-related chaos that trekked across my radar this week. Bear with me, there is a point to this...

A lovely young band called Yngve & The Innocent got in touch, describing themselves as "a cross over between folk and Americana and a little bit into Indie - but not much". Being a sucker for a nice bit of punctuation in a band name - hence my enduring admiration for Mawkin:Causley - I fell for the ampersand first, had a bit of a listen and am looking forward to hearing them live when they next get to London.

Then there was this interview in a Welsh newspaper with Adrian McNally, manager of The Unthanks, in which he said: "Folk music is not a genre, it’s a history, a people history that’s been charted with song. In terms of how that sounds, it’s always followed function, so any notion of what it should or shouldn’t sound like is spurious."

I''ve also spent some time this week listening to Folk Radio and exploring a website called For Folk's Sake a bit. By doing these two things I've discovered that there is a  whole raft of musicians out there who are thought of by someone as falling into the "folk" category despite not sounding much like folk to me: more like wispy young things with acoustic guitars from the United States, whose bands have names alluding to the natural world.

Hence there are: Blue Roses, Caitlin Rose, The Eels, Diane Cluck, Emily and the Woods, Curran and the Wolf, Midlake, Mountain Man, Noah and the Whale (OK, I know they're not from the US), Sea of Bees, The Mountain Goats, The Wave Pictures, Tiny Birds, Treetop Flyers, Wild Beasts and Woodpigeons. My research continues but I'm really starting to think that it can only be a question of time before the Natural History Museum takes delivery of a Hairy Mumford for display.

Also, after logging into Twitter last night to find that Mumford & Sons were trending, it emerges that there's a new album on the way. So that's good. It's that punctuation again.

But it made me wonder why I've got no problem with thinking of Mumford & Sons as a folky band, whereas my subconscious is telling me that most of the acoustic guitar-wielding wisps are not. And this is what I've come up with.

I grew up listening to Steeleye Span and for me that was the *best* music, which I also found was defined as "folk". I liked other stuff too - Randy Newman, Queen, Vaughan Williams, Rachmaninov, Big Country - but whenever something a little bit similar turned up I'd compare it to Steeleye and usually find it wanting.

As a result, there are three things my subconscious seems to like in varying proportions in order happily to categorise something as folk: a traditional instrument or two, at least a nod to the song-writing tradition and a strong sense of place.

(1) The traditional instrument thing accounts for the Mumford phenomenon. A banjo qualifies - although my friend Joe Buirski says that the banjo player in the Mumfords doesn't play it properly and I nodded when he said it, not having a clue what he was on about and liking Joe's banjo playing with Kidnap Alice.

(2) By the song-writing tradition I mean new versions of old songs. Bellowhead's version of New York Girls sent a proper shiver down my spine when they started up at the beginning of the folk awards. And another delight this week was the latest plank of that band's increasingly deliberate assault on the mainstream, in the form of a new version of The Archers' theme tune (which has got to be work garnered as a result of their residency at the South Bank Centre and the fact that it's where BBC producers veg out with their children at the weekend. Serious intellectual pretensions, my arse :-).) Bellowhead's continued rise is a real pleasure to behold and they shouldn't worry about the iffy reaction of a few Radio 4 listeners. One of the mainstays of national newspaper news sections is baiting listeners of The Archers and for every one who complained there will be four or five at least who quite liked the arrangement but didn't bother mentioning it to anyone.

But someone can write their own songs and still be folky, in my book. Richard Shindell breaks my heart every time I listen to his album Courier. He sometimes writes songs from the points of view of historical figures, in the case of the link there, from the point of view of a Confederate child soldier in the civil war, and the emotional impact can be devastating. The scouts are fanning out like whippoorwills, he sings. And the sense of time and place is unshiftable. Incidentally, Fairport Convention have just covered one of his songs, Reunion Hill, on Festival Bell.

(3) The sense of place doesn't have to be my place, which is England, north and south. But it's not enough to have a guitar, long hair and sing about relationships. I really think that to qualify as folk a new song has to be about something that ties it to guts-and-grease reality: a time and place with which it will always be identified. A song can become a folk song by enduring, I guess. But I never really thought of Simon and Garfunkel as folk, in large part because they sing with American accents and Scarborough Fair seemed to be an aberration in their reportoire. Great version of a song, but not their song.

On the other side of the coin The Dropkick Murphys might qualify with this one, which was in the Scorsese movie The Departed and conjurs Boston, past and present. I wouldn't listen to that one if you don't like loud music.

A critic at one of the nationals once told me that Mumford & Sons don't move him because they only remind him of St Paul's school in Barnes, which might not have mattered much except he'd gone there himself and didn't seem very happy about it. So now I can't avoid associating them with that school either, but because I don't have any strong feelings about it one way or another, it just means that they've got a sense of place for me now as well as a banjo. And what's not to like about that?

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  1. Great article - I sense there is a disparity between North America and England, Ireland, Scotland where the history is simply longer.

    There are indeed some great folk songs that discuss the history of Canada and the US, but I think as songwriters we find ourselves attacking modern topics and stories with a folk sensibility. I would argue that many of the great folk songs were very simply love songs without any reference to time or place (save garden walls, and lonely roads). As you say - time and endurance will be the judge.

  2. Hi Keith. Thanks for your kind words. Interesting to say that the history is longer though... One of the things that struck me on a trip to Texas was that the museums only concentrated on the continent's history over the last 500 years tops, as if the previous inhabitants had never existed... That's not intended as a dig, just an observation. Stay in touch.

  3. Good article - I love lists like the one you gave. Several bands I like and the rest I've never heard of; I'm off to YouTube to explore some new music!!

  4. Glad to be of service, northseajoe :-)

  5. Hey Emma, I didn't say Winston doesn't play banjo properly, he play banjo very well. What I said was he doesn't, on this album at least, play the banjo in a strictly Bluegrass or old time style , nor should he, it's a pop album, not a bluegrass or old time album !

    There are a lot of "pop" or "singer song-writer" bands using the banjo of late, indeed there seems to be a renaissance going on for the banjo , and why not? it has such a unique sound, and can generate beautiful syncopated rhythms, perfect for accompanying songs of most genres.

    I would agree, that the presence of a banjo in a band does not immediately qualify a band to be folk, and that perhaps we should look at form and approach in assessing and attempting to label material as such.



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