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Friday, 24 June 2011

Folk music and sexism

There's a thread on Mumsnet, which began posting a week ago, asking if folk music's sexist? Click on the link to have a look. It's produced a thoughtful discussion, full of links to songs in which women have the upper hand as well as fair few in which they don't. The question was raised because of the number of songs in which pretty fair maids are taken advantage of.

IntergalacticHussy, who started the thread, slightly spoilt her post by writing "I know virtually no one listens to this music," which made me want to invite her to one of the 250 or so annual UK folk festivals for a rethink.

However, putting that carefully to one side... Worrying that folk music might be discriminatory is a bit like blaming Elvis Presley because young people have sex with each other, or trying to ban fairy stories because wolves exist. The songs are a medium, used for entertainment, for telling stories, for passing on information. Condemning them, or wondering whether you should, is classic shoot-the-messenger behaviour.

When someone sings a song about a soldier taking advantage of a young girl and then buggering off to a war, the bad behaviour is the fictional soldier's. Obviously such things happen in real life and to a woman who's had a similar experience the song might be a comfort - oh good, I'm not the only idiot who fell for that - or to a girl about to have a similar experience it could be a cautionary tale (though I doubt even the wisdom of Chris Wood, pic above - I'm thinking Cold Haily Rainy Night - could drown out the raging hormones of a teenage girl). But in the same way that you're not responsible for the actions of someone when you overhear their crime discussed in a newsagent's queue, you're not perpetuating callous behaviour by listening to a song about it.

What I find interesting, though, is when bands return to similar material again and again, betraying their preoccupations. I first thought about it when I started blogging about folk and Show of Hands had discovered that their song Roots was being used without their permission by the BNP. This was before Folk Against Fascism started up and I love that song.

I love it because it's powerful marketing on behalf of folk music and I believe Steve Knightley knew the controversy he was courting when he wrote it: it was a reaction to something stupid said by a government minister. But I'd contend that Roots was one of many songs by that band that are about the alienation of ordinary people from their own land and the fragile bonds that tie us to our place of origin. They do a lot of emigration, exile and sailing songs.

Similarly Seth Lakeman sings straightforward stuff about girls and manly preoccupations - war, lifeboats - and Bellowhead sing about getting ripped off by prostitutes. Not all the time, obviously. And some of the time it's the prostitutes who are getting ripped off.

I guess if a band did a lot of songs about women having a hard time then one might begin to suspect them of not liking women very much because they enjoy the subject matter. But I can't think of any examples.

Why is that?

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