Folk Music – The True Voice of the People

Folk music is the musical narrative of history,popular culture and folklore. It often reflects the times in which the music is composed. Certain songs are unmistakably from the 1960’s for example. Music has the ability to capture the moment and speak for that  generation. Bob Dylan’s the ‘Times They Are A Changin’ spoke for a generation of disaffected youth, tired of turning into clones of their parents. It was a wake up call for the adults of the 60’s.The version recorded at a performance in the White House is approaching 50 years since he first wrote it! It does however serve to prove a point. It is synonymous with the 60’s protest movement as are many other Dylan’s hits of that era. He never regarded himself as a protest singer rather writing about what interested him and he felt was important. Dylan was hugely influenced by Woody Guthrie. He  recorded many songs that were written or first recorded by Woody Guthrie. Guthrie was staunch supporter of working families and highlighted the inequalities in the USA during the depression. Folk music is in many ways the musical commentator of history. It highlights the peoples struggles, the birth of the industrial revolution, injustice, crime and social despair. It can give hope and solidarity to the working man and a rallying cry to march behind. The fantastic ‘Workers Song’ written by Ed Pickford as performed by Dick Gaughan is a fine example of the working man toiling for the benefit of their masters; and then expected to lay down their lives in protection of a country that does not value them. It brings out the true socialist in me!

It also talks of love, magical lands and nature. It speaks of man’s relationship with the natural world and how we treat our world. The spoken word tradition of passing tales from one generation to another is much of the basis of traditional folk music. Several composers were taken by traditional songs and wrote music incorporating tunes. Holst, Vaughan Williams, Butterworth and Elgar all used folk melodies in their work. George Butterworth composed ‘Banks Of Green Willow’ for example, as an interpretation of a old traditional tune. He was a passionate recorder of traditional dancing, music and folklore. He was worried that it would disappear in an advancing tide of industrialisation. He enlisted at the outbreak of World War One but never wrote again, partly due to the horrors he witnessed during the war.
Folk music is often given a bad name and can be seen as twee or open to ridicule. Kenneth Williams, Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer, the Fast Show and the Two Ronnies all performed their ‘interpretations’ of the folk tradition. Many comedians such as Billy Connolly, Jasper Carrott and Mike Harding started as folk musicians. Connolly in particular would tell funny anecdotes between songs and found the audience enjoyed them more than his music. He does however maintain a strong connection to the music that brought him to notice. It has often been seen as not ‘cool’ or too off the mainstream to warrant the plaudits many acts deserve.Traditional tunes however deal with many subjects current bands would shy away from going near. If you read the lyrics of the average Steeleye Span or Fairport Convention album, the murder, adulterous sex and drunken behaviour count is fairly high. Some songs such as the Bonny Black Hare is a fabulous tune with very dubious lyrics not leaving much to the imagination. One particular tune has been recorded by many top folk acts all with different titles. The Dubliners call it Seven Drunken Nights, Steeleye Span, Four Nights Drunk and Kate Rusby, The Goodman. It tells the tale of a husband who arrives home intoxicated to discover his wife is carrying on with another man. Each clue to the other man’s presence is explained to the husband as him drunkenly mistaking it for what it really is.
In 1996 Steeleye Span recorded a fantastic song Old Maid in the Garrett, originally performed in 1968 by the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. The song is sung by a woman terrified of not being wed despite her domestic skills and suitability to ‘keep house’. She fears she will die unfulfilled and lonely -an old maid the garrett. It is a partially comical but socially relevant reflection of a woman’s desire to be married. The song has roots as far back as the 17th century. Some folk classics such as Matty Groves go back to the middle ages. Yet again death and sex are central to this fabulous folk classic. Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span did much to bring traditional folk music to mass audiences in the late 1960s and 1970s. Their longevity is probably due to the music and timeless quality it has. It does however hold a mirror up to life in bygone times like other paintings or literature can. Chaucer and Breugel reflect history as does Sir Patrick Spens, Matty Groves or even the magical Tam Lin. The latter shows the superstitious nature of society and their firm belief in the land of fairies. Interestingly one of the more successful novels of modern times Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is about magicians and fairies set in Napoleonic times. JK Rowling, JRR Tolkien and Terry Pratchett have firmly placed wizardry and magic in popular literary culture. This escapism and belief in the supernatural is no different to that which the common man craved hundreds of years ago. 
Folk music is also an evolving musical genre. Many modern artists including Richard Thompson, Kate Rusby, Seth Lakeman, Bellowhead and Eliza Carthy write songs relevant to events and current situations. Seth Lakeman has written a song about the Penlee Lifeboat disaster of 1981 both in memory of and as a means of raising funds for the RNLI. The Bad Shepherds have recorded folk interpretations of songs first aired by the punk and new wave bands of the late 70’s and early 80’s. One of the most passionate exponents of folk music as a means of social awareness is Billy Bragg. He rose to fame in the 1980’s, wrote and sang many songs about the injustice he saw at that time. He continues to write socially relevant commentary on modern Britain 30 years on. His support for the occupy campaign, oil prices and anti tabloid journalism have all made their way into his more recent song writing.
Billy Bragg cites Woody Guthrie as a major influence much like Bob Dylan but he also draws on British traditional music for his song writing. The folk scene is thriving as the music listening community gets more exposure to artists from all genres. It is no longer the preserve of leather tankard owning, bearded men in Aran sweaters (as popularised by the aforementioned Clancy Brothers), with finger firmly implanted in their ears. Some people have approached folk music as an intellectual exercise but not to enjoy or worse to dance to. I saw Steeleye Span many years ago at the Fairport Convention Cropredy festival. The lead singer Maddy Prior, a true hero of British folk music; explained that she loved playing at festivals as the crowd could dance along. She said that the music is so linked with dance because that is what would have been played for originally.
The tradition of reflecting culture, injustice, struggle, social hypocrisy will never die as long as there are those songwriters who feel compelled to tell those stories through music. So please don’t think folk music is for the old. Give the genre a real good investigation. You will be as rewarded as I have been for thirty years and more.This last song is by Kate Rusby. She is in my mind the finest modern folk singer out there. She writes beautiful often haunting songs that pack a surprising punch, given a good listen. The song, Little Jack Frost is a simple but enchanting song that my daughter, also a Kate Rusby fan, performed it at a Christmas concert several years ago. It went down extremely well. Good music will always shine through.

3 thoughts on “Folk Music – The True Voice of the People

  1. Great blog John. One of my most prized vinyl possessions is something I found hiding in the Boots Audio department in Reading back in 74… 75. 'The Complete Humblebums' is a 3-album set that features Billy Connolly in those early years you talk about. Some of his lyrics and performances on these records are very smile inducing… 'Why Don't They Come Back To Dunoon' from 'First Collection of Merry Melodies and 'Mother' and 'Harry' from 'Open Up The Door'.Have to say though, that his partner on last 2 albums of this set, Gerry Rafferty, is one of my musical heroes and, as a duo, they were and remain, very, very entertaining.

  2. Interesting, but I was also hoping to read of a few more contemporary folkies. For instance, The Unthanks in particular, are taking English folk to another place, whilst lyrically being political, and talking of political poetic folk music with an edge, what about the great Chumbawumma, and their ferocious back catalogue?

  3. I do indeed see the Unthanks as almost a new chapter in folk. Chumbawamba (sadly no more) have been a great band offering quirky and at times quite hard hitting comment on modern life. Bands like these carry on the tradition that those I refer to in my post did before.

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