Who gives a folk about folk music?

In the run-up to a live London debate, Neil Davenport traces beardy singers’ romanticisation of the rural past and distaste for the urban present.

Neil Davenport

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It is early June 2008. Dozens of smartly dressed hipsters and I are filing into St Giles-in-the-Field church in London’s West End. We’re not here to praise the Lord but a bunch of folk musicians, Bon Iver, who for some excitable critics constitute a kind of Second Coming.

Bon Iver’s debut album, For Emma, Forever Ago, has received blanket critical acclaim for its almost twilight beauty and spectral, starry-eyed intensity. It’s not a one-off, either. Another rustic bunch of Americans, Fleet Foxes, recently crashed just outside the Top 10 of the UK album charts with an eponymous debut album brimming with back-porch country-folk, deep rural imagery and five-part harmonies.

At St Giles-in-the-Field, I’m ostensibly here to check out and then interview another group of widely tipped Americans, Port O’Brien, who are supporting Bon Iver on this warm summer’s evening. Unsurprisingly, these Californians won’t be offering diversions into Goa trance, death metal or UK grime, but yet more variations on music played on steam-age instruments.

Indeed, for the past decade there has been a steady influx of what has sometimes been called alt.country or Americana, with the likes of Uncle Tupelo, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy (aka Will Oldham), Lambchop and Calexico identified early on as pioneers of mixing American country music with a contemporary, brittle edge. Since then, barely a month – let alone a year – has gone by without more artists conjuring up baleful images of depression-era America while sporting, alarmingly, beards.

A similar development has occurred in the UK, too. Outside of Belle & Sebastian’s peerless chamber-folk in the late Nineties, the prosaically titled New Acoustic Movement featured a raft of acts, such as Turin Brakes, Elbow, Alfie, Kings of Convenience and Badly Drawn Boy, who drew on whimsical English folk music and had a penchant for ill-advised woollen headgear. Kings of Convenience’s debut album, Quiet Is the New Loud, neatly summed up the gently strummed ethos of the ‘movement’. Since then, the soundtrack to the 1973 British horror film, The Wicker Man, has been the inspiration behind a psychedelic strain of acoustic music dubbed either ‘Twisted’ or ‘Acid’ folk.

At the top end of music and culture, too, it seems folk music has been enjoying another day in the sun. Last weekend, folk featured at the Proms with a huge line-up of acts performing at the Royal Albert Hall – the 11-strong band Bellowhead, Martin Simpson, Bella Hardy and Monica Bacelli, to name a few. Elsewhere, twentieth-century compositions and folk reworkings were interwoven with the original source material. As Geoff Brown in The Times (London) sagely put it:‘The first Prom season of all apparently featured two Romanian folk songs. But it took until this Sunday, 113 years later, to reach the mountain of songs and shanties, fiddles, guitars and Northumbrian pipes that formed the seven-hour marathon of Folk Day.’

The slight note of exasperation is perhaps understandable. The appeal of folk or roots music is undeniable. Whether it’s via American dust-bowl folk, or the frail and whimsical British version, it can be a form of music aching with hazy beauty, wonderment and humanity. This is why folk music – sometimes defined as the music of common people that has been passed on generationally – has periodically enjoyed noteworthy revivals. In America in the 1950s and 1960s, for instance, the likes of Woody Guthrie, Joan Baez and, of course, Bob Dylan (before he infamously plugged in a guitar) made folk music as much a soundtrack of the counterculture period as harder-edged artists such as Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones.

Nevertheless, folk music can also be defined as a form of popular music rooted in tradition and traditional customs. And rather than this music existing comfortably alongside more modern forms of music, folk musicians have often deeply resented being marginalised by new fangled ways of playing. It is true that Beethoven made arrangements of Welsh and Scottish folk songs, while Liszt, Brahms and Dvorak wrote folk dances that were often indistinguishable from authentic folk traditions. But if folk music was identifiable with the start of the Romantic period, it was classical music that was identifiable with Enlightenment modernity and thus became Europe’s premier musical force. While folk was the music of the pub, the local hall or the campfire, it was classical music that was regarded as the highest form of the art and featured in the great concert halls of Europe. This is precisely why The Times‘ correspondent was baffled as to why folk music was given some airtime at the Proms. Doesn’t that sort of sound belong to the pre-Enlightenment age?

Outside of the rarified world of classical music, folk music has, for much of the last century, continued to be played within working-class communities, reflecting those communities’ autodidact traditions. But even as a form of popular music, folk’s days were numbered with the arrival of Elvis and rock’n’roll in the 1950s and, more importantly, The Beatles in the early 1960s. While folk music was indeed closely associated with Sixties protest and radicalism, by this stage it was also seen as comically out-of-synch with the modernist times. The duffle-coats and chunky sweaters, beards and sandals were often dismissed as affectations of middle-class cranks by the modernist, working masses. In Shelia Rowbotham’s memoirs from the period, Promise of A Dream, she points out how the then-radical left couldn’t make sense of the ‘decadent’ Beatles, and clung desperately to folk and skiffle as well as early rock’n’roll.

Such sentiments can always be covered by appeals to folk music’s reputation as the voice of working people’s anger at exploitation and oppression. Historically this is undoubtedly true, but why should folk music be seen as the only vehicle to express political disaffection? And why should music be automatically judged to be worthwhile based on whether it expresses the ‘correct’ kind of political sentiment? In truth, it is the connections between folk music and romanticised notions of past struggles that have led folk and politics to be intrinsically linked, especially for a marginalised left incapable of relating to the modern-day working class’s aspirations.

In the UK, the return of folk music as radical protest vehicle emerged in the early-to-mid Eighties. Billy Bragg successfully carved out a niche as a Barking version of Woody Guthrie and has since linked folk-roots with the question of whether a localised sense of ‘Englishness’ is a viable form of identity.

Elsewhere in the mid-Eighties, The Pogues, The Men They Couldn’t Hang and The Three Johns fused punk energy with the ramshackle approach of folk played in spit’n’sawdust Irish boozers. Even though many of these bands advertised their strong radical credentials by playing benefit concerts for striking miners and Irish republicans, there was a palpable sense that being left-wing was now a celebration of being defeated and disenfranchised, anti-heroes and anti-glamour. This is why by the late Eighties and early Nineties, the torch for protest-folk had passed to Brighton ex-anarchists The Levellers, who have long been seen as archetypal vegan crusties.

Today, as the ideological concerns and anti-mass prejudices of crusty environmentalists are thoroughly mainstream, it is hardly coincidental that folk-based acoustic music is widespread and mainstream, too. After all, when organic/homemade food is seen as morally preferable to mass-produced ready meals, when real-ale village pubs are seen as morally preferable to town centre superpubs, and when rural retreats are seen as much safer and ‘nicer’ than polluted urban areas, it’s little wonder that music of the homemade, ‘crafted’ and rustic variety should be the preferred listening choice for ethical consumers.

Don’t just take my word for it. As the organisers of Tapestry, Green Man, Latitude and Innocent festivals duly understand, there’s a market out there for music festivals that unite middle-class concerns on romantic rural lifestyles with new folk bands that give some ‘weekend away’ credence to such aesthetic preoccupations.

This is why there was so much controversy when old hippy Michael Eavis – organiser of the biggest mainstream eco-friendly festival going, Glastonbury – announced that US rap superstar, Jay-Z, was headlining this year’s show. Although you’d expect middle-class ethical types to flash their ‘diversity’ and ‘tolerant’ credentials over the presence of a black megastar, in fact Jay-Z’s gaudy bling-bling persona and ultra-materialist trappings was, for them, the equivalent of having McDonald’s or Argos setting up stores next to the vegan curry stalls. Glastonbury, like the Green Man or Tapestry festivals, is supposed to be a haven away from chavvy signifiers such as urban R’n’B and hip-hop. Is there no escape from the bling-bling bland?

And yet, such a reaction is also noteworthy because it demarcates how the perception of ‘black’ music amongst the middle-classes has fundamentally changed. In the 1960s right through to the 1980s, declaring a love of soul, jazz and funk was deemed an article of good faith towards black people and a (superficial) willingness to stand up against racial oppression. In truth, the lionisation of black music was based on notions of powerlessness being associated with the ultimate status affirmation: ‘authenticity.’ Black people’s experience of racial oppression, their marginalisation from capitalist social relations, was somehow deemed to possess more grit and ‘realness’ than ‘phony’ and uptight mainstream society.

It is a testament to how much racial politics has changed today when it would be very difficult to associate American black people exclusively with powerlessness and oppression. So much so that black American rappers barely rap against injustice and inequality and their interviews are more likely to extol their portfolio of business ventures than the benefits of black power. With black R’n’B not only well known and mainstream but completely ubiquitous, especially for younger generations of all social classes, it is difficult to see how urban black music can satisfy that middle-class quest to be authentic and ‘for real’. In truth, it can’t. This is ultimately why folk and roots-based music has become so popular in the past decade. As the ultimate pre-modern music, folk has become the genre to express both alienation from modernity and a desire to stand alone and seek some authentic solace amidst the ‘drones’ of mass society.

Back at St Giles-in-the-Field, I’m interviewing Van Pierszalowski from the aforementioned American roots band, Port O’Brien. He tells me that he and his dad are commercial fishermen out in Alaska and his girlfriend runs her own village bakery. It seems Port O’Brien qualify as being more authentically rustic and real than folk musicians who have proper jobs, let alone the rest of us. The music they play may sound like it was around before the advent of electricity, but the sentiments they express are definitely of the moment. Is it any wonder that folk music has come into its own once more?

Neil Davenport is a writer and politics lecturer based in London. He blogs at The Midnight Bell. He is speaking at the Battle of Ideas satellite event, Who gives a folk?, in central London on Tuesday 29 July at 7pm. Click here for more information and to book a ticket.

Previously on spiked

Nathalie Rothschild was cheered by the Godfather of Gloom, Leonard Cohen. Emily Hill did not see anything countercultural about the Glastonbury festival. Andrew Calcutt recalled being demobilised by the Rock Against Racism concerts in the 1970s. Donald Winchester saw no reason to mourn the death of the LP. Or read more at spiked issue Music.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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