Folkies Against Fartface

Feb 13, 2017

Hello again, dearest reader, I hope the year is settling down well for you? What with all last year’s Brexit, Syrian nightmares and the political upheaval in the States, many people are unsettled but perhaps that unsettledness is becoming a new kind of norm while we try to make sense out of what is going on. Please excuse the broad political opening to this post – but it is really very tied to the theme this time around – just how political is folk song?

I’ve been inspired by three things I’ve been to over the past few weeks, a funeral, a gig and a protest, and they’ve set me thinking about this music of ours, what it says about us and how we use it.

Of course, the folk scene has been strongly linked with political movements and ideas from its inception – including the big P Political CND march culture and the smaller p politics of the grass-roots make-your-own-entertainment movement. Big name singers from the 1960-70s had strong messages, making up a big part of their music, their act and their appeal. Folk music was Political.

I grew up and entered the performing world after this wave – of course I feel the aftershock, but the music my generation is making is less directly politicised, as a rule.  This isn’t to say for a second that we are not politically minded, or indeed active, and there are individuals we could all name who are writing and performing political songs, but I hazard to stick my neck out and suggest that on the whole, the 30-somethings making music over the last 10 years or so have been less politically focused (do let me know if you disagree).

Is this starting to change?

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The gig I went to was The Transports. Now, this seminal work by Peter Bellamy has been dusted off and restaged numerous times over the years, but never that I have seen it, has it been brought so up to date and compared with current struggles in migration and people displacement.  With narratives of refugees being woven into the story, and new music composed to reflect current events.  This production brought an old story to specifically shed light on a current political issue. And it has been very well received.

The protest was in Sheffield, to register displeasure at May’s developing relationship with Trump following his divisive travel ban. After the hour of speeches to a larger than anticipated throng of people, a handful of musicians set up and played some tunes, old rally songs and an inspired parody of Nellie the Elephant.  I had seen a good number more instrument cases during the event, and the small group that played included members of an old group who used to play at protests in the 1970s. It felt like the musicians were regrouping, attracting new members for a new era.

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The funeral was for an old friend Gordon Hoyland, who I remember introducing a hunting song with a disclaimer that he may not agree with the message, but it’s all just singing right? I retorted with, we’re all fine with murder, but when it comes to hunting…  So where does this sit – what kind of comment can we make through performing old materials, songs with themes that may or may not chime with our current political thought, do they need explaining, contextualising so people understand why we are singing them, or should that not matter?

A few years ago, the BNP had a bit of a drive to attach themselves to local ‘English’ traditions, and some recording folk musicians. Performances were being misinterpreted for a kind of Nationalism which wasn’t intended by the singers/dancers/tradition bearers. One response was the Folk Against Fascism movement – this involved the labeling of artistic work with visual statements aligning away from extremist political views, a very clear signal to buyers of CDs and attendees of gigs if the artists were wearing t-shirts and putting logos on products. It didn’t particularly impact upon the sound and content of the music though.

So where are we now? How do traditional songs speak to, or represent political standpoints in a modern society – do you think about what kind of message your song is saying – with a big or a little ‘p’? Do the big ballads still give a message relevant to today, do they need to be explicitly introduced/related to modern issues, as the Transports have done, to make such inherent messages clear? Do we have a skill and repertoire set that can be mobilised to help people come together and protest against current affairs they feel strongly about? Are these practices related, are they on the increase? Are we responding to an increasingly volatile political landscape around us, how are we using our music to respond?

My feeling is that, after the initial influx of people, galvanising practices and repertoires around political activism, folk singing has moved to a more stable state: regular meetings of similarly minded people, performing material they feel affinity with, to varying degrees of politicisation.  I must stress, there is absolutely nothing wrong with people getting together to enjoy this repertoire and sing together, it is the bedrock of the community and a wonderful thing to do.  However, there is little connection to the wider world – the old adage of ‘preaching to the converted’ springs to mind. It seems to me that there is a new wave of activity developing, an enthusiasm to share what we know with a wider public, and an empowered body of musicians highly trained in communal music making skills and repertories to do so. I am enthusiastic about this new wave of public activism, and interested to see how the folk scene can once again reach out and make itself relevant to the wider world.

  • Linda

    Having read your blog a number of times I decided to google Political folk songs I am now the owner of Antiquities by Ewan MacColl.
    I also went to see The Transports (I have never seen the original Bellamy version performed although I have the CDs ). I thought the production was excellent and involved just the right amount of reference to modern events which left you leaving the show with situations to think about without feeling you were being preached to.
    With reference to your question about do songs need explaining sometimes I think they do as it explains to people who have not experience certain "events" what was happening at the time and the singers feelings toward these events. Also singers explain where old songs and phrases come from which help us to understand them .

    • Fay Hield

      Thanks Linda, yes I find that I engage with a song more if I have been given some kind of angle on it from the singer before hand, knowing how they feel about a song can give it more meaning for me too.

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  • A.Z.

    Where did all the commenters go? Are Fay’s fans all closet Trumpeters? Credit to Fay for sticking her banjo above the parapet. Come on folks, let’s join her, and let’s share. I agree - there are fewer original political folk songs now. Why? Maybe coz despite the damage to our society, many of us are too comfortable, too busy socialmedia-ing about breakfast, even though we say we care. I often have to turn the radio off; I find much modern folk safe, cosy, and twee. Is it going up the same dead end as classical music: increasingly virtuosic, privileged, commercial and fossilized? Just like the BBC? Can anyone get airplay of political songs? Would the BBC have given Goebbels equal airtime ‘for balance’ in 1945? Can we blame young (and older) artists for perhaps sub-consciously playing safe, and perhaps unwittingly being sucked in to the Radio2ification of folk? In the past, costs of recording and travel and digs were low. Now life is very expensive and it takes guts to risk your fan-base and stand up to a label now. Audiences have changed too, I think. Should artists disturb the segment that is the current or potential £20-a-ticket art theatre crowd (like me) who came partly to escape the news, and who might actually buy, yes buy, the CDs, if only as background to their Sunday lattes? Many performers are also white, comfy middle class, and sometimes the lucky product of ma-and-pa-funded music lessons (like me). But so were Woody Guthrie and Dylan. And most folk protest ballads of old were written by similar types. Would you be able to write songs after a 12 hr shift down the mine? So we are in good company as songwriters – and I think we have a duty to use and not stick heads in sand. Some do trot out carbon-copy covers of the ‘old classics’. Well-intentioned – but does this not reinforce the old ‘folk stereotype’? Is this why the young sexy artists of today (and non-folk audiences) don’t want to be seen to join in? It even pisses me off as a listener, let alone the unconverted. No disrespect to the artists concerned, but can I cite Gretchen Peters’ ‘When all you got is a hammer’ as perhaps more effective than the billionth rendition of ‘If I had a hammer’? There has been a sinister ‘Overton shift’ – a calculated moving of people’s attitudes – so that erstwhile people-centred compassion is now seen as a ‘stuck in the past’ socialist extreme. See this from the Guardian: https://tinyurl.com/jd4fluh
    This must be countered, and music is one way to do that – so original songs are needed more than ever, and new tactics are needed. Is there any point if the rest have shifted to the right? Dylan said no song ever changed anything. But his songs changed me and my world view, many years after they were written – because I learned from them. I’ll cite his ‘Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’, and my fave anti-war song, Dave Van Ronk’s ‘Luang Prabang’ (Parental Advisory – it’s political... oh, and there are naughty words in it... you’ll recognise the tune) as examples of songs that made me look up the background to the events that caused them. Hardly twee. And I can relate them to today’s world, sadly. I am glad to hear of some recent great political folk exceptions to some of my points above; as Fay highlights in her blog, things are starting to happen – I hear great things about Shake the Chains and the Transports, and there are some superb established and non-established modern folk songwriters who are and always have been very political. I have obviously been quite provocative and pouring the devil’s advocaat here. Please write with your comments – and come on songwriters! ‘Sing until they tumble from the sky!’ And let’s share – thank you Linda (above) - I didn’t know of that Ewan MacColl album before, and I will look it up. Tell me more to get, folks. Political songs are by far the most difficult to write (well), in my opinion – but for this reason trying to write them is the ultimate work-out in song-writing. But if that feels hard work or risky, folks, I am sure you won’t mind being outdone by Katy Perry for the next Nobel Prize for literature.

    • Fay Hield

      Really interesting post Chris - thanks. There does seem to e a shift back towards this though, do you think? Though I do agree, I spoke to one woman who saw the Transports recently and she didn't really like all the political stuff, she just wanted to hear the songs. So yes, ther are different audiences out there and perhaps different people can reach them in different ways. Your idea of a political Soundpost event is really interesting - I'll look into that and see if we can help people find those voices...

  • Joel Griffiths

    Peter Bellamy was for a while perceived as not a lefty folkie. He was a very liberal and anarchic man in many ways but his association with Kipling made him suspect in some people's eyes. It is quite wrong to assume that all those who like/enjoy folk music have left wing views even if it seems that the majority do. It is difficult in these times to hear or read a coherent alternative to the Conservative narrative of austerity and brexit. The Labour party it seems cannot manage it. All things are political but this is as much help as Louis Armstrong being asked about folk music and responding " I ain't never heard a singing horse." ( I am sure I paraphrase.) What I am trying to conclude with here is that the folk world has no consensus about a direction of political travel and so while singing/playing and discussing music has a political dimension it is not the same as actively engaging in more explicitly political action. The Blair government ignored 3 million about Iraq. The last march I went on had 300k to a million on it ( it depends which newspaper one reads) and was mocked by the young conservatives as we passed by and was ignored by the grown ups in power. Had we been singing I think it would have made no difference.

    • Fay Hield

      Interesting point about which politics here Joel, thanks. I was thinking about that the other day whilst trying to get my head around how the BNP claims on traditions rubbed up folkies to such an extent - of course the materials themselves are A political, its in the hands of those that write, or sing them. And the singers and collectors of the past all had a broad range of politics and ideals - just because the folk revival, as we know it Jim, was tied to the left/socialist politics of the 1960-70s that has prevailed, in other places, Nazi Germany for example, the music was revived by those with a very different political outlook. I think we're perhaps talking about different things in the use of traditional songs for political angles, nationalist or otherwise, and writing songs with a political message. Or are they the same, this is where my woolly-thinking comes in...

  • Claire

    It always seemed to me that most folk music is political in one way or another, even (or especially) when the trad stuff is addressing fairly enduring issues (eg gender- or economic oppression). Even its relatively DIY nature and its continued existence in a world of mass-market big-bucks packaged music is political. As for current writing, again, it's rife with political commentary if you look for it. In fact, you don't even have to look that hard. And the fact that folk music works on so many other levels as well as the political is definitely a feature not a bug.

    I've always assumed that folk musicians like any others want to share their music and their message as widely as possible - that folk music is not more mainstream seems to me a function of the music industry generally (which seems to eschew serious musicianship and all forms of authenticity) rather than a choice that folk musicians make (other than the choice to be a folk musician in the first place).

    Could it be that forms of protest, what works in political change, and the cultural climate generally have changed since the popular movements of the 60s? Are we judging folk music by an outdated standard?

    The problem is surely not that folk music is not relevant, but that people keep saying that it isn't when it is.

    • Fay Hield

      Great point there about judging by what standard, and how we view political song in these times. As for the industry, that is a whole kettle of fish that I can't even begin to think about today! Success in musical terms has little to do with commercial, and yes, people ant so many different things from music it is impossible to separate a song for its politics, or entertainment for a lack of social communication. Fascinating, thanks.

  • Fiona

    It's encouraging to think that the political movements and civic issues of the now are again becoming intertwined with folk music. Perhaps "encouraging" isn't the right word since the reason we're talking again about musical protests out on the streets is because the world has become a more unstable place, and the UK more nakedly divided. But when I think back to my childhood in the nineties and early noughties, at the blank materialism and emptiness of much of the culture, I can't help but look at your picture of the musicians gathering at night with their eyes shining around a modern day broadside, and feel a little happier.

    Thank you for your blog post.

    • Fay Hield

      Thanks very much, yes I agree it is both worrying and heartening! But great to know we have the tools to help brighten people, if not make big political changes as Joel feels above.

  • Fiona

    And if we're nominating favourite political songs, then it's got to be A Man's A Man For A'That. I lived rather miserably in a rich part of the world for a while, and muttering the lyrics to myself was a source of some comfort.

  • Linda

    Could the reason for protest songs not being so prolific be the way we protest about things these days. In the 60s 70s when peoples protests lasted a long while as with the Miners strike, anti nuclear etc when people "camped out" forming "communities" and singing helped with the boredom as well as getting a message across . Today protests seem to be more of a one day affair (or at least the ones that make the news)which lacks the community aspect. Otherwise it seems to be protest via internet or facebook, twitter etc
    @Chris I hadn't heard of the Ewan MacColl CD until I read Fay's blog and started looking into protest/political songs (thanks Fay)

  • A.Z.

    Fascinating perspectives. Is song just for conscience, solidarity? Leon R distances himself from the latter, and folk! Maybe music only changed people like us. Fay mentions preaching to converts: was Transports-woman unconverted, wanting escape, or in the wrong place? Political music should aim at the unconverted, I'd say. Scientists say politics could be genetic: maybe floating voters’ empathy neurons are key; as all above say:times change. Do unconverteds switch off? 2017 polarisation is forces repelling; can music sway it? Maybe not, but if it was impotent, would regimes jail musicians? Fiona: found a clip of the Burns song at Scots Parliament opening – the faces of the 2 English guests are priceless – thanks!
    ‘What’s folk?’ Fay asks. Are folk songs and folkies museum pieces? Have digitising, re-discovering, re-recording ballads unwittingly aided fossilisation? Just struck me: did past folk singers ever sing stuff ancient to them? (Please answer): in 1850, did they sing (lyrically) out-of-date songs, apart from still relevant content eg farms, the navy, or enduring themes eg love? How many now sing GM, NHS, call centres: how old must it be to qualify as folk? If folk music means people-music – has it lost sight of living folk?
    I find folk quite commercial now Claire – imagine Folk Expo 1865? But broadsheets were commercial, & musicians have to make a living: is an expo bad? Would you expect an accountant or plumber to risk their money where their mouth was? Please agree or disagree – I don’t see this blog as a talking shop; as all above say, maybe we need to rethink, & blogs like this are one way, so I’d appreciate everyone's thoughts, as I am sure will Fay. Linda – your last point is astute – is it the media and people’s attention-span that folk and political music need to adjust to? And I promise I won’t mention her every post (smiles) but with 96m followers, and the Daily Mail quoting them, are Katy P, (and her co-writers Sia & Skip Marley)the new folk?

  • Chris Bolton

    Liked the original statement about politics and folk music and also the comment preaching to the converted. I play in a ceilidh band with my 23 year old son amongst others and we are really proud of getting the tunes out there. We often get asked to play at all sorts of events that are not ceilidhs too and I love playing at these and talking to people about the tradition We play mostly Lakeland and Cumbrian tunes that we have acquired from Caroiyn Francis and people are often glad to listen to the facts about an English tradition of fiddle tunes.