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.