By Tony Birch
I'm not long back from the Cambridge Folk Festival which is, I think, the best in the country although after 53 years of practice they should know what they're doing by now. Although it's a folk festival the music ranges far and wide so there's R&B, Blues, Country, Americana and world music on display as well as “real” folk. That brings me to this month's blog.
I was enjoying a quartet who sang a capella. They're not a well known name, the sort of group who play at local clubs because they love it, and they sounded very good. They may be amateurs but they were giving a professional performance of traditional songs that I thoroughly enjoyed. The man next to me didn't, particularly. He was a proper folky; beard, beer belly and a bit upset it was too hot to wear his Arran sweater. His main objection seemed to be that they were singing in four part harmony – apparently that isn't “proper” folk music.
It's something I've heard a few times. I was once told that keyboards have no place in folk music because 200 years ago you couldn't transport a piano around with you. It wasn't appreciated when I pointed out that 200 years ago we couldn't have seen this particular band because it would have taken them days to get here by horse and cart. Apparently guitars aren't proper folk instruments either and, as Dylan once discovered, nor is electricity.
I'm not saying there's no place for tradition, far from it. Folk music is one of the great repositories of an oral tradition that stretches back in to history. “The Unquiet Grave” is one of the oldest songs known and may have roots going back 600 years or more to the time of the great plagues. Even today, song has a place in our lives. The wonderful Minnie Birch is working on a album of songs based on football (or soccer if you prefer) and the terraces around the country are still fertile ground for community singing with new songs = often not complimentary – appearing all the time.
But, I firmly believe that music has to evolve and I'm sure Cecil Sharp or Vaughn Williams wouldn't have refused to collect a song simply because it involved the use of a loop pedal or bass guitar. One of the big differences I notice at shows is the age range; folk clubs tend to have a much older audience and I wonder if part of that younger people are less willing to be tied to one form of music or one style of singing. We draw influences from various sources and information can spread around the globe at the speed of light so it seems obvious to me that songwriters musicians, as in previous generations, are going to be influenced by the world they live in today rather than reaching for some historical ideal.
So the next time you hear something new, something different, that is a fusion of styles or genres or when a musician pushes the envelope then welcome it. I'm sure caves were great places to live in but I'm rather pleased we eventually decided that houses could be more comfortable and so it is with music. Whilst I appreciate what has gone before I want to see an evolution and something new, rather than a museum piece forever preserved and unchanging.
Just to placate the traditionalist though, the video link is to a nice piece of Scottish folk music. Now, which way's the White Heather Club?