England’s multi-cultural status has at last begun to express itself in music. The blurring of the edges regarding what is to be regarded as English music has, paradoxically, encouraged a whole range of musicians to re-assess the roots and discover music that goes way beyond the usual stereotypes of beards, nasal voices, overweight morris dancers, and ditties concerning incest and jolly farm boys.
Forged with the knowledge of many roots, a new generation of artists from Bellowhead to Eliza Carthy has taken English folk by the scruff of the neck. This Rough Guide is a vibrant celebration of this new golden age of English folk music.
Cecil Sharp is undoubtedly one of the most important figures to consider in talking about any English Folk music. Born 1854, he spent his days as an avid collector of folksongs from the countryside. Much of England’s traditional music owes its existence today to his great mission of recording and preservation. He published many books of sheet music, and discussion of the role folk music should play in society – he was a staunch believer in the idea that all children should be taught about folk in schools. There are, however, a few ethical misdemeanours which can be identified in his work: often presenting an idealised, romantic view of the countryside and rural life, he glossed over the hardships of impoverished rural life that was faced by many of those who he recorded. He also often changed the lyrics of songs he recorded and transcribed, so as to make them more palatable for a wealthier audience who did not want to be faced with lyrics about hardship, toil and sex.
The music which Sharp and his contemporaries were so intent on collecting was, however, more than a museum piece to be preserved: it was, and still is a living tradition. An example of this can be found in morris dancing – a dance form at the heart of clichéd English imagery. For all its apparent absurdity, the dance is amazingly popular, and there is something heart-warming about watching the dancers waving their bells, hankies and sticks as they re-enact the ancient fertility ritual. As well as this more jolly form of rural tradition, are the many worksongs, and songs about daily life that were written by rural people as a form of personal and collective expression and identity, and the many millions of jigs and reels danced and played at informal gatherings.
Many classical composers such as Britten, Holst and Butterworth were influenced by the rural music of their country, and used it in their work in a post-war attempt to forge a style of classical music that was purely English. Perhaps the most successful of these composers was Ralph Vaughan Williams whose folk-influenced music is astoundingly beautiful, and enjoys immense popularity.
Folk music was (and still is, although to a lesser extent) always performed in its most simple form in local pubs and clubs across the country. The heyday of the English folk club revival movement, however, was undoubtedly in the 1960s and 70s, when, fuelled by the protest era, folk clubs acquired social relevance and an unlikely scent of alternative trendiness. Artists such as June Tabor and Ralph McTellrose to prominence with their singer-songwriter form of social commentary.
It all sounds unbelievably mundane now, but back in 1971 English folkies thought the world had stopped when Martin Carthyplugged in his electric guitar on stage. The idea of a band playing English folk with all the trappings of a rock band had initially been discussed by Ashley Hutchings, who founded Fairport Convention. This craze later spawned the creation of folk-rock experiments such as Steeleye Span, The Albion Band, The Oysterband, and Lindisfarne, who enjoyed a significant, although unfortunately short-lived moment in the spotlight. Maverick fiddle king Dave Swarbrick of Fairport Convention, managed to make further progress with Whippersnapper, and a nostalgic reunion with Martin Carthy.
In the 1980s, the folk re-birth took a different turn. Artists such as Billy Bragg and The Pogues, influenced by the Punk-rock scene that was hitting Britain by storm, set about reinterpreting the folk scene with a manic energy that was as shocking as it was exciting. Outraged letters to the folk mags from diehard folkies appalled by the primitive irreverance shown by these new folkies were written – but English folk needed this shake-up, else it was in danger of stagnating into a museum showcase.
In the late 1980s, Rod Stradling founded a new band, Edward II & The Red Hot Polkas – his most ambitious and defiant idea to date, he forged English country dance music with reggae, working with reggae dub-master the Mad Professor at the mixing desk. The band’s first album was entitled Let’s Polkasteady, and was released in 1987. Another band to use influences from further afield was Blowzabella, who introduced English country dance to rhythms from the Balkans, with Nigel Eaton cranking things out on the hurdy gurdy. More recently, bands like Transglobal Underground, a London Based collective, are showing that roots can be found even in techno club music.
The new millennium has seen a wealth of new English folk talent emerge, in a wide variety of styles. Artists such as Kate Rusby, Bella Hardy, and The Unthankscontinue the tradition of softly sung, evocative stories, whilst Lau and Uiscedwr make fast and furious jigs and reels that incorporate both electronic experimentation and jazz influences. Bellowhead, infuse traditional songs with a big-band party feel, whilst Belshazzar’s Feast’s comic accordion ditties continue to delight. Artists such as Eliza Carthy, daughter of Martin Carthy have managed to achieve widespread success – even achieving nomination for a Mercury Prize with her album Red Rice.Folk has also infiltrated the mainstream pop scene, with artists such as Laura Marling achieving nomination for both a BBC Folk Award, and a Mercury Prize in the same year.