The dangers of musical snobbery

Musical snobbery is one of the most prevalent things I have encountered and one of the most phenomenally irritating. I have to say what always surprises me given how much I loathed the classical snobbery experienced in music at school, is that actually the greatest snob percentage I’ve found is amongst jazzers. I was in a university jazz orchestra and I have to say much though I enjoyed the gigs and the music, I was frankly stunned by the utterly dismissive nature of them towards anything that wasn’t classical or jazz. They particularly had it in for folk which clearly they were just plain ignorant about. That is not to say they were wrong for not liking it, but they obviously just hadn’t heard any of it and swallowed whatever they were told about it despite being in some cases, professional musicians.


Now, what’s important to say at this point is I have no problem whatsoever with people having their musical tastes. It’s very easy for those of us who have fairly eclectic tastes to criticise those that don’t as ‘narrow minded’. I think this is a dangerous trap as there really is nothing wrong with knowing what you like and not liking a lot else. Where my problem has always been is with people who seek to put down anyone’s music as if it is somehow inferior or worse, and as I have witnessed in the folk world with which I am of course more familiar, actually insinuate that it is somehow wrong or inappropriate.


More on that later, but firstly I’ll comment on the snobbery I’ve encountered about some types of folk music. My attitude to music is very much that there is likely to be something to gain from listening to almost anything. As a listener, I would rarely if ever choose to listen to hip hop for instance, but its rhythms and beats have certainly inspired me and have found their way into my banjo playing and my bodhran playing when I’m brave enough to get that out. The material that is often derided by especially younger folkies is anything that sort of goes into folk-rock or poppy folk or similar. So for instance artists such as the Saw Doctors, Oysterband and the Levellers I have heard dismissed as ‘cheese’. What utter cobblers! So they don’t play blistering reels at breakneck speed or use flashy chords that means they must just be cheesey or not as worthwhile? The Saw Doctors’ early material contains some of the best lyrics I have ever heard. ‘To Win Just Once’ is in my opinion one of the most amazing sets of lyrics and should be taught in schools as a way to live life. And likewise the Levellers and the Oysters have written great words but it’s not just about the words. Catchy tunes, infectious rhythms etc are not to be dismissed just for being less complex and to do so shows a narrow mindedness. If one says ‘I just don’t like that kind of stuff but it has its place’ or words to that effect I have no issue with that.


One of the most thought provoking moments was at uni when I was taught by quite a traditionally minded banjo player and after hearing me play she said quite candidly – ‘Dan I don’t like what you do but you’re damn good at it’. She was able to analyse my playing constructively and critique it even though it was totally not to her taste. That is something I immensely admire and find a refreshing contrast from the purist twits who appoint themselves some kind of guardian of their own mythical idea of ‘traditional’. That is what I can’t be doing with and brings me back to the point I mentioned earlier about dismissing someone’s output as ‘wrong’. If I went on stage and claimed that traditional music is generally boring but how I do it is exciting I would rightly be pilloried. But making the music you want to make is not automatically being ‘disrespectful’ to what’s gone before and that applies to all music, not just folk. Music evolves and influences prevail. There is a definite place for the innovator as well as the preserver. It’s a good thing in my opinion that there are those that play very much in a particular way and thereby preserve that genre in its form, but it’s also a good thing that people mess about with it.


One of my big loves is bluegrass, and that is another genre plagued by purist twits. I’m a huge fan of Alison Krauss and Union Station (who in their right mind isn’t? There I go with bloody snobbery, what a hypocrite) and there you have a shining example of a band who do a bit of both. Listen to them knock out ‘Rain Please Go Away’ or ‘Man Of Constant Sorrow’ and that is a band who know their tradition but listen to the innovative instrumental ‘We Hide and Seek’ or the poppy ‘Every Time You Say Goodbye’ and you see they’re also a band who like to experiment. My beloved Horslips are another interesting case. Many will just lump them with Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span (not that I’m criticising either of them by the way) which is ignorant at best. It shows a complete laziness to lump any folk band with bass and drums and an electric guitar as ‘all the same’ when the aforementioned ones are obviously so different. Listen to ‘The Book Of Invasions’ by Horslips and tell me it sounds like Fairport. You can’t. People just love to categorise and pigeon hole music and I never have understood it. I think a lot of it comes down to people wanting to make out that they know about something and more to the point feel uncomfortable not knowing. This probably also explains the need everyone has when they walk past someone with an instrument on a train, bus or even just in the street and comment on it because they’re not comfortable with something out of their territory. Likewise the cry goes up every time people see a banjo ‘Deliverance’. I don’t actually think a lot of them even want Deliverance, it’s just that’s all they know the banjo for so they want to show they know something about it. Just a theory…But it’s true even within the music world people love to categorise. One of the main problems I have in my career is the fact I don’t fit obviously into anything. This isn’t some kind of boast about how unusual I am, it’s just I’m not a bluegrass act, I’m not a traditional folk act, I’m not a singer-songwriter and I’m not the leader of an indie band. You could say I suppose why the devil don’t you just specialise then but that would be the exact opposite of my mission in music making!


Another interesting thing lately was I was sat in a pub with a friend of mine who’s very into electronic music and there was a blues band on live and he said ‘this is all very good but it all just sounds the same to me’. Now of course I’m a big blues fan so while I recognise the kind of formulae in that music I can recognise those that I deem to play it well and those that don’t (based on purely personal taste of course). Likewise I regard a lot of electronic music of the sort this friend likes as extremely samey indeed but clearly to him he would spot all manner of differences between the different recordings. Likewise if a non-folkie comes to a jig and reel session they’re unlikely to spot the difference between a lot of the tunes as readily as a folk fan will and so forth.


I guess the conclusion must be that we need to all accept that everyone has different tastes and to respect other forms of music even if we ourselves do not choose them. Every piece of music has something musicians and non-musicians can glean from it even if it is only to confirm what they already like or don’t like! I would encourage all to give other musics a chance even if it doesn’t appeal to them but failing that, I think it is only polite to respect other musics and acknowledge that they must have something even if they themselves can’t see it.