What is folk? I wouldn’t worry about it.

Despite my previous protestations over frivilous time spent trawling the news feed of facebook, it has made undeniably interesting reading seeing what everyone made of the recent ‘Folk Revival’ documentary on channel 4. It’s fair to say it got a fair amount of folk musicians and fans a little hot under the collar as to the programme’s definition of folk. But then what is a folk musician? And, that age old and arguably unneccessary question: what is folk music anyway?

I don’t say unneccessary to offend – it’s a very interesting topic to discuss and one that I wrote about many times at university studying a folk music degree course which one might argue is another interesting strand to the debate! Perhaps more than any other genre it means very different things to different people and is very hard to pin down should you want to. I don’t want to be an angry folkie arguing what proper folk is. For one thing, being from no traditional background whatsoever I don’t feel that is my right even if I wanted to and my tastes have always been far and wide so it’s by no means my only genre though it probably is always my first love. But the distinction needs to be drawn between what is an interesting debate to have, what this means if anything for your musical tastes and whether what you view as folk music is threatened by clouded definitions.

I cannot deny, I can’t for the life of me see how Mumford and Sons or especially Jake Bugg constitute folk music. My initial reaction when these acts were dubbed folk was undeniably irritation particularly when discussing what I did with people who didn’t know me. I’d be asked what I did and if I said folk they would say ‘like Mumford and Sons?’ and it would drive me mad. But time has allowed me to ponder whether I need to get so het up by it. After all, in years gone by acoustic singer songwriters such as Joanie Mitchell or Joan Baez were known as folk so it’s not a new thing. To many, and I’m not saying they’re wrong, a folk sound is in the instruments – banjo, accordion, fiddle and acoustic guitar (though I’ll admit that last one puzzles me a bit given its rather more general uses). So Mumford and Sons with their banjo rolls are perhaps folk flavoured pop I would argue but as I say I’m not here to pigeon hole everything.

One of the things that has often come to define the ‘folk scene’ and by that I mean folk festivals, folk clubs and the like is the fact that it is separate from the mainstream. I’ve always been a big proponent of spreading the word about this wonderful music that I love. When I played in pubs in Staffordshire as I started out on my gigging career, one of the things I loved was how I introduced this music to many people who would never think of going near it. They not only heard it, they loved it. This is a not a personal boast incidentally, I didn’t set out to do this but it was nice that people would no longer think that folk music was some weird genre best left alone and that like any genre there’s something in it for everyone – whether you like long unaccompanied ballads, funked up versions of traditional tunes, morris dancing, bluegrass or a rap in the middle of a trad song you won’t hate all of it and may well like more of it than you think! The same was true in my days in Newcastle – I was always struck by the ecstatic reception afforded to the tune sessions in the pubs with people clearly blown away by the fact they really enjoyed live folk music. So my philosophy is clear – let’s have more people hear this great music rather than just playing it to fellow folk fans.

What this documentary argued was that that is precisely what is happening through Mumford and Sons playing stadiums. But here’s the rub – a lot of folk music fans regard that as not folk at all. So we’re back to the question – what is folk? Is it the same as traditional? That’s another complicated term to define. Putting it crudely, let’s take folk music to mean either traditional material or obviously traditionally influenced, Mumford and Sons ain’t that aside from the fact they have a banjo. One important thing this poses – that is not a reason to not like them. Don’t like or dislike something on the basis that other people think it’s something you don’t think it is! It’s easy for this to happen – I was hostile to the ukelele and George Formby because I was so irritated everyone kept asking me to play it when I in fact play 5-string banjo but this is hardly the fault of the uke or poor old George. Analysed objectively, his music was rather infectious and cheerful stuff actually.

There are always many people who loathe and detest categorising any music and I have a lot of sympathy with that camp. The idea of it’s all music and it should just all be thought of as music is a very nice one in an ideal world but it’s not reality. Everyone has their leanings and it makes life rather easier to at least have a section of HMV (though not for much longer possibly) or a type of festival that probably has more of what you’re into. You then have those crossover acts that are rather harder to define – my own heroes Horslips were a hard rocking band for the most part but with songs about the potato famine and riffs based on centuries-old dance tunes. The trouble folk has (or doesn’t), as stated above, is it’s so damn hard to define.

A common misconception is that traditional folk fans are always hard line purists who think unless you’re playing a morris tune or singing an unaccompanied ballad about incest and/or sheep it ain’t folk. These people do exist but actually my experience of the folk scene has exceptionally rarely been that. Just look at the success within the folk scene as well as in the mainstream of acts like Bellowhead, Seth Lakeman, Peatbog Fairies or going further back Fairport and Horslips. There are plenty of folk fans who appreciate innovative and new ways of performing folk music otherwise these bands wouldn’t be so popular on the scene. What folkies of this type get irritated by is pop acts being categorised as folk because they have an acoustic instrument in them or some other tenuous link.

It’s interesting to analyse why this is irritating. Is it irritating simply because it’s plain wrong (in their eyes) or is it because it is a threat? For instance, will people regarding what they see as acoustic contemporary pop music as folk mean that ‘real’ folk music is pushed away underground? This would irritate me greatly as my feeling as outlined above is that more people should hear this fantastic music not because it’s their duty to hear traditions but because they like it when they do hear it! But much of the folk scene seems to like being outside the mainstream so do they actually want everyone to hear it? I should add, my impression has always been not that they all want to keep folk music for themselves in a cliquey way, rather just it is nice to enjoy it with other people who enjoy it though the two can feed into each other. I would also add that whether folkies think the Mumfords or Jake Bugg are folk or not, actually a significant number of people I’ve met who’ve come to my gigs got into more traditionally influenced stuff through those more mainstream acts. If those acts are termed ‘folk’ and it encourages people to delve deeper into the ‘folk’ sphere which is vast then this doesn’t seem a bad thing to me. For instance, the number of people taking up my instrument the banjo has increased and people aren’t just laughing at it because they’ve heard it in Deliverance, a film about oddballs and hillbillies.

I’ve tried to keep this from sounding like a rant but this may change when I make this next point. What I vehemently objected to in the documentary was the implication that if any folk music, whatever you categorise that term as, is not mainstream it must therefore be less cool. It was vastly unhelpful to paint the folk club scene and the underground trad stuff as a group of uncool people whereas Mumford and Sons and Jake Bugg and even more folky acts like Seth Lakeman are the ‘cool’ alternative. Again, your musical tastes should not be clouded by what everyone else likes or doesn’t like. I had a fairly tedious interview recently on a radio station where it became the presenter trying to paint banjo as an odd and uncool instrument and me trying to justify why it’s ok for me to play it and he to get his head round actually listening to music instead of associating it with the only instance in which he’s heard it which was, of course, Deliverance. Either you like something you hear or you don’t and that’s the way it should be but don’t make out that any folk act other than commercially successful ones are not really worth checking out and best left to oddballs.

You could debate for hours on end what folk music is but the point here is people are always going to define it differently. As a slight aside, I think some people actually confuse what they define as folk music with simply what they like. Sometimes when people say ‘to me folk music is…’ I think they actually mean ‘what I like is…’. As mentioned above, other generations before this one regarded folk as including acoustic guitar singer/songwriters and the traditional or traditionally influenced stuff is still around and popular. I went to see my own new band The Urban Folk Quartet in London recently and there were people of all generations there all dancing on chairs and in the aisles. It is tempting to turn it into a commercial vs ‘real’ battle, and some do, but this achieves little. It’s important to remember that to many music is not their main priority in life. I compare it to my relationship with films – I don’t ‘follow’ films, I see a film when my girlfriend suggests we go to the cinema and I quite enjoy it when I do but they are not a priority in life for me and I essentially see the films that are big enough to be on in cinemas. So if music is like that for someone and they hear ‘nu-folk’ as the Mumford brigade is sometimes termed and like it and think of it as folk it’s not something to get upset about, even if I did to start with. All any of us musicians can really do is make the music we want to make and see how it is received. All listeners and music fans can do is have an open mind, listen to lots of music and make up their own mind without being clouded by debates of categorisation.