Think that folk music is all workwear, beards, beer, bad teeth, tuneless dirges and homely lasses? You’d be right. Then again, you’ve also just described the Coen Brothers’ latest movie Inside Llewyn Davis, resplendent with hipster chic and that stupid – enigmatic… yeah… right – cat. So which is it? Allow our handy guide to put its finger in your ear.
5 fantastic folk music facts
- Sally Barker, who bought a tear to Tom Jones’ eye on The Voice, used to be in female folk ‘supergroup’ The Poozies.
- Dave – ‘Swarb’ – Swarbrick, master folk fiddler was once pronounced dead in a Daily Telegraph obituary in 1999. He’s currently alive, well but living in Coventry. You can’t have everything.
- Folk duo Show of Hands have sold out the Royal Albert Hall three times.
- Fairport Convention once earned $500 for a week’s residency at the famous LA Troubadour. Unfortunately their bar bill came to $1,500.
- The folk ‘mocumentary’ A Mighty Wind was written and directed by Christopher Guest of Spinal Tap fame. He’s also married to Jamie Lee Curtis and, improbably, is also the 5th Baron Haden-Guest (it’s very complicated).
IS ALL FOLK MUSIC THE SAME?
Unfortunately for the bluffer, no. However, our brush is broad so we can paint the styles thus: English folk is twee-Nancy-tickle-me-fancy music which may be sung unaccompanied. Songs end with a flourishing repeat of the title after the last line: ‘Hark forrard then, me brave hounds, for ever,’ – singer pauses for effect, takes refreshing pull on tankard of ale, then says: ‘Dido Bendigo. Thank you’. (‘Dido Bendigo’ you should know, is a famous hunting song from ‘oop north’). Irish folk is instrumental, ethereal (thanks Clannad) and once cool (that’d be you Van Morrison, albeit briefly). Scottish folk is confusing, as if it wants to buy you a pint and beat you up at the same time, and American folk isn’t. At least not any more.
SOUNDS STRAIGHTFORWARD ENOUGH – IS IT?
Nah. It’s these youngsters y’see, muscling in on the traditional folk music scene and mashing it up with their genre-crossing monkey business. Bluffers should be sure to doff their caps to Boden and Spiers and their shouty burlesque band Bellowhead, Lunasa (Irish whistles, pipes, whistles and yet more whistles), Martyn Bennett (died at 33, mixed trad Scottish folk with beats and samples – hugely influential), as well as The Unthanks (not a mysterious made-up name but two friendly, clog dancing rather fruity sisters from Tyne and Wear). Talking to oldsters? Namecheck The Watersons, Martin Carthy, Martin Simpson and June Tabor, as well as the uber-cool Richard Thompson; then get extra marks for Christine Collister and call her the ‘best female voice on the planet’. These are all names which you should drop liberally into any conversation about folk music.
SO WHO CARES?
Amazingly, lots of people. In fact, folk music is enjoying something of a revival and the most popular station in the country, Radio 2, holds an annual Folk Awards ceremony that this year will be held at London’s Royal Albert Hall. Given folk music’s notorious appetite for revelry, one hopes they’ve set aside enough money for the clean-up.
AND IF I HAVE TO NAME ONE ABLUM?
1972’s odd, experimental Bright Phoebus by Lal & Mike Waterson. Out of print for years due to murky behind-the-scenes shenanigans, it was revived and toured triumphantly last year.
MAXIMUM BLUFFING VALUE
When asked for your opinion on all 143 verses of The Jolly Tailor of Pratts’ Bottom or similar, cover your inattention by opining that the song sounds like it’s in DADGAD. Far from being code for an old bloke who’s temporarily gone off the rails, this is an alternative to standard guitar tuning which gives many folk songs their distinctive, drone-like quality.
DO SAY ‘Good Cropredy line-up this year.’ (This refers to an annual festival held just outside the village of Cropredy and run by English folk legends Fairport Convention. Renamed Fairport’s Cropredy Convention in 2005, old hands eschew the new moniker and continue to call it ‘Cropredy’.)
DON’T SAY ‘I see Ashley Hutchings (driving force behind various key folk bands like Fairport, Steeleye Span and the Albion Band) is putting a boy band together.’