What is folk?

It's been a busy week with two pub sessions, two gigs, one Wod rehearsal, a late night jam in a hotel bar and a tune sesh with a cream tea. The cream tea was in honour of Colin's birthday (bassist with Telling the Bees), and we duly ate cake and scones in his honour, on a warm and sunny afternoon by the canal at Pigeon's Lock (it's a tough life). Josie (cello, TtB) made it out too, and we got to coo at her beautiful new baby, Rueben, born on tuesday.

Friday saw me down in London, playing with Raagnagrok at the ICA, another intensely enjoyable improvised set (during which I discovered a new fingering for a tricky note on the pipes, and that you can achieve a slight chorus effect by waving the chanter rhythmically around the mike). Also playing were Alexander Tucker's Decomposed Orchestra - deep drone textures on cello, violin, sax and drums - and the frankly extraordinary Amal Gamal Ensemble who blasted on stage with their thrilling and uncompromising electronic weirdness. Here's a video clip of a recent gig of theirs to give you a flavour.

My other gig was with Telling the Bees, at Loughborough University, as part of an academic conference on English and Welsh diasporas. Our first with Mr Barney Morse-Brown on cello, we played a tight set, with enough primary material to keep our intellectual audience in papers for a year.

Afterwards we attempted the impossible, trying to inject some soul into the featureless ghetto of the hotel (where even the staff were made of MDF) by playing tunes in the bar, together with Ceri Rhys Matthews and Christine Cooper. Both fabulous musicians, I met them a few years ago at the English Acoustic Collective summer school. I particularly like Ceri's take on tradition, which is that it is a resource to be used, not something to be preserved in aspic. Here they are, playing fiddle and Welsh pibgorn pipes. I'm always awed by their ability to extemporise around the tune with such grace and fluidity.

At about 1 o'clock in the morning, one of the academics still in the bar leant across and asked the dreaded question: so what is folk music, exactly? Needless to say this led to a spirited discussion. Colin's take is that 'folk' is a category of economic, not stylistic, necessity. In other words, as soon as you're paid for it, it is no longer folk. Ceri, who danced around the argument with the nimble dexterity of a flyweight pugilist, refused to be pinned down, saying that each of us would define folk differently.

Me? I think of myself as an artist who works within the forms of traditional music. I still call myself a folk musician, but given the week I've had, and the gigs and music that I'm involved with, this may be inaccurate. At the very least, I'm probably an atypical folk musician, but then as a liminal vagabond, that's just how I like it.


  1. Hmmm, food for thought! What is Folk music? Probably an impossible question to answer. I suppose it's music that at least pays lip service to traditional forms. But that can take you in any number of directions, some of them hard to fit into the 'folk' genre. It's an interesting question too, for an Australian. What generally is considered 'folk' here is transplanted Scots and Irish music. And reading the bit about the English and Welsh diaspora just makes that question even harder. My ancestors (English, Scots and Irish) weren't just forced off their land or away from their traditional homes and ways of living, they then crossed oceans to settle in a strange land that bore no resemblance to their home. A land where their traditions didn't fit, with an incredibly ancient culture that they were not part of. It's something I'm still trying to work out...how I fit into this land, what are my 'traditions', musical and otherwise, how do I find some kind of harmonious link between the land of my ancestors, and the land (along with the indigenous peoples and culture) of my birth.

    As for being a liminal vagabond, well, all the most interesting things happen at the borders, where the edges get blurry and things bleed into each other! Who on earth would want to be a 'middle-of-the-road' vagabond?!

  2. "...during which I discovered a new fingering for a tricky note on the pipes..."

    Willing to share? ;-)

  3. Not sure I can Roger. I've changed reeds and it doesn't work anymore! From a high g I removed the fingers of the left hand to get a nice, accurate fsharp - good for toggling between. But as I say, it doesn't work anymore...

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. I experimented a bit and found that from high G also lifting the middle and ring fingers of the left hand gave a nice F# leading tone that is a bit more satisfying when going G F# G than the regular F# fingering: thumb down/index, middle, ring up. Does that sound like what you were doing?

  6. "...during which I discovered a new fingering for a tricky note on the pipes..."



Featured post

Shroom: ten years on

I find it hard to believe but it's exactly ten years since my book Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom was published. Thou...

Popular Posts

Twitter Updates

Contact Form


Email *

Message *