Degrees of folk

Just lately I've been listening online to what's been emerging from Newcastle University's Folk Music degree course. Here's a typical example of some of their third year students in action.

I worry a bit about endless cohorts of students forking out nine grand a year and thinking there's a living as a folk musician waiting for them at the end of it. (I worry about my Religious Studies students too, but at least they come out able to write an essay). But mostly, while the standard of musicianship is obviously high, I worry that it's all so excruciatingly nice. Wouldn't you rather go and see the old guy singing down the pub than something so...polished?

If folk music has a place in the academy then perhaps a bit of competition would be good for business, maybe somewhere down South. I've had some fun trying to think of what my folk syllabus would look like.

Obviously students would need to learn about the tradition and how to play their instrument

But I'd get them to read up on carnivalesque theory and go hunting misericords. I'd get them to see some traditional folk customs and write an essay about it. I'd get them to jam with musicians with whom they shared no language, and then try and copy the style of another instrument entirely. I'd send them to the Glastonbury dance tent with instructions not to come back until they'd fallen to the floor in a delirium of sweaty ecstasy. I'd get them to shut the fuck up and listen. I'd make them sleep a night or two under the stars. A passionate love affair and a heart-break or two would probably be character-building. And for their final practical, I'd pack them off to France for the summer with nothing but fifty quid, their instruments and their wits to see how they got on. A bit of enforced busking does wonders for performance skills I find.

Oh hold on a minute, that's what I did. Forgive me. I've committed the unpardonable sin of thinking that my life could provide a template for everyone else. Please accept my sincere apologies. Utter hubris.

But there's a serious point here. If folk music is as relevant as we claim then it has to have something to say. It has to have arisen, unbidden and insistent out of the sheer messy fact of being alive. It has to have come up through the feet, to have lingered in the loins, rolled around the heart and soared out from the belly. It has to give voice to what the Welsh call the hwyll and the hiraeth - loosely, joy and sorrow. That's not something you can teach, nor something you can buy. No wonder it all sounds so clean. The poor sods haven't had a chance to live yet.

Here's some folk music straight from the source. It's from Gyimes in Transylvania, and is I believe a style unique to that area. The wild intonation of their fiddles may be too tart for Western ears but for me this is the pure drop.

It makes my fingers tingle and my feet itch in a way that, sadly, nothing I've heard from the Folk Degree ever does. If I were eighteen with nine grand in my pocket, I know where I'd go.

[This post has proved, erm, somewhat controversial - you can read my response to some of your comments here.]


  1. Rather like learning the Blues in a four year degree course.
    While it's heartening that these kids are interested enough in Folk music to spend their time, money, and energy studying it, there *is* something a bit contrived, a bit clean about the whole thing. No wonder which of those two music clips stokes the fire in this humble soul.

  2. As an 18 year old melodeon player currently in their first year of a Music degree, I whole heartedly agree with everything that this post says. I avoided Newcastle like the plague after visiting the open day and hearing stories about the course. Finally, someone has had the balls to come out and say what everyone's been thinking. Thank you.

    1. What stories had you heard Ollie? What turned you away on the Open Day?

    2. Quite a few reasons.

      The reputation of the course. I don't know a respectable musician who isn't involved with the course who has a good word to say about it. Everyone speaks ill of it. I didn't want to do a degree course with such a bad reputation within its own field. The stories I've heard from some students, mainly those who don't specialise in Celtic/Northumbrian music, that they've have had a problem with it, some leaving the course. The vast majority of the bands that come out of the degree sound the same. It's the Folkworks Sound. I don't like the fact that students are encouraged to emulate traditional singers... Please. Folk music is not a re-enactment. There also didn't seem to be a heavy academic side to the course, which I didn't like.
      When I went to the Open Day, there was no one from the degree course there to speak to. I travelled 250 miles, stayed overnight in Newcastle (which cost a fair amount) to be told to email my questions to the course leader. The response I got when I emailed said course leader was that "it's not always possible for a member of staff to attend these events". I'm sorry, but this is totally unacceptable. The impression I got when I came away from the day was one of arrogance. As it's the only degree of it's kind in the country, there's no opposition. I got the impression that they didn't feel the need to sell the degree to anyone as folk musicians couldn't do a Music degree anywhere else. This is evidently wrong.

    3. Would you not refer to Catriona MacDonlad, Kathyrn Tickell, Simon McKerrell, Sandra Kerr, Laura Beth-Salter or Ian Stephenson as well respected musicians? As all of whom have a lot to do with the degree course, considering they all lecture and/or teach on the course.
      You obviously haven't spoken to many of the successful graduates of the course who speak very highly of the opportunities Newcastle university's folk degree gave them. Not only in performance but also in academia and teaching.
      Some graduates go on from the course to study fully funded Master's in subjects relating to what they learnt from their studies on the folk degree.
      "It's a folkworks sound", is a very throw away statement considering many students on the course come to Newcastle never having heard or been to folkworks (not that folkworks is a bad thing to be involved in).
      Perhaps if you were on the course and studying modules which are heavily academic, you wouldn't dismiss it so readily as being unacademic. Yes, it is a highly practical course, but as a musician this is very beneficial and one of the selling points of the degree, but by no means is it unacademic. It seems you have done little research into the course and what it offers, and have only spoken to a small percentage of those involved with the course rather than gaining a fuller insight of the degree and people's opinions of it.

      Perhaps you could have emailed the course leader before travelling 250 miles and had your questions answered so that you knew what you wanted to know before arriving at the open day. I hardly think that is a valid point in your negative argument and view of the course. Maybe it is you that is arrogant considering that you make a misguided point, RCS in glasgow also offers a degree in traditional music.

    4. It was me who posed the two questions to Ollie as an insider (I am a 3rd year student on the course). I can add people such as Desi Wilkinson, Fintan Vallely, Chris Newman, Patsy Reid, John Dipper to the list above and this accounts for about 5% of the musicians who have taught up here.

      My reply to you Ollie is that I am shocked at the ignorance many musicians have of the course yet they are somehow able to dismiss it with their own views without having experienced it first hand! It smacks of ignorance mixed in with arrogance. It is very insulting to blanket all of the students under a "Folkworks sound" that is baloney! I can tell you that people of all ages, background and ability are to be found among the student ranks on the course and they all bring their own sound with them. Why not stay longer than one night in Newcastle and go to a few sessions populated heavily by current and ex students of the course? You'd find it very different.

  3. Andy, I agree with you completely. Your remarks put me in mind of the female member of the Weavers folk group who met Woody Guthrie not long after the Second World war. He remarked to her that she hadn't a hope in Hell of singing folk songs unless she had lost her virginity first.

    Coming from another direction we have the poet Federico GarcĂ­a Lorca's lecture "Theory and function of the Duende" ( which has suffered in the past from being quoted too often by the arty-farty brigade, but since it has receded from collective memory it's a good time to revisit it.

    I think traditional music is best learnt through a process of osmosis. The late A.L. Lloyd picked it up from working on sheep stations and working the whaling fleets (I know... I know...); I picked up a traditional vocal style unconsciously from attending a non-conformist chapel with a mostly elderly congregation - and no keyboard accompaniment for the hymns - in the middle of nowhere-in-particular during my youth. In my immediate experience these old people's singing was a lot less slick than the Newcastle students' offering but more considered, more ornamented and they sang what they meant and they meant what they sang, regardless of whether one finds their belief-system acceptable. In the strictest sense of the term these people were folk singers although they would have been puzzled, nonplussed or even offended by such a label.

    1. Hello R.P.

      I would have loved to have learnt songs by osmosis, but unfortunately there were no whaling fleets nearby(!). I sang in a choir for 7 years with a mostly elderly group of singers, I picked up some of their style, but as some of them were not particularly good singers (they would readily admit that themselves, they were there because they enjoyed it) I didn't want to pick up their bad habits too.

      What I disagree with in Andy's post is the assumption that because someone is young they don't have life experience and so can't do this style of music justice. If you had to have experience of what you were singing then many of the murder, incest and revenge songs would most likely disapear from the repertoire.

      I think it's also unfair to say that all the student's performances are the same as one video, the students on the course are LEARNING. They have performance opportunities in order to do that, develop their own personalities on stage, find out what works and what doesn't. Sometimes you might chose to ornament a little more, sometimes the lyrics call for a starker approach. It's unfair to say that their performances are less considered and that they don't have conviction in what they are performing.

    2. Ellie, who is to say you personally can't learn songs through osmosis? A good second best option to cultivating the presence of traditional singers is to immerse yourself in as many field recordings as possible and to pick out the ones that seem to work the best. Rod Stradling was emphatic about this when he said he wished contemporary musicians didn't spend so much of their time imitating the Old Swan Band, but that they should consult the source material instead.

      It's easy to dismiss the singing of (say) Charlie Wills as the tuneless dronings of an old geezer, but on careful and critical listening it becomes apparent what a remarkable singer he was, and how many vocal effects he had at his command. And Joseph Taylor... wow!

      I have had to pick up all of my tunes by ear I'm afraid because I can't read the dots. Dyslexia doesn't exactly help, but that's another story.

    3. Sorry, I've not been clear, I can pick up songs by osmosis, I'm better at learning by ear than sigght reading, but there was no one to learn from, I didn't know of the existance of sourcce singers and field recordings at that point.

      I did have lots of recordings of contemporary singers, but didn't want to learn to sound just like them. With a grant from the Friends of Towersey Festival in 2004 I bought a full set of Voice of the People (Reg Hall came in to give us a lecture about it and the background of the recordings) as well as some of the Living Tradition CDs and song books. They were amazing and really opened up my ears.

      Yes, some of the singers go off key at times, but since they were recorded later in life when it can be more difficult to stay in tune itt makes you wonder how fantastic they must have been when in their prime. And this is in an underappreciated form of music, that is essentially missing from the current English National Curriculum and that I was told I couldn't get more that a C at A level for as it was too 'simplistic'.

  4. "If folk music is as relevant as we claim then it has to have something to say. It has to have arisen, unbidden and insistent out of the sheer messy fact of being alive. It has to have come up through the feet, to have lingered in the loins, rolled around the heart and soared out from the belly. It has to give voice to what the Welsh call the hwyll and the hiraeth - loosely, joy and sorrow. That's not something you can teach, nor something you can buy."

    That is beautifully put, dear sir. Can I nick it? Fully credited, of course.

  5. I'm sorry, but this is not a typical example of what happens on the degree course, and as for the comments on essay writing and 'living the music', that's not correct either, there are two essay writing modules, on folk music of the British Isle in the first year alone, when it comes to third year there is an ethnomusicology module, from cultures and folk musics from around the world,individuals from the course frequently travel to different countries to collect and listen music and busking is so frequent, its a part of the course!
    Also, it's a bit disrespectful to the degree students who work hard and are trying to make a living out of our music, the above band having already made a large impact on the folk festival scene.

  6. i studied at newcastle, not folk just music but i know many of the folk students past and present. As such I know that this video is not representative of the entire course, students in higher years are encouraged to research, write about and perform music from areas of personal interest. this covers music from a huge chronological and geographical spread. And of course, it's a degree, so the students are more than able to write an essay by the end of it.
    As with any degree, it's what you make of it. You can play it safe and clean or you can go off the map and find your own style, as long as you show awareness of where your influences have come from etc. You can learn the minimum of the syllabus or you can delve into the resources and knowledge of the wide array of instrumental and academic tutors to your heart's content.
    Here is a video of a band i play in. 4 of the 6 members went through the folk degree at newcastle. hopefully you will agree that it is heartfelt whether or not it's your cup of tea.
    All i'm saying is, don't write off the whole degree because of a few tame videos. . .

  7. Hiya.. I'm studying on said degree at present and would like to point out that:
    a) the course is open to people of all ages and levels of (life) experience
    b) I've written at least 2 (IMHO) decent essays about traditional folk customs
    c) No one's suggesting that we'll leave the course equipped with everything we'll ever need in order to sing or play authentically (whatever that means)
    d) I frequently dance myself into 'sweaty ecstasy' at ceilidhs
    e) My studies on the course have included Indonesian gamelan music and Indian classical music
    f) it's very easy for someone who has no experience of something to make a bunch of sweeping generalisations and assumptions
    g) I'd like to bet that there are musicians out there who didn't have a hand up from such a degree that if such a thing had been around in their day they might have had an interest in it
    h) I suppose you think that we can't perform 'for real' unless we've had at least one dose of syphilis?
    i) I regularly busk. Through choice
    j) Take a look around you. The folk scene is becoming increasingly shiny and commodified, folk degree or not.

  8. As regards the issues surrounding this course and related matters, take a look at this PhD thesis by Dr Simon Keegan-Phipps (Ethnomusicology - University of Sheffield)... published by Newcastle University, oddly enough...

  9. Uncomfortable with things done well? Made to feel inadequate by proficient musicianship? Afraid of in-tune singing? People in folk music have always been afraid of people doing things that move away from the absolute centre of conservatism, and you, little man, have revealed yourself as their chief. Enjoy obscurity, you deserve it.

  10. I find this a bit offensive. Firstly, you clearly have no idea what the syllabus contains. Secondly, you assume that all the students have no life experience on which to draw in their art. Thirdly, who are you to decide what is or isn't too 'clean' to constitute genuine and heartfelt folk music? Finally, why do you 'worry' about it? What difference does it make to you, anyway?

  11. As a graphic design degree student in the south, I can say this is an issue with education across the field of the Arts. The amount of resources we have, we can all teach ourselves or learn our craft directly from the source as you demonstrated with the videos. I can learn the skills I need from the experts in my field, 2ft in front of my face. The online tutorials definitely would cost a lot less...

    Don't get me wrong, there are some great things about university, the time and people, doing a subject you love but paying £12,000 a year (includes the 3000 maintenance loan which the news always fail to include) is unjustifiable.

    I've seen a lot of the folk degree music and it's quite vast in styles. For example the ethnomusicology section as someone mentioned. You seemed to be generalising a lot. Nevertheless, your point about education is all true.

  12. Hello Andy.

    I'm Ellie, I studied the Folk Degree between 2003 and 2007. I graduated with a 2:1, major in performance, and now work as a primary teacher in Tanzania, having studied a PGCE and passed at Masters level. I CAN write an essay, mainly because of the practise I had in writing them on the folk degree... Just thought I'd clear that bit up.

    I was in a year group that included many mature students and many, like myself, who were 18 or 19 when they began. Before I moved to Newcastle, the only contact I had with other folk musicians was with my Mum's Morris team. I lived in a small town in South Northamptonshire, there was very little public transport - none after 6 at night and I can't drive. I applied to study at Newcastle, but I also applied (and was accepted) for Ethnomusicology at Queen's in Belfast, Norse, Saxon and Celtic at Cambridge and Music combined with English and Folklore at Sheffield. I chose to study at Newcastle because I felt comfortable in the city, I wanted to learn from the tutors available and I wanted to study folk music. For me, it was the best choice I could have made.

    I ended up living in Newcastle for 9 years, making friends with other students, getting to make music with them, being taught by some amazing singers and having opportunities that I doubt I would have had if I had chosen one of the other courses.

    But should I have been allowed to sing folk music at 19? I had barely lived! What had I done by that point? I'd worked since the age of 14, I'd stayed up all night in the happy hardcore tent at Gatecrasher and put in an 8 hour shift in the morning. I'd had my heart broken, I'd been stalked, I'd been a witness in a rape trial, my parents had split up, I'd been to Brittany and Normandy to play with musicians there. I'd had work experience in two, rather large, West End productions, and auditioned for a third. I'd volunteered with children with learning difficulites. But I couldn't sing a folk song properly becuase I hadn't lived.

    Whilst on the degree I had more opportunities, I got to work with musicians, singers and dancers of different styles, genres and ages. I worked at festivals both onstage and backstage. I ran a summer school with 120 participants. I went to Hungary to perform at an International Folk Dance Festival in fromt of 5000 people. I stayed up all night, each night for the week dancing and singing with Greek Cypriots, Turks, Hungarians, Italians, French, Aboriginals, Israelis...

    1. I didn't enjoy every single aspect of the degree, and not everyone I enrolled with completed the course. But, I have friends who have studied many different subjects at many different universities, and (surprisingly) they've not enjoyed every aspect of their degrees and not every member of their cohorts graduated either. Not everyone will - it's a hard choice to make at any age, deciding what you are going to dedicate yourself to for the next 3 or 4 years. But I do not ever regret that I have done it.

      My modules for the first two years were picked for me, to give me a broad musical knowledge alongside specific folk knowledge and specialised teaching in folk styles that I hadn't had before. But in my 3rd and 4th years, I chose my modules, I chose my singing teachers. I studied Corsican and Sardinian traditional choral music, Medieval music, contemporary culture, popular music, jazz, music business and musicc teaching. It allowed me to get gigs, because I had an opportunity to meet festival organisers, folk club organisers, other musicians. My performances aren't polished, I wouldn't want them to be, I make mistakes, I forget words and re-write them on the spot, I talk nonsense on stage. But for others, they have the ability for excellence and want to show it.

      I was never under the impression that I would have a professional career in folk music and this was never perpetuated by the tutors on the degree. If anything, they stressed the fact that very few of us would make a living from it and that we should diversify our skills. I was always going to train as a teacher, partially fuelled by a conversation with my secondary music teacher who, when I applied for the degree, said "It's not proper music, but it'll suit you."

  13. Enough people ridicule folk music and knock it down for being less worthy than classical, or jazz, musical theatre or even pop, that I think if you love the music you should encourage people for getting it out there. You may think that the performers you saw are overly polished, it's not your taste, so what? They are doing what they enjoy, they are learning, they are developing, they have opportunities. I would not say that they are typical third years, I would say their performance is typical of them. I know them and I am very proud of them for what they have achieved (and I know that they certainly have 'lived' despite their young ages).

    Sometimes I would like to see a bloke singing in a pub, but sometimes that can be utterly awful, out of tune and uncomfortable to listen to, but I suppose it's allowed because he's over 40 and being out of tune is more authentic.

    I am not a fan of every performer that comes from the degree, but I wouldn't expect to be. There is a range of style, genre and talent there (I would put myself amongst the less talented), but I am not a fan of every person I hear at a pub, folk club or festival. Variety is good, why knock people for doing what they want, if you don't like their music, don't go out of your way to listen to them again.

    If you think that folk music has to rise unbidden then it will die away. I am teaching folk music of the British Isles to my Tanzanian students because I had an opportunity to learn about it, I am teaching here partly because I have studied it. Had I just relied on my music GCSE and A level to inform me about it (as most secondary music teachers do) then they would confidently know that folk music consists of 'What shall we do with a drunken sailor?', 'Scarborough Fair' by Simon and Garfunkle and Bob Dylan songs.

    I'm still under 30, I've still not lived enough to sing folk songs because I've not busked, I've never been to Glastonbury, I've not read up on carnivalesque theory (and probably can't spell it), I've not had torrid love affairs, I suppose I had better close my mouth and stop singing.

    P.S. These 18 year olds that started this September don't have 9 grand in their pockets, it's loans that they will probably never pay back, they start to repay once they are earning over £21,000 a year but that have no impact on their credit record, applying for mortgages, loans, credit cards etc. The repayments come out at source and so, like tax and NI, could be seen as a payment that you never had. I worked as a careers adviser for teenagers for 3 years, I did read up on this a little bit in that time. But yes, if I had £9,000 in my pocket I would like to go all over and experience different things, but I didn't so I studied something I loved instead and it has since opened those doors for me.

  14. I'm not a musician or singer, but attend up to 70 folk concerts a year. I wouldn't pay a red cent to listen to that rubbish. It is truly awful.

  15. This post of Andy's makes me sad. I do listen to a wide variety of folk music and I like to think I play it on my radio show. I include Andy's music in that - having been introduced to it some people who had been on the Folk Degree.

    I have heard the Teacups (for it is they) and I doubt were I looking to book them that I would do so on the strength of this video. I would have booked them and indeed recommended them to a Festival Organiser on the strength of a live performance which I saw at Whitby.

    Do we really judge people on the strength of a poorly made and badly recorded video? And then condemn a whole degree on the strength of it?

  16. Andy does, apparently;-)

  17. Andy Letcher clearly knows very little if anything about the folk degree, or the background of the people on it. Perhaps if he really wished to make a comparison between Transylvanian traditional music with the output from a folk club/festival performance, it would have been better for him to have used something from one of his own bands. The fact is that while genuine traditional music has a raw vibrant quality his own bands fall foul of his own criticisms. He sums it up very well in his own words.

    "But mostly, while the standard of musicianship is obviously high, I worry that it's all so excruciatingly nice. Wouldn't you rather go and see the old guy singing down the pub than something so...polished?"

    Yes I would!

  18. There is no such thing as authenticity. There, I've said it. We all have to get over it.

    There is certainly no such thing as authenticity in the folk music world. You might find someone on a Traveller site who learnt songs from their relatives and who doesn't realise that the old songs they sing are called 'Folk Music', but that seems like an outside chance these days. I'd wager that even they have heard, and will have been influenced by, recordings of popular folk acts like The Pogues or Kate Rusby, whether they realise it or not.

    Certainly you aren't likely to find anyone performing in a folk club who hasn't listened to lots of recordings, or who has never learnt a song from a recording or from sheet music, or listened to the singing of someone who learnt from those sources.

    We are none of us learning or performing in a vacuum. Even the expectations of the audience and the technical limitations of recording shape folk performance. This isn't a problem. Why should folk music be different from any other genre?

    We may seek to fetishise some idea of authentic oral tradition, but if we do this and decide we are ourselves somehow lacking what does that do to us as artists? It would either make us slavish reproducers of field recordings or cut us off from all pretence of existing in some sort of continuity.

    We have to accept that transmission of songs and tunes via recordings, websites, sheet music, degree course tuition etc is all part of the folk process now. It is inevitable that fashions in performance will occur when people study and play together, but real artists will in time transcend these and find their own voice. As artists it is up to us to walk the tightrope between continuity and innovation each in our own way, and use that tension as one more tool in our arsenal of expression.

    A few other points. I am 40, and I am tired of being the youngest person in the room at most folk clubs round here. At 35 and 38 Kate and I were introduced as 'youngsters' when playing a floor spot, and that is sad. Anything that engenders an interest in these traditions and instruments in the young has to be a good thing, or folk music as a genre will die.

    Life happens to you whether you want it to or not. You can seek out experience, but rest assured whether you seek it out or not it will find you. Then you'll have something to sing about...

    Any artist worth their salt will research, and follow their bliss into whatever avenue the Muse may lead them to, and this is a good thing. This may or may not involve Carnivalesque theory.

    Not all music has to be exciting or dynamic.

    I know many Scandinavian and Nordic folk musicians. In those countries there is already a developed infrastructure of folk education at all levels, from local evening class to Doctorate. Folk music of all sorts, from the innovative to the deeply traditional, is healthy. Why should we fear this process when it works so well for our neighbours?

    There are two folk music degree courses now. More will follow, and diversity will bring different approaches and this will be a good thing. We have to start somewhere though and I am very glad the degree in Newcastle exists.

    Are there no bad Youtube videos of you Andy? I know there are of me, fact of life these days that people seem to feel entitled to video every performance without asking and then upload what always seem to be the strangest choices.

    If lack of life experience renders performance void then why was I so moved by many of the songs and much of the music I heard you play Andy when we were both in our twenties? You inspired me, and I doubt you had spent much time hunting misericords, though I could be wrong on this :-)

  19. Dear Andy,

    As a former graduate of the folk degree, I am always interested to read about other people’s perception of the folk degree. However, I would respectfully suggest that your argument is undermined by an inherent self-contradiction and, sadly, a degree of ignorance of what students of the folk degree actually do.

    Your critique of the folk degree appears to broadly be a musical one. If I understand your argument correctly, you find the music produced by graduates of the folk degree dull and overly polished. You feel that 18–22 year olds have insufficient life experience to produce a form of traditional music you find aesthetically pleasing. Fine. However, you also appear to criticise the folk degree for (in your, albeit incorrect, perception) for producing “endless cohorts of students forking out nine grand a year and thinking there's a living as a folk musician waiting for them at the end of it.” If you do not believe there is a living as a folk musician waiting, it is logically inconsistent to found your criticisms on the aesthetics of the music produced by current students.

    You go on to state “I worry about my Religious Studies students too, but at least they come out able to write an essay.” I find this both offensive and ignorant. You appear to have based this assessment on the handful of folk degree students you meet at festivals, presumably as performers. In reality, graduates of the folk degree are able to “write an essay”. (And, I would respectfully suggest, learn how to deploy arguments that are not undermined by their own premises.) Graduates of the folk degree complete advanced degrees, become primary and secondary school teachers, work for music foundations and promoters. Others—displaying considerable business acumen—are successfully carrying on business as sound engineers, have founded record labels or run traditional music agencies.

    Had you troubled to engage in any fact-checking prior to writing, you would have realised that the folk degree programme has some considerable academic overlap with Newcastle University’s other music programmes. Folk and non-folk students study modules together and, indirectly, compete against each other. The evidence demonstrates that folk students achieve results broadly on a par with non-folk students.

    On this point, I would like to use own experiences as a graduate of the folk degree as an example. After I graduated, I converted to law. I am now a trainee barrister and in the process I have outperformed peers with Oxbridge law degrees. It would not be possible for me to be competitive in what is, in my humble opinion, the most intellectually challenging profession in the country if the folk degree was not academically rigorous. While I doubt you will ever meet me in person (unless, one day, you have the misfortune to have cause to instruct me), and therefore have no reason to have any idea who I am, I am no more representative of the folk degree than those four performers you seek to use as examples.

    Yet, without meeting me or a representative sample of folk degree students and graduates, you have generalised the students and graduates of the folk degree and used that as a factual basis for your criticisms. While I lack the benefit of an education in religious studies, this strikes me as unhelpful.

    If you would like to enter into a public or private correspondence about any of the issues mentioned above, or my experience of being transitioning from the folk degree to the Bar, please don’t hesitate to contact me on andrew [dot] venables [at] gmail [dot] com.


    Andrew Venables

  20. Is this the right time and place to say that Bellowhead are not to my taste? I can see a split along Shiite/Sunnite lines developing in the English folk music movement.

  21. This discussion seems to be something that pops up everywhere, when folk music enters higher education. There are always people who think that folk music isn't something that can be taught, (especially not in a formally organized environment like an academy or a university) but something that has to be experienced and gained through osmosis. Like if a conscious effort to gain knowledge would actually be something that prevents you from learning, rather than the other way around.

    Folk music, like any other subject or field of knowledge is something that can be learned in many different ways, places, environments, contexts.
    This said, it's also clear that the academic context offers good possibilities to learn certain things, and maybe not so good opportunities to learn other things. Some aspects of folk music will get more focus than other. This will suit some people better than other, and fit better into some ideas of what folk music _is_, than other. But that also goes for any other education. An education is only a starting point for future activities...

    Andy's critique is quite lame. As other have already stated, he seems to be little informed about what's going on in the folk degree, and what the idea of the education is. But: It's important that there can be critique. And some of the defenses I've read, here and in comments on facebook, are also quite lame and seem to be made in immediate affection rather than with some thought.

    I think Andy has a fair point in that it would be good to have another degree in folk music in the UK (or even several other ones). Different schools think in different ways, have different values and different approaches to how to teach, what to teach, why to teach folk music. Diversity is king.

    I come from a Nordic background and have studied so far in 6 different schools (the folk degree in Newcastle being one of them) thanks to doing a lot of exchanges. I'm currently doing a masters program where I spend one semester each in four different schools in four different countries. There is a great diversity among the schools, which is something that everyone involved can benefit from. Thanks to a good network, Nordtrad, there is quite a big flow between the Nordic folk music educations, of students and teachers going on exchanges for shorter or longer periods. Combined with an annual conference for students and teachers, music, ideas and methods are exchanged and we learn from each other.

    Another fair point of his is that a lot of students would benefit from some life experience before they start studying. However it seems a bit strange to me to blame the folk degree for this, as it's rather something which is a problem that has to do with the British education system and culture. (In Sweden it's a lot more common that people go off and do other things for some years before they start studying.)
    I got the impression that the folk degree actually has (had) quite a large proportion of 'mature students' compared to many other educations. And well, people's performances will change and (hopefully) mature as they grow older. A lot of the material (songs, ideas, tunes, methods) people deal with in the education is stuff that they can't immediately incorporate in their own work, but this would be the case whenever in their development they got their formal education.

  22. For years I've travelled around Europe, and further afield, and been very envious of the folk music and dance degrees on offer in other countries. They provide a real opportunity for young people to persue a serious study of the a subject worth studying.

    Alistair Anderson and co did a great job in getting the folk music degree set up, against an academic cultural establishment that values classical music above all other.

    Since then I have had the pleasure of working with many of the graduates - fine musicians. Many of whom are now working full-time in folk music.

    I think you are too harsh on them. The clip is of students - students getting out there and trying it out. We all have to start somewhere.

    Once they finish their degrees and get more experience, see more of the world, then they can apply their musicianship with more effect.

    At the same time one should not expect all graduates of the course to flourish as professional folk musicians any more than one should expect all philiosophy graduates to become professional philosophers. It is a stage in education and development.

    Getting the Newcastle degree established was one step, let us hope that there will be the opportunity to establish another.

    In many places in the world, folk music is an important part of the music education system
    producing amazing players and a very rich folk music scene. UK has a long way to go.

  23. Andy, I agree about the 'nice' and 'too polished' aspect. I see it as a problem across all genres of music, with the possible exception of classical, for which 'polished' is part of what it is. I was listening to a CD yesterday of old 70s folk-rock, and just loving the immediacy, the scratches of the instruments, the cracks in less than perfect voices (though more beautiful for the imperfections). And I find that's what I'm longing for, music that sounds human. Music that sounds like people you know made it, not some kind of rarified creatures who exist far beyond the spheres of normal humanity. Music with dirt under its fingernails. Music is something that belongs to all humanity, not just to listen to, but to play. People used to get together and sing in pubs, or churches, or working in the fields. They played instruments, perhaps not perfectly, but they did it themselves. And I think this is what we've lost. Another thing that we've handed over to 'experts', and now we become the audience at our own lives, rather than participants in it. Sorry, that's rather long and ranty, but it's a subject close to my heart, as I know how wonderful for the soul making music on a rough and amateurish level with other people can be. I think we need it.

  24. of the most magical moments of my life was 22 years ago, in a Drogheda pub on a Sunday listening to the locals play, where it seemed everyone had brought along an instrument and could play if they felt like it. And old man did indeed stand up in a corner, and sing. And you could have heard a pin drop in that pub, as he sang in gaelic, completely unaccompanied, his eyes shut tight.

    Love the wedding music, I's got soul!

  25. This from Ian Anderson of fRoots magazine, originally posted on facebook and reposted here with his permission:

    I think I'm with you, Andy. I learned to play music in my teens because I had a burning desire to, but part of the fun was figuring it out for ourselves. It would never have occurred to me to have lessons, there weren't courses and tutor books and DVDs, and the affordable instruments back then were nowhere near as good as the average YFA combatant regularly sports these days. And nobody I knew could read music. But out of that we made something original, mainly by getting things wrong and doing them unconventionally because we didn't know any better. Music was also part of a whole lifestyle: we were as dedicated to staying up all night, sleeping all day, getting drunk and shagging as we were to playing, it was all inseparable. And I didn't go to university, except of life (that's why I can't write proper).

    I'm not saying that's right for everybody, and there are many fantastically skilled young players around now compared with what we could do back then. But many of them don't move me: I don't hear many of them listening to the words of songs they're making fancy arrangements of, watching the film of the story in their heads. I don't hear much passion, I miss attitude (which is different from ego). I miss the spaces between the many, many notes

    I suspect the Newcastle course is a symptom rather than a cause, though, and you can hardly dismiss something which has turned out an artist as exceptional as Emily Portman. They do have some very wonderful people involved with it, who I have a lot of respect for. But I do, like you, sometimes hear a predictable uniformness – you can't imagine a modern day equivalent to the left field out-there inventiveness of the Incredible String Band in their day popping up . And it seems to me to be a north-facing sound that's largely uninformed by southern or East Anglian country music traditions.

    On balance, I have no problem with it existing for those who like that sort of thing, but yes, it would be a very good thing if there were also a different one a lot further away from Scotland, to set a few felines among the feathery things ;)

    1. quote: we were as dedicated to staying up all night, sleeping all day, getting drunk and shagging as we were to playing

      who isn't????

  26. Hi Andy,
    The folk degree was great! I was in the first intake. Noone tells you what you have to sound like, they just give you the opportunity to try (or push you in to trying) out different things and work on them with people who've specialised in them all their lives. There may be a polished style you need to aim for if you want top marks, but after you've left you can do what you want, and being pushed to do something you wouldn't have otherwise done is very good for you.

    The course was academically quite heavy and also very practical. It took over my life for 4 years. I did all the things you said you did before I started the course (I was 21 when I started) and have done most of them again since. Life experience alone doesn't make you a good musician, though I agree that it is essential. You need to learn technique and style from others. I can't think of a better place to meet and interact with inspiring musicians of all ages and backgrounds from all over the world. Studying folk music doesn't stop you from having a life!

    It seems rediculous to criticise the course for being the only one in England. The reason it's the only one is everyone elses fault, not theirs! Surely if someone down south wanted to put in 20 years worth of groundwork like Alistair Anderson did and set one up, then there would be two. But noone has yet!

    As for a uniformness of sound - that is a result of young musicians trying to copy their idols. It happens whether they study or not and in all styles of music. Most people follow fashion, wherever they get it from. Most lecturers tried hard to steer students away from that. I went to the unofficial 10 year celebration of the course and caught up with what has been going on since I left. I saw an a'capella singing group doing blues/jazz/folk, a folk indie band, a turkish-funk-folk band and a Scottish/English tarditional band. There was some straight trad and some really wacky stuff. It was all high quality and all of it was performed with soul and originality. Maybe you saw different bands - it wouldn't suprise me if there were a few overly nice bands knocking around that the Uni like to push in order to project a certain image. Maybe the members of those bands are 19 years old - give them a chance to develop before you damn them!

    I get the impression you've judged from a distance, on YouTube. Get yourself up to Newcastle and take in the overwhelming variety of people, music and LIFE going on there as a result of students interacting with everyone else in the city!

    Cheers, Andrew

  27. If I may be so bold as to reply - having a son who creates music intuitively on computers (yes I would call him a composer although there are many music snobs who wouldn't), I would say that it is the general public who generally decide who and what is listenable to. Who cares whether Folk music, metal music, classical music or whatever comes FROM? As long as it is there in its wonderful strangeness and creative diversity who cares?! I would add something here that I have always said to my children - NEVER argue about personal preference, it goes nowhere.


  28. I was pointed towards this by a friend over on Facebook. Interesting discussion, and most telling is the fact that the people who are defending the degree are those who have attended it, not the Festival Organisers or Club runners. Those of us on the ground know that Ollie's comment of "The FolkWorks sound" is sadly right, and that whilst some clubs have people who love that sound, many more don't, and simply won't book them for that reason. There is so much more to folk music than simply playing at clubs, festivals and busking, though. There's being part of your community - playing for funerals, garden fetes, passing on a few chords to a beginning player at New Year party, spontaneous dancing because three people have instruments and everyone else has had far too much to drink. The nice music exhibited by so many Newcastle Graduates will find it difficult to stand the test of time in that regard. I don't quibble with the fact that young people can play fantastic folk music, but I do see that many people coming out of the folk degree exhibit a certain homogeneity, that perhaps they didn't have before entering it. I hope that as they find their feet, they will lose that sound and niceness and acquire a rasp of reality outside of the hallowed halls of The Sage...

  29. I've heard a lot of recorded folk music. Much of it doesn't move me. I've heard a fair few grizzled old men in pubs with their finger in their ear. Few of them moved me. I have been to folk festivals, and much of what I heard didn't move me. I have listened to a lot of Bebop jazz; much of it didn't move me. I could go on, but I'm sure you get the point. Transcendent, wonderful music is actually pretty rare, and not dependent on training or style.

    If wonderful, transcendent music is the only reason to make music, then almost everyone should give up straight away, but it's not. What baffles me in folk in particular is how many people think it's their business what other people choose to play, or enjoy listening to. Don't like the Teacups? No problem, go buy something that sounds like it's been dragged through a hedge. I DO like the Teacups, and the fact that you don't is absolutely no reason for them not to exist, or for me to stop listening to them.



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