Degrees of folk...part 2

Oh my, I've really done it now. I've turned the apple cart good and proper with my last post. I was expecting a healthy debate but not the storm that seems to have erupted in the comments pages. It's well known that you mess with the folk world at your peril. I ought to have known.

Correspondance and comments have fallen into two equally sized camps (I've deleted insulting ad hominem remarks. Not big and not clever). There are those who agreed with me wholeheartedly, who've commended me for saying something that needed to be said. As you'd expect, most of those comments have come from people who've not done or have no connection to the Newcastle Folk degree (though not exclusively); mostly, they've been posted on facebook (as you'd also expect).

Then there has been a spirited defence of the course, mostly, but not exclusively by students and ex-students, and mostly posted on this blog. It's heartening to see the passion and commitment with which they take their studies, a passion and commitment that seems equally shared by their tutors. If only all University departments managed such high levels of motivation. While the fantasy curriculum of my imaginary degree was just that, a fantasy, I've enjoyed reading about the actual Newcastle curriculum - we seem to be singing from the same page. I'm sorry that some people felt I was being unduly harsh by singling out the Teacups - that wasn't my intention at all, and in case you missed it, I praised their musicianship. I wish them every success in the world and have no doubt they will get it.

No, what I was hoping to do was raise two important questions about diversity and authenticity.

Leaving Glasgow to one side (as I think, Scotland is a separate case), Newcastle is currently the only University offering a folk degree. Not only does that restrict choice but it means that there is only one take on how to do folk music. However much they get it right (and students certainly seem to think that they do) I think this an unhealthy situation. A diversity of approaches is surely called for.

My second question about authenticity, about whether folk ought to be taught through the institutions of higher education at all, remains the more controversial one. There are those who say it puts folk on the map and affords it a badly needed legitimacy; others think this exactly the problem.

I may not have put the question skilfully but it's surely one that needs to be asked.


  1. I posted this video on Facebook by way of my own notion of balance:

    (Marit Falt and Kate Young are both, so far as I know, graduates of the Newcastle degree). You may question the authenticity of standing in a duck-pond, but what they're playing is pretty interesting to my ears.

    Otherwise I thought Corwen's comment regarding the subject of authenticity on the previous post held some water, a duck-pond's worth at least.

  2. You surely can't have expected to post your last blog without receiving the response that you got (inclusive of "insulting and ad hominem remarks" - which , in my opinion, you made a few of yourself). You must also be aware of how condescending and patronizing you sound when you refer to the defence of people who have connections with the course.

    Also, your decision to put Glasgow to one side to enable you to make the point that Newcastle is the only university offering a folk degree, is blatantly you being extremely selective in your use of background information. Scotland should definitely be taken into consideration when you are making such bold statements, because RCS in Glasgow does offer a degree in folk music. Perhaps you disregard Glasgow because the degree offered there is exclusively in Scottish music, however one of your complaints in your previous blog was that Newcastle was teaching only northern music (which, as you may have realised, is a very false view)and that there should be a course run down South. Taking that in to consideration, on what grounds is the degree in Glasgow being dismissed so easily as not being a folk degree. You choose to put Scotland aside, but Scottish music is not altogether separate from England (Scotland is, at present, still part of Britain)and there is quite a high percentage of the students on the Newcastle degree who are Scottish.

    And, in my opinion, you are being quite contradictory within your blog. In order to allow for diversity, you have to be more lenient with the idea of authenticity - the two can't go hand in hand because if you start to diversify too much, the authenticity becomes lost. So some, perhaps yourself, seem to believe.

  3. To widen the debate further, I would question whether by looking at Universities to educate us, we aren't buying into a game of someone else's devising? With subjects such as engineering and law the benefits of a degree are clear cut, but with humanities less so. I'm sure Newcastle is a very good course - what I'm not sure of is that the education it provides could not have been had in an informal setting, with those individuals showing personal initiative? Andy, you clearly have a stake in academia, but it's a world whose motivations and structures should be open to question more generally than just peeping over the fence from one institution to another. I agree that one cannot 'learn' tradition and authenticity in the generally accepted sense - for folk I think it's about learning your instrument, attending sessions and getting out there. The discover happens later, to some degree (no pun intended). I feel we have come to embrace student life as the sole provider of intense rite of passage bonding for the post-school years, but with the right peer group this can happen anyway, and without masses of debt. If anything society has let young people down by commodifying that experience, making it impossible outside of the formula of university education. Let's widen our vision.

  4. Don't worry Andy. I haven't written you off despite your being both Brythonic and a troubadour. Keep up the good work and wear a bullet-proof vest.

  5. I think some of the issues bubbling up are with education and arts in general. There's a great post by Clay Shirkey here which looks at how learning may be undergoing a period of "de-coupling" from universities, similar to the way in which internet music distribution has decoupled songs from albums:
    In a nutshell - once, you had to buy a whole album even if you wanted just a couple of tracks off it. Internet distribution blew that open, so you can now buy just what you want. Similarly, in education, you used to have to buy a whole degree course, packaged by a university, to get the bit of paper that lead to you getting a good job. But now so many people have those bits of paper they are no longer enough. And the traditional situation of an expert lecturing one room of people at a time is hugely expensive and inefficient. Hence some people are getting the education they need from a whole range of sources (including universities providing Massive Open Online Classes), and putting it together more creatively with other skills and experiences to eke out their own unique position in life and play to their strengths. A DIY education, validated purely by how good you can get in your field.

    I can understand the vitriol from people who've gone through the folk degree - nobody likes to have the money and effort they've put into an education belittled, and the temptation to take it personally is strong. Similar sparks fly whenever the newspapers play the tune of "GCSEs are getting easier". But it's a shame if that derails the deeper consideration that these articles prompt.

    Quite apart from the challenges of teaching something which is a lifelong journey over three years, there's the issue of commodification that's going on anyway, which the folk music degree (as part of the establishment) *will* absorb to some extent by osmosis. One of your commenters said, "take a look around you. The folk scene is becoming increasingly shiny and commodified, folk degree or not", which in fact rather strengthens your observations, Andy.

    I did theatre and business for my degree; moulded to be a good little arts administrator; taught how to package and sell art, before *I'd* lived enough to know its true value. A decade and a half later, I'm mistrustful of the effect of marketing and business in the arts - especially in the folk arts, where folk artists sing or play primarily for themselves and their immediate community, and where the intrusion of middle-men and experts may be toxic to the very nature of the art. I haven't formed any firm conclusions - partly because I'm still pondering what folk music actually is, and that's a massive line of enquiry. But I hope this conversation keeps rolling, and that the heat subsides to allow more light.

  6. Andy,

    I feel you've missed the point entirely. Let me share my person experiences as someone who also did not study the degree. I am the daughter of 2 folk musicians, myself and my older sister were lucky enough to have heard the music in the womb and to also have become folk musicians. I grew up in sessions but was also lucky enough to have some classical training, both of which have informed me as an artist. I have been privileged to have grown up with the likes of Catriona MacDonald and Brian Finnegan around due to my parents running a folk course in East Anglia. I know very very few people have been this lucky and I sincerely wish more people had the opportunities I have had. Having been apart of folk music for 24 years, since birth, there is nothing on earth I have more love and reverence for than folk music.

    Many musicians, but folk musicians particularly, have struggled to get their music taken seriously. When I told my GCSE music teacher I was using folk his response was that I would get a C; I passed with an A. It simply wasn't taken seriously as a form of music by many, but not all, music teachers. You are clearly a player who holds his music and his tradition with reverence and there is nothing higher in an academic sense than to have it studied and collected and placed in high esteem. If you attack the folk degree you attack every song and tune collector or collection, every trans-folk/trans-world musician and every informed listener out there - including the likes of Cecil Sharp.

    We are lucky to have a surviving tradition, to steal a line from show of hands 'we've lost more than we'll ever know'. The folk degree, its tutors, its students and those who appreciate it can see it as maintaining, informing and progressing what we have and ensuring it remains as vital and relevant as it always has been. To deny its study is to deny the social anthropology of music. Music has the power to show where we have come from and where we are going culturally and historically. It shouldn't matter whether your tastes are towards the likes of Lau and KAN on the progressive trans-celtic end of the genre; or a more mainstream Bellowhead; or your guy in a pub singing with his eyes shut, it is all folk and it is all worth collecting, understanding, studying and remembering whether you're an academic, an artist or a listener.

    The bigger problem of commercialism is something that needs to be addressed but many bands (Bellowhead aside) reject a lot of commercialism beyond what is necessary for them to succeed in a modern music industry. Attitudes to the music - OUR living breathing music - are so much more important. To quote show of hands again 'One minister's vision of hell was three folk singers in a pub near Wells', is that the attitude we want to be accepting by being too precious with our music and seeing it as above being studied and taken seriously? Its worth considering - seriously. I Love my music and I want it studied, adored, appreciated and treated sensitively, therefore I see the folk degree as essential. If you don't like it, don't study it but the opportunities for the students and the rich potential of what is produced is too great to be dismissed.

  7. Andy, Thanks for your two articles and for raising the issues for discussion. I am a student on the folk degree course but have also had 40 years of immersion in folk music before this, through clubs and festivals and in kitchens and back rooms. In a sense your clip of Hungarian Wedding music creates a false antithesis. In the same way that folk song collectors have looked to the past for their vision of a vanished world, you are looking eastwards. Folk music in this country has long been a creation of the middle classes, and the cry has always been 'Folk is being eclipsed by popular music.' Perhaps folk music should still bubble up spontaneously from the people, but lets face it, it doesn't. I think you have been careful not to criticise the Newcastle course for being the sole player in the game, but I agree that a course in the South would be welcome. I also agree that musicians should and do spring up through auto didacticism and life experience. But the Newcastle course has never interfered with that, and by definition most of the teachers have come up through that route. Much of the anger to your post seems to be related to people interpreting the responses as your views. Don't all internet discussions eventually nose dive?



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