The Homeliness of English Folk

An old friend Sam came to stay and as he's one of the best English fiddlers of his generation we naturally got talking about English folk music.

The reason he loves it so much, he said, was that it makes him feel truly at home, rooted, like he belongs. When he hears a Morris tune he knows it's 'his' and that he can 'muck about' with it (though Sam's mucking about is everyone else's sublime and careful  handling).

My relationship with English folk music has been far less straightforward. That I've learned to love it has everything to do with The English Acoustic Collective. They persuaded me - through seeing them live, hearing their album Ghosts, and in person at their summer school - that there's more to English folk than the rumpety-pumpety, humpty-dumpty, fal-da-ral-daro I'd always despised. It's not all relentlessly upbeat and sweet: there are dark undercurrents and rhythmic complexities lurking there.

But the fact that I've had to learn to love it is telling. The very homeliness that Sam loves instilled in me a kind of musical wanderlust, a yearning for something else, for other times and places. I looked South to France, East to the Balkans and India, and backwards to the to the Middle Ages. I've always liked music that makes me feel distinctly unhomely.

Actually, that's an exaggeration - I struggle with abstract free-form jazz for example - so it's fairer to say that I love music on the threshold.

Perhaps it's down to the fact that he plays fiddle and I play bagpipes. However much it limped its way into the twentieth century there was nevertheless a tradition of English fiddling for Sam to pick up. Southern English bagpiping - whatever that was - died in the seventeenth century, maybe even earlier. No one bothered to write it down. So while there are many English country dance tunes you can play on the pipes, there aren't many bagpipe tunes (unless and until you head north). That layer in the musical archaeology has gone, which is possibly why English folk as we know it lacks the goatishness I've found elsewhere.

But whatever the differences in our relationship with English folk music, our respective hankering for the homely and the unhomely, I'm extremely grateful to Sam for turning me on to Polish band Mosaic. I'd be hard pressed to find a better example of what I mean.


  1. yes. unhomely - now that is a world (I mean word) I shall ponder. and, not all drones (musical)are created equally to our ear's preferences. I often prefer the unhomely music, fresh and deeply resonant, pulling and rousting at almost a cellular level. our American "country music" often almost nauseates me. maybe I listen politically...

  2. Mosiac-music accompanied us all the way to Wales :) it's brilliant stuff!

    My 2p worth is that there's a particular 'folk' tradition that has nothing to do with regions or locality, but everything to do with a common experience of reality that one might, if pressed, loosely term 'crazy wisdom vagabond,' though that mostly misses the mark, too. There's a kind of music and story and art that comes out of that tradition, however, which crackles with a particular kind of magic (and other kinds of 'folk' have their other kinds of magic, for sure.) I think you're part of that folk music more than you are of any other, and - to me at least - that's a very good thing :) Keep it up.



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 *