English Folk Music

With the phenomenon of Mumford & Sons, we are in the midst of yet another folk revival, and last night’s episode of Stuart Maconie’s ‘Peoples Songs’ did a great potted history of it.

Louis Armstrong was cited with his ‘All music is folk music. I ain’t never heard a horse sing a song’. Which is a great qsuote but suggests there is nothing intrinsically special in the songs of ordinary people. Or it may be pointing to the notion that music is music, and we should listen to all sorts.

In the 1840s a German visitor claimed these people have no ear for music and was quoted in the 1904 book ‘Das Land Ohne Musik’. Which is interesting from the country that gave us Boney M, but let’s move on…

In 1906 in the run up to World War I there was a rise in nationalism, and the Board of Education encouraged folk singing so Vaughan Williams and others  became collectors. Cecil Sharpe, who toured the country in the early days of the 20th century collecting and transcribing songs of the people, by then largely farm workers. He is remembered by the Centre for Folk Music Studies being named after him, but they omitted the Australian classical composer who also played a role and was the discoveror of the most famous of the songs, ‘Greensleeves’.

After the Second World War, possibly in response to the morale lifting singing that had become so widespread, there was a major folk revival, with growing numbers of pubs having a room upstairs where the audience could join in with – usually a lone singer, sometimes with a guitar, due to lack of space.  With refugees from the Macarthy era in the USA came a swing to the left, a drift away from agricultural songs to those of the oppressed. Music encouraged solidarity amongst the poor, just as it had done during the worst of the bombing. ‘Dirty Old Town’ is one that shows the shift to urban subjects.

One commentator said, there’s always a folk revival going on; folk has never died out, it was just lost to view by the chattering classes. This seems to hold true, as there are still pubs in the north of England where they sing Christmas Carols and have a range of local celebrations that go way back, and it is from this core that the modern scene still draws much of its inspiration and performers.

Euan MColl – father of Kirsty – was the child of radical Scots, and  probably the most famous of the early players, but he began as a playwright when married to his first wife Joan Littlewood.  In 1958 the famous Radio Ballads further spread the genre.

By the mid  1960s, there was a network of about 300 folk clubs across the country, one ran by the father of members of the Ska band UB40. Often the singers had just a guitar, sometimes with fiddle.

What surprised me – though it shouldn’t – was the mention of how many incredible guitarists rose through this scene. Burt Jansch is obvious as an instrumentalist, but most are better known as singer songwriters, with Martin Carthy, John Renbourne, Ralph McTell, Al Stewart, Davey Graham, Richard Thompson, the best known. Graham’s instrumental ‘Anji’ is still played as proof of a guitarist’s proficiency:


The circuit led artists like Sandy Denny to early fame, and atrtracted others from across the pond like Tom Paxton and of course Bob Dylan and Paul Simon.

There was mention of the atmosphere of protest from 1966 against Vietnam, and also the largely forgotten, but much closer to home, 6 Day War in the Middle East. Though there was widespread opposition to Dylan going electric, one voice said objectors were like Canute trying to stop the tide.  Most bands took to it, as the venues got bigger, and produced the definitive folk rock album by Fairport Convention, Liege and Leaf, which is still seen as a masterpiece. This is their ‘Who Knows Where the Time Goes’. Gorgeous.


Pentangle were named bacause there were five of them, and were also hugely successful. This is their ‘Light Flight’


The rise of folk in the 60s coincided with the rising independence of the young, with them living apart from their parents for the first time, so moved to the cities and supported the various venues. 1970 was the peak of the folk movement.

What I found really interesting were the comments on punk – most of the voices liked it, and saw a lot of common ground with it, whilst the likes of Johnny Rotten mocked it, but he mocked most things. It was an angry urban form of the more gentle protests of folk songs.

Ade Edmundson is an interesting case. Known as a comedian in the 1980s he claimed young people were not welcome in the folk clubs, so were forced to turn to punk. As a middle aged dad, he has now finally been able to connnect with his folk roots, by founding the Bad Shepherds who do folk versions of punk songs, and they are brilliant. This is their version of The Jam’s ‘Down at the Tube Station at Midnight’, a song I thought I knew, but missed the pathos in the original.


And a growing number of pop and punk musicians like Johnny Marr are now becoming respected in the roots/acoustic arena. Musicians like Billy Bragg have always straddled the two genres, as well as recycling old folk songs into new formats.

By contrast Mike Harding who was largely responsible for reviving the fortunes of folk music on BBC radio, once complained the modern songs are too much about love, and not enough about whaling, which is nonsense of course. Folk music is about ordinary lives, and there are no whalers left, but plenty of people falling in and out of love, as there always has been.

There are also complaints about the new forms such as Folktronica or Laptop rock, as played by Tunng and Jim Murray, but the wonderful  Martin Carthy noted that in the 1920s, the guitar was seen as a dubious new technology. Folk music has survived floods, fire,  pestilence and war. It can survive a few people plugging in a few instruments.

One of the best modern folkies is Chris Wood, whose songs are often deceptively deep. His song ‘Hollow Point’ begins with a man walking out of his home, but turns chilling when you realise the man was Juan Carlos Menendez, during the terrorist attacks in London 2007. He was shot by the police using hollow bullets that are banned in war. Folk music is a timely remember that protest will sadly always be with us:


4 thoughts on “English Folk Music

  1. Pingback: Esashi Crossroads – [new track] | mostly music

  2. Pingback: Alternative Folk | Lee Maddison Singer-Songwriter

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