From Tony Phillips, Director, Real LIfe Trust
People involved in the Rolling On Project are visiting all the acoustic music sessions and venues in the UK they can find over the next few years for a book and film celebrating the movement we are all part of and checking out the health of community based folk-roots music making in the UK.
(Editor - The first two chapters of the book have now been written and we have agreed to include them as they are written on our website)
They say that folk music is in the blood whereas I know for sure that in my case its mainly in the beer. As I wait to go on stage in the grand final, all I can think of is that is was probably a mistake to have that third pint and dry roasted peanuts are probably not what singers at La Scala tuck into before they give it large on the Puccini. But then thats folk music for you. Ordinary people sharing everyday music. The voice of the people. Sharing rather than performance. Talent optional. Or, depending on your personal stance, thats just a description of bad folk music performed by mediocre musicians who don’t practice enough and have no understanding and less interest in the complexities and standards inherent in the folk tradition.
My own introduction to the folk world occured in the early 1970’s as long haired, split-knee loon wearing teenager tripping over to Hoddesden to catch the old boys in the pub singing dido, bendigo, gentry he was there O and the larks they sang melodious. Strung out on Lord of the Rings, Pink Floyd and the Incredible String Band, my dry soul soaked up the music, my brain letting me know that here was the bardic tradition still alive and kicking in an unbroken line reaching back to the dark ages and beyond, Now that I am grey bearded and old codger-like myself, I realise that these guys were really just blokes learning songs off the radio, cassette tapes or LP’s and it was my role as the younger generation to add the mythology that they were the real deal and I was a green and sappy incomer. I know this for certain because over the years, a number of our younger session members assume I was around at the beginning of the folk revival, asking what it was like and its only when I point out that I was still getting the hang of potty training when Ewan McColl was doing his stuff that they realise that being an old bloke is as much a state of mind as a chronological fact.
This brings me on to key issue no. 1 – the never ending saga called ‘The Death of Folk Music’. Ever since I can remember going to folk clubs and sessions, there has been a predominance of grey haired people of a certain age. When I look at pictures of folk club audiences from the 50’s and 60’s I see oodles of people looking like they have just taken a day off school. These people are now the grey haired brigade. But wait. A more detailed forensic review of the evidence shows clear signs of the grey hairs hanging out in the background or hiding behind the youngsters or even more likely, just out of shot getting another pint or popping out (again) for a leak.
I was young once, at least according to the photo album and I see young people all over the place at festivals, open mics, sessions and clubs but have to agree that the picture is patchy depending on where you go. So far on my travels round the sessions and singarounds, I can say with the researchers clipboard in hand that the average age of the punters is late 40’s plus. On the other hand, at our own sessions I can cite the case of exhibit A (Alice) who first started coming aged 10 and exhibit B, Blaise (more about him later), aged 15. A quick glance over my web based research files reveals that young folkies are to be found all over the UK in great numbers with a widespread but localised distribution.
My friend Cath who co-wrote the Rolling On song is a professional moth-botherer and tells me that it’s quite normal to send out a message to moth-botherers everywhere to record moth numbers and species in their own area followed up by a reporting session back to moth HQ. I suggest we do the same for young folkies and send the results, with details of species and habits, back to Rolling On HQ for analysis. To help you in your task, here is a list of the better known young folkie types:
The Lesser Spotted teenager: in the sense of being spotted hanging out with their folkie parents less and less at festivals as they get old enough to sneak off without a causing major panic and multiple announcements on the PA.
The Dalai-Lama: here’s where Blaise (remember him?) comes to mind. Writing and performing songs that sound like Pete Hammil or Leornard Cohen originals in 2015 when you are all of 15 is direct evidence of folkie reincarnation.
The Folk Mozart: mind-boggling multi-instrumenalists capable of playing 250 tunes at the drop of a hat with the ambition to know 2000 by the time they are 20. Scottish uber-professional folkie (and personal favourite of mine even though I don’t know a word of the Gaelic) Julie Fowlis says she has set a goal of knowing 500 songs by the time she is 50, by way of comparison.
The No-Beardie-Weirdie: young they may be but in every way including poor dress sense, love of good beer and a natural ability to sing like a moose with a sore throat, they are indistinguishable from the old lags, especially in dim lighting in a crowded pub after a few pints.
Do send in in your sightings of any of the above and include details of new species to add to the list.
Hospitality. That’s what it’s all about. That’s why people feel welcome. That’s why they come back. Works the same however old you are. Lilly came in with the family to our session recently. All of 6 years old. When we asked her if she had a song for us she said ‘No, but I can do a dance instead’…and did. How cool was that? The reverse is true too. For those of you who may be taking your first tentative steps into the world of sessions and singarounds, a word to the wise. So that it doesn’t come as a bit of a shock and puts you off ever going out again, here’s a couple of things to be prepared for.
1. Some (rare) sessions are set by Papal Decree that means only Irish tunes can be played. As Tarzan might say: You audience; me somewhere up the sharp end of folk muso autism
2. Some (rare) sessions are ruled by pretend-protestant Henry VIII’s Church of England’s Book of Common Bollocks that mean only English tunes may be played. Facing 47 melodeon players pumping out Shepherds Hey for the first time can be deeply disturbing.
This brings me back nicely to the scene I described way back in the opening paragraph. Here I am about to go on stage in the grand final of the Milkmaid Songwriting Competition. I am about to perform two songs one of which is my offical entry. Now, I am much happier sharing than performing. Let me explain. Performing a song is what you tend to have to do when someone sticks a microphone in your face and you enter into a contract with the audience to entertain them for which they agree to pay attention and either applaud at the end or throw a bottle or two. Sharing a song is what you do when you are sitting in a cosy pub and the rule of going round clockwise means it’s now your turn. Tis true enough that I have done plenty of performing in the past 40 years but I have always done it on the basis of imagining myself to be back in the pub, sharing a song or two with a mate or three over a pint or four. This works well if there are 200 people in the audience or just 2. Some people are in love with performing for it’s own sake but I am not one of them.
The last 10 years or so has seen a huge increase in performance-focused music making for which a lot of the blame can be placed on tacky TV shows like the X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent but Open Mics have got a lot to answer for as well. Here’s the thing – I would sell my granny into slavery (only if she was willing of course, she’s a tough old bird) for the principle that anyone is welcome to have a go at sharing a song or a tune in a pub session, whether or not they have a morsel of talent. What I wouldn’t offer my Nan for sale for though is the right of a person without a morsel of talent to share a song LOUDLY down a microphone. Sharing equals anything goes. Performing equals a careful balance between talent and practice.
So there I was, about to put myself yet again to the test of whether I have sufficient talent and have put in enough hours donkey work to entertain the audiences and the competition judges enough to get an honorable mention. If you have seen the website that goes along with this book you will know already that I got the first prize for ‘Rolling On’, the song we wrote in our own little pub telling the story of session singers and players down the ages. And yet…there I was, a living example of the sharing-performing paradigm. Think I need another pint while I chat it all over for the millionth time with the rest of the folk world.
There is a serious intent behind all this fun and frolic. Not too serious though, just serious enough to justify what is turning out to be the longest pub crawl in history in the name of social research. Along the way I am gathering all sorts of materal from all sorts of people incuding people who write things with titles like ‘Understanding complex influences affecting participation in singing’ (thanks, Coleen Whidden) and’ I don’t hate all singers for being attention whoring shallow extroverts with no regard for the creative lives or energies of instrumentalists….Just most of them’ as shared by MP1996 on that fount of all musical weirdness, www.thesession.org.
Any researcher worth their salt (personally I prefer cheese and onion) has a duty to demonstrate that they know what they are talking about in the first paragraph. I have clearly failed to do this so far, so lets make up some lost ground by introducing the uninitiated to the various sorts of music making forums we are interested in here. Our turf is divided unequally and with big overlapping verges into the following: the Singaround; the Singalong; the Session; the Open Mic and the Acoustic Night. These are the terms you will see on websites, facebook pages and pub ‘What’s On’ lists all over the English speaking world and elsewhere too. Did you know, for example, that an open mic in Afrikaans is an Oop Mikrofoon and in Welsh its a Meic Agored, both of which I would love to play at but sadly in reality both nations tend to call them the same as us Anglos so suddenly I have lost all interest. Back to our main theme and you will find the definitions here are as good as any as a prelude to an argument:
Singaround: everyone who wants to takes a turn, usually in a clockwise direction but sometimes where your name comes on the list you signed as you came in. Everyone tends to join in unless you exercise your right to tell them to shut it whilst presenting your masterwork. In hardcore singarounds, tunes are actively discouraged.
Singalong: someone bashes out a set of old favourities and we all join in with the one verse we know and the chorus. Singalongs happen at singarounds when other people know at least one verse and everyone joins in the chorus. Got it?
Session: a single focus instumental workout with the option of exclusively Irish, exclusively Englsh, exclusively Latvian or whatever the hardcore are into. Songs are generally rationed to one every hour at best, although many sessions are mixed, meaning that no-one of a purist persuassion goes away happy.
Open Mic: like a singaround but MUCH LOUDER
Acoustic Night: like a session, a singaround and a singalong combined but without the fear of getting it wrong.
The Singaround is not to be confused entirely with a Singalong, which tends to happen in old people’s homes or in the rather fetching picture you can find on our website home page from Coronation Street in the mid 1960’s showing the fabled Minnie Cordwell in a fetching hat bashing out a toon on the old joanna whilst the rest of the cast singalong.
You can see that we have alread run into a problem.
Some of you will already be struggling with the cultural references, being either too young, too hipster, too not-from-the UK or just too posh to know that Coronation Street is the longest running soap opera in the universe and a Joanna is not Minnie’s battered significant other but cockney rhyming slang for the piano-forte. We should also make it clear that Minnie and friends were doing their stuff hundreds of miles away from the cheeky chappies in East London, so she wouldn’t have called it a Joanna, unless she was pretending to be a cockney to give the others a laugh. Or maybe her Dad was a cockney and used to sing cheerful cockney songs to her at bedtime, just like my genuine article cockney old Dad used to do for me when I was a tiddler.
You see, culture travels. We get it off the telly and we get it off the family and we get it off the neighbours and we get it off the cinema and sometmes we get it off educated arts programmes on BBC 4 about the roots of the folk tradition. Its then up to us how we incorporate this or that cultural leaning into our daily lives and our need to categorise everything. So you can have a singalong were everybody joins in to your equivalent of Minnie or you can have a singaround were Minnie only gets to strut her stuff when its her ’round the room’ turn or you can have the usual reality of people singing along to the songs they know whether its a singaround or a singalong. To be honest, I do know people who sing along to songs they don’t know just as I know some people who play along to tunes they don’t know, so that proves something but I am not sure what.
I used to have a thing about wanting to feel a bit of the Celt in me and for some considerable time I believed Grandad Alf was Welsh as I was told thats where he spent so much of his time. Turned out he was an East End roofer cashing in on the building repair boom facilitated by the German Airforce as their contribution to WW2. On the other hand, Great Granny Rosa was meant to be a French witch, so thats the Breton-Celtic link and the pagan heritage in one dollop. There has never been any evidence to support that claim but it was something to latch onto at the time. As a kid brought up in one of the post-war London overspill Newtowns, roots did not appear to go deep in the nicely kept back gardens down our road.
The East End link back to family was still there and I recall peering out from under the drinks table at Uncle John and Auntie Ivy’s place next to the Mann Crossman Brewery down the Old Kent Road while our mob was doing the Hokey Cokey and having a right knees up. The songs they sang were mainly from the old music hall tradition with a sprinkling of sentimental Irish ballads alongside the Nat King Cole and Doris Day. My Nan thought old Doris was singing about a lass called Kay Sarah. So did I untill I started to learn french at primary school. In case you wondered if I was under the table because I’d overdone it on Double Diamond , I would like to point out I was only about 5 years old at the time.
So whatever your level of interest in whatever definition of folk music you salute and from whatever cultural mix you spring from, there’s someone somewhere singing your songs, playing your tunes and telling your tales in a pub near you…..you just have to go out and find them.
You would be forgiven for thinking that our Rolling On project is happily rooted at the heart of the folk music community but you would be wrong. Possibly. Or perhaps you would be right. It’s difficult to tell. It depends on your starting point. If you are a committed traditionalist, the chances are that you would see most of the sessions and singarounds we have visited as a nice enough way to spend an evening out but with little to do with the accepted academic version of what folk music actually is. Confused? I certainly was when I began to come across the various schools of thought that exist, so a brief introduction to the squabbles would be helpful or at the very least, mildly amusing, here.
The broadest definition of folk music in general circulation is so annoying to people who like their interest in folk music to be neatly classified that the merest whiff of it will get punters hissing ‘horse!’ at the writer, speaker or performer dim enough to mention it. I refer of course (if you are already immersed in the folk world) or I refer, without the of course (if you have no idea what’s coming next) to the quote from either Louis Armstrong (possibly) or Big Bill Broonsy (probably) suggesting ‘all music is folk music – I ain’t never heard a horse sing’.
Hard core folk song researchers appear to limit their interest to the period up to the start of the late 1950’s when the second folk revival hit the UK and became messily tangled up in controversy about what was and was not proper folk in an age where every left leaning hippie with a guitar started making it up as they went along. The first revival ran from the late 1800’s to the late 1930’s, petering out in the 40’s and 50’s, featuring a broad range of mainly posh collectors, rescuing working class songs and dances from the great unwashed who were failing in their duty to keep picturesque songs and dances alive in favour of belting out the mindless pop songs of the day, namely bawdy or sentimental music hall ditties.
Steve Roud’s impressive 700 page study of the first revival, published in 2017 as the definitive ‘Folk Songs in England’ offers the following compellingly straightforward definition of the traditionalists view of what constitutes folk music:
‘ Folk song is everyday vocal music within a community: it is learned and performed in informal, untrained, face-to-face, voluntary, non-commercial situations, sanctioned by community approval and custom; songs are passed on from person to person informally,
the singers adhere to local norms and are uninhibited by status or theory; singers are not constrained by adherence to a perceived original and correct rendition; songs themselves vary but within the expected parameters of local useage’
I say ‘compelling’ because he describes exactly what goes in our pub every Thursday night, although if he had witnessed one or more of our more hairy, drunken nights he would no doubt wish to clarify what he meant by using the word uninhibited. The definition also applies well to what we are seeing on our tour of the UK’s singarounds and sessions but I can’t help but wonder if it’s possible to comfortably include items like the Chinese trio we found at the Eagle in Lincolnshire or the rendition of ‘Yellow Polka Dot Bikini’ we enjoyed by an eighty something year old at the Trout in the southern Cotswolds.
The early song and dance collectors were said to be somewhat choosey in their selection of material, taking a dim view of anything they found was learned from sheet music rather than passed down from generation to generation. One notable exception was a wonderfully eccentric chap called Owen Williams who cycled thousands of miles round what he referred to as the Upper Thames area noting every song he heard in every pub he visited, whether it was traditional, straight out of the music hall or written by some bloke in the next village yesterday. He would have felt right at home in any of the pubs we have visited, except one. That particular exception to the general run of things provides a nice little example of why the sector can be a trifle unappealing if you end up in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong expectation. It will also serve as a reminder of the catergories of folkie nights out I described in chapter 1 for those of you that like to test yourselves.
In this scenario, the pub advertising blurb described the evening as an ‘Acoustic Night – anything goes, everyone welcome’ or to put it into the right box using our definitions ‘like a session, a singaround and a singalong combined but without the fear of getting it wrong’ but what we actually got was a small group of people practising English tunes on a variety of instruments or, as our category has it ‘a session: a single focus instrumental workout with the option of exclusively Irish, exclusively English, exclusively Latvian or whatever the hardcore are into. Songs are generally rationed to one every hour at best, although many sessions are mixed, meaning that no-one of a purist persuasion goes away happy.’
Now, I defend to the death the right of any group of people to do what the hell they want to in a pub that provides a welcome but there has to be some grasp of the principles of the Trades Description Act if we are going to attract new people to the wonderful world of folk music. It could well be that the pub team had a clear idea about what they wanted to boost beer sales and attract a younger and hipper clientele and were less than thrilled when they found they had given over the back room to what was effectively an adult evening class.
Going back to our friend Owen Williams and his boozy cycle tours, ‘tis true that I feel a keen sense of kinship. The Old Berlingo has taken us round the country in relative comfort and we are keenly noting everything we hear, regardless of where and when the songs and tunes have come from. By doing this we find we are at risk of placing ourselves firmly in the ‘Horse’ camp and thereby pissing off everyone in the folk world. But wait! Is it a bird, is it a plane – no – it’s Steve Roud’s definition coming to our rescue. All of this stuff is happening in ‘informal, untrained, face-to-face, voluntary, non-commercial situations’ so we are on solid ground. Or maybe not. There’s always an interesting mix of amateurs, semi-pros and the occasional fully professional at the events we have visited so we might have to exclude any song sung by a punter who has earned a few quid singing for their supper at some point in their life.
Or at least we would if we gave a tinkers cuss about towing a purist line, which as you probably guessed, we definitely don’t.