The Radio 2 Folk Awards at the Royal Albert Hall were a glowing tribute to the hard work, high quality and rising success of the current British Folk Music scene.
I first started listening to the Folk Show with Mike Harding on my drive home from Wednesday night yoga classes back in 2002. By the time Mark Radcliffe took the reigns, I was ready to become a fully-fledged convert. Since then, I’ve started to build my own small collection of folk music albums and it was a great privilege to be in the presence of so many artists who have spent their lives immersed in the tradition of folk music for the sheer love of it over numerous decades right up to the present day. It also felt exciting to be standing on the cusp of a new era in British folk music – as the highly talented youth emerge, and everyone young-and-old plays their part in bringing it to wider and more diverse audiences.
It’s growing, from the roots up.
Folk music provides us with a connection to our roots: the music, songs and dance in our folk tradition carry the stories of our cultural heritage. They bring us into contact with the tales of our ancestors, our own past, and shape our consciousness and our present self-identity. They can be very localised, individual or collective.
Yesterday evening, I was excited to hear the Cornish group Fisherman’s Friends singing sea shanties that I’ve sung myself at the Wassail in my tiny village in Sussex led by my local Morris side, the Long Man Morris. Several songs from the Long Man’s collection also appear reworked in belting contemporary style on Bellowhead’s Broadside album.
I value the folk music scene for the sense of belonging it creates, and the traditions it holds at its heart – traditions that are brought alive and that we become part of every time we listen to the music or watch a traditional dance. Though it’s even better if we take part!
I love the quality musicianship, particularly the sound of the fiddle that can create so many moods from foot-stomping dance to aching tragic loss – and how each of these stories is played out musically and lyrically in folk songs originating from the earliest known memories to the most modern singer-songwriters. Last year I particularly enjoyed Karine Polwart’s album Traces for the quality of her storytelling, and this year Seth Lakeman has just released Word of Mouth, his collection of songs written from people’s stories he has collected himself in conversations.
Folk music turns a story into a song and preserves it in the collective consciousness. I take inspiration from the songs and play with the possibilities of turning them back into stories. A full circle. Or spiral.
Without the visionary work of music collector Cecil Sharp, who collected almost 5000 folk songs and dances from Britain and America, we would almost certainly have lost that vital artistic lifeline to our traditional musical culture. He did for British folk music what the Brothers Grimm did for German Folk Tales. By recognising that the oral culture – vital, expressive, fluid, living – would soon face the threat of extinction, these pioneers of culture and story preserved what they could for future generations. So that we might have roots to nourish us, too.
The exciting new The Full English project and folk-supergroup of the same name, are taking up Sharp’s mantle for a new generation.
In music, as in traditional story, the key to future success is to regain some of the vibrant fluency of the original oral culture. Rather than being suffocated by the written/recorded/preserved version as definitive, to take it as a starting point for informed artistic development. This is what the contemporary British Folk scene is embodying, building on a strong foundation of traditional cultural roots. Lifetime Achievement Awards for Martin Carthy and Clannad reflect the quality of this foundation. And it’s the movement forward that’s capturing the imagination of new audiences across the globe.
I love everything that British Folk Music and Dance stands for. Long may it continue to live in our hearts!