Roaring 90s: best of the decade
Compete at Salut!

Not gone away...and how we're all meant to be racists


No, not even away fishing. I did worry that Salut! Live would get off to a slow start and so it has proved.

Apologies for that. The other two blogs, and the inconvenient need to earn a living, have got in the way a little.

I am compiling a follow up to the 1990s list, which will of course be called The Best of the Century, so far.....

To be consistent (pipe down anyone who muttered 'that'd be a first'), I will restrict myself to albums I have voted best of the year since 2000.

And in the meantime, if you want to see how an interesting article in the Guardian got my goat, and the excellent and thoughtful replies my riposte drew from readers of the paper's Comment is Free site, go to this link.

Two writers, Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor, argued in a deliberately provocative taster to their new book, Faking It: the Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music, that racism was at the root of what we call folk music today. I considered this to be nonsense, and said as much.

It's too late to add comments at Comment is Free but feel free to add any thoughts here. On the continuation page, I shall let you see what I wrote on the subject but leave it to you to explore the comments that my article attracted.

* Inspired by racists? No, I don't think so either.
The photograph of Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, which is much clearer when clicked upon, is listed at Flickr as being in the public domain. Picture credit: US Information Agency. Press and Publications Service via Ping News.

From the Guardian's Comment is Free online pages:

The actress Susan Penhaligon once described her utter disbelief on discovering that the man who lived next door, and played guitar beautifully, was a Tory.

Perhaps the man was not a folkie. In the north-eastern folk clubs of my youth, we sang of the Irish rebellions of 1798 and 1916 and wicked ways of Durham coal owners, and offered our feeble imitations of black American blues and white anti-racist protest songs.

In nearly 40 years of listening to folk music, I have come across no one I recall, performer or fan, with the least trace of racial prejudice.

All to no avail, if we are to believe two earnest writers who have just announced the single, obvious truth us folkies have always failed to recognise. Folk music, as understood today, is rooted in racism.

Amid an extraordinary mish-mash of muddled thinking, Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor make a couple of good points in a "teaser" for their book, Faking It: the Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music, published in the Guardian recently.

What, they asked, does folk music purport to be? Leaving aside the hostile "purport", they were right with the answer to their own question: "Nowadays, it's almost anything at all."

That much I can agree with. It is the main reason that Ian Anderson decided to give his magazine Folk Roots its current name of fRoots (to be pronounced eff-roots). He had become heartily sick of being bombarded with the offerings of every other American singer who had once known someone with an un-amplified guitar.

But that is a sin to be placed at the door of the pop music industry and of course does nothing whatever to back up the authors' central point.

For that, they launch into attacks on the English folksong collector Cecil Sharp and his American counterpart John (father of Alan) Lomax.

Sharp is accused, justly for all I know, of being so selective that he produced a distorted picture of traditional songs; others are cited as confirming his tendency for "bowdlerisations, and for sanitising working class culture". And he was, to boot, "certainly" a proto-fascist.

Lomax stigmatises himself with a reference to searching for songs in 1930s America that make him feel "carried across to Africa ... as if I were listening to the tom-toms of savage blacks".

But for all their "racist views," there is praise for the "wonderful" song collections of both men.

After confusingly introducing the influence of such British and American leftwingers as Ewan MacColl, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger - and making no mention at all of AL Lloyd - Barker and Taylor conclude there is probably no such thing as folk music any more.

Even the basis for that argument is bizarre. If MacColl, Seeger and the rest argued that a folk song had to be a song sung without expectation of remuneration, then why did they not perform themselves for nothing?

The contract I was once offered for MacColl and Peggy Seeger (his wife, and Pete's half-sister) to visit my folk club in Bishop Auckland certainly sought remuneration. I expected to pay, but couldn't promise the stage of a certain height, total audience silence during songs without choruses and closure of the bar that were also demanded.

Folk music is indeed hard, if not impossible to define. Of course, someone once dreamed up the original words to each song, however much it then passed and changed from one generation to another. But if Sharp's songs are unrepresentative of the common people he was claiming to collect from, other common people and their descendants, from miners and seafarers to soldiers and lovers, have generously redressed the balance.

Ian Anderson - for a long time he used the middle initial A to avoid confusion with the Jethro Tull one - had two other useful observations on the matter question of what constitutes the music his magazine covers.

One is the fRoots slogan "local music from out there", which is slightly obscure, though I know what he means. The other, which I recall from some time ago, was that us folkies, roots fans and world music buffs do not actually need strict, unbending definitions. We somehow know when music feels right. And, by extension, when it does not.

That is not intended to sound pompous or snobbish because we all like other forms of musical expression as well, but to point out that, much as Barker and Taylor may wish to celebrate its "inherent democracy", we also recognise and reject corporate pop junk when we come across it.


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