Kate Rusby and a Cropredy postcript
In memorium

Houghton Weavers, Jenny Sings Lenny....what is folk?

Salut! Live is open to contributors. Philip Howells* explores the tricky territory many of us encounter when seeking to define folk music

(c)Keith Tysall

We may aspire to the “classless society” and regard the idea of “class” as non-PC but in many ways we thrive on class - at least in the sense of definition.

For example, what is folk? One thing’s certain, your answer probably won’t meet with the approval of bearded gentlemen with open-toed sandals salivating over the Vaughan Williams collection of English folk songs.

How about “what is Hip Hop?” Or Jazz?

It’s not a new question. I recall from my youth articles in the Melody Maker asking whether Humphrey Lyttelton had deserted his roots in “Trad” and gone “Mainstream” - because Bruce Turner playing alto sax had replaced Keith Christie on trombone.

Twenty years later the pundits (the same ones perhaps?) were asking whether by writing Something the Beatles had abandoned their raw, Liverpudlian roots and should be grouped with Sammy Cahn, Richard Rodgers or Jerome Kern.

I think not, but that’s my opinion.

But back to folk. I raised the question, “What is Folk?” with M Salut when I discovered he was a multi-blogger because, two years ago, I produced the DVD of the 25th anniversary of the Houghton Weavers and before I sent him a copy I wondered if, in his opinion, they qualified as “folk”.

To be fair he, like many, thought he recognised their name but couldn’t recall their music.

Perhaps their name is the problem. After all no one outside Lancashire knows for sure how to pronounce it (Hawton), although Katie Melua and Sade don’t seem to have suffered with eclectic pronunciations.

And publicity is a strange beast; even though the Houghton Weavers have been performing the “standard” folk repertoire for 25 years and had a seven-season BBC TV series, I’ll bet the world more readily recalls Steeleye Span or Mike Harding from that era.

So, how do the Weavers describe themselves? They’d say they’re a folk group even though there’s a sizeable body of people who regularly attend folk clubs who’d say they’re a pop group.

Why? It can’t be because of the songs they sing because surely nobody would describe The Fields of Athenry or Wild Mountain Thyme as pop except in the sense that there must have been a moment I suppose when the Brandenburg Concertos were whistled or hummed by every Prussian delivery boy or laundry maid, but that’s really stretching the definition of “pop”.

Perhaps it is that musical genres and musical performers cease to be “of their class” once they gain popularity. It suits obscurity (and the various departments of HMV shops) for music and musicians to have neat classifications. Actually, I think it goes further and that there’s a sort of inverted snobbery that argues that a musical form or an artist lose the purity of their origins when they gain popularity. Maybe Humph should never have bothered with Bad Penny Blues.

That may be true for the Houghton Weavers also because for their next concert they’re being joined by a talented fiddle player and a flautist from the “folk” world and a brass quintet from Wingates - one of the oldest names in brass bands.

Remember it’s the mp3-downloading youngsters who think they invented “Fusion” - just after they invented sex!

For me the only classification that matters is quality and, of course, that’s a 100 per cent subjective judgment but happily, in my definition, rare.

One of the reasons it’s rare is that performers have agents, promoters, record labels, concert bookers and so on - all of whom are there to earn a living and not necessarily to protect the quality of the performer’s work.

For me this quality is all that matters, whether it’s the Houghton Weavers who continue to play to full and satisfied audiences 25 years after they started or Chet Atkins, or Placido Domingo, or Humphey Lyttelton, or James Galway or......the list goes on.

The one thing almost every quality performer has done is to know what they do well and continue to do it. And if you want an example of a great artist breaking that rule getting it wrong, listen to one of Frank Sinatra’s attempts to earn a living whilst Bill Haley was changing pop music - not good.

Jenny(c)Don Lewis

Off the top of my head I can think of only one artist who has crossed genres and music types throughout her career but so guarded her talent that today every track of every disc is a gem of perfection.

In fact, I’ll make the sandled and bearded protectors of “real Folk” a promise.

If their next meeting features Jennifer Warnes, she can sing music from Hair or the Leonard Cohen songbook, duet with Joan Baez or sing the theme song from An Officer and a Gentleman with Joe Cocker, I’ll be there - and I won’t be alone.

* Philip Howells describes himself: A genuine War Baby, I spent the first 18 years of my working life in BOAC and British Airways Sales and Marketing in the UK and USA. After taking early retirement, I ran my own AV and video business and still make video progranmmes, concentrating on wedding videos. I play guitar and help out on euphonium in the training band section of Astley Youth Brass band. To join the band, kids must be able to open their instrument case.


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