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Dipping into the past: Cara Dillon, Spencer the Rover and the Rotherham factor

Folk meets academia

Tom Walton and friends performing at the Florida Folk Festival: White Springs, Florida

Way, way back - well, all the way to 2000 - I was able to visit Newcastle University to write about its folk music course. The key contact was Richard Middleton, listed to this day as emeritus professor of music. Work and family obligations make this a difficult time to update the site but, in recognition of the hugely appreciated upsurge of interest in its output, I offer this further blast from the past ...

The introduction dates from 2007 but the article it introduces was written seven years before that

A few years ago,
I badgered my then masters at The Daily Telegraph into sending me up to the North East to write about the new folk music degree course at Newcastle University (this corrects earlier reference; see comments).

As always when out-of-town travel loomed, I consulted the football fixtures list first. Lo and behold, my visit could coincide with a Sunderland game (we beat Man Utd 2-1 in a League Cup tie).

The article seems to have disappeared from Telegraph archives, but I reproduce it on the continuation page here.

It tells you a little more about the origins of my interest in folk, as well as quite a bit about the course - the latter aspect naturally needs (and will eventually get) a proper update since I was talking about the pioneering stage of an innovation that has proved hugely successful. Here is my article ...


In the reassuring clutter
of Professor Richard Middleton's office at Newcastle upon Tyne University, books on rap, bebop and rhythm and blues rest on top of a piano. The faces of John Lennon and Bob Marley, the Spice Girls and Kurt Cobain peer down from wall posters.

Although Middleton, the university's head of music, is probably Britain's leading academic authority on pop, his shock of grey hair and beard might qualify him as an honorary member of grizzled folk band the Dubliners.

In view of the intriguing diversion he is planning, his appearance is appropriate.
Next autumn, 25 undergraduates will arrive for the first degree course in folk and traditional music to be offered by an English university.

To the cynic, the idea of a folk music degree will seem as frivolous as a PhD in trainspotting or macrame. Middleton, 55, happy to play to the gallery, says his most treasured possessions include an entry in Private Eye's Pseuds' Corner. The award was well-deserved; he had called a paper "Authorship, gender and the construction of meaning in the Eurythmics' hit recordings".

But the course is for real. Entrants will have demonstrated proficiency on a chosen instrument, and the four-year Bachelor of Music course (with the option of a two-year diploma) will place strong emphasis on performance, with established performers as part-time tutors. Students will also learn about composition, arrangement and improvisation, and examine the music business, technology and the historical context of traditional music. It is not difficult to see why such a course might be justified. To my own friends and family, it is a standing joke that when my house is burgled, or the car broken into, my folk CDs are left untouched. Whenever a review album arrives at work - I have been The Daily Telegraph's folk critic for 12 years - colleagues snigger about "Randall's dodgy diddle-dee music".

Folk may survive as a living tradition throughout Ireland and Scotland, where its more successful practitioners - from the Clancy Brothers and the Dubliners through to Sharon Shannon, Mary Black, Christy Moore and many more - are household names. But, in England, the message seems clear: it remains a quirky minority interest.

Thirty years ago, I badgered my sceptical father, the secretary of a County Durham workingmen's club, into hiring Johnny Handle, a prominent Geordie folk singer, for a Sunday lunchtime slot. The hall filled with men supping pints of Federation Best, men whose working lives had been spent in railway works and coalmines. How they would warm to an artist whose songs and jokes reflected their experiences, I thought.

They did not. In the first half, they carried on talking and ignored him completely. After the interval bingo session, they poured downstairs for darts or dominoes. My father made a mental note never again to pander to his son's perverse musical tastes.

Alistair Anderson, a revered Tyneside musician who dreamed up the idea of the university course, takes the side of the drinkers. For all his qualities, Handle had been imposed on an unwilling audience; he was invading their "space". In more suitable surroundings - the intimacy, say, of the upstairs room of a pub - he might have had the same men singing along with the choruses.

Anderson is, therefore, entirely right to consider that the Newcastle course could hardly have been given a more apt setting. From the pithy observations of Tommy Armstrong, the Victorian "pitmen's poet" who hawked his songs around the pubs for beer money, to the rich Northumbrian piping of Kathryn Tickell and Pauline Cato, the North East has contributed disproportionately to the folk tradition.

"Folk music is vibrant here," says Tickell, who will be one of the course tutors. "It's an unbroken tradition, which is not the case with a lot of regions, and I find it is recognised as such - for its own pipes, its own music - when I go abroad."

Tickell is one of folk's shining lights. At 34, after 14 years of playing for a living, she is something of a veteran though still rather younger than many of the rock stars who pack football stadiums.
She regrets that no equivalent course was available when she left school. "A friend turned up for her audition for a well-respected music course," she says. "She was told she could not play her piano accordion because it was not a musical instrument, just a toy. So she had to play something on piano. It wasn't her instrument, and, needless to say, she didn't get in. That was a great loss to the college because she is a phenomenal player."

Nothing of the sort will happen at Newcastle University, as long as Tickell or Anderson have anything to do with it.

Tickell says: "We don't want people to go away and tell other musicians, `This is the way it should be played, and I have a folk music degree to prove it.' We want students to look at different options, not to believe there is a right or wrong way to play."

Anderson's experience, as co-director of Folkworks, a Newcastle-based movement that promotes folk through performance and education, convinces him the course will attract lots of gifted students.
Middleton agrees. "The whole atmosphere around this kind of music has changed," he says. "To a large extent, the Aran sweater and finger-in-the-ear stereotype belongs to an older generation. But younger people are not going into folk clubs either. They might hear a record by Kate Rusby or Eliza Carthy and say, `That's bloody marvellous', without really caring whether it is classified as folk."

Neither Anderson nor Middleton accepts that one logical consequence is for folk to become assimilated into mainstream music, and largely vanish. "The best way to defend the music against homogenisation is for it to be absolutely out there alongside everything else that is happening," Anderson says.

Among seasoned folk lovers, there has always been an element that prefers not to share the music with others. Some of it, frankly, is unsharable. Topic records' glorious anthology of traditional music, 20 CDs collectively titled Voice of the People, assembles the authentic voices and notes of music handed down between generations of farming, fishing, factory and soldiering communities. It is a must-have for a true folkie, but you would not play it to cheer someone up. The Best of Broadside, Smithsonian Folkways' sparky new volume of dissident American music, with early Dylan in the company of Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton and the
rest of the protest movement, has slightly broader appeal. But it will still sail over the heads of the record-buying masses.

Even the Yorkshire singer Kate Rusby once remarked: "It's brilliant that not too many people like folk music. The reason it doesn't get a massive following is because it is not completely accessible to everyone, and I love that."

But hold on. Rusby is only one of the young female singers, or "folkbabes", jostling for space in the lads' mags. Instrumental proteges abound and folk albums have become almost commonplace in the Mercury nominations.

On an optimistic view, then, folk music in Britain has rarely been healthier. The better albums shift tens of thousands of copies, festivals of all sizes sell out. Could we even be on the verge of the biggest folk boom since the folkrockers of the late Sixties built on the inroads made by the folk revivalists and protest singers?

Yet it is widely accepted that the youth of Rusby, and her partners in folk's new wave, is not always mirrored in audience ages. The people who turn up these days for Rusby and Eliza Carthy are often the same ones who caught Steeleye Span or Martin Carthy - Eliza's father - and Dave Swarbrick in the late Sixties. Froots magazine (original title: Folk Roots) still sells just 12,000 monthly, much as it always has.

However it is judged, the state of folk is confused by a jumble of mixed signals. Does the Newcastle course illustrate its strength, or draw attention to its slow demise?

Alistair Anderson believes it will inspire young musicians to become better and more professional. Crucially, he also expects students to involve themselves in organising events in which their own peers feel as at home as if they were at the disco.

And, if folk were to die, he says, the course would still be as valid as any other covering social history. "Looking back at what these people did years ago would still be worthy of study. But what is really exciting is that we have all that and an evolving music."

At Froots, staff bemoan the almost total absence of universities and college dates from tour itineraries. But founder and editor Ian Anderson sees positive signs. Whereas the still hugely popular Cambridge Folk Festival now has more over-fifties attending than any other age group, he says, Sidmouth - for years saddled with a more sedate image - and the more exotic Womad draw much younger crowds.

In the annual Froots poll published this week, albums by two middle-aged artists - Eliza Carthy's mother, Norma, and John Tams - came second and third, behind the young Malian singer Rokia Traore.
Youth is amply represented lower down the list, though Eliza's most forward-looking album to date, Angels and
Cigarettes, oddly made no impact. But if folk is approaching another spell of relative fashionability, this may be no more than a minor setback.

Back on Tyneside, Alistair Anderson has another encouraging snippet. There has been a break-in at the Folkworks premises; the burglars made off with 200 folk CDs.



"that city's university" - a pedantic point, but Newcastle has two.

Colin Randall

It has been known for me to be labelled a pedant, too, Tom, so thanks for the correction (and apologies to Northumbria Uni for the unintentional snub - I did know, but clearly didn't think). I have amended the text.

Bill Taylor

Wasn't Alastair Anderson a long-time member of the High Level Ranters, along with Johnny Handle, Tommy Gilfellon and, if memory serves, Colin Ross?

Colin Randall

Yes he was. I worried about getting it wrong - Alistair for Alastair - but Alistair it is. We're Facebook friends

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