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Folk: a dirty four-letter word?

What is it about folk music that makes some folk or folksy artists want to disown it and smug rockers want to sneer?

Think how many acoustic musicians and people associated historically with folk have sought to create distance. Briefly fashionable singer-songwriters seem to recoil in horror from being “pigeon-holed”. Folk, to many, is a dirty word.

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There is nothing especially new in this. Maddy Prior, a product of the folk clubs of England who has made a living singing (superbly) traditional songs put to amplified accompaniment, once insisted Steeleye Span was a rock band.

And I have never forgotten one moment when the excellent trio Therapy - Dave Shannon, Sam Bracken and Fiona Simpson – played at my folk club, the Spinning Wheel, in Darlington, in about 1970.

Dave – sadly no longer with us – paused after a selection of self-compositions and at least one Cat Stevens hit to introduce a traditional song (it may have been Blackwaterside). “This," he said, "is one for anyone who strayed in here expecting to hear folk music.”

A young character in the BBC radio soap, The Archers, was once heard mocking his parents’ fondness for old Fairport Convention records.

Often enough, it depends on what you are prepared to label folk. But some venues are nervous, too, about being linked too closely with the genre.

Among the artists who have appeared or are due to perform at the Old Cinema Launderette in Durham are the Unthanks, Martin Carthy, Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman, Jez Lowe and Peggy Seeger.

Yet the co-owner, Richard Turner, was quick – and right - to pounce when I sloppily omitted the negative from this sentence in a recent Salut! Live item: ”…Richard is keen to point out that it is not a folk venue”.  

“It is not a folk venue at all,” he wrote. “We have artists from across the board.”  But what followed felt like the twist of a knife:

  ‘We are getting less and less folk. There doesn’t seem to the audience for it’

In reality, this too is familiar territory. How often have we been told that while there is indeed an audience for such people as Kate Rusby, Oysterband, Bellowhead and its descendants, Show of Hands and assorted Lakemans (Kathryn Roberts and Cara Dillon included), that audience is a predominantly a middle-aged or older one.

Melanie_Safka_1975_cropImage of Melanie: public domain, via the William Morris Agency

Nor is the tendency to talk down folk a recent phenomenon. A grim introduction to Kat Lister’s interesting Guardian interview with Melanie (Brand New Keys, glorious Ruby Tuesday cover etc) Safka read: “Overlooked and underestimated, Melanie was framed as a winsome folkie  and left out of the pantheon of greats.”

The subtext could not be clearer. Find yourself labelled folk and you can forget about ever being taken seriously let alone thought of as great.

I’d say that is or ought to be utter nonsense. So many of the artists featured at Salut! Live over its 13 years or so of existences ooze greatness that it is pointlessly difficult to choose where to start.

But maybe they succeed or win respect despite rather than because of identification with folk. Maybe I am just an unreformed and unreformable folkie living in the past. And maybe we should stop calling our music folk and just go on enjoying it for what and whatever it is.

Is there a debate worth having? Is folk, indeed, still strong and resilient enough to rise above mainstream disdain?

Please feel warmly invited to post your thoughts. It is a theme that will probably attract more interest when I link to this article on social media. Pertinent comments will be republished here.


ps part of my Christmas present from elder daughter…








Many people must still associate the term 'folk' with an unaccompanied ballad, badly sung, whereas folk music now is complex and innovative with very high levels of musicianship. It's also beautiful. There are many young performers... at least under the age of 40... but audiences do tend to be much older, and I wonder if that's because a lot of people appreciate folk later in life, or because the image or sound just doesn't appeal to younger listeners. I noticed that the publicity video for the Shrewsbury Folk Festival showed predominsntly under-30s, but I know when I get there I'll be about the average age (over 60, say no more)! By the way, Old Cinema Laundrette was packed for a performance by the wonderful Kris Drever the other week. If you're trying to draw someone into the world of folk, you couldn't do better than recommend Kris and fellow Scot Karine Polwart. They're enough to make me wish I was Scottish.

Michael Bechler

A well-written rock song makes a good folk song. I play "Brain Damage" by Pink Floyd acoustically to folk audiences and they love it.

Colin Randall

(Via tbe Uncharted Jukebox group at Facebook, as was Michael’s comment):

I’d go along with that. I’ve never been a purist and rock or other genres for that matter) in a folk setting can be uplifting.

Bill Taylor

I blame Ewan MacColl! Forever sticking his finger in his ear and being didactic…
I’m also reminded of Bob Dylan’s “Talkin’ New York” – from his debut album in 1962 – about going to a Greenwich Village coffee house:
I get on the stage to sing and play
Man there said, "Come back some other day
“You sound like a hillbilly. We want folksingers here"
I like to think we’ve come a long, long way since then. There’s so much cross-over – the Chieftains collaborations right across the musical board; Bellowhead; the Mighty Doonans; Christy Moore’s superb rendition of “Shine On, You Crazy Diamond,” which I think blows Pink Floyd’s original right out of the water, and so very many more.
Sit Bruce Springsteen down with an acoustic guitar and he turns into a “folk singer.” Or does he? And who really cares, other than those sad souls who wrote Melanie off and say things like, “we are getting less and less folk. There doesn’t seem to the audience for it.”
Does he mean Ewan MacColl wannabes with earwax on their fingers and musical intolerance in their hearts?
Is this a debate worth having? Is it really a debate any more? Music is music and if the lines become blurred, so much the better.
I’m thinking now of an operatic tenor, with a full orchestral backing, belting out “Dr. Jimmy and Mr. Jim” from the Who’s “Quadrophenia.”

Norman Druker

(Bus Uncharted Jukebox)

I'm not sure that people generally look down on folk music. Revivalists of traditional-only, unaccompanied vocal music may be seen as a bit too exclusive within the mainstream, but it has a lot of enthusiastic following nevertheless.

Its probably healthier now than it has been for a long time with lots of younger singers and players, more genuine cultural mixes, writers composing in a 'trad' style or using old melodies, but exploring every day contemporary concerns. Some aspects of the club and festival scene bother me a bit - the lack of ethnic diversity, for one, and failure to appreciate that folk music is ideally a reflection of the many different music / song / dance cultures alive in London today (150+ plus second languages in daily use).

We've got folk music and we've got acoustic music. Some pop songs become folk songs- people know and sing them without knowing their origins: 'Waterloo Sunset' is a pop song that's become a folk song; 'Dirty Old Town' is a folk song that's become a pop song. 'No Woman No Cry' is a song that's gone round the world - truly a folk song - along with 'Summertime'.

Ralph Nelson

Louis Armstrong once observed that "all music is folk music; I ain't never heard no horse sing a song".

Colin Randall

Ralph, you will never know how hard I had to struggle to avoid dredging up that quote!


I will say a word in defense of ballads, badly sung or not, as one commentator noted. Ballads are beautiful. They are archetypal. Images from ballads resonate still and are employed in more recently composed music - the rose and briar come to to mind, for example, or archetypes of the unfaithful lover. Ballads are a window into an older time, into issues of gender, power structures, and race. Deriding them for being “badly sung” misses the point. Ballads were not a performance art, they were participatory; especially in Appalachia, where they were primarily kept by women, they were sung at quilting bees, family gatherings etc. Tunes likewise were played by average people as a normal, everyday part of life and living. Perfection was not the point, rather, engaging in a family or community tradition was. I think the commercial view of music as “music sung/played on a stage by professionals” has done a great disservice in relation to folk music, both traditional and singer-songwriter. It has led an entire generation to accept the idea that music is something that is done to them, not something they do. This emerged from the folk revival of the 50’s-70’s, and it has taken the power of music-making out of the hands of the general public and put it squarely into the hands of professionals. I don’t believe that was the intent, but it nevertheless is the result. It also involves a certain amount of cultural appropriation. Finally, “folk” as the term is used today seems to specifically refer to singer-songwriters, not to traditional music (except for perhaps a traditional tune or two amongst original songs to establish one’s bonafides). Traditional music is marginalized overall, and a magnificent body of music is ignored or looked down at as primitive or quaint. Ballads, and the corresponding traditional ballad singers who are often untrained and unpolished, do not deserve derision. Try learning some ballads sometime. You will find beautiful imagery, keen alliteration, compelling use of form and scansion, a variety of beautiful melodies from place to place, and great stories of love, jealousy, loss, and betrayal. Bob Dylan did not look down on ballads; in fact, he ripped some of them off as the basis for several of his songs. Songwriters today would likewise do well to study these old gems. They might actually get their story lines out of their own insular tales of love lost and resultant self-pity, and learn how to put the emphasis on the right sylLABle.

Dave Eyre

No audience for folk music? Bah humbug!

I always look carefully at predictions of the impending death of folk music. It generally seems to me to be more a closing of folk clubs and the change of role for working folk musicians.

Those like Colin and I can look back a long way. There are the most fantastic folk musicians around. At this point I offer the following challenge. Name a couple of melodeon players pre-1970 not including John Kirkpatrick. Yet in any festival session you will find there are half a dozen top class melodeon players. They will be playing for dance teams; rapper teams; clog dancers etc. There are whole Italian villages that have been revived on the strength of the English melodeon market.

Fiddle players? name one prior to 1970 who isn't Dave Swarbrick. Can't move for them nowadays. . Top class fiddle players everywhere. They form and reform bands, duets and trios and tour Arts Centres, small theatres etc.

Take something traditional like the village carols of this area. When I first started there were a handful of local pubs where you could guarantee a "sing". We now have a sold out carol festival every two year since 1994; the discovery of an American village (Glen Rock) where the same carols of those local to here (Sheffield) are sung without alteration since 1847; workshops at this and other times of the year; and probably half a dozen extra sings locally. Virtually every year there is some TV or radio show wants to feature the carols. (BBC Radio 3 4.00pm, Saturday 18th Music Planet this year since you ask!)

There is a session festival that people travel to from all over England each Easter held here in Sheffield; new dance teams emerging all the time often with superb musicians; new young dance teams with cracking musicians; folk festival abroad (Costa Del Folk).

When I look at the folk around me I find a thriving scene - and often without pigeon-holed artists.
The revived Bellowhead concert this year reportedly sold 150,00 tickets - the next farewell tour has had massive ticket sales and doesn't take place until next November!! Yet all they sing and play are (generally) folk songs.

If those early folk clubs were designed to introduce young people to folk music they worked massively.

I don't see the problem!

Colin Randall

This is turning into the most worthwhile discussion seen on these pages for a while. Thanks to all, including those whose comments originally appeared on social media and have been transferred here by me.

Barry Ashton Swallow

Who was it that said "While we're arguing 'What is folk music' the real folk are out there doing it?

Andy Nagy

Great article and superb replies!

Rebecca Hall

Via the 60s 70s Facebook Folk Music group

Is it the word itself? Music that designates itself as being "of the people" will always have a difficult relationship with celebrity culture and its focus on individualism and success.

Bill Taylor

May as well let the Encyclopaedia Britannica have its long-winded but comprehensive say...
Barry Ashton Swallow makes a very good point. It's one reason why folk flourishes in Newfoundland, which has an almost symbiotic relationship with music and impromptu performance. Almost everyone you meet either plays or sings and it's there wherever you go. We were at a friend's wedding in a small "outport" community, which turned into a traditional "kitchen party" (exactly what it sounds like). The musician were amazed that I, a "come from away" from Toronto, should know the words to all their Newfoundland songs. To me, of course, they were the Irish songs I'd learned in the clubs of northeastern England in my younger days. The universality of folk.

Colin Randall

Nice anecdote, Bill. And in one way, nail on head. It’s really an English issue. The Scots and especially the Irish have never had a problem with knowing and liking what we call folk or traditional even if they don’t consider themselves passionate fans of it. It’s just music, good craic, we’ll catch some rock or pop tomorrow night. The English are more likely to pigeonhole.
That said, even Canadian Irishness or Scottishness has limits. The great Cape Breton fiddler Natalie Macmaster told me in an interview years ago she felt Scottish, thought herself Scottish & played Scottish but then went to Glasgow and realised she wasn’t at all. I must dig out the verbatim quote but that was the thrust of it

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