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.
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.
Image 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…