‘Artist of the Week’ at our Facebook page
Magic by proxy: Linda Thompson finds her voices

Piper's purism, pricked pride and pointed questions about the value of reviewers

Two years ago, a bagpipe-playing reviewer caused offence with his mixed appraisal of a Peter Knight/John Spiers album. Decades before that, purists were snooty about folk clubs with more open-minded outlooks. After all the developments folk music has seen, Colin Randall asks whether that purism is still with us ...


On one of our more special nights at the Spinning Wheel folk club in Darlington , County Durham, an outstanding trio called Therapy had everyone in the packed upstairs room enthralled.

Dave Shannon, Sam Bracken - both accomplished musicians - and Fiona Simpson, an exquisite singer, were flawless crowd-pleasers.

After a lively start, the first set including their own songs based on Zodiac signs and a rousing version of Cat Stevens's Wild World, which reached No 5 in the UK in 1988, Shannon introduced the traditional ballad Blackwaterside.

It was, he said, for anyone who had entered what they thought was a folk club and was wondering what had gone wrong.

Dave shannon - 1
Dave with Fiona. Credit: Belfast Folk 

I ran the Spinning Wheel and, even if I try hard to avoid looking back through rose-tinted specs, recall many excellent club nights of acoustic music by no means confined to traditional folk.

Downstairs, in the same pub each Tuesday, the Darlington Folk Workshop adopted a much more purist policy. Unaccompanied singing was the norm, most instruments esepecially guitars were frowned upon though not banned and professional guests were much rarer.

From memory, a few people, floor singers and audience members, would be seen at both clubs. But the crossover was limited and I’m sure there were traces of mutual disdain. Both were known as folk clubs but the Spinning Wheel and Workshop sometimes seemed only distantly related.

These thoughts of long ago came to mind when I chanced at Twitter upon a similar clash of cultures.

There ought to be a health warning here. I am talking about a discussion dating from 2022 so do not pretend it’s a fresh, raging debate within the folk world. But I do find it a good example of differing attitudes and I am interested, as someone much less active in they world these days, in knowing the extent to which the divide still exists.

John Spiers, a brilliant melodeon and concertina player who stars in Bellowhead, Gigspanner and other collaborations, was upset by a review in the journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS) of Both in a Tune, an album he recorded with the veteran fiddler Peter Knight.

Efdss - 1
The reviewer, Chris Metherell, warmly praised both musicians and much of what the album contained. He found some traditional items superbly arranged and two original pieces, Abbot's Bromley Horn Dance and Bouree de Concours, respectively "fabulous" and "great".  He was rather less complimentary about six other tracks, mocking their description in publicity material as "exploratory and extraordinary and taking listeners on a journey of striking singularity".

Bellowhead's_John_Spiers_(6001872234)_CropJohn Spiers by Bryan Ledgard 

Spiers described the review as small-minded, musically illiterate tosh.

Hardly a raw recruit to keyboard warfare, though the occasional anger is invariably tempered with wit, he tweeted: "I have so much respect for the tradition. I have nothing but contempt for these overblown librarians who focus so much on documenting the past that they totally overlook the fact that the music they idolise was once new."

He raised the prospect of cancelling his subscription to the journal, which instantly reminded me of the Private Eye letter pages with their indignant adieux of those offended by this or that joke, this or that cover, or just the heavy anti-Brexit bias. The EFDSS president, Eliza Carthy, herself a formidable musician, responded kindly, inviting Spiers to write for the journal instead.

I have listened again to the album and am doing so again as I write. Inexpert as I may be, I like it a lot from start to finish*, experimentation and all. But if I had been the EFDSS editor, I would have defended Metherell to the hilt.

He was fully entitled to his partly critical view of the album, much as I disagree with it; a reviewer without a point of view would be like a melodeon player without a squeezebox. His role would be have been safe as long as he submitted worthwhile, well written and relevant pieces. And since his Twitter profile has him as "nyckelharpa player, bagpiper and clog dancer", Metherell is presumably not as musically illiterate as all that.

Where Spiers is undoubtedly right, in my own view, is to urge acceptance for progression, innovation and change, even in folk music. Therapy and others were already seeking - and achieving - such approval for pushing boundaries half a century ago.

Spiers put it some time ago on these pages, albeit in remarks lifted from a reply on Twitter to a question posed here by a regular Salut! Live contributor, Bill Taylor.

Full of admiration for Bellowhead's version of Broomfield Hill, he had asked: "... 11 musicians, playing 20 or more instruments including percussion and brass... can that still be counted as folk music, or is it a small orchestra performing a folk song?"

This was Spiers's response: " ...the idea that folk music was always purely a participatory activity and never meant as performance is a common bogus position ... ... but the sheer complexity of that particular arrangement is unlikely to have emerged in the pub from someone who spent all day at work in the fields! All I know is that many members of the band have a deep love of traditional music and it shows in that performance. ... Broomfield Hill was always one of my favourite ones to play (it wasn't hard for me - I just played concertina and melodeon full on for my bits) ... I was spared the more orchestral parts - which when the band got it right - were absolutely stunning live."

I suspect the minor fuss over the Metherell review was just that, minor, a storm in a tea cup, 18th century bone china or groundbreakingly plant-based and compostable.

As for why a two-year-old tweet from SqueezyJohn (his Twitter handle) should suddenly force itself to the top of my feed at the weekend, I can only suppose algorithms are to blame.

Nothing in itself to do with purism. But on the same day, Spiers found himself disliking another review, dating from 1980 but posted in a burst of nostalgia by the podcaster and former radio DJ Danny Baker.

Danny_BakerDanny Baker by Paul Hudson 

"I really don't understand about 80% of music reviews," wrote Spiers. "I'm a musician who puts everything they have in to music they make and we all know that some people will like it and some won't ... verbose self-important nonsense like this never helped anyone."

Just in time, he chipped in with a sweetener for Baker: "I still think you are a radio genius and have enjoyed and appreciated your output since the early 90s and am very sad that I can no longer get you on my airwaves."

All of which may be reassuring to Chris Metherell, Danny Baker and reviewers everywhere who, essentially, are just fans with platforms.

And Dave Shannon**  - sadly no longer with us - was absolutely right to find room for Wide World in Therapy's playlist.

* Buy the Peter Knight and John Spiers album, and more, at https://johnspiers.co.uk/shop 

-** Dave Shannon: the Salut! Live obituary is at https://www.salutlive.com/2013/03/dave-shannon-rip.html


Ian Anderson

Via Facebook

Two points that I certainly know of from fRoots Magazine days.
1) The number of readers who thanked us for constantly turning them on to music they'd not have otherwise heard, and plenty of lesser-known artists who thanked us for a (deserved) leg-up to their performing career.
2) A handful of artists over the years who told me that a review contained criticism they realised was justified and had made them re-think their approach, for the better.

Bill Taylor

This is a vexed question if ever there was one. I speak having, in well over a half-century of journalism, reviewed music (folk, rock, folk-rock), books, theatre, cinema, even (though the criteria for entertainment are somewhat different) restaurants and cars. Ian Anderson's points are very well taken. Readers, especially newcomers to the scene, want some idea of what to expect. Are they likely to enjoy what's on offer? Or at least find it interesting? And is it, whatever it is, competently done? For my part, I would have hated to walk into the Golden Cock (if memory serves, that was the home of the clubs?) not knowing the difference between what the Spinning Wheel was putting on and the Folk Workshop. That said, I would never have attempted a review of the Workshop ~ not at all my cup of tea and not an area I was at all well-versed in. A degree of knowledge is essential for a critic and also a healthy dose of neutrality. Leave your prejudices at the door. (Sadly, I must admit that not all of them do.) It's a natural reaction for a performer to react badly to a negative review. It's a snobbish reaction to react badly to a positive one: "What do THEY know? Who are THEY to pronounce judgement on ME?" And it is, I think, largely a deceitful reaction to say loftily, "I never read reviews, good or bad." Admit it, you may close one eye but you do take a peek. Be that as it may, I think the possibility of bruising the feelings/egos of the performers comes second to serving your readership with (hopefully) informed opinions. As far as my own question about Bellowhead's wonderful music was concerned, I was pleased that John Spiers took it in the spirit in which it was intended. As I ended my comment then: "And does it matter a damn, given the sheer excellence of Bellowhead's rendition?" Clearly, no criticism was intended...

Colin Randall

Ian Anderson: your first point highlights what fRoots Magazine did so well and why its loss was a tremendous blow. The second is how thing should be, though I suppose artists are entitled to their pride.

Ian Anderson

Bill Taylor: "It's a natural reaction for a performer to react badly to a negative review. It's a snobbish reaction to react badly to a positive one."
Unfortunately over several moves I've mislaid the file that contained, among many other gems, five sides of A4 penned by Roy Harper in actual green ink ranting on about one tiny point in an otherwise favourable review! 😱

Terry St Clair

Via Facebook

I remember them as Sam & Dave hustling for gigs in 1969ish. Then Fiona Simpson joining them shortly after and becoming a real professional, tight group. All very talented musicians. Still continuing after Sam left to become one of the countries top folk club acts of the 1970s. I enjoyed seeing them many, many times. I was very sad to hear of Dave's passing in 2013. I believe he produced the Paul Jones blues show on Radio 2 for a number of years.

Sam Bracken

At the obit of Dave Shannon, linked I. The footnotes of the article above, Sam Bracken has just posted this:

So nice to see all these lovely comments about my dear departed friend, Dave. We formed Alternative Therapy with my wife Elaine a few years before Dave became ill. We had a wonderful time playing together again. Happy days

Bob Plews

Via Facebook

I've been involved in what's loosely called "folk music" since my first visit to the Gregson's Well, Brunswick St, Liverpool one Monday night in 1960 - the Spinners ran their folk club there. I've played for 60-plus years as a soloist, in acapella groups, ceilidh bands, folk-rock bands and more....I ran a respected folk club for many years and I've booked most of the greats and some real turkeys. I've been through all the "debates" - trad v commercial / purist v contemporary / serious singers v entertainers / everybody v singer-songwriters / unaccompanied v instruments.... and so it goes on. And it's deeply tedious

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)