English folk music has long suffered from an image crisis. Unlike its Irish counterpart, which is enshrined in the country’s national identity, it was at first seen as the unsophisticated music of the peasants, before briefly enjoying a period of popularity in the 1960s and 70s. These folk-heroes inevitably aged and became the socks-and-sandalled weirdy beardies that folkies are thought of today.
But this is of course, all rubbish. Every couple of years or so, the weekend newspapers get into a frenzy over a vaguely attractive male musician who falls somewhere within the folk genre, and will crown him “the poster boy of folk”. Recent victims saddled with this title include blonde hair, blue eyed, part-time Shakespearean actor Johnny Flynn and Seth Lakeman, who headlines the Bristol Folk Festival at the end of April.
Unlike Lakeman, who has been touted on every television programme from BBC Breakfast to the Sharon Osbourne Show, Ed and Will are much harder to stumble across. In 2006, the two friends left their homes near Faversham in Kent and embarked on a journey to Cornwall, with the intention of sleeping beneath the stars and singing for their supper. In the meantime, they have become expert foragers, recorded an album with their friend Ginger, and written about their expeditions on their blog, www.awalkaroundbritain.com. Seeing them live in a church porch, busking in a town centre, or in a pub garden, you cannot fail to be moved by these troubadours.
If sea shanties are more your thing, look no further than Port Isaac’s Fisherman’s Friends, who also feature in the line up at the Bristol Folk Festival. A recent resurgence in an interest for all things naval, thanks to a certain Mr Depp and friends, has helped this band of ten fishermen, coastguards and lifeboatmen cast their net wider than their native Cornwall, and they currently feature in the Young’s fish adverts. In the summer months, they can be found gathered on the harbourside in their small Cornish fishing village, entertaining tourists and locals alike as the sun sets. It was on such an evening that a holidaying music executive heard the singers, and promptly offered them a £1 million record deal. Whilst this is impressive, to experience the true magnitude of the group you need to hear them live in the open, wind whistling around them, with the smell of sea salt in the air.
Bellowhead, who also headline the Bristol Folk Festival, are “the best live band you’ve never heard of” according the Evening Standard. An odd collection of instruments ranging from squeeze box to saxophone by way of some Ikea cutlery makes their music a mixture of folk, brass band and world music. Their repertoire is equally diverse, from tales of women performing abortions on themselves to rollicking sea shanties, but all material adheres to founding members John Spiers and Jon Boden’s single rule: it must have its origins in old English folk song, but the tunes and arrangements should be their own. The energy of the band’s live performances is unparalleled, and they expect the audience to put in as much effort as they do. So whilst they sing about life at sea, gig-goers will be hoisting the riggings and scrubbing the decks.
Though more mainstream artists such as Laura Marling and Mumford and Sons have helped to bring new listeners to the genre, it is in the live domain that folk music comes alive. There’s nothing quite like walking into a cosy country pub and finding a group of wizened old musicians in full swing, inviting fellow drinkers to join in. Though folk may never be accepted as cool, it is the music of the people. So whilst the majority may sneer at the f-word, its curators will continue to maintain it for generations to come.
-from Issue 237 (21.3.11) of Epigram. You can read the rest of the Music section here.