TFFT Blog: A Question Of Folk

Where does folk stand in the current musical climate? Some would have you believe that the genre, particularly in the UK, has never been in such a prominent position within the commercial mainstream. Over the past couple of years it has been as common as the seasons to hear, ‘I really *bleeped* it up this time didn’t I, my dear’ on BBC radio. However the development of such occurrences is such that it serves to blur the perception of what folk music truly means. The idea of genre – and all the murky details that such a word entails – can be a bloody argument of trench-like warfare, however it remains relevant to the music of today and beyond.

There’s a certain lack of identity within the commercial trends of British acoustic based music. It has lost all sense of meaning and significance from the roots in which modern folk began. The infiltration of American roots music has been particularly prevalent in the British folk scene, which is perhaps unsurprising given the sheer weight of influence that such a nation has had upon the world. You need only read John Steinbeck, listen to Woody Guthrie and Jimmie Rodgers to gain a perception as to how American roots music became such a prevalent force in the most diverse society on Earth – and how it has consequently forced its will upon British music.

The problem within today’s folk music are that its lines have been blurred to the extent where there are seemingly only two perceptions of the British form of the ‘genre’. The first being the likes of Benjamin Francis Leftwich, Ben Howard and Ed Sheeran who, let’s face it, are ultimately products of the pop based culture that has become so prevalent in modern popular music. While the second is the traditional form – influenced primarily by the music of the late 19th century.

Folk music has become bloodily tangled within the poisoned vines of profit and style which now seemingly outweigh the actual musical offering. Any singer with an acoustic guitar is branded as being a folk artist – the instrument that started it all has ultimately proved to be the piercing sword which is draining all substance from the genre.

You could argue that the categorisation of music is purely pointless semantics – a matter of merely defining for ease of access. However the point of definition of particular forms of music holds far greater significance than some could stomach giving credit for. The three key forms of entertainment in our global society can be pinpointed towards being literature, film and music – each of these entities are universal forms that billions of people around the world can enjoy. Is it, therefore, a surprise that genre plays such a significant role in each of these categories? Perhaps not, particularly when you consider the overwhelming level of content that exists within each one.

However, with the lines of musical genres becoming increasingly blurred and maimed within modern society, it is easy to lose focus of the roots from which our beloved folk music came into being.

In a world where to profess your pop sensibilities is to garner commercial success, it was perhaps entirely plausible that the new wave of acoustic strumming songwriters would wholly embrace the strategic ploys that guarantee, as closely as possible, significant levels of sales across the board.

This is a problem that irks. There’s a dearth of true quality at the fore of folk music, particularly on the British Isles, where success has become confused with quality. You can call it a lack of imagination, in Benjamin Francis Leftwich’s case, or a lack of originality, with Mumford and Sons. It’s folk music for the X-Factor generation, it’s music for those who seek to embrace music that’s simple to do so, that requires little thought or comprehension – it can be listened to and disregarded as quickly as it came.

It’s perfectly understandable why people appreciate music that can be easily accessed through the relative simplicity of the sound. Pop music for many years has reaped the benefits of such thought processes and will continue to do so for a great deal more to come – but you can’t help but feel, as a listener, that you are being undermined and taken for granted.

But what needs to be remembered is that musical discovery is similar to playing a never ending game of stepping stones. For the incestuous nature of music often means that enjoying one artist can lead you on to another who will, in turn, lead you on to another – and this process can continue for as long as your interest holds. This is really the true beauty of music – away from the compositions that provide us with so much joy – there’s always something new to listen to and embrace. So, while we may not all agree on the rights and wrongs of particular aspects of the music, at least each and everyone of us can unite in awe of music’s incredible power of being.

Domm Norris