Mar 28, 2010

What English Folk music at SXSW taught me

Actually it started back in Kenmore, Western New York. In a shop called Spiral Scratch. A more unassuming record shop you could not find. I defy you to. It carries vinyl mostly. It's the underground incarnate. It's a model for how there might still be a future for a retail outlet in the music business. As long as the business aspect comes second to the music aspect. I imagine the rent on the shop is very low. James Ellroy loooowwww low. Which might mean we'll never see its likes in the UK. Too bad. Anyway. I bought thisthere. John Barleycorn Must Die by Traffic. Just $4 on vinyl. It reminded me of a record by a young British folk artist called Tim Van Eyken. Back in 2007 his version of Barleycorn picked up the award for Best Traditional Track at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards. Ever since I've been meaning to pick up Stiffs Lovers Holymen Thieves, the album that spawned the track. When we were in the astounding Amoeba Records in LA (another very viable model for a 21st century music retailer) I checked out the used English folk CDs and what do you know. Banged it in the CD player in the mighty Terrain and what's the first line on the record?"There came three men from out of Kent." That's right, a geographical reference. And there's plenty more where that came from on the record: Ratcliffe, Worcester City, passages from England to Australia. English folk music is full of English place references. Of course it is. It's folk music.

This was reinforced whilst watching the English Folk Music showcase at SXSW. Nevermind that the bill included a band from Scotland and that the star of the night for me, Olivia Chaney, did tunes from Ireland and France. It was billed as Looking For a New England, which meant it could be marketed as English and attract Arts Council money with postcards based on Marmite and Newcastle Brown Ale. Traditional fare. Just like the music. And I mean that in a good way. That's what people who love British folk music want by large. New versions sure, but old stuff. Stuff that feels old. There's a version of Barleycorn in manuscript that dates back to 1568. Even the stuff from the more recent centuries that was performed by these young turks from England (and Scotland) had plenty of geographical references.

And then it struck me. Of course American rock and pop music is full of geographical references. It's folk music. This is true of hip-hop and jazz too. So like all folk music it sings about place. And I'd been asking the wrong question. It's not why do Americans sing about America so much, it's why do British rock and pop acts not mention British places as much? And the answer is because when Brits make rock and pop music we're contributing to American folk music. That's why the Beatles talk about Jojo from Tucson Arizona and Mick Jagger doesn't meets birds in gin-soaked bars in Twickenham. We love this music so we want to make it authentic. Of course, from time to time we'll chuck in a few British places but it can sound a little forced or ironic. Or maybe a throwback to older British folk traditions that no doubt underpin rock 'n' roll.

When driving through LA listening to a classic hip-hop radio station it hit me just how very "American" the music was. I'm sure listening to a few jigs and reels in a pub on the west coast of Clare has a similar effect. The music comes from the people of that land. Then I drove past an African American church and thought how "American" gospel music is. Same for rock 'n' roll. I know I'm in danger of picking up an award for stating the bleeding obvious, but it's all too easy to miss woods for trees. And I think in the UK we are prone to forgetting that this music came from a different land and a different people. Even if their roots lie back in the old countries things changed.

It was all so obvious all along.


  1. If you ever have to go to Shoeburyness
    Take the A road, the okay road that's the best
    Go motorin' on the A13

    If you're looking for a thrill that's new
    Take in Fords, Dartford Tunnel and the river too
    Go motorin' on the A13

    It starts down in Wapping
    There ain't no stopping
    By-pass Barking and straight through Dagenham
    Down to Grays Thurrock
    And rather near Basildon
    Pitsea, Thundersley, Hadleigh, Leigh-On-Sea,
    Chalkwell, Prittlewell
    Southend's the end

    If you ever have to go to Shoeburyness
    Take the A road, the okay road that's the best
    Go motorin' on the A13

  2. Panic on the streets of London
    Panic on the streets of Birmingham
    I wonder to myself
    Could life ever be sane again?
    The Leeds side-streets that you slip down
    I wonder to myself
    Hopes may rise on the Grasmere
    But Honey Pie, you're not safe here
    So you run down
    To the safety of the town
    But there's Panic on the streets of Carlisle
    Dublin, Dundee, Humberside
    I wonder to myself

  3. Take me back to dear old Blighty
    Put me on the train for London Town
    Take me anywhere
    Drop me anywhere
    Liverpool, Leeds or Birmingham
    Well I don't care!

  4. The Sweeney's doing ninety
    'Cause they've got the word to go
    They get a gang of villains
    In a shed up at Heathrow
    They're counting out the fivers
    When the hand cuffs lock again
    In and out of Wandsworth
    With the numbers on their names
    It's funny how their missus
    always looks the bleedin same

  5. I live in a flat
    I like Manchester United