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Singing from the Floor by JP Bean, book review: A glorious history of folk music and those who made it

 

It is not difficult to mock folk clubs. Middle-aged, occasionally solemn, riven with rules about what is acceptably traditional, they may sing brave songs of freedom but that spirit is not always extended to music of which they disapprove.

Yet, as JP Bean's affectionate and wonderfully gossipy oral history confirms, there is something genuinely heroic about a movement which, over the past half-century, has kept an important musical tradition alive in the face of varying modern pressures: money, fashion, singer-songwriters, popularity.

Bean has sensibly allowed the great names of the movement to tell the story, and his list of contributors reads like a Who's Who of British folk: it includes Shirley Collins, Martin Carthy, John Renbourn, Bob Davenport, Peggy Seeger, Nic Jones, Maddy Prior and Dave Swarbrick and many others, plus key American figures such as Tom Paxton, Stefan Grossman, Carolyn Hester.

The clubs originally emerged out of political radicalism of the 1950s, and were inspired by a principle as important today as it was then: that, in a world increasingly dominated by mass, homogenised culture, the songs from our past are worth preserving.

There was not always peace and love in the movement. Singing from the Floor echoes to the sound of ancient battles between traditionalists, or "traddies", and those who dared to suggest that folk music should not only be about the past. At their most extreme, the purists disapproved of guitars, insisting that true folk should be sung unaccompanied.

Ewan MacColl, who emerges from these pages as a charismatic bully, argued that a singer should only sing songs from his or her own local background. American music was beyond the pale; anything which smacked of the populism was barred.

There were other threats. In the early 1960s, singer-songwriters were doing the rounds of clubs: those two great musical magpies Bob Dylan and Paul Simon visited British folk clubs early in their careers, collecting as they went. Then there was the great folk-rock menace. The late 1970s, with the emergence of stars like Jasper Carrott and Mike Harding, saw the rise of folk-singers as – a true insult in the traddie lexicon – "entertainers". Today's threat is from festivals; the new generation of folk-singers rarely sing from the floor of clubs.

For all the rows and schisms, this is an uplifting story. With the help of his raggle-taggle chorus of contributors, JP Bean has produced a glorious book which does full justice to an honourable history.

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