Wind of change

Folk music may conjure up images of jumper-clad hippies with criminal facial hair, as satirised in the new mock-documentary A Mighty Wind. But is this the sound that fashion forgot? Not at all, says the songwriter CHARLOTTE GREIG
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

"There was abuse in my family - but it was mostly musical in nature." Thus reminisces the child of a Sixties' folk singer in A Mighty Wind, the new satire on all things folk by the makers of Spinal Tap.

"There was abuse in my family - but it was mostly musical in nature." Thus reminisces the child of a Sixties' folk singer in A Mighty Wind, the new satire on all things folk by the makers of Spinal Tap.

Anyone who has ever set foot in a folk club, or been forced as a child to sing "Kum Bay Yah" - which is probably quite a lot of us, if we're honest - will delight in the film's affectionate debunking of the well-meaning, woolly earnestness that still characterises the folk world, just as much now as it did back in the days of the Sixties' folk revival. The title song alone, "A Mighty Wind", is spot on: it's exactly the sort of nonsense you wouldn't be in the least surprised to hear in folk clubs or primary schools across the country today. All together now: "A mighty wind's a-blowing, across the land, across the sea/ It's blowin' peace and freedom, it's blowin' equality."

Funnily enough, the first I heard of A Mighty Wind was from Bruce and Margaret Good, Sixties Canadian folk singers of the type lampooned in the film. (They found it hilarious, by the way, and claimed that the spoof songs in it were better than a lot of the stuff around at the time.) The Goods were touring with their sons, Dallas and Travis, who front a band called The Sadies, known for their unique hybrid of surf, punk, country and hard-driving rock'n'roll in an style. I'd booked them to play at the club I run in Cardiff. That night, their parents joined them on stage and, as I watched the show, I was struck by just how untraumatised these particular children of the folk revival seemed to be by the horrors of their musical heritage.

Commercial American folk music, in the shape of Peter, Paul and Mary, The Kingston Trio and the Limeliters, died a largely unmourned death after its brief moment of triumph in the early Sixties. But traditional music in general remained at the heart of North American pop and rock, reinvented by the likes of Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell - not to mention hardcore hippies like the Grateful Dead - and popularised by country and bluegrass singers, from Dolly Parton to The Louvin Brothers. Today, it's arguably in better shape than ever: the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou? has introduced roots-based artists such as Ralph Stanley, Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch to a huge new public, while mavericks such as Will Oldham continue to innovate within the punk-inspired milieu loosely known as

So much for the Americans. But what about us? In Britain, it's an altogether different story. The folk revival also hit Britain in the early Sixties, but it had an almost impossible task to pull off, because what was being revived was a tradition on its last legs. Unlike America, Britain had pretty much lost its rural culture as early as the 18th century, with the advent of the Industrial Revolution; traces of folk songs survived in the repertoire of the music halls, but scarcely at all elsewhere. By the turn of the century, folk song collectors like Cecil Sharp and Percy Grainger had to beetle round Britain on their bicycles rescuing what was left of the tradition. Sharp ended up going off to the Appalachian mountains, where emigrants were keeping the music alive, but back in Britain the number of folk singers who'd learnt their songs at their mother's knee could be counted on one hand. By the Fifties, a few wonderful singers - notably Bob Copper - were keeping the old songs going, but they were few and far between. Thus the revivalists had to construct an entire British folk tradition from the threadbare remnants of the past.

To their credit, they managed to do it, and for a while the British folk scene nurtured major British talents such as Martin Carthy, The Watersons and Dick Gaughan. Up-and-coming American folkies from Dylan to Paul Simon also came over here to play. But by the Seventies, the scene was steadily losing its dynamism. Ancient folk ballads were being ditched in favour of sing-along songs of the "Mighty Wind" variety - and sometimes music was sidelined altogether, to be replaced by stand-up comedy from the likes of Mike Harding, Jasper Carrott and Fred Wedlock. Onlystalwarts like Carthy and June Tabor persevered in swimming against the tide.

It seemed that there was little place in the clubs any longer for the strange, dark music at the heart of the British folk tradition. There were a few exceptions, of course - notably the club at Cecil Sharp House in north-west London, where people still liked to sing folk ballads (whatever next!) - but, on the whole, people who wanted that kind of perverted stuff had to look elsewhere.

And not only had the music stagnated, but the whole folk scene became terribly insular and unappealing to newcomers. The popular image of the beardy male folkie - with personalised silver tankard and accompanying beer paunch, wearing shorts and sandals all year round and bellowing sea shanties - may be a stereotype, but (and I can vouch for this personally) there is more than a grain of truth in it.

In the Eighties, when I started getting interested in traditional music, an evening in a folk club was likely to have you eyeing the door and wondering if you could make a run for it through the ranks of silent, stony-faced devotees clutching their pints. During the interval, if you lasted that long, you would overhear rants about the evils of discotheques (as the folkies still called them), CD players and even electric guitars. So unless you fancied a retro night out in the company of half-crazed, condescending bores, you were better off steering clear of the whole scene.

It was only when the children of the revivalists - in particular, Eliza Carthy and Kate Rusby - took to the stage that the time warp began to shift. They were a breath of fresh air: not only gifted, but entirely of their generation. Both, moreover, included a wealth of traditional ballads in their repertoire, Carthy's innovative approach contrasting with Rusby's more classic take on the music. Yet, curiously, their audiences seemed to remain largely middle-aged. Their peer group, the post-indie kids looking for something a bit more meaty than a re-run of the Beatles and the Stones, didn't, on the whole, look to the rising generation in British folk music for something fresh.

In the new millennium, a loosely connected bunch of British musicians have started to revive the side of the tradition that seems, over the years, to have been lost. It can scarcely be called a movement, but for people who value what one might call "the old, weird Britain" it's a very encouraging development. Last summer, I found myself playing on an eclectic bill at the Green Man, an independent festival of twisted folk and folktronica in the Brecon Beacons, organised by the indie folk duo Jo and Danny. Headlining was James Yorkston with his band The Athletes, who managed the almost impossible task of sounding traditional yet entirely contemporary: their singing and playing was warm and relaxed, but the songs - both trad and original - were full of intricacies and subtleties. (The laid-back feel extends to their recorded output, the album Moving Up Country and a recently released EP, Someplace Simple.) Also playing that evening were members of the Fence Collective, a group of Scottish musicians that includes King Creosote, a melodic singer and subtle songwriter in a similar vein. That weekend, I sensed for the first time that Britain could perhaps generate an "alt.folk" milieu along the lines of the American scene, the one place I'd felt myself to be among kindred spirits before.

A few weeks after that, Alasdair Roberts, another Scotsman, came down to play our club in Cardiff. It was an intense, memorable evening, as he moved effortlessly between folk ballads, his own compositions and interweavings of the two. He was touring to promote Farewell Sorrow, an album that does for the British tradition what Oldham's music did for American folk. Like Oldham, Roberts plays with traditional forms, but he never for a moment slips into irony; in fact, he brings the dazzling poetry of our folk songs into clearer profile than ever.

And there are other undercurrents now surfacing in British folk. Most recently, Jim Moray has emerged as the new crossover hope with the polished Sweet England, an album that has more in common with Radiohead or Coldplay than Fairport Convention or Steeleye Span.

These new artists for the most part follow a submerged heritage in British folk. It began with Shirley Collins in the Fifties and carried on with Anne Briggs in the Sixties. In the Seventies, it was Nic Jones who kept the flame alive. These were singers and musicians who celebrated the real mystery of our oldest ballads: the kind where trees grow out of men's heads, children turn into goslings and brides become violins. The kind where - for reasons which might or might not lie deep in our collective unconscious - such happenings make a weird kind of sense. For me, the high priestess of this line is Lal Waterson, who was not only a great singer, but wrote in this tradition too. Her songs, which have only recently begun to receive the attention they deserve, share the stark aesthetic of our most profound ballads while delineating a spiritual landscape that is wholly modern.

Today, Collins no longer sings. Neither does Briggs. Jones suffered a tragic car accident in 1981 that has left him unable to play in the way he used to. And Waterson died in 1998, her loss still keenly felt. Yet currently - as a result, I think, of their influence - there seems to be a new kind of British alt.folk emerging. It's hardly a mighty wind, but at least we can now feel the first stirrings of a British musical culture that goes back a little bit further than Pink Floyd or Queen: to our rich, ancient and arcane folk tradition.

'A Mighty Wind' is released on Friday

Finger pickin' good: a beginner's guide to folk music

Bob Dylan: The Freewheelin'... (Columbia)

The first heavyweight among the tablets of Sixties Greenwich Village folk, and one of the more desirable products of Western culture. It contains "Blowin' In The Wind", "Girl From The North Country" and "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right". It represents Dylan's first big Moses moment, and you should have it.

Anne Briggs: A Collection (Topic)

Strange solo music that suggests the roots of English music remain buried in the black soil of the moor. Wild is barely the word. Thomas Hardy fans will shiver deliciously.

Jim Moray: Sweet England (Niblick Is A Giraffe)

Take "Early One Morning" and other clichés of the English folk canon, introduce them to the concept of electronica and then sing them with the voice of a bubble-mouthed choirboy. A beautiful record.

Fred Neil: The Many Sides Of... (Capitol Import)

He wrote "Everybody's Talkin'" and "Dolphins", and for those two songs alone Neil is worthy to sit at the right hand of Bob in the pantheon of great folk songwriters.

Simon & Garfunkel: Bridge Over Troubled Water (Columbia)

Village folk's sparkliest pop moments were shaped in the delicate hands of these two nice Jewish boys from, respectively, New Jersey and NYC. They were frightfully literate, rather prissy, awfully pleased with themselves, but Simon's songwriting is dusted with genius.

Richard & Linda Thompson: I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight (Island)

In the late Sixties, English rock music took the opportunity offered by Dylan and The Band's own rootsical explorations in the States to imagine the ways in which electric guitars might impinge on old Uncle Tom Cobley and all. Sad, lyrical, slightly soiled, Bright Lights is as perfectly imperfect as English folk-rock could ever hope to be.

Lal Waterson & Oliver Knight: Once In A Blue Moon (Topic)

Northern as hell, English as anything, poetic to a quite scary degree and harshly beautiful in the way that rooks are.

Eliza Carthy: Anglicana (Topic)

The scion of the Waterson-Carthy dynasty pulled up trees last year with this brilliant updating of the English folk tradition. Mercury-shortlisted, it was the only album to challenge eventual winner Dizzee Rascal for, like, y'know, realness.

Gillian Welch: Revival (WEA)

She was raised and educated middle-class on the West Coast, but Welch seems to have Appalachian white-trash blood running slow as soup in her veins. As Anne Briggs is to Hardy, so is Welch to Steinbeck.

Nick Drake: Five Leaves Left (Island)

Not strictly folk. Not strictly anything at all. But if you have an interest in the way fey English white boys with Eng Lit qualifications cling like ivy to the trunk of the acoustic-poetic folk sensibility, then Five Leaves Left is your basic text.

Nick Coleman

A mighty cast

Jonathan Steinbloom (Bob Balaban)

The son of the late, great Irving Steinbloom (Stuart Luce), and the man at the helm of organising a folk memorial reunion, which will see the collective talents of...

The Folksmen

Alan Barrows, Jerry Palter and Mark Shubb (Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer) are the Folksmen, a bearded, peace-lovin' folk trio who once enjoyed considerable popularity, buthaven't had much of an audience since their record company failed to punch a hole in their last album.

The Main Street Singers

Folkies have come and gone from this ever-evolving singing troupe, famed for such classics as "Potatoes in the Paddy Wagon" and "Never Did No Wanderin' ". Sure, the music may be a little corny for some, but these home-loving, sweet-natured boys and gals should be able to cure your cynicism with a singalong of the "The Good Book Song".

Mitch and Mickey

Mitch Cohen (Eugene Levy) and Mickey Crabbe (Catherine O'Hara), the original folkie love-birds. The high point of their career was the single "A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow", in which Mitch kissed Mickey, and audiences swooned. Divorce followed, and fans have held out for a reunion ever since.