Cambridge breaks folk stereotype by shunning beer and beards

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

To the uninitiated, real ale and folk music would appear to be indivisible, but this year's Cambridge Folk Festival has for the first time as its main sponsor not a brewer but BBC Radio 2.

To the uninitiated, real ale and folk music would appear to be indivisible, but this year's Cambridge Folk Festival has for the first time as its main sponsor not a brewer but BBC Radio 2.

It is a fitting symbol of changing times. Folk music has for long sought to fight off the stereotype of an old beardie who breaks into song after a few pints of his favourite ale. This weekend, as 10,000 music fans descend on Cherry Hinton Hall for the 40th Cambridge Folk Festival, the effort seems to be paying off.

The buzzword is diversity. Among the main acts - the festival organiser, Eddie Barcan, is uncomfortable with the term headliners - are Jimmy Cliff, Tom Robinson and the Divine Comedy. For those more traditionally inclined there is Beth Orton, Ralph McTell and Loudon Wainwright III.

Many of the performances are being broadcast live on Radio 2 as well as on the digital BBC4. The other main sponsor is Mojo magazine.

Acknowledging the debt owed to sponsors of the past 10 years, the brewers Charles Wells, Mr Barcan is nevertheless proud that for the first time in its history Cambridge has all public sector or ethical sponsors. Unison is providing facilities for the disabled, while the Co-operative Society is running a creche.

But at the heart of the festival's appeal lies its breadth of music, he says. "I remember seeing people on the bill when I was younger thinking: 'I'd really like to see those' - bands like the Pogues and the Men They Couldn't Hang. This [festival] has never conformed to the stereotype."

Mr Barcan took over from the festival's founder Ken Woollard, a part-time firefighter and jazz fan who claimed never to really like folk, following his sudden death in 1993.

Mr Woollard was inspired by the film Jazz on a Summer's Day, about the Newport Jazz Festival, and brought the model to the Fens. Among the festival legends is that a little-known singer called Paul Simon was added to the first bill after Mr Woollard reluctantly agreed to pay £15 to book him.

Mr Barcan has expanded the range of acts over the years, bringing in Elvis Costello, Nick Cave, Julian Cope and even the godfather of punk himself, the late Joe Strummer.

Observerssay this year's line-up is stretching the definition of "folk" to breaking point. Mr Barcan was accused in folk fanzine fRoots of "wilfully courting shock value and artists with a broad appeal almost everywhere in the world except in the accepted confines of the folk world". Supporters point to fundamentalist folkies such as the Oyster Ceilidh Band, Sharon Shannon and Michael McGoldrick.

World music is represented in the guise of the Dhol Foundation, an 11-piece Asian band that combines bhangra and electronica. Other world stars include Mariza Amparanoia and Kepa Junkera. In addition to this there is a plentiful supply of young female vocalists including Polly Paulusma and Mindy Smith.

This weekend is perhaps the busiest in the folk calendar. Yesterday marked the start of the 50th Sidmouth International Festival. Festivals at Whitby and Broadstairs follow.

A recent report funded by the Arts Council of England emphasised the importance of the growing folk festival revival to many regional economies. It is estimated that there are more than 350 festivals held each year in the UK, generating between them £82m. They are attended by 350,000 music fans, each spending an average of £226 per festival.

The appeal of these events to advertisers is also clear. Nearly half of those that attend are in the highly sought after AB socio-economic group, while 93 per cent are classified as ABC1s.

The Arts Council also recognises folk as one of the most inclusive of all arts forms. Nine out of ten of a group of fans surveyed took part in music, singing or dancing, while a third had taken up an instrument in public.

As those figures suggest, one of the key features of the Cambridge festival is that when the main stages pack up, the audience decamps to their tents to strike up impromptu sessions. Festival diehards still celebrate a drunken rendition by Arlo Guthrie of On Ilkley Moor Baht'at, perfomed in the middle of a field.

Because so many musicians attend the festival, one stage is given over to open microphone performances from any one with the bottle to get up and give it a go.

A folk section is the latest addition to the Musicians Union. The University of Newcastle also now offers a degree in folk music.

Frances Watt of FolkArt England, which represents a network of grassroots organisations, said, however, that the latest folk revival still had a long way to go. "What we are seeing are the children of the Sixties folk revivalists getting involved and taking part.

"English folk music is actually world music, it has just been lumbered with the false stereotype of the Aran jumper and the finger in the ear."