English folk music fair launched in a bid to outdo Celtic rivals

English musicians have long lagged behind their neighbours to the north

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The Independent Culture

It won’t be played at a ceilidh but it can incorporate laptop beats and Morris dancing.

A trade fair to promote English folk music will be launched to deliver an international boost to a musical tradition which has been overshadowed by the success of its Celtic neighbours.

Musicians and delegates from around the world will flock to the first English Folk Expo, held in Bury, Lancashire, next month.

The four-day event, featuring performances and panel discussions, is designed to allow the cream of English folk music to network with booking agents and festival programmers from around the world.

The annual showcase, backed by Arts Council England and the English Folk Dance and Song Society, has been created as a response to the global impact of Celtic folk music.

Scottish and Irish national identity has been greatly enhanced by the success of those nation's musicians. Events like the Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow now attract some of the world’s best musicians to play alongside Scottish talent.

Mark Radcliffe, presenter of BBC Radio 2's Folk Show, will chair an introduction to English folk, roots and acoustic music at the Expo, which will feature only artists whose music is defined by the organisers as distinctively "English".

Jim Moray, the acclaimed English folk musician, who is performing at the Expo, said: "English folk has lagged behind the rest of the world in regards to its promotion. Irish folk became a major cultural export and is seen as hugely positive force in shaping the country's perception and Scottish music has followed suit."

Moray, whose own music incorporates African influences and sequenced beats from a laptop, admits that defining uniquely "English" folk can be a challenge. "English folk is hard to pin down stylistically," he said. "It's a little more placid than Balkan folk. Think of the Cotswolds, Oxfordshire, Northamptonshire. It often sounds like the places look."

But English folk is also eclectic and inclusive. "The impression is that it's songs about working classes and oppression but actually it's for everyone and about everyone. England is a melting pot, we take sounds from elsewhere and claim them as our own. It's like Chicken tikka masala."

Moray said English folk was a "huge growth area of the music industry" and cited new talent including Blair Dunlop, 21, a singer-songwriter and actor who appeared in Tim Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. "He's the Justin Bieber of British folk," Moray suggested.

"I’ll take that mantle gladly," said Dunlop, who will be recording his new album next month but hopes to attend the Expo. "There is a stigma that goes with English folk – the image of beardy men and tankards of ale. But the music is defined by easily accessible narratives – from mining in Durham to tales of the sea in Devon – played with understated beauty and a little swagger. There's actually something enticing about people Morris dancing to tunes played at a slower tempo."

Moray admitted that English folk has an image problem: "It's easier to sell a romanticised view of Irishness and Riverdance than to sell the idea of Morris dancers. The Irish and Scottish traditional scenes get the benefit from feeling like the oppressed and the English always were the oppressors. Norma Waterson used to say that the English mainly oppressed themselves as much as other peoples' music."

Terry O'Brien, producer of the English Folk Expo, said the event, which will feature 33 artists, including Seth Lakeman, performing at The Met in Bury, was a sell-out. "There's a large delegation from Canada where they stage huge folk festivals. We've got delegation from a Malaysian rainforest festival with a view to booking artists and strong representation from Australia, Sweden, Denmark, Belgium and Germany."

She added: "Our aim is to get bookings for artists in new venues and new festivals and countries where they have never played before."

The organisers hope that "English Folk Music" will become a globally-recognised musical "brand" in the way that "EDM" has become an all-embracing term for electronic dance music.

The English Folk Expo takes place 17-20 October in Bury.

For your consideration at English Folk Expo:

Martha Tilston

Cornwall-based daughter of folk legend Steve Tilston performs enchanting songs about the relationship between technology and the human condition with a Joni Mitchell-lilt. Finger-picking guitarist is inspired by both 60s protest singers and PJ Harvey.

Blair Dunlop

Son of Fairport Convention member Ashley Hutchings, movie actor/musician Dunlop has been described as Britain's "folk Bieber". Gifted guitarist and songwriter with a charismatic stage personality who is attracting a growing audience.

David Gibb and Elly Lucas

Derbyshire duo, who layer chiming harmonies over a mix of guitar, mandolin, fiddle and viola, are on a mission to adapt traditional English folk music for a contemporary audience. BBC Young Folk Award finalists in 2011.

Kate Rusby (pictured)

Former "first lady of young folkies", the Barnsley Nightingale is now a relative veteran, aged 39. Multi-instrumentalist celebrated 20 years as a recording artist with an album featuring guest vocals from Paul Weller.