Pop: Now that's what I call trad music

It's that time of the decade again. Folk is back in fashion. But is this the real thing... or soft rock by another name? By Charlotte Greig
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The Independent Culture
Folk music is making a comeback. Again. Look at Beth Orton, who can play alongside trip-hop bands, or Kate Rusby, the folk singer who was nominated this year for the Mercury Prize. Or Ben and Jason, or the Beta Band, or any of the myriad British acts who sound a bit like Nick Drake. Look at the popularity of "alt.country" - alternative country music made by a post-punk generation of American musicians - or, in Britain, the new folk magazine, Root and Branch, put together by hip avant-gardists, Unknown Public. Clearly, in the new millennium, folk music is on the up again, having reached its peak in the Sixties and then plummeted to the depths of unpopularity in the stadium rock of the Seventies and shoulder- pad pop of the Eighties.

Well, maybe. Anyone with a steady interest in unpopular music of any kind, whether avant-garde jazz or finger-in-your-ear folk, is bound to be a little wary of these sudden surges of enthusiasm. Yet the revival - if that's not too strong a word - isn't coming from the Beth Ortons and Nick Drake clones, as far as I can see. It's coming from a slowly- building, grass roots culture which takes its cue from the punk movement of the late Seventies: beer-on-the-floor bars, cult fanzines, and tiny record labels putting out ramshackle, unpolished yet sophisticated, cutting- edge music for a small bunch of devotees.

But first, the mainstream. There are signs the younger generation of club-goers need and want human-scale, acoustic music. That's what the big record companies will be getting excited about. Which is where Beth Orton comes in. For years, I couldn't understand why people referred to her music as "folk" - it seemed to be a superior type of soft rock that's been going strong since the Sixties, has never been fashionable and never will be. "Folk", in mainstream music circles, simply means sung by "a person with long hair and a guitar" - it certainly bears no relation to the idea of a traditional musical culture.

That isn't to say, of course, that Orton's music is any the worse for being in the singer-songwriter genre. Since the Sixties, when Peter, Paul and Mary first got Bob Dylan's songs into the hit parade, there has been a category of musician that has nothing much to do with traditional music, and everything to do with the perceived virtues of the tradition: singers who can perform in communal situations without a great deal of technical equipment, songs with a social message, and so on. Today, that role is performed by artists like Ani Di Franco and Billy Bragg: "folk singers" who have all the political commitment and passion of early hobos such as Woody Guthrie, yet belong to no obvious musical culture.

A more challenging approach is offered, I think, by the musicians who have chosen to align themselves with the traditions of Europe and America. These are mainly people who didn't learn Barbara Allen at their mothers' knee, but who have grown up listening to rock music and then traced its roots back into history. They are also people who have learnt from the DIY punk ethos of the Seventies and Eighties. The burgeoning alt.country scene in the US is a case in point. It is a real "scene": lots of small, live venues in America's major cities (especially Chicago), hundreds of bands (of variable quality), festivals (such as Twangfest), magazines (eg, the excellent No Depression), tiny independent labels, mail order catalogues, Net websites, and so on. It's a scene where big stars such as Dolly Parton - who has just made a bluegrass album and who probably did learn "Barbara Allen" at mum's knee - are revered alongside left-field mavericks such as Will Oldham (alias Bonnie "Prince" Billie), and Kristin Hersh, and where bands with names like Freakwater, The Handsome Family, and Trailer Bride raid the music of rural America to create skewed, threatening, and sometimes bleakly comic readings of blood-and-guts ballads and surreal tales of misadventure.

In Britain, there is as yet no comparable "alt.folk" scene. The main difficulty lies in the fact that the live music circuit for low-key, acoustically- oriented bands is tiny, just as it was in the Seventies before punk enlivened pub rock. It's significant that many British ex-punks have decamped to America and found a place in alt.country there - for example the Mekons' Jon Langford, whose 1998 album Skull Orchard explores and celebrates the industrial history of south Wales, and Sally Timms, whose recent Cowboy Sally's Twilight Laments for Lost Buckaroos reinvents country and western.

Yet, despite the air of indifference in Britain, we are at last beginning to see the preconditions for a genuine revival of interest in traditional music. Not only is there a brave new generation of trad folk performers such as Eliza Carthy, Rusby, Nancy Kerr, and the Lakeman brothers (mostly the children of first-wave revivalists), there has also been a small avalanche of traditional English music appearing on CD for the first time, thereby giving many of us our first chance to appreciate the strength and variety of the tradition.

Pre-eminent among these has been Topic Records' epic 20-CD collection The Voice Of The People, and the Century of Song compilation recently issued by the English Folk Song and Dance Society.

The society has also commissioned Unknown Public to put together a package based around English traditional music. The result is Root and Branch, a fascinating CD and magazine with a collection of articles, facsimiles and postcards, that explores the theme of crossing boundaries, "musically, geographically and spiritually". Thus, the CD features a variety of singers and musicians giving their interpretations of classics such as Van Diemen's Land, the moving tale of convicts transported to Tasmania after British colonisation in 1825. Another journey, this time of a song, is explored in a poster, "The Unfortunate Rake", that gives different versions of the piece, from its "anon" beginnings through to its appearance as a published broadside ballad, and then to its existence in America as the country song "Streets of Laredo" and the blues standard "St James Infirmary".

But the most intriguing item in the pack is a contemporary postcard showing some graffiti on a toilet wall near an approved school in Maidstone, Kent. It's a poem, "A Borstal Boy", and is clearly a version of an old ballad, "Died for Love", aka "The Butcher Boy". The story concerns a boy rejected by his girlfriend because of his criminal habits, who then dies in his cell for love of her. That such an ancient ballad should have survived and been customised by successive generations until today is perhaps the most poignant reminder that English traditional music still has a role to play in our lives.

`Root and Branch' magazine is on subscription (0171-402 2789); Billy Bragg and Kate Rusby are reviewed overleaf; Charlotte Greig's new album `Down in the Valley' is released on Harmonium Records (distributed by Direct) in February