Cult folk heroines on the loose

Folk music is on the up and up. It's angry, it's on the Net and it sells. We meet three of folk's most remarkable women, Lal Waterson, Dar Williams and Buffy Sainte-Marie. Introduction by Nick Coleman
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The Independent Online
Folk music has an image problem. At least, those consumers who have no room in their homes for folk music think folk has an image problem. Folk music, they claim, is dreary, retrogressive, woolly, unwashed, soft and nasal. They snort at its musical conventions, poke fun at its sociable themes, and are openly contemptuous of its fashion sense. Only this week, my wife - a pleasant, liberal-minded woman of relatively catholic taste - caught me listening to an old Martin Carthy record. "Who is this man?" she demanded, waving the sleeve at arm's length as if it smelt. "And why does he look like he's fallen out of a tree?"

The straightforward answer to both these questions is "tradition". But tradition is no kind of answer to those who use the word as shorthand for "old and tedious". And so there exists an unbridgeable credibility gap between folk music and those who sniff at it - not because folk fails to address the world in which we live, but because, to the sniffy ones, it appears to.

Folk fans will bridle at this. They'll insist that folk does address the real world, that while the real world does unquestionably resound to the clatter of inner-city life, new technology and the global post- modern funfair, it does not, at the same time, exclude people who live outside the main population centres, parochially and without demonstrable interest in what's novel. They would say that one of the great virtues of folk music is that, because it is not subject to the imperatives of fashion, it has greater freedom to be about what is real.

They might also insist that in a centralised, over-mediated, technocratic society, folk music stands for spontaneity and subversion. They'd point to last year's Glastonbury festival, at which Steeleye Span were an unexpected and riotous hit with all-comers; they'd claim that folk is not one thing, anyway, but several things in a state of constant flux; and they'd point to the fact that folk is now in possession, if not of an "image" as such, then at least the beginnings of a culture of exhibitionism, perhaps best expressed in the nose-rings, dreadlocks and civil disobediences of the children of those Sixties dissident-bohemian Bert Jansch fans who first sniffed in folk a whiff of conscionable freedom.

The three women interviewed on these pages represent a small fragment of the range of contemporary English and north American folk music. None of them is stereotypically "folk" in musicology, and none of them is likely to have a top 10 hit in the foreseeable future; certainly, none is concerned to pander to an audience simply for turnover's sake. But all three are significant, verging on cult, figures in their own field. None of them fell out of a tree. NC

Listen carefully and you might hear the sound of an English folk revival blowing in the wind. Just as serious politics are moving away from Westminster to the treetops of Newbury, so real music is no longer being dreamed up in the boardroom, but now comes straight from around the camp fire or the kitchen table.

Today there is a new wave of young musicians turning to traditional English folk music. Many of this generation have literal as well as cultural roots in the folk revival of the Sixties: the current wunderkind of folk is Eliza Carthy, daughter of Martin Carthy, the guitarist and singer who has done more than anyone to keep the music alive. Not only that, Eliza's mother is Norma Waterson of the Watersons - the family vocal harmony group who proved, in the Sixties and Seventies, that English folk could have all the soul one associates with gospel quartets.

But surprisingly - or perhaps not so surprisingly given that folk music is very much a music of experience - the cutting edge of the music does not come from the younger generation. The most innovative English folk- related album of recent years has been made by Eliza's aunt, Lal Waterson. Since Lal Waterson retired from performing with the Watersons in the late Eighties, her reputation as a songwriter has slowly spread. More than 20 years ago, during a hiatus in the Watersons' career, she recorded an album called Bright Phoebus, in collaboration with her brother Mike. This was a collection of harsh, passionate and quirky songs that established her as a unique voice within English songwriting. Since then Waterson's profile has remained so determinedly low that this latest album comes as a surprise, as unexpected as it is welcome.

The aptly titled Once in a Blue Moon is a rural song cycle, but there's nothing remotely hey-nonny-no about it: here are intensely observed songs about everyday life in a small community, occasionally punctuated by memorable events but more often full of quiet drama. Waterson's lyric patterns are often odd but always somehow fit; while her son Oliver Knight's arrangements are finely crafted and minimal, ranging from the deceptively pastoral "Flight of the Pelican" to the grunge guitars of "Cornfield". It is this ancient logic of asymmetrical word patterns, coupled with tunes that lie somewhere between a major and a minor key, that curiously enough makes the album sound so modern.

It took a lot of persuading for Lal Waterson to agree to talk to me, but in the end she did, on condition I meet her at her home in the village of Robin Hood's Bay, near Scarborough. In person, she is a dark-haired woman, with striking looks, and a voice so quiet it's almost a whisper.

I ask her if her current work is connected to the folk tradition she came to know so well as a member of the Watersons: "Yes," she replies emphatically. "The poetry of the ballads has always stayed with me. That, and the tunes. I'll bend anything to get a word in that I want."

On first hearing, Once in a Blue Moon seems as cryptic and mysterious as dreams, but Waterson points out that many of the songs are about real people, places and events in and around the village. The most dramatic story concerns the murder of two lovers, shot dead by a jealous husband on a summer's day. "When something like that happens," she explains, "and the sun's still shining, you think sun, go down, go down. You want to stop everything at that minute, `before the wounds bleed'."

But Waterson writes with equal intensity about everyday domestic life. As we take a walk round the village, all the characters and places come to life, and suddenly the album seems like a kind of Under Milk Wood. Once in Blue Moon is indeed English folk music: the music of a small domestic world in which the great timeless dramas of love and hate, peace and conflict, are played out every day in the pub, in the fields, and around the kitchen table.

n `Once in a Blue Moon' is out now on the Topic label


At the Tree Star Coffee House in Mt Kisco, near Pleasantville and just north of New York City, we're one big, happy family. Children scribble on paper-lined tables, students blow bubbles from plastic bottles, octogenarians perch on foldaway chairs and hirsute men wearing Aran sweaters sip from polystyrene cups. If parish attendances are down in New England, it may be because there's spiritual succour on tap in the coffee houses. Tonight, however, is a folk night for a local cause. After supporting Joan Baez in Europe and headlining more than 200 gigs Stateside, Dar Williams is back in town for one night only, and she's done her community proud.

"Pop might make you rich, but at least I'm working with people I can trust," announces the fresh-faced, diminutive 28-year-old, striding on- stage in flowing thrift-shop black. She launches her three-octave voice and acoustic guitar into a self-penned set of songs taken from The Honesty Room and Mortal City, each an engrossing, often sharply humorous exercise in literate, lyrical storytelling. More concerned with re-affirming than redefining the genre, Williams, a Religion and Theatre major christened the "hottest young performer on the New York horizon" by Billboard, is on a constant quest for truth and meaning. With the freedom of expression and cosy domesticity folk provides, she's found the perfect medium.

The following day, the Massachusetts-based singer sits on a sofa in her sprawling childhood home and says she considers folk a conduit for metaphysical exploration. As a teenager, this search for "a definition of a human life" led her from various denominational churches to Buddhism and therapy. "Now," she says, "I'm what you'd call a pagan. Folk music allows me to really observe what's dangerous, potent and eerie, which might be a government or mind set." Williams's ever-expanding fan base is partially defined by her ability to avoid didacticism through a fine-tuned irony. There are other factors - widespread independent Triple A Radio play, a DIY aesthetic which saw her climbing the rungs of open-mike gigs to regular club slots, and a like-minded audience eschewing commercialism for environmentally informed music.

The youngest of three daughters born to academic parents, signs of Williams's idyllic childhood are evident on all three storeys. Upstairs, children's books take up an entire wall space; in the living room, framed photographs of Dar and her sisters are alongside her father's extensive collection of rare leather-bound books. "Growing up was pretty uneventful," she says. "One could say that because I come from a well-established, bourgeois background, there's something that dovetails with mainstream, pro-literary stuff." Having peppered her set the previous evening with references to Kafka, Rothko and post-modernism, she adds: "I'm not easily satisfied. I care about language, and love creating songs that are absolutely thematically united. Perhaps that's why I often tend to attract a cerebral, computer nerd. They love to deal with intricacies."

It's not the only reason. A comprehensive Dar Williams Web Site on the Internet has hundreds exchanging favourite lyrics, tour dates and general Dar debate on the Dar-List. It is a curiously apt arena in which to consider notions of homeliness, Williams believes. "Folk allows you to feel social but anonymous - like reading a book instead of watching television," she says. Folk music and the Net explore inner spaces and build the same sense of informal round-the-kitchen-table solidarity. Where folk's tolerant entry level allows anyone to pick up a guitar and play, access to computer technology favours making a home page, publishing a novel or, as Williams and her fiance/manager Charlie did with Mortal City, producing an entire album in one's bedroom.

"We had the best piece of cutting-edge technology sitting in our ill- swept house, so it's not as faux naive as it sounds," she says, "although there were sleeping bags on the walls for soundproofing and birds, dogs, roosters and screaming neighbours to contend with. It all felt very real, and the real quality influenced my vocals."

Folk enables Williams to write songs that marry larger concerns with a grass-roots antidote to media-perpetuated fears ("So what if you turn out like your parents/ That could be a good thing") and she intends to "keep travelling the non-commercial line". Doesn't so much navel-gazing get a bit tiring? "I'm probably pretty self absorbed," she says with a grin. "I have a career that demands I am. I know I'm very interested in ultimate questions, which are much more important than how to make my laundry really sparkling."

n Dar Williams plays the Almeida Theatre, London N1 tonight and Sat (0171-359 4404)


"In many indigenous societies, including my own, there's no word for `artist', because everybody does it," says Buffy Sainte-Marie. "We all dance, we all make rhythms, we all sculpt, we all tell stories. If somebody's especially involved in it, we'll say `it shines through them'."

In a Kensington hotel, Buffy relaxes in the lounge, glowing with the kind of health any other woman just turned 55 would kill for. Buffy's in town to publicise her new album, Up Where We Belong, a sort of songwriter's greatest hits which features new recordings of her most popular songs: folk-protest chestnuts like "Soldier Blue" and "Universal Soldier", militant First Nation anthems like "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee", fun songs like "Cripple Creek", and love songs like "Until It's Time For You to Go" and the Oscar-winning title-track, which she had never got round to recording before. It's an impressive collection which aims to capitalise on the success of 1991's comeback album Coincidence and Likely Stories, her first recording after a 16-year hiatus dedicated to art and motherhood.

That album caused something of a stir by utilising the most up-to-date of recording methods; recorded on computer in her home in Hawaii, it was delivered electronically to her English record company, Ensign, via modem, bounced off a satellite. Here was a folk-singer - and not just any folk- singer, but a Native American Indian folk-singer - using the kind of modern technology we associate with computer nerds and techno-ambient bands like Future Sound of London. What was going on?

"It does give an image of Stone Age to space age," acknowledges Buffy, explaining that contrary to their rustic image, American Indians have been hot on computers ever since their domestic inception. "It's natural for any indigenous community to be online, because of our desire to remain in the local community, yet be part of the global community. It's so nice, if you're studying, to have a friend online who's living on another reserve."

The original impetus to grasp the networking possibilities of the new technology came, she says, from the "fire and brains" of the American Indian Movement which flourished in the Sixties. "Most of the movement people that weren't killed or put in jail have gone into education. There are a lot of Native American PhDs, and many have started colleges on the reserves. The American Indian Higher Education Consortium is a tremendous success story: a lot of pioneers in the World Wide Web movement are out of this consortium."

Buffy herself teaches digital art and music, philosophy and Native American studies at several colleges. And besides her songwriting, there's her visual art: made with a combination of photography, paints and digital Photoshop treatments, her canvases have been shown in exhibitions in her native Canada, and perhaps best exemplify that Stone Age to space age attitude, adapting Native American themes to modern methods.

Musical possibilities of new technology, are nothing new to this committed techie, who was using the early Buchla synthesisers in the Sixties, and who contributed a unique combination of primitive and sophisticated technology to the soundtrack of Performance in 1970, with tracks featuring synthesiser and mouthbow. Further developments, such as the Fairlight and Synclavier, were assimilated in turn, and she does her recording on a Mac II. As she says, "It's not the computer that's making the record; it's always the artist."

One of Buffy's proudest achievements, however, concerns television. In the Seventies, she was asked to appear on Sesame Street, and parlayed the one-off invitation into a five-year association, during which time she taught children to count in Cree, Lakota and Navajo, educated them in the modern reality of American Indians, and stretched the show's envelope by tackling issues of sibling rivalry, childbirth and breast-feeding.

As with all her work, that combination of local and global interests figured shrewdly in her decision. "People in show-business must have thought it was the nadir of my career," says Buffy, "but it's the most exposed TV show in the world - three times a day in 72 countries." That's some network for a folkie.

n `Up Where We Belong' is out on EMI. Contact Buffy on http.//