`Folk brat pack' calls the old tunes as pop loses its way

Young performers spark a boom in traditional music
Click to follow
The Independent Online
FOLK MUSIC is back. Young people, disenchanted with the blatant commercialism of the pop scene, are tuning in to it in a way unknown since the Sixties.

A new generation of young performers nicknamed the "folk brat pack" are attracting audiences their own age to clubs, arts centres and festivals that used to be the preserve of their parents. Jokes about Aran sweaters and beards are way out of date: today's folkies are just as likely to be wearing traveller-style dreadlocks and Dr Marten boots.

"There is an enormous boom in folk and roots music," says Steve Heap, a festival organiser and record-company founder. "There are now 220 folk festivals in the UK every year, ranging in size from 300 people to the 60,000 at Sidmouth last year."

Heap is the man behind Evolving Tradition, a festival due to be held at the Barbican Centre in London in April to launch an album of the same name. All the acts featured are under 25, and some are as young as 16.

"Folk had a massive boom in the Sixties, levelled out in the Seventies, and went through a very bad period in the Eighties," says Heap. "Suddenly there is an enormous wealth of talent among young people who are playing traditional tunes in a way that's influenced by pop music and radio and jazz, among other things. They're making it a more acceptable sound to their contemporaries."

Folk music has been recovering credibility among the young for some time: acts such as the Waterboys, the Levellers and the Pogues have taken folk- inflected acoustic rock into the charts since the mid-Eighties. The rise of so-called "World Music" encouraged many young people to reconsider their own country's musical roots But it is only now that scores of teenagers have emerged with a passion for traditional music in its pure forms and the talent to play it well.

Ian Anderson, editor of the authoritative magazine Folk Roots, says: "A whole host of bands playing around the country don't get on major labels or in the charts but are incredibly popular. It's just like blues was in the early days before it suddenly burst out into the mainstream."

Eliza Carthy is one of the leading lights. The 19-year-old fiddler and vocalist is the daughter of Martin Carthy and Norma Waterson, performers described by one critic as the king and queen of traditional English music. A record the three of them made together was voted the top album of 1994 by Folk Roots critics, and Eliza will be heard on Evolving Tradition with fellow young fiddler Nancy Kerr.

"A few years ago it seemed I was pretty much out on my own," says Eliza. "Now we get people coming to see us because of the age we are. We get groups of students turning up to see what it's like. Sometimes they walk out, but most times they think it's great and ask where they can hear more."

Martin Carthy says his daughter's contemporaries are better musicians than his were at that age. "Their expertise is breathtaking. We were not that good, because we had to fight for every scrap of information. Songs are more available now. People like Andy Kershaw on Radio 1 have widened their exposure: people of 18 with shaven heads turn up at my gigs and ask for the long narrative ballads that Andy loves to play and I love to sing."

The Young Tradition competition run by Radio 2 has also provided a focus for new talent. Kathryn Roberts is one of several winners who will appear on Evolving Tradition, and she now sings with her childhood friend Kate Rusby. Both were raised in folkie Yorkshire families and are dancers as well as musicians and singers. Their material includes ancient songs such as "The Recruited Collier" and "Ned On The Hill", sung in a way that owes an obvious debt to blues and jazz vocalists. "I don't think anybody really knows how old these songs are or where they come from," says Kate. "They've just been there all the time, and they still have meaning now."

The girls have teamed up with the Lakeman Brothers from Devon to form a band called the Equation. Folk Roots thinks they could be the scene's next big thing, and will feature them on the cover in April. Sam Lakeman says the band will borrow techniques from performers such as Peter Gabriel and Sting to produce "a lot of space and light" with acoustic instruments. Their sights are on mainstream success: "Every time we have a photo shoot we try to look like Take That," says Sean Lakeman, who is the oldest at 21 and is now finishing a degree in jazz. "It's a better way of earning money than doing paper rounds," says the youngest brother, Seth, who is 17 and studying for A-levels.

The stigma attached to folk in the past is fading, says Sam. "At festivals you find young folkie fans who tie in with the grungy and traveller scenes, and that's quite a hip, cult thing. Traditional music is down to earth, and that's the sort of culture those people are looking for."

Ian Anderson agrees that the underground, do-it-yourself nature of folk makes it attractive to people seeking alternative lifestyles. "Every time pop music goes through one of its crassly commercial phases, people go out looking for something with a bit more integrity," he says.

That doesn't always last. "The folk revival in the Sixties was a young people's thing. But the same people slowly aged and made their venues, their festivals and their folk clubs profoundly unattractive to young people." Young performers with energy such as Tom Robinson, Elvis Costello or Billy Bragg were turned away or put off. "When punk rock was going on they didn't need anything else anyway," says Anderson. "But in the last five or six years, when pop has become more blatantly manufactured, people have looked for something different. That coincides now with a new generation who are literally the sons and daughters of the first folk revival, who have been growing up and waiting in the wings."