The Folk Theory

‘Folk’ can often seem a dirty word. It is, in certain wide circles, a joke with a punchline of beards and sandals. But these circles inevitably buy into their own silly musical preferences, and that’s fine.

People use the word ‘folk’ to point out things that they both identify with, and don’t. ‘Folk’ means the common culture of all people, but not me. I’m distinct. I’m modern.

Our understanding is that all music is ‘folk’, is rooted in the musical traditions that came before. Even music that apparently rebels, that hopes to sound different and move away from earlier styles, is being directly influenced by old music. The old is always the point of departure for the new.

long-beardFolk is everyone, is all people. Our music, our culture, comes from people, who all have more in common than they are distinct. Indeed, despite (or due to) this obvious fact, that national cultural traditions belong to, and form, their home-landscape, ‘folk’ values have been used as a weapon to encourage barriers and war. Nazi Germany famously mass-published its acceptable canon of national song, with lyrics designed to glorify Nazi values, and with rousing tunes to inspire valour and triumph. But this is normal human power games. Ever since the printing press was made, ballads of dubious anonymity have been published and circulated, in the hope of tricking people, by music, to accept a lie. Various kings, governments, and toothpastes have sought to convey their message with the help of a good tune and a well-written lyric. This seems to be what ‘folk’ do.

So the F word is a label, an imposed category that seeks to limit traditional music into a limited niche, with the intent that this popular and massive source of musical expression can be better controlled (i.e. used or sold). But ‘folk’ means much more than a genre in a CD-rack. It means the corpus and heritage of songs, dances, rhymes, traditions, and beliefs of the people of a landscape. It is a vast topic, with no true boundaries. It is human expression.

That song you made up in the shower, or the rhyme you came up with while washing your hands, or the tune you sung to your children last night…this is music, it is culture, and it is folk. The immediacy, the momental unravelling of these unnoticed cultural events is the chief difference, and advantage, of folk over the produced and recorded music of radio and TV. Folk means self-made, intimate, and interactive. You can do whatever you want with it. It belongs to whoever holds it at the time.maria-eva
During the last few hundred years, the way information moves, and is stored, has changed radically. Records have started to be kept, people have learned to read and write, we got computers, and so on. The most ancient method of people passing on information, sharing music and stories, in dance and celebration and ritual, has changed for the first time in a long time. And how it keeps changing. We can have access to untold volumes of music on a handheld device. But with songs and information flowing like a motorway, the old village inns, where culture was previously made and shared, have become de-populated, and quiet.

But even though we live in an age in which unified culture is forced out in slabs, through newspaper and television, and when it is no longer common to have a stranger ask you for a song or a dance, still the idea of folk music, in all its local glory and cosy warmth, is alive and strong. In the 1960’s, combined with the psychedelic culture, this gave rise to some mad and wonderful music. In pursuit of this idea, this tone and image, ‘folk revivals’ have occurred, whereby old music was gathered from those who still held it, and written down, and celebrated in wider contexts. This has ‘happened’ a few times, and so here we are, with thousands of songs collected, and a slowly increasing presence of ‘folk’ music within the golden bandwidth of radio airplay. This is, of course, good news for the traditional music.
But folk has never been about achieving mass exposure through controlled channels. It exists beneath that, a mycelium network that can pop up glorious mushrooms at any point. It’s about the common ownership of song, and the community act of singing. You might reasonably feel that a song is yours, in that you interpret and present it in a particular manner that is unique to you, as a personality and historic character. You might have even written that song. But once you let it out, once a song flows on breath, then it belongs to air and ears. This is called the Oral Tradition, and it is the ancient, basic way of transferring and storing knowledge, using the bank of the community mind. It is the technology of showing and telling, and it is responsible for every human achievement. Language itself is but a branch of the oral tradition. It is the here and now, the song on your lips.

Humans are good banks of information. Once we know something, we’ll hold it for 60 years, and be able to freely access it and reproduce it in a number of codes and forms. We remember things with a full configuration of scent, taste, feeling ,emotion, colour and force – once something is in someone’s head, it is well held.

Our human gift of holding these Ideas, and sharing them in culture, had led to great crimes by people who seek to control the world memory, who seek to re-write and own the true history of human understanding. Think: The Alberginian Crusade, the Thrid Reich, the many prevailing acts of censorship.

Notwithstanding the great efforts of counter-forces, certain songs, once established in the heart of a group of people, do not get forgotten. They adapt, thrive, bloom and when they apparently wither, to disappear for hundreds of years, they re-appear in full voice, somewhere quite different. They sometimes choose families to hold them, such as the Copper Family of Rottingdean/Peacehaven, who guarded and kept healthy a crucial body of Sussex song in full joyous tradition. They sometimes allow themselves to be written down, and sit unread in vaults until the alchemy of human interaction reads them, and brings them back to life. They sometimes exist in localities, in villages or roads, passed between pilgrims, to become a part of the landscape.

The fact that these songs do survive, that they are still alive and vigorous, is hearty testament to their quality. And in terms of numbers, folk music is pop music. When you’re listening to traditional songs, you have the outnumbering dead with you. Folk music is beyond popular; it is established, it is family, it is truth.

So we’ll keep learning and sharing the old songs, whenever they come to us with their sweetness and power. It is a duty and a joy.

We like how Bert Lloyd told it:

“Things do change, and they change again; and just because at this moment we have no great body of fine folksong that is bound close to our social life and the times we live in and the way we go about our work, that is not to say there never will be any more.  It may be we shall have to wait till society is so altered that there is no longer any special distinction or variance between the composer and the rest of his fellowmen, till cultured music and popular music have become one and the same.  And that is just the sort of thing we can confidently look forward to, if ever we have a society all of a piece, one where men can be what they are, and think and feel and sing as they do, without reference to class or colour or creed or any of the other things which mean that one man’s culture is another man’s caviare or dope or downright


(a.l.lloyd – The Singing Englishman – an introduction to folk song)

3 Responses to “The Folk Theory”

  1. James says:

    I believe Tolkien spoke of how one should value food and cheer and song above gold, but also how, little by little, one travels far. The Fool’s Journey is one that seeks song above gold, and the Fool travels as he sings, and sings as he travels. The Fool entertains, yet he moves ever conscious of the Road, while never seeking its end. ‘Folk’ is the language of the Road. You walk the path of the Fool, yet it is the path of song and cheer; more valuable than any gold. The Fool is wiser than any king.

  2. “Our understanding is that all music is ‘folk’, is rooted in the musical traditions that came before. Even music that apparently rebels, that hopes to sound different and move away from earlier styles, is being directly influenced by old music. The old is always the point of departure for the new.”

    Most interesting & sympathetic, those ruminations, as is your whole project!
    As a musician, I’ve always enjoyed Leadbelly’s definition, when asked by some earnest type if he played folk music: “well, it must be folks music: I ain’t never heard no mule sing it!”
    I grew up with traditional music; both directly from my parents, and via recordings; and no radio or TV worth mentioning until I was 8 or so (1970), when we moved from the West Highlands to rural Lincolnshire.
    I was always aware of traditional music; both by oral tradition and by recordings, largely of music my parents knew by oral tradition.
    Some of my earliest non-parental musical memories were of learning by oral tradition from the kids I walked home from my one-room school with: one day it could be Yellow Submarine (long before I ever heard a Beatles recording) another it could be “dirty” WWII army songs, another could be “We’re all off to Dublin in the green, in the green, to join the IRA.”
    I dived into rock’n’roll, punk, & reggae (both as a fan and then as a musician) as I became exposed to it later, but could always bond with my parents over the inspired ancient/modern fusions of the Steeleyes & Fairports.
    These days, 3000 miles away in Montreal, I play mainly folk music (Celtic, Canadian & American, East European: see website) but it seems quite natural to me to sing the odd Clash or Ian Dury song at a trad session.

    Here’s a health to you lot & your worthy endeavour, and give my best to the Auld Sod: who knows when I’ll ever get to walk it again myself.
    Cheers, Patrick

Leave a Reply to Kendrick Bushfield