Brighton Dome, Sat 17th Nov
“It’s not about authenticity, it’s about identity. I’m not interested in people listening to this record searching for authenticity. But there’s a lot of identity there… This is what I am. I’m rooted and I’m English.”
- Simon Emmerson
Now a Singing Revolution might sound the sort of thing that only the more earnest folkie would dream of, with nothing ever coming of it bar dribble in his beard. Except one actually happened less than two decades ago – in Estonia during 1988. On (I kid you not) September 11th of that year, the crowd at a big music festival collectively launched into songs banned by the Soviet rulers. The event led to street demonstrations where participants continued their songs, until (to cut a long story short) independence was won four years later.
It would be charmingly romantic to imagine that we could have so personal a relationship to English Folk, as if its tunes were woven into the fibre of our beings. But, despite Emmerson’s quote above, we can’t. Perhaps for us it feels too close to celebrating nationhood, fine if you’re Estonian but not quite the thing for one of history’s great reformed bullies. Perhaps we’ve had to contend with too much faux-rustic claptrap and TV-advert Harvest festivals. (Though of course there’s been no shortage of awful Celtic ‘music’ either.) More likely there’s been some deathly combination of the two.
Nevertheless I cling to my contention that folk’s one of those either/ or types of music (alongside soul or country) - if it works well it works very very well, it’s only when it doesn’t work its horrid. So, despite not particularly expecting the evening to lead to any revolutions, I journeyed down to Brighton Dome to see Simon Emmerson and a big gang of his mates perform tracks from The Imagined Village.
There’s been talk lately of a folk revival, in which context it’s interesting to see so cross-generational a stage ensemble - from Sixties folk stalwart Martin Carthy through Eighties figures like Emmerson and Billy Bragg even down to some young ‘uns. But Carthy’s presence raises a question I can only speculate over. When there was so much great English folk about in the late Sixties (of which he was such a crucial part), how come there has been so little since? Where were the English music equivalents of the Pogues or REM? Perhaps the classic example are the Mekons, who in embracing rootsy music also decided to decamp to America. The Men They Couldn’t Hang are perhaps the exception that proves the rule. (NB If anyone is thinking “The Levellers” here, please could you leave the room quietly?)
Like today the Sixties felt a futuristic era, as if the future was bursting in all around you, and this doubtless proved part of the appeal in looking back. But then the future was something to be embraced not feared, so perhaps a rooting in the past did not automatically imply an escape into nostalgism so much as an emphasis on continuity. (Then again, against any notions of era-localism, it should be noticed Carthy’s daughter Eliza was also on stage and accounting for herself splendidly – perhaps folk does lie in the blood after all!)
But also, now popular music is less about claiming generational identity than it has been for fifty years, could a great barrier to folk’s cry for tradition and continuity be down? Of course some might argue this merely exposes a bigger still barrier to folk – its whiteness. Even if whiteness isn’t actually politically suspect surely it’s unsexy. After all no-one ever offers to put on some badass white music at a party, do they? Bragg seizes this elephant in the living room at one point, saluting “that much maligned of groups – the white working class.” And he has a point. As the Pete Poselthwaite character puts it in the film Brassed Off, on the pit colliery band forced to close with their mine, “if this lot were seals or whales, you'd all be up in bloody arms. But they’re just ordinary human beings!”
However Bragg (who can frankly be something of a plonker) then has to throw patriotism into the mix, even going so far as to have written a book called The Progressive Patriot. This seems absurd. As fellow stage-hog Chris Wood puts it on the band’s own website, “traditional music has never adhered to the constructed boundaries of a governing class. Nor should our sense of ourselves.” As another old beardy guy put it, the working class has no country. Moreover, it’s specifically in the context of folk music where this makes not more but less sense. Beyond the simply geographical ‘English folk’ is actually something of an oxymoron. Its original pre-industrial participants would have only held the haziest sense of themselves as English, like their music their identities would have been much more localised. Some folk traditions slip these boundaries altogether, such as the Cornish whose music more resembled the Bretons of North France. Yet, if taken geographically alone, we can talk of ‘English folk’. ‘Progressive patriot’ is the oxymoron.
Moreover, despite Bragg’s battlecry, the performance ultimately tries a little too hard to lose the whiteness tag and with it sometimes embraces a debased, multiplexy form of multiculturalism. Bragg’s introductory song, England Half English, is clearly intended lightheartedly but its insistence on equality through eating curry the one night then bubble and squeak the next feels irritatingly tokenistic. Buying a curry is merely consuming a culture, not interacting with it. Moreover, while the band were clearly chosen for their musical chops not their skin tones there was something of the ‘photo-op multiculturalism’ about the look of them and their mixture of ethic instruments – something slightly too reminiscent of Father Ted’s Anti Racist Slide Show.
Similarly, as seems to happen often at folk gigs, I found there to be far too much talking. This is something I normally find, but it’s normally confined to the audience. Of course you want folk gigs to be chatty and informal, but all the blather here puts you in mind of a nervous suitor on his first date. (Perhaps significantly, the Carthys talked the least and also played the most.) And the banner title, The Imagined Village was an ungainly mouthful which sounded suspiciously and unappealingly like a project. All of this seemed to dispel the very feeling they were trying to conjure. If this really was the music of our roots, our misplaced identity, why would we need an introductory essay to explain all that to us?
Something else I sometimes found cringey was the attempt to ‘update’ some of the old songs. This often reminded me of the more desperate devices by which schoolteachers would try to ‘reach’ their classes; “Hamlet was a Prince, which was like a Pop Star, only in the past” etc etc. Of course we don’t want folk music reverentially preserved, a task better given to embalmers than musicians. And apparently similar approaches can (and did) work well. Writing about contemporary subjects in the folk idiom can create an interesting frisson. For example, there’s Chris Woods’ song about a yuppie buying up a Cotswold’s cottage because it’s “quaint”, his 4x4 intruding into the folk idiom as his Gucci shoes do on the cottage floor. And adapting the essence of an old song into a new idiom can bring surprises to both, as Benjamin Zephaniah proves with Tam Lyn. But Bragg’s version of Hard Times of Old England ‘updates’ it by dropping contemporary references (Tescos, closing post offices) into an otherwise intact old folk number, and loses – in quite a literal sense – its integrity. It creates a disorienting kind of verbal collage best played for surreal or comic effect, like Pete Kennard cartoonishly sticking cruise missiles in Constable’s Haywain. (Oddly the only time this approach is attempted is for the CD cover/ gig poster image - see above.)
But all of that is to look at the flagon of ale as half-empty when it was equally half-full. Perhaps any gig with Martin Carthy aboard will have high points, but for every song that stumbled there was another which cut a rug. And as each new Starbucks opens it comes to feel more and more important to remind ourselves of a diverse landscape beneath such corporate uniformity. True, too many times that tradition has come to feel like faerie gold from one of the old tales, disappearing as soon as grasped. But I would contend it’s more like an irregular seam of gold - buried deep then shunted by subsequent events into an inaccessible seam, but real gold you can bite into.
The two opening songs demonstrated all we wanted with aplomb. For the first track, against spectral drones a recording of the old folkie John Copper lamented the “ ’ouses, ‘ouses, ‘ouses” which now cover so much of the Sussex Downs. The band immediately then launched into an inspired version of John Barleycorn Must Die. The effect was enhanced upon your host who had previously been so gormless as to fail to get this song! Indeed on the surface it is another‘ rebel martyr’ song, akin to The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down or the like. Repeatedly “they hired men” to assault Barleycorn in a myriad of ways, until you start to feel half of Sussex must be enlisted - but he mystifyingly seems to survive it all.
The point to John Barleycorn Must Die is that he cannot die, for he represents the barley in the fields – and ultimately nature itself. Whenever he appears dead he merely regrows a line or two later. Man may be predatory upon nature, but this very relationship paradoxically makes him dependant upon nature. The song has been played as a drinking song (the assaults he suffers mirror the stages in making beer, something contemporary audiences would doubtless have known), a rebel song (with him standing for the agricultural worker against the sent “hired men”), or for that matter as a rebel drinking song.
But today the song can have a meaning beyond those originally intended, with the beset-upon Barleycorn standing for the folk tradition itself. It’s a tradition they’ve tried to “bury beneath the ground” underneath those “ ’ouses, ‘ouses, ‘ouses”, and one “served most barbarously” by its own supposed adherents - sapping the thing they loved through their perverse desire to ‘preserve’ it. But, like the song says, “no man’s been born that could best John Barleycorn, for he’s suffered many pains.”
I’m agnostic over talk of revivals, suspicious of notions of identity and frequently frustrated by how hard it can be to access the essence of folk. But I don’t think it’s dying off anytime soon.