May 19th, Brighton Concorde
If you’re at all accustomed to hanging round here, you’ll already know; i) stuff seems to get posted fearfully late; ii) gig reviews dwell only momentarily on their ostensible subject before flying off on some strange tangent all of their own; iii) the greater the excess of i), the greater the excess of ii).
You’ll see why I’m saying all this in a second...
I am, it would seem, one of the two or three people who enjoys Andrew Rilstone’s folk posts. (In fact it’s his stuff on theology, Richard Dawkins or the Daily Hate I am most tempted to skip, but unlike others I don’t consider him to be at my beck and call.) However, while it is true that I went to see Show of Hands based on his recommendation, the clincher for me was when he posted this clip of the band performing with Cornish vocal outfit Fisherman’s Friends.
As always, I try latching onto something new only to find out I remain behind the times. Show of Hands have been going since the late Eighties, after co-founder Phil Beer left the Albion Band. (Themselves founded by ex-Fairport Convention member Ashley Hutchings. English folk always seems that way. You think you’ve discovered some isolated island with its own unique habitat. But Fairport and Pentangle are like the Laurasia and Gondwanaland of the scene, you look at the crinkly edges to discover everything else has just broken off from them.)
At first I was perturbed. When the support act started displaying such gimmicky feats as playing two guitars at once, I feared that the band might come on balancing seals on their noses. Happily not. There was copious swapping of instruments which I only occasionally knew the names of. But not once did I think “great singing, good guitar line or fine fiddle playing”, I naturally focused on the song. Which is of course always the measure of great singing, good guitar or fine fiddle playing.
Though a fan, Andrew has at times critiqued the band; even considering himself “manipulated, albeit possibly in a good way” after one of their gigs. He’s said:
“You feel that Show of Hands numbers are positively written with audience participation in mind. That their studio recordings have an important element missing. That... they're playing the audience like an instrument... there's... something -- uncomfortable? -- about the exercise. After the Bellowhead gig I complained that I wasn't really caught up in the emotion. After Show of Hands, I'm more inclined to complain that I was.”
Though I had read those words, I still found myself unprepared for what was to come. I have been to gigs before where there had been singalong numbers. This was a singalong night. It felt more natural to join in the anthemic choruses than at other gigs where I actually knew the words. I was not surprised to discover afterwards that roughly a third of their recorded output is live stuff.
Steve Knightley’s writing style may well owe as much to the conventions of speechwriting as of songwriting. (Choruses like “cut-throats, crooks and con-men” or “arrogance, ignorance and greed” follow the familiar three-beat pattern of speechifying – “determined, resolute, invincible!”) As Humphrey Littleton once said to an applauding audience, “Thank you. Now go and annex the Sudentenland.”
Let’s be clear. I mis-spent much of my youth at hardcore and anarcho-punk gigs, where I can recall people quite seriously saying things like “but that can’t be a bad song – it’s about veganism!” Much of that music worked like a bad eighties alternative comedian, who couldn’t get a laugh but would manage a round of applause if he slagged off Thatcher. This is different. The charge here is not that the content mars the music, or is a mask for bad music. If anything, the charge is that the music is good – and therein lies the danger.
Part of me, however, is tempted to critique the critique. Andrew, I rather suspect, likes and has latched onto the narrative element of folk music. Which is fine. But a song doesn’t necessarily need a narrative. A song can take after an essay or a polemic as easily as a tale.
I also suspect we’ve been taught to distrust all collective impulses. The idea that even having a bit of a singsong might turn us into a mindless mob, isn’t that a bit of a handy one for our lords and masters? Anyway, why assume there’s no such thing as a mindful mob? Perhaps its time to start trusting to the wisdom of crowds a little more.
Besides, not all their songs are polemical – in fact I felt Knightley’s heart actually lay elsewhere. Not only was a highlight of the night their cover of Don Henley’s ’Boys of Summer’, a song I’d never previously cared for before, all else seemed to some extent to touch on this elegiac element, this sense of the summer heat fading. Folk music, at least the kind listened to by actual folk music fans, is not about saying “hey nonny no” to some playpen happy past. The point of the past is that it holds a perpetual, irresistible tug – which lies in ceaseless conflict to the “voice in my head saying don’t look back, you can never look back.” The past is unfinished business. As William Faulkner said “the past isn’t over. It’s not even past.”
...but ultimately I don’t think this critique can be entirely discarded. Let’s take two poles as our barometer. Neil Young’s explanation of his much-criticised ’Let’s Impeach The President’ was that the song did not have to be pretty, it just had to graft itself inside your head to have “done it’s job.” To which I thought – you’re describing the rules of an advertising jingle. That toothpaste brushes whiter, this President is a liar. Watch Bush appear in the video, tune out the words, and it’s virtually a facsimile of a campaign anthem.
Yet may years before, Young wrote ‘Ohio.’ In many ways it’s a similar song, about people in high office literally getting away with murder. Both are about current affairs, largely presuming the listener will be familiar with their headline-drawn subject. (Famously, ’Ohio’ was recorded and released so soon after the shootings that it ended up competing in the charts with a single the band had already released.) Both even name Presidents.
Yet ‘Ohio’ is a personal reaction, a record (almost literally) of how Young felt when he first saw photos of the killings. It’s tone is more personal, more conversational. (“What if you knew her and found her dead on the ground?/ How can you run when you know?”) It’s as engaged as ’Impeach The President’ but less didactic. One is an argument, the other a line. Steve Knightley’s songs lean further to ’Ohio’, but have perhaps a touch of ’Impeach The President’ about them.
Andrew’s next step was a lengthy defence of the band’s song ’Roots’ against accusations of racism. (He concluded “mostly harmless.”) Perhaps I should confess upfront that I have no truck with any form of nationalism, and nurse a dislike even for the little Union Jack icon on the corner of my desktop. (Necessary to stop my computer doing everything in American.) Lines like “it’s my flag too and I want it back” leave me nonplussed – how can it possibly be my flag?
So you may want to bear that in mind if I give some credence to the idea that the folk genre catalyses this air of unease. There’s the double meaning to folk, which simultaneously stands for a style of music and as a collective term for people. (Just as ‘country’ can mean both ‘countryside’ and ‘nation’.) Folk can have the sense that it carries within it our latent instincts, that it is saying what is really on our minds. It may be one thing to say “they are digging up my old school fields” and another to say “they are digging up England.”
Yet that apparent easy conflation of folk with English tradition, does that arrive only with hindsight? I would like to know when the current marketing tags for folk (such as ‘English’, ‘Celtic’ or ‘Cornish’) first arrived, particularly when they first appeared in songs. I suspect that they would be a lot more recent than we tend to assume. Back when those songs were part of a live tradition, when Trad and Anon were still composing, would many people have had much of a relation to those words? Weren’t songs sung in specific styles in specific places, as a statement of local identity? Why for example should the afore-mentioned Fisherman’s Friends relate to English folk when Cornish folk is more similar to the sounds of Brittany?
Of course folk purists thrill to hear some discovery came from somewhere romantically provincial, but as a magic portal to the past, not a place on a map. (Like the way the word ‘Champagne’ is a label for a product, but few of us could point to where in France it is.) When the same clone stores clog our high streets, when national borders have become the economic equivalent of chalk lines drawn in the middle of a hurricane, when people don’t even support the football team of their home town any more, it is easy to see folk as epitomising some earlier alternative to all that. They see something under attack, and respond by reaching for a time before it even existed.
But perhaps that local experience is now so closed to us it can no longer be related to, and we inevitably see other things. Since the folk revival, perhaps we have heard a music that was all about specificity and proceeded to generalise it. Perhaps the like of myself listen to folk to hear about class, and that’s merely another variant on the same theme.
Take ’Cousin Jack’ the song Show of Hands performed with Fisherman’s Friends, the video clip of which took me to their gig in the first place. (Remember that gig I went to?) Ostensibly it’s a song about the Cornish diaspora, but inevitably I take that as a prism of the working class experience. Knighley recites a plethora of places where the miners have travelled, but seen nothing of it beyond the darkness of yet another seam to work...
“Where there’s a mine or a hole in the ground,
That’s where I’m heading for, that’s where I’m bound...
I’ll leave the country behind, I’m not coming back
So follow me down, Cousin Jack.”
It reminded me of ’Miner’s Refrain’ by the country artist Gillian Welch, which is if anything more explicit in universalising the experience...
”In the black dust towns of east Tennessee
All the work's about the same
You may not go to the job in the ground
But you learn the miner's refrain
I'm down in a hole, I'm down in a hole,
Down in a deep, dark hole”
We’re like the night to your day, going to the places you don’t, performing the tasks you never would, and we will never do anything else. Yet your existence is dependent upon us.
So... a song about place or class? Is there even an answer, or are we all simply seeing what we want? Take Topic records, the emblematic label of English folk. Their first ever release, Paddy Ryan’s version of ’The Man That Waters Down the Workers’ Beer’ was backed by ’The Internationale.’ Perhaps those two sides have been flipping ever since...
...let’s end up with some sing-songs. ‘Cut-throats, Crooks and Con-men’ from Bridport, two days after the Brighton show, complete with some of that audience involvement business...
’Boys Of Summer’ in Oxford, in an autumnal November...