Monday, 4 July 2011


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...


  1. If you can be late to the show writing these things, is it OK for me to be late in responding to them?

    It is in the nature of a good song, I think, to focus on something specific and in doing so evoke something general. So when Dar Williams sings of her childhood babysitter that "she sits on her hair and she's tall as my dad", that evokes in me memories of when I had a babysitter, even though she wasn't particularly tall or long-haired. (I could write much more about this, but I'll save it for my own blog.)

    So it seems the most natural thing in the world to me that a song about the Cornish diaspora should become a prism of the working class experience -- and, more than that, of your working class experience, if you ever had one. What that says to me is that the song is doing its job. I think it must have been Chesterton who said that we can only see ourselves and our homes clearly when we've stepped outside of them, and that is what a good song lets us do.

  2. Only if I can be late in responding to your response!

    I’m tempted to agree with the ‘good art always generalises’ argument. I’ve sometimes come across artists (of whichever medium) who I felt were clutching their personal experiences like treasure. (“You don’t know what it was like!” Not necessarily, no, but isn’t it your role as an artist to try and convey it?)

    But I was wondering more about form of transmission. (There’s probably a less klunky term for that which I can’t think of right now!) Suppose I went round your house and sang you a song. You would probably naturally assume I was singing it to you for a reason, that it had something in it I thought you should hear. (Of course, upon actually hearing my singing you would still throw a bucket of cold water over me and slam your door, but leaving that to one side...)

    If you saw me singing the same song on TV you might be more geared into hearing a song which people should really hear, something more universalised.

    Okay, but what if we sang a song? In days of yore when men were bold, folk songs were often sing communally, without an audience at all. What’s the parameters then? Do the people singing picture themselves as a microcosm of their town, their country, the human race? Or do you have to be one of the people singing to be in the gang?

    Apart from at Show Of Hands gigs, probably one of the few sets of people who do that these days are football fans. And I suspect hearing footie fans singing in the street does trigger our Spider sense a little, we wonder if they’re actually singing “we are separate from you.”

    I’m not suggesting football fans singing is inherently to do with a gang mentality. But perhaps that is inherently an aspect, which is at times in the foreground and at other times over-ridden by other factors. And I’m not sure folk fans are always very keen to acknowledge that...

  3. And here we run, once more, into the problem of "folk music" being such a stupidly broad category. At one end, we have your historical scenarios where performers -- if they existed at all -- were certainly not central, and acted only as facilitators for a mass musical expression. At the other end, you have someone like Paul Simon or Joni Mitchell, who you definitely go to LISTEN to. Their songs are from them to an audience, and offering that they make rather than something you participate in. Even if you sing along with Still Crazy After All These Years, even when a communal element develops, it's based on the creativity of the performer and at most represents our joining them in that expression, rather than in any sense creating something together.

    Different people have different preferences. For me, the latter is much more interesting because it is, in the healthiest sense, elitist. It pays fuller attention to those who are talented, and have worked hard to develop that talent, than to the rest of us; and because of that the actual music has greater depth, even if you can make a case that there are other merits in the former approach.

    As for football fans singing: no doubt part of the message of such songs is "you're not one of us", but certainly not always. I'm a Liverpool fan, and that club's inexplicable 1960s adoption of Rogers and Hammerstein's show-tune You'll Never Walk Alone became almost unbearable poignant in 1989 after 96 fans lost their lives at Hillsborough. I'm sure that even now, 22 years later, much of the resonance of YNWA when such at matches comes from that shared tragedy.

  4. ”For me, the latter is much more interesting because it is, in the healthiest sense, elitist.”

    I dunno. You could argue the ‘elitist’ model has its downside, and perhaps fed into our current celebrity-obsessed culture. (Though admittedly a pretty long feed, as individual performers are scarcely a recent phenomenon.) Mostly I tend to think of them as two different things which have different purposes. I’m not sure how meaningful it is to hold up one at the expense of the other.

    Not meaning to put words into someone else’s mouth, but I wonder if Andrew Rilstone’s unease over Show Of Hands was the putting of the two together – the charismatic performer and the mass participation. (Though of course that’s inevitable to some degree.)

    I didn’t mean to suggest football chanting is always exclusory, though I may get more of a sense of that side of it from not being a football fan. (Or a nationalist, I have to admit I find it creepy during international leagues when everyone is shouting about ‘England’ all the time.) To name something I do sometimes get involved in, demo chants can sometimes overlap with song, which I don’t necessarily find a bad thing.

    To recap: I find it bizarre when folk is used as a vehicle for nationalism when so much of traditional folk existed before that concept was particularly widespread. But at the same time I think we should always be cautious of reading into it what we want to find there. We may be too far removed to grasp the original sense of it all, and we might not necessarily like all of it if we could.

  5. I wrote a long comment which Blogger, predictably, threw away. It really is the crappiest of all major blogging platforms and I urge you to move to WordPress ASAP.

    Anyway, to summarise my long comment brutally: I more or less agree.

  6. With you or with me?

    (I always write comments in Word, then paste them over. I've lost too many now to do anything else, and anyway the tiny 'Post Comment' letterbox is annoying!)

  7. On this occasion, with both of us.

    Writing comments in Word: please, do not allow a broken system to train you to work around its brokenness. When you do that, the terrorists have won.