The survival of folk clubs

I haven’t written on this blog for a while – standard blog etiquette suggests I should apologise for this, but such an act would be entirely fruitless and ultimately rather narcissistic; perhaps akin to apologising for playing music slightly too loud on an uninhabited island. So I won’t.

Part of the reason for this is that I’ve spent the last month or so living in Birmingham rather than hostels in Belgium, so there’s not much to report on the travelling front. I’ll be off again soon, the destination being very much dependent on how much money I make busking at Birmingham’s German Market.

Since I arrived back in Brum, I’ve been frequenting many of the folk clubs that I used to go to on a semi-regular basis, and it’s got me thinking about how best to preserve them. It won’t surprise you to discover that the demographic of folk club goers is fairly old. Nothing wrong with that, of course, and they’re a cracking bunch of people. But it does raise worrying questions about how folk clubs in Britain will survive the next few decades. My hope is that folk club attendance is much like voting Tory, in that many people only start to become interested in folk clubs later on in their lives. Every generation thinks that the Tory party will struggle in thirty or forty years’ time or so due to the average age of their voters, before they themselves become the older generation and find themselves voting for the very party they once despised. Sadly, the reality may well be the wrong way round. The Conservative party will inevitably survive the slings and arrows of youthful anger as said anger turns into concern for one’s mortgage, while folk clubs look vulnerable to the sea of troubles ahead (I’m not even slightly sorry for how pretentious that last sentence was).

Of course, lumping all folk clubs together is not particularly helpful. There is a wide spectrum of folk clubs and those who attend them, from those who willingly accept Bob Dylan covers to those who tut if someone has the temerity to play any song for which there is a known lyricist. There are a few I attend, and it’s not my intention to denigrate any of them; I love going to them and I love the wonderfully talented and passionate people whom I meet there. But there is an issue when it comes to the long term survival of these institutions.

This debate is one that crops up time and time again in folk circles, and is usually framed as an argument between traditionalists and modernisers. Framing it in such a way is completely unnecessary, as there is usually a lot of common ground between the two. On one side, the ‘traditionalists’ say that we must maintain a policy of singing traditional songs at folk clubs. As an explanation for those who do not go to folk clubs, these are often pre-20th century, tell a story of some sort and are composed of an astonishing number of verses. The ‘modernisers’ adopt a much more relaxed approach to what should be played, and generally welcome anything that stops just short of Mumford and Sons on the folky spectrum (snarky comments like the one I’ve just made, incidentally, are part of the problem, but more on that later).

My proposed solution is pretty simple, and one that I have seen applied in places, but needs to be more widespread. In the ‘folk world’, it is easy to labour under the misapprehension that folk songs are universally popular. They are not. It is easy to imagine that everyone knows the words to South Australia or Wild Mountain Thyme, but this is simply not the case. I was playing a gig as part of a folk band once where a fellow band members said ‘you’ll all know this one!’ before playing Caledonia. It wasn’t a particularly folky audience, and most of them looked completely bemused. But if you’re raised in a folk environment, it’s easy to think that everyone knows these folk club favourites because everyone you’re surrounded by generally does.

I’ve got a foot in both camps – my parents raised me on an enjoyable diet of Lindisfarne, Steeleye Span and Cockney Rebel (as well as Bob Marley, traditional Balkan dance and the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, but they’re not quite as relevant to this post), which was much more of a ‘folky upbringing’ than afforded to most children. However, my first visit to a folk club exposed me to a genre of music that I’d never encountered before. I’d gone there expecting Bob Dylan and Billy Bragg and instead there were shanties and ballads that all seemed to be about a chap named Johnny, who really has lead a remarkably hard life judging by the many times he’s been slighted by women (usually called Mary or Sally), forced to go to sea for months on end or executed. This is what we all have to realise: traditional folk is completely alien to the majority of people. It shouldn’t be, but no matter how much we bang on about it being culturally important, most people haven’t heard much, if any traditional folk music. More importantly though, it’s not their fault. It may seem patronising to point this out, but it needs to be pointed out. When someone without a folky background comes along to a folk club to give it a try, it is vital to welcome them and, I would argue, allow and encourage them to play whatever they consider to be folk. The likelihood is that it will not be traditional, but that’s OK. They’ll hear traditional songs from everyone else and they’ll probably quite enjoy them. If they then start going regularly, they’ll realise that what they’ve been playing thus far is not in fact traditional folk and they’ll want to learn some. So eventually, they’ll build up a repertoire of traditional folk and be able to play that instead of something much more modern. And the traditional folk club survives, satisfying both the ‘traditionalists’ and the ‘modernisers’. I know that this process works because that was me. In terms of my knowledge and repertoire, I’m still light years behind Alec at the Prince of Wales, whose expertise on Scottish folk is so great it would be an insult to call it ‘encyclopaedic’; there are not enough trees in the world to construct such a book. I’m way behind Des and Margaret from the Black Diamond folk club, a lovely couple whose wide range of songs are always a delight to listen to and join in with. But I’m learning.

So if someone comes to a folk club and enthusiastically says ‘I don’t know much folk, but I love Mumford and Sons’ (told you I’d come back to it), we mustn’t sneer. I’m reminded now of a good friend of mine who works a lot with CAMRA (the Campaign for Real Ale), of which I’m a member, and can suffer from similar issues regarding their image. His argument is that if someone comes to an ale festival as an ‘ale virgin’, and wants something recommended to them on the basis that they love Stella, the best response, rather than tell them that they’re in the wrong place, is to tell them that they’d probably really enjoy a full bodied pale ale. Likewise, an enthusiastic new member of a folk club must always be encouraged.

I genuinely believe that folk clubs will survive. It might not be easy; some will fall by the wayside and others will spring up. Most people my age actually really enjoy folk music when they are exposed to it, but the atmosphere of a traditional folk club can seem a little intimidating. It’s up to all of us to create as welcoming and as accepting an atmosphere as possible.

P.S. For the record, the folk clubs that I go to have all been very welcoming and I’m grateful to them for that. I also think that Mumford and Sons are great. Just so you know.


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