Rediscovering our cultural identity through folk music

Whenever I take friends of mine to folk clubs or sessions, they always enjoy it. For the benefit of the majority of people my age who have never been to one, they can take on a number of different guises: some simply take the format of everyone sitting in a circle and taking it in turns to sing a song (if they want to), while others have featured guests who do extended sets in addition to a few floor spots (one or two songs) from regular attendees. Some folk clubs tend towards traditional songs whereby the author of the song is either unknown or impossible to pin down due to the song changing and evolving so much over decades or centuries; some clubs are more likely to feature more contemporary folk artists from the 60s onwards: Bob Dylan, Richard Thompson or Show of Hands.

Despite the folk club scene remaining very strong, it is still the case that most people don’t know a great deal about English folk music. Irish, yes – surely the most uninitiated into the world of folk music can belt out the chorus to ‘Wild Rover’, even if they sing the lyrics from the Clover advert or the chant of their favourite football team. And the same could be said, though to a slightly lesser extent, of Scottish folk. But English folk remains under the radar in the popular imagination. My theory has long been that folk music is a form of national solidarity – a way of remaining connected to your past and honouring the memories of heroes now long gone. Which is perhaps why English folk is pushed to the margins: both in Britain as well as on my travels I have found that folk music is strongest in countries that have a long history of being oppressed. England’s nasty habit of being the historic oppressor means that we find it more difficult to sing about glorious battles, whether lost or won, against a malevolent force because it feels understandably uncomfortable to gloat about causing centuries of pain to a great many people.

But this does not mean that we should ignore the vast trove that is to be found in English folk. Many focus on internal struggles, particularly class-based ones. I once attended a whole evening of mining songs from the North-East which, despite sounding like an overly specific theme, is fertile ground for stories of the oppressed rising up against the greedy bosses, or ballads telling tales of tragedy and sorrow. These stories are kept alive through folk music, and it is never difficult to see modern parallels.

I would not describe myself as a nationalist or a patriot, but we shouldn’t shy away from celebrating our own culture and history. The key point here is that this needn’t be in opposition to anyone else’s. A realisation of this could go some way towards solving the political malaise that we currently find ourselves in. While some may rail against multiculturalism, there is no reason why this shouldn’t include English and British culture. And this is where the inevitable, and on the face of it tenuous, link to Brexit comes in.

There were many reasons for the nation’s decision to vote to leave the EU, but many of the prominent ones – namely immigration and sovereignty – can be boiled down a sense of lost national identity. People speak fondly of a sense of community from a bygone era that may or may not have existed, but in their view certainly doesn’t any more. My view is that leaving the EU won’t go anywhere towards restoring that, but the sentiment is understandable and reasonable. Whenever I hear these arguments, I always like to ask: what exactly is it about England or Britain that you feel most connected to? And what is it you feel you have lost? This is not meant as a patronising or facetious question. For me, the things I miss most about Britain when I travel are folk clubs and pubs. No one quite does pubs like Britain does them, and I miss that. Folk clubs are a slightly different issue – I have not been to enough of them in other countries to make comparisons. But while I have had some wonderful nights at folk sessions in foreign lands, it is those in Britain that contain the stories that I can connect to most (if only for the primary reason that I am monolingual).

And this is where I feel we’re getting it a bit wrong, and have been doing so for years. Instead of looking at the outcome of the vote and deciding that as a result we must pander to the loudest voices on the right by making migrants a scapegoat, we should be looking at the root causes of why this is seen to be a problem. For me, this all boils down to community. If people felt a sense of local, regional and, yes, national pride, we would not feel the perceived lack of sovereignty as keenly. Immigration would not be seen as a problem if we could articulate a positive image of our own culture. So when another pub gets shut down because rising duties and business rates have made it impossible to continue, and this former hub of the community gets converted into upmarket flats, it is another nail in the coffin for a liberal future. When libraries are forced to close because of cuts to council budgets, or community centres culled, it has has the same effect. It is a recipe for festering resentment.

I would go further too, and say that this issue also extends to our education system too. In many other countries, children are taught folk songs from a young age and it gives them a sense of their history. In countless nations, you can start singing the opening lines of any number of well-known folk songs and everyone in the vicinity will join in. We in Britain learn endless dates and facts about our kings and queens, yet nothing about the Peterloo Massacre or the Kinder Trespass that do far more to inform the average person about our own cultural identity and history than learning the names of the six wives of an overly-entitled, narcissistic psychopath.

The sad reality, though, is that politicians today are listening to the voices of those who claim multiculturalism has failed. If their efforts to rid Britain of it succeed, then we won’t be left with our own cultures and traditions; we will be left with nothing.


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