There are several ways of approaching the noun ‘folk’, and we use it carelessly and variously. We use it with prefix when it strays too far from its perceived meaning (alt, new, weird etc), and we’ll add things to the end when it gets even further away from us (-tronica, or just -ie or -y). This aside, there are perhaps two useful routes into the noun. One being that music of unknown authorship, passed on aurally through the generations, or at least that music that survived the scrupulous moral agency of Cecil Sharp and his contemporaries, and the other, best described as a vernacular or popular music that voices the identity of a community (contemporary or otherwise). These two approaches might well contain each other, or be some way distant.
Mostly, I suppose, that what we call folk is music that sounds like folk. For the most part this works for us, but when presented with a project such as Darren’s here, we are forced to acknowledge, and to some degree reconcile the chasms of ideological, aesthetic, technical and methodological difference between various contemporary practices. And even in writing that sentence, my use of ‘us’ and ‘we’ in this text so far suddenly becomes problematic. Who is this ‘we’? Or to put it rather better by using the words of poet John Hall, ‘Who are you a we with?’ Indeed, who am I, or is Darren, a we with? ‘Bugbears’ is an album of traditional songs, but then so is ‘Broadside’ by Bellowhead, and yet, the two are not siblings. Likewise, Darren is at once doing the same thing and not the same thing as Jackie Oates. The difference, I think, lies in re/deconstruction and appropriation. It also lies in a variable take on the idea of authenticity. And thus, ultimately, the cultural resonance of any practitioner of folk music comes down to the generation and reception of meaning.
In the circles that encompass Bellowhead, Oates et al, there is much talk of authenticity, and it seems that instrumentation, arrangement, language, voice and repertoire play a big part (Bellowhead’s incongruous brass players notwithstanding). The voice is of particular interest here, where delivery will often take on the form of a regionless, quasi-pastoral timbre and ‘accent’, which you will also find rife in the singers on historical dramas from the television (think of Sharpe’s Daniel Hagman, or someone taking up a song at the end of an episode of Larkrise to Candleford). Technique and ornamentation play a large role here (instrumentally as well as in the voice). Production for these kinds of traditional players plays to those notions of transparency that manufacturers of recording equipment have been promising for decades. Things are clean and allow us to bathe in the skill, dexterity and knowledge of the players. The set of more problematic performers that might include Darren seem to understand and embrace the idea that recording, production and fidelity have compositional value in and of themselves. Furthermore, the voice is unaffected (or in the case of Birdengine, is grossly caricatured). There is an acknowledgement of historical gap, and a process of deconstruction that seems to seek a recontextualisation for this material. The appropriation of traditional song often takes an allegorical purpose, and arrangements are not faithful, nor scored within ‘the tradition’. The priorities are within different camps.
For some, authenticity might lie within knowledge of the repertoire, technique of delivery and a puritanical approach to arrangement, and for some (including me), it might lie in the acknowledgement that in this instance, there is no tangible authenticity for a living practitioner appropriating this material (in terms of its literal articulation). It is perhaps, only in acknowledging a distinct inauthenticity that we can start to ignore the term and at least do something sincere. I think the majority of traditional players, would have to concede that they have little common ground with a peasant class of community-based musician (and what community anyway?). But these things in either case, while problematizing authenticity, do not in any way effect integrity, which can be approached in terms of virtuosity or in terms of atavism, or indeed, in terms of a wilful and postmodern transhistoricism. This would become a debate of considerable length were I to introduce the idea of original song here, but fortunately for all concerned, that is not the case.
The unfixed meaning of the word folk is at once a strange thing, but also arguably a good thing. Artwork has a number of these collapsed nouns, like lyric, ballad, performance, and installation to name just four, and this allows considerable scope for interpretation. Baring in mind that of course, between and beyond the two approaches I have written about here, exists a countless number of alternative methods and histories, all of which, enticingly remain in flux. Furthermore, lest we forget, those surviving songs so variously reproduced remain, at least in part, because they are beautiful, and those significant themes like love, death, drink, fear, war and so on, continue to be of relevance beyond any tawdry argument of authenticity. It is when musicians recognise this and appropriate traditional songs, in whatever form they begin to take, that something new and something exciting can happen. At this point, the generation and reception of meaning that I mentioned earlier, becomes the focal point, and whatever aesthetic or ideological camp one falls into, surely that is a good thing?
Johny Lamb is 30 Pounds of Bone