Folk music. I love folk music. I love Richard and Linda Thompson, Kate Rusby, Dick Gaughan, The Unthanks, Tim Buckley, Joni Mitchell, Nick Drake, Donovan, Loudon Wainwright III, Billy Bragg, John Martyn, Sandy Denny, Gillian Welch, Imagined Village, Chris Wood and lots more.
Folk music. I’m not a huge fan of folk music. I never have really liked Seth Lakeman, Eliza Carthy, Martin Carthy, Roy Harper, Bert Jansch, Ralph McTell, Martin Simpson, Steeleye Span, June Tabor and lots more.
I’m not sure what the difference is between these two lists. Sometimes I think that I don’t like authentic music. I don’t really like authentic blues music but I do like Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac. I don’t really like authentic country music but I do like Nanci Griffith. If authentic folk music involves simple instrumentation and a rustic vocal style, then I’m not sure I like it. A good example is “The Recruited Collier”. I love Kate Rusby’s version but can’t find anything to like about Dick Gaughan’s version. Don’t get me wrong – I love lots and lots of Dick Gaughan’s songs – I think he’s a genius and you should see him change a guitar string! Maybe I just like sanitised folk music. Here is a sample of the two versions. I think a lot of my friends will prefer Dick Gaughan’s version.
Maybe it’s just, as I get older, I prefer everything to be gentle and lovely rather than in-your-face, aggressive, confrontational and thought-provoking. Take series three of “The Sinner” – I really enjoyed the first two series but if I have no wish to see another scene of that car crash and the guy dying a painful death again. I just like lovely sanitised TV programmes and music! I don’t think that’s really true either. There are no rules about what I like and what I don’t like. Roo once lived with a friend who, as soon as she heard a pedal steel guitar would say “That’s country – turn it off”. I don’t think I’m quite so simplistic.
Maybe it’s possible to define “folk” music by the instruments that are used. I think most folk music has to include an acoustic guitar. Percussion instruments are probably not okay – that’s why Fairport Convention played “folk-rock” and not “folk”. How about a fiddle? An accordion? Harmonica? Upright bass? Banjo? Mandolin? Spoons? Ukulele? Whatever “the answer” is, I think I do like music that features interesting arrangements with a variety of instrumentation. Possibly, that’s why the only Townes van Zandt album I like, is “At My Window”, because the other albums only use an acoustic guitar to accompany his voice.
One definition of “folk” music is that it is played by ordinary people, not professional musicians. Oh dear – that rules out everyone I mentioned in the my opening paragraph. Another characteristic of “folk” music is that it is generally accepted by the community in which it is performed and therefore handed down for other people to sing. I suppose that Greenwich Village in the early Sixties was a community that “accepted” the music that ordinary people were singing and therefore the “normal” was for other people to sing the same songs. Maybe that’s how Bob Dylan thought it was fine for him to copy Dave van Ronk’s arrangement of “House Of The Rising Sun” on his first album. Folk music is passed from one person to another: handing things down is part of the folk tradition. Of course, other people may think that’s blatant plagiarism.
I’ve got a great book called “Algorithms To Live By” and maybe I just want a rule book called “How To Tell Which Music You Will Like” so I can enter the parameters and a list of lovely music will appear. Clearly, that’s a foolish notion but why I am banging on about this so much? Having posted about Mandolin Orange yesterday, Roo and I just listened to the album again this morning – she was eating a packet of nachos and I was doing the Killer Suduko puzzle – and it was a really lovely hour. We had a good conversation about my use of the word languid. Apparently, languid can mean lazy, weak from fatigue or relaxed and peaceful. Listening to Mandolin Orange is certainly relaxing and peaceful and it was the perfect music to play this morning.
However, listening to Lankum is neither relaxing nor peaceful. It is challenging and I do like challenging music. Is this contradictory? Oh dear. This is not a coherent argument.
Richard suggested that I might like to go with him to see Lankum last year at The Komedia. Apart from my back ache, it was sensational. The group are quite amusing in between songs and passionate when playing. The way the songs build tension and intensity is extremely powerful. There are four members in the band. Brothers Ian and Daragh Lynch, Cormac MacDiarmada and Radie Peat. They all sing and they all play a range of instruments. Radie Peat often plays a harmonium whilst she sits cross legged on the floor.
The first song is “The Wild Rover”. I never did learn the lyrics of this song while my rugby playing mates thought it would be funny to sing it at top volume in a pub. Whereas the song as it is commonly performed tells of a funny charming guy, a bit down on his luck but cheerfully roaming the land, this version includes the last verse which, as they say in their sleeve notes “signals a clear tone of regret and shame.” “If I had half the money I left in your care, it would buy me ten acres and my family rear. It would thatch me a cottage, it would build me a barn. It would buy me a coat fur to keep my back warm.” The song consists of great harmonies, one strummed acoustic guitar that keeps up the rhythm throughout the ten minutes of the song, a drone on the harmonium and some mournful fiddle playing. The volume and intensity increases throughout and by the end the effect is fiercely dramatic. It’s a sensational performance that always leaves me drained at the end. The live version on YouTube is equally amazing.
“The Young People” is up next. It starts very quietly with gentle singing by Daragh Lynch about coming across someone hanging from a tree. The chorus is by way of contrast, much more upbeat and optimistic. Here is what the band wrote about the song: “The chorus of ‘The Young People’ first appeared as a kind of Scottish singalong in Daragh’s head one morning as he woke up, and not sure whether it was a traditional song he’d heard before, a composite of folk songs and melodies from his subconscious, or a completely original piece, he sang it into a dictaphone before it disappeared, like so many before it. The band originally tried using it as a verse, writing others in the same style, but it didn’t seem to work quite as well as imagined. After sitting down and writing a couple of verses on suicide and loss one day, Daragh found that it fit perfectly as the chorus, providing some light to the darkness and adding a satisfying minor to major lift. The resulting song, although quite mournful at times, is ultimately a reminder to cherish and appreciate your friends and loved ones while you still can.” The chorus is sung over and over and I have found myself in the car belting it out at the top of my tuneless voice.
The next two songs, “Ode To Lullaby” and “Bear Creek” are instrumentals. They are great and wouldn’t be at all out of place in a progressive folk album of the late Sixties. Something like a cross between King Crimson and The Incredible String Band.
Side two starts with “Katie Cruel” which is an American folk song dating from the American War Of Independence. When playing this at The Komedia, Radie Peat said “see you on the other side”, took a deep breath and launched into a very emotional, intense performance of the song which is nearly ten minutes long. Her vocals on this are fantastic, sounding like they come from the other side of the universe. The drone from the harmonium gives incredible depth, the brilliant harmonies intensify the sadness of the story and the fiddle playing includes a desperately sad solo.
“The Dark Eyed Gypsy” is a version of “Gypsy Laddie” and was the only British ballad ever printed by the Irish Popular press. “The Pride Of Petravore” is a great instrumental. Or it’s very annoying. I’m not sure which. The hornpipe playing is fascinating – it is nearly tuneless but in the end is unforgettable. The last song is “Hunting The Wren” and features more outstanding vocals from Radie Peat.
This is folk music. Irish folk music. It’s not authentically traditional or traditionally authentic but, hopefully represents a new authenticity. Or even a new tradition. I love it.