English traditional music’s new wave

Over at Harry’s Place is a post by David Tate featuring a few videos of the acclaimed fiddle, voice, diatonic accordion and anglo-concertina duo Spiers & Boden, seen here playing the Cheshire Waltz:

It’s highly unusual for such cultural delights to be discussed at Harry’s Gaff, which is normally given over to weighty political matters. To my surprise, the post resulted in an interesting discussion in which a majority of what I always assume to be urbanite keyboard warriors showed support for traditional music. I contributed a few words to that discussion, and the remainder of this post is a reworking of my contribution.

I second David Tate’s endorsement of John Spiers and Jon Boden. They are superb musicians and interpreters of the tradition, and have contributed much to the recent revival in English traditional music. If you haven’t already done so, I urge you to give these two young men a listen.

I first came across Jon Boden when I lived in Southampton in the late 1990s, and played in the excellent pub sessions in that city. Jon would occasionally turn up at the Talking Heads in Portswood on Sunday afternoons. He was a very striking chap, with a strong voice and interesting style of fiddle playing. Jon doesn’t appear to do this now, but back then he played with the fiddle on his chest, supported with a strange-looking harness. He sang traditional English songs, which for me was most welcome in a session dominated by Irish music played at breakneck speed. I liked his voice also, though these days I’m put off somewhat by the excessive vibrato he employs for certain songs.

There’s a lot of good English traditional music out there, with much of the playing influenced by the almost rock-n-roll style of Irish traditional music that achieved considerable commercial success in the 1970s and 80s. Many of the well-known musicians of today are young, and it’s good to see some of the more established players and singers gaining more exposure, and feeding off the youngsters’ success.

One oft-levelled criticism of folk music is that ‘tradition’ is something that its custodians would have ‘preserved in amber’. That exact phrase was used by one contributor to the Harry’s Place discussion.

Whom can he mean?

Martin Carthy and the Waterson-Carthy clan are often cited as arch-traditionalists who would preserve folk music in amber, but it’s a criticism that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Carthy plays and sings old songs aplenty, and is keen for these to be heard, but he also reworks old songs into contemporary contexts. Carthy may not be into electric guitars, synthesisers and stuff, but that’s simply because these things don’t interest him. A traditionalist he may be, but you won’t find Martin Carthy pronouncing fatwas on those who enjoy twiddling knobs and experimenting with totally new sounds.

And then there’s Chris Wood: son of Kent, guitarist, fiddler, singer, composer and teacher. Wood’s music is very traditional, but here is a man who can sing the classic old ballad Lord Bateman, and segue into a self-penned song featuring some of the same characters, this time set in a 21st English seaside chippy:

“Lord Bateman kept a chip shop,
and his daughter Peggy-Sue.
She cleaned the fish and took the orders,
she chopped the tatties too.
And the frier there was Billy Smith;
he sweated and he sang,
as the orders sizzled in the oil,
and bubbled in the pan.”

“One in a million” – on Wood’s recent album “The lark descending” – is one of my favourite love songs ever.

As for modernism, there are folk artists who make use of modern technology, and it works very well. But what’s most important is not the instruments, or the age of the source material, but rather the artistry of those playing and singing the tunes and songs.

Some of us folkies, whether young or old, stick to playing traditional music, and we make no apology for this. I personally do it because there are only so many hours in a day, and not because other musical genres don’t interest me. We also draw on many and diverse musical and literary influences, and are not afraid to manipulate tradition in order to create something new.

If you’d like to learn a little more about English traditional music, have a look at the article that Dave Hill commissioned me to write for his Big England series, which was published also here and on the Guardian’s Comment is Free website. In that article you will find a number of links to artists’ websites and other resources. You will also find in that piece a quote from the Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu:

“What is it to be English? It is a very serious question. The English are somehow embarrassed about some of the good things they have done. Multiculturalism has seemed to imply, wrongly for me, ‘Let other cultures be allowed to express themselves, but do not let the majority culture at all tell us its glories, its struggles, its joys, its pains’. A failure to rediscover English culture would fuel greater political extremism.”

I would add that traditional culture is worth celebrating for its own sake, and not just as a political end. There exists in this land some fantastic music, dance and storytelling, and I look forward to seeing my first black Morris dancer, whose colour is not the result of face paint. Perhaps John Sentamu would like to give it a try.