Jim Moray on the Question 'What is Folk Music?'
In the last week, I've become drawn into two discussions/arguments on the internet that have occupied my thoughts.
Both revolve around what belongs in a genre and what doesn't.
The first was about the fRoots Critics Poll, won by an English folk act for the first time in ten years.
The second was over the Young Folk Award, won by Megan and Joe Henwood - fine performers of self-written songs, and which I was lucky enough to be a judge of.
In the case of the former, the view of some is that English music does not belong in a poll for World music, because is it is not "World".
The inclusion of three English albums (Matachin by Bellowhead, Dreams
of Breathing Underwater by Eliza Carthy, and my own Low Culture) deprives other
acts from around the world of exposure they could benefit from and so these
albums should be barred from inclusion.
Regarding the YFA, the argument goes that no matter how good the winners are (and Megan and Joe are really really good) the songs they sing
are "not folk and so should not be allowed in the competition."
In some technical way, at least the term "World Music" has its roots in a meeting at The Empress Of Russia pub in Islington in 1987
where representatives of WOMAD, Channel 4, label owners like Nick Gold (World
Circuit) and Ben Mandelson (Globalstyle), and journalists such as Ian Anderson
of (as it was then) Folk Roots and Charlie Gillett decided they needed a new
way to categorise the stuff that didn't fit anywhere else.
The object was to have a neat label under which to promote artists from around the world that would otherwise slip through the net.
In a gesture that would never happen now, the creation of World music was launched with a cassette tape on the cover of NME.
Moray's Law: As a folk music messageboard goes on, the probability of a thread entitled
"What is Folk Music?" approaches one.
I don't have the answer to the "what is folk?" question any more than anybody else, but if you're asking me, England is as much a part of the world as any other, and music with roots in English tradition should be able to take it's place next to music with it's roots in the traditions of Mali on an equal footing.
I also think that songwriting that reflects the songwriter's thoughts on the world around them, has always been a branch of folk music, and always will.
It might not be to everyone's taste, but there's room for all tastes here.
Perhaps those at the Empress of Russia were right in 1987 - these labels are just a marketing term. No more, no less.