English folk music is not nearly as well-respected as its Irish or Scots counterparts. Maybe this is because we’re the dominant country, so we don’t have as much oppression to sing about – though I’d question this, in the light of historical events such as the Industrial Revolution. But folk doesn’t have to be about oppression: much of it is about love – a love of place or a love of person (usually a woman since, let’s face it, most of these things were written by men) – and there’s a simplicity about the songs. They arise out of working-class traditions and may not be erudite or complex but nevertheless have an authenticity. Consider the simple pun on thyme/time in ‘A Bunch of Thyme’:
This also illustrates the primacy of the oral tradition, as the pun suffers from being written down.
English folk music has long been the object of ridicule: the sneers I’ve been subjected to for liking folk clubs are second only to those I suffered for being a Leonard Cohen fan. The finger-in-the-ear-whilst-singing-nasally is a cliche too easily trotted out by cynics; but folk clubs are by and large open and inclusive spaces where a variety of styles can be aired and where people can come together to share songs. You may think it’s ridiculous for a bunch of middle-class, middle-aged English folk to sing about being ‘lonely round the fields of Athenry’ but to join in with an impromptu rendering of a song you love is a moving experience. It ain’t clubbing on acid, but it’s humming on real ale – and I like it.
Not that any of this sums up my experience last night. I’d been meaning to go to Loughborough Acoustics for months and finally made it last night. The club which hosts it boasted all the atmosphere of a wet bus shelter in Skelmersdale: I opened the folk room door with an ominous creak to find two-and-a-half men (one half hidden behind a PA) one of whom was on stage and tuning up. I was greeted with all the enthusiasm of a horizontal wind blowing into the aforementioned bus shelter and approached the bar to see a complete absence of any Proper Beer. Oh dear. In the end I had some water and sat down to listen.
To be fair, I must have picked the worst night of the year to go to the club since everyone was apparently at some festival or other (not Glasto, I’m assuming). It got better; people did eventually talk to me and by half-time I had thawed out somewhat, emotionally speaking.
I’ll give it another try. Mind you, when I told my daughter I was going to a folk club she said ‘oh, what sort of folk are they?’ I think she considers me ripe for some sort of pensioners’ jamboree. *Sigh*. I guess this is what it’s like to hit sixty…