Why do I love traditional folk music so much? Part 1: A bit of personal history

On February 12th Dana Wylie and I are going to be presenting a workshop on ‘Discovering the World of Traditional Folk Music‘ at Expressionz Café here in Edmonton. One of the things we’re going to talk about is why each of us is so taken with these old folk songs; what’s so special to us about traditional folk music? I’m going to share a few thoughts here as a way of getting my creative juices flowing.

Although I was born in England and grew up in a very musical family, I did not take very much notice of traditional folk music. Of course, it was hard to ignore it completely (we learned songs like ‘The Lincolnshire Poacher‘ in school), but I wasn’t very interested in it. My Mum and Dad liked classical music and church music both traditional and contemporary, along with such light popular stuff as Val Doonican and Flanders and Swann. In my teens I discovered ‘Top of the Pops’, and a close friend introduced me to Simon and Garfunkel, the later Beatles recordings, Wings, Yes, and the whole world of the more creative side of rock music. I always had a preference for stuff that was played on acoustic guitars, though (especially after I started to play myself), particularly intricate fingerstyle playing. Thus, after I moved to Canada in my late teens I discovered the music of Bruce Cockburn, and for two decades or more he was my guitar guru.

I had a few interesting encounters with traditional music along the way. One day in high school my music teacher, Peter Dale, played us a song from Pentangle’sBasket of Light‘ album: it was the ‘Lyke-Wake Dirge‘. He identified for us that it was an old traditional song, and there followed in class a discussion about people who were doing contemporary versions of traditional music, the most well-known band of course being Steeleye Span. I borrowed a few Steeleye albums but wasn’t much taken with them, but I became a lifetime ‘Pentangle’ fan and especially the superb guitar-playing of John Renbourn. At about the same time I read about the Irish band ‘Planxty‘ and listened to a couple of their recordings, but couldn’t make much of them (I didn’t really ‘get’ the form of traditional songs). And also, of course, I knew ‘Scarborough Fair‘ through Simon and Garfunkel.

Fast forward twenty-five years. At the Edmonton Folk Festival in 2002 we were sitting at a side-stage listening to a concert by former Planxty member Andy Irvine and it suddenly hit me how he had learned most of his songs. He kept introducing songs with phrases like, ‘We learned this song at such-and-such a pub in County Such-and-Such in Ireland from the great singer So-and-So’. Gradually it dawned on me that Andy had learned some of his best music, not from records and CDs and radio songs of singer-songwriters, as I had done, but from a living voice handing down songs from the past by word of mouth.

Later in the same festival we were listening to the younger Irish band Danu singing and playing on the main stage. At one point during their set they invited Andy Irvine to join them on the stage for a couple of songs, and they introduced him by paying tribute to him as a mentor who had taught them a number of their songs. It suddenly came to me that this added a third generation to the traditional process Andy had described earlier (i.e. older singers, passing songs on to Planxty and Andy, who then passed them on to Danu), and suddenly I grasped the idea of a living tradition, with each generation adapting the music and leaving their own imprint on it. And finally I understood what traditional music was all about, and at once I found it incredibly moving. To me it seemed the finest thing in the world to take your place in that process and pass on these old songs to a new generation.

At about the same time I discovered the music of Martin Simpson and Kate Rusby, and this added two or three other elements for me: the English (as opposed to Irish) tradition (both of them), superb guitar-playing, which I had always appreciated anyway (Simpson), and wonderful, evocative singing (Rusby). From then on I was captivated. The first traditional songs I learned to play myself were ‘The Recruited Collier’ (copying Rusby) and ‘Dives and Lazarus’ (copying Simpson). In those days I was very shy about introducing my own adaptations, although I knew full well that all the singers I was listening to had done that themselves. From Kate Rusby I discovered the genius of Nic Jones; from Simpson I was led back to Martin Carthy (who I had known about a little before), and after that there was no stopping. I explored older artists (Carthy, Jones, Renbourn, Jacqui McShee, Shirley Collins, Maddy Prior, Peter Bellamy, and the old singers like Pop Maynard, Walter Pardon, Bert Lloyd and others) and newer performers who were doing exciting and innovative things with the tradition (Jon Boden and Bellowhead, Eliza Carthy, Faustus, Bella Hardy etc.). I also discovered some of the more important song collections and Internet resources, and eventually began working up versions of songs directly from them rather than from recordings.

When I began performing live at open stages in Edmonton in the Fall of 2005 I played almost entirely traditional songs, and many who heard me assumed I’d been playing them all my life, but in fact it was not so; I was a very recent convert, and had all the enthusiasm of the recent convert as well! In my next post in this series I’ll talk about what it is I find so attractive in traditional music.

2 thoughts on “Why do I love traditional folk music so much? Part 1: A bit of personal history

  1. Very interesting post. Thanks, Tim, for sharing your odyssey in the world of folk music. I love Steeleye Span and have been recently reacquainting myself with some of Pentangle’s and Fairport Convention’s catalogue.

    Aside from the English and Irish traditions, I also enjoy some of the American traditions represented by Ry Cooder and others. And slightly more exotically (from a very Brit point of view) about 18 months ago I began to discover – don’t ask how – the Quebecois tradition through a band called Genticorum. Unlike you, I haven’t yet moved into any kind of performance role, so I was interested in your comments on learning and interpreting the music.

    Loking forward to future posts on this topic.

  2. Erin

    This is great Tim and made me laugh because I had assumed you had always played this stuff too. I was raised on this stuff – I still have my vinyl packed away somewhere which includes worn out copies of some early Carthy and Liam Clancy and Tommy Makem. I also loved Eric Bogle and listened to his early stuff a lot. (And on the American front the Seegers). Steeleye Span was one of my first loves. I have to find those old records although I have much of this material now on cd or itunes. Although I’ve listened to this stuff for 35 years you’ve introduced me to a lot of new music including the lovely sounds of Kate Rusby so I’m very grateful for your conversion!

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