I won’t be attending the Edmonton Folk Music Festival this year – Marci and I are taking a rare year off to go camping in Wyoming and Colorado. I have some regrets about that – I’m always glad to see James Keelaghan, I love the members of Danu whether they call themselves ‘Danu’ or not (sorry, I don’t know how to get that little ‘ over the ‘u’ in WordPress!), I’m always glad to see a good traditional Québecois band, I think Lyle Lovett is a genius, and I always enjoy the Command Sisters. However, I have to say that, on balance, I won’t be too disappointed. We’ve never been to the western States, I could use a good long dose of the outdoors, and, for a traditionally-oriented folkie like me, the lineup is rather underwhelming.
Yes, folks, I’m one of those much-maligned ‘purists’ who everyone loves to hate. I’ve got nothing against jazz, adult contemporary, and singer-songwriter music, and I can enjoy a lot of it (I think k.d. lang’s voice is exquisite), but when I go to a folk festival there are two things I’m looking for above all: a good solid dose of traditional music (including not just ‘world’ music and ‘Celtic’, but English traditional music), and some excellent fingerstyle guitar playing. This year, I think these two categories are sadly under-represented (there’s no one of the standing of Martin Simpson, June Tabor, Maddy Prior, Jon Boden – with or without Bellowhead – Andy Irvine, Christy Moore, or Eliza Carthy, nor are there fingerstyle guitarists of the calibre of the said Mr. Simpson, John Renbourn, Tony McManus, Brooks Williams, or Don Ross.
Also, quite frankly (and perhaps even more controversially), I think singer-songwriters are over-represented. There’s a widespread view in the music world that singing your own original songs is the most authentic form of musical expression and that musicians who sing and/or play other people’s work are somehow less true to themselves. I think this is a rather egotistical way of viewing the world, but I also think it’s antithetical to the meaning of the term ‘folk’ music. What is ‘folk’ music if it isn’t music sung by ‘folk’? If a singer-songwriter writes a song that is so personal to himself or herself that it really can’t honestly be sung by anyone else (even if SOCAN and copyright laws weren’t an issue – GRRR!), is that really a ‘folk’ song? In fact, is it possible to write a ‘folk’ song? I would say ‘no’. A song becomes a folk song when other people sing it – when it’s passed on to other voices. ‘Northwest Passage’ is a folk song; ‘Four Strong Winds’ is a folk song. But is ‘Constant Craving’? I would say ‘no’ (and I think k.d. lang would agree).
So, if I were giving my wish list to Terry Wickham, who would I like to see invited to the Edmonton Folk Music Festival in the categories I enjoy? Here are five suggestions.
Jon Boden. The front man of ‘Bellowhead’ has been running a superb project all year called ‘A Folk Song a Day‘, in which he releases a daily podcast of a folk song (mainly traditional songs and mainly unaccompanied, although there are a few songs with guitar, fiddle, or accordion accompaniment). Jon has a great voice, a voluminous repertoire, and a real respect for the tradition and a commitment to passing it on to a new generation. Also, I seriously think he can play anything! Go listen to his podcasts at ‘A Folk Song a Day’ to get a sense of what he can do – or look him up on YouTube, either by himself, as part of Spiers and Boden, or with his big band ‘Bellowhead’ (this video by Bellowhead of the traditional folk song ‘Prickle-eye Bush’ is particularly entertaining).
Eliza Carthy. Yes, she’s the daughter of iconic English trad musicians Martin Carthy and Norma Waterson, and yes, she sings and pays fiddle in their family band, Waterson: Carthy. But this is not just family togetherness; Eliza is a superb musician in her own right – a wonderful singer and a superb fiddle player, and a genre-straddling artist if there ever was one. Lately she’s been touring with The Imagined Village, and she’s had her own band in the past too, the Ratcatchers (I’d give a lot to have thought of that name!). Here’s a great sample of her singing and fiddle playing.
Maddy Prior. This veteran English performer was for many years the lead singer of Steeleye Span, but she has had a fine career as a solo performer as well, fronting various bands and ensembles including the Carnival Band (see this video), and more recently with Benji Kirkpatrick and Giles Lewin, with whom she recorded a superb CD of traditional folk songs called Seven for Old England. Here she is with Giles and Benji, giving her take on the old folk song ‘Dives and Lazarus’. Giles and Benji aren’t bad either, are they? And by the way, if you want an example of why Steeleye were one of the most brilliant bands on the planet, listen to this.
Jackie Oates. I’ve only just discovered this young lady and I don’t know very much about her, except that she’s a fine fiddle player and a wonderful singer, and she also seems to love traditional music. Her most recent album, Hyperboreans, seems to include a combination of traditional and contemporary numbers. Here’s one of my favourite YouTube videos of Jackie, playing the traditional song ‘Locks and Bolts’. Here she is with Belinda O’Hooley performing Annachie Gordon at the recent tribute concert to Nic Jones at the Sidmouth Folk Festival.
Martin Carthy. At seventy, he is the grandfather of the English folk music scene, and a fine example of a first class musician who has rarely written an original song in his life (although he’s done some pretty original takes on traditional material – here’s an example of a song he dramatically reshaped.); his name is spoken with affection and respect wherever people listen to English folk music. It was Martin Carthy’s version of ‘Scarborough Fair’ that Paul Simon ripped off and made into a huge hit for Simon and Garfunkel, without acknowledging either that it was a traditional song or that he had largely copied Martin Carthy’s guitar arrangement (have a listen to Martin’s version here). For over forty years he’s been producing album after album of traditional songs, alone, or with fiddler Dave Swarbrick, or with his wife Norma Waterson and their daughter Eliza. Oh, did I mention that he invented his own guitar tuning along the way – CDCGDA – a tuning that’s devilishly difficult to play in, but which he seems to handle with a sort of dextrous ease!
Well, there’s my five favourites, the people I’d hope to see come to the Edmonton Folk Music Festival to represent the English traditional folk scene. I could of course have mentioned a lot more names – Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman, Bella Hardy, Faustus, Ruth Notman, Andy Irvine, Lisa Knapp, Benji Kirkpatrick, the Demon Barbers, etc. etc. Google them, listen to their music on YouTube, and discover more about the wonderful world of traditional folk music. Let’s see some more of it at our folk festivals!