Nobody spotted the rise of populism, say the media and the politicians, but that’s not entirely true when it comes to folk music. There is a case to be made for listening much more carefully to the music around us, writes Toner Quinn.
- Toner Quinn
Ever since the new RTÉ Folk Awards were launched in May, I’ve been thinking about what ‘folk music’ means to audiences now. Up until recently, the phrase ‘traditional music’ was the prevalent one because the word ‘folk’ had become so commercialised in the 60s and 70s that musicians had moved away from it. But now ‘folk’ as a descriptive term is back, influenced by its popularity in the UK and the USA, and it is used to describe an ever widening range of musics, from indie-folk to atmos-folk. It would be easy for its meaning to get entirely lost. And yet there are things happening in the world right now that should remind us of one of the most important characteristics of folk music, and compel us to listen to it much more carefully.
The economics of folk
One of the reasons ‘folk’ has been caught up in social and political movements for change over the decades is because of the economics of the music. Folk is pared-down music; it’s mainly played in pubs and at modest-sized festivals. It doesn’t sell like other musics, it doesn’t have the big performance infrastructure to absorb a lot of funding, and it doesn’t scale economically like pop, rock and classical music and opera do. Even when folk singers become quite well known, they are still playing in small venues and festivals up and down the country, still playing acoustic music in small ensembles because that’s the folk idiom, and often performing in sessions and concerts, and on television and radio, for free. Because of these economics, folk singers are grounded in the communities in which they play, and they often perform or write songs that capture the challenges facing those communities. When folk music reaches a wider audience, therefore, it can contain a picture of ordinary people’s experience of society, the kind of reality that can’t be squeezed into news website headlines, tweets and political discussions on television.
We have heard a lot of public discussion over the past few years, saying that nobody saw Brexit coming, nobody saw Trump coming, and nobody foresaw the rise of right-wing politics, but that’s not entirely true when it comes to folk music. English folk musicians sensed the shift early on and set up an organisation called Folk Against Fascism in 2009, just after the economic crash, because they were concerned at folk music being manipulated by the British National Party. It wasn’t called the rise of populism then, but, clearly, that’s what it was. Similarly, even earlier, on the album Rough Music in 2005, the English folk singer Eliza Carthy was singing about ‘a shift to the right’ with Billy Bragg’s song ‘King James Version’. I can remember listening to that line, and there was a power to it that seemed to capture the intensity and blindness of the economic boom and its self-referential logic.