Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Will Hodgkinson - The Ballad Of Britain

Following on from his two previous travel annals in search of some sort of songwriterly wisdom (namely Guitar Man and Song Man) here the author sets off on a quest across the UK to assess what, if there is such a thing, constitutes the folk music of Britain today. This in itself follows Victorian composer Cecil Sharp’s decade-long endeavour to document the folk song of turn of the century Britain before it went the way of the horse and cart. Using the term folk as ‘people’ not the music form applied to it, he covers a lot of ground in his short six month stint to see whether folk song exists in it’s traditional manner in our modern age - narratives of universal themes passed down and along through families and across regions - or lost in a blitzkrieg of consumerism. With a Zoom recording device in tow the author journeys through the big city blues of Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield and London and the purveyors of popular song commonly associated with them, to the outer edges, visiting Cornwall, Fife, Cardiff and Robin Hood’s Bay and many places inbetween, collecting field recordings in the manner of the Lomax’s with the folk blues of the jazz and depression era rural America. So from the morris dancers of olde Britain to the Brit school, gypsies to the grime scene on London’s streets, itinerant troubadours and inner city buskers to leftfield experimental labels and dance collectives, he encounters a cast of characters including The Watersons, Incredible String Band founder Clive Palmer, Pete Townshend, Cornershop’s Tjinder Singh, Gruff Rhys of Super Furry Animals and Jarvis Cocker, along the way alighting on enlightening glimpses of modern life, illuminated, appropriately it seems, more by the supposedly lesser lights when juxtaposed with the society they exist alongside.
Those out of the public eye like buskers Tim and Lewis in London, Glaswegian duo Directing Hands’ evolution of ballads into discordant dirges becoming the derelict environs they now found themselves in compared to The English Ayre’s evocation of medieval courtly tunes and Stephanie Hladowski in Bradford seem to be more plugged into any ancient ways, above and beyond existing in relative obscurity. Woven through all these threads are historical and sociological snippets alongside the author’s own ruminations, insights and asides that show him to be once more an entertaining guide who’s clearly a fan beloved of anecdotal tales and beholden to discovering what makes these people tick and admirer of the results.
As anyone with an ear anywhere near the ground should be aware, he unearths much of hope in the people who write and perform music purely because they want or have to, not out of careerist opportunism. While not something to take for granted, his trips from the contentedly localised to those with ever so slightly more commercial designs like Fife’s Fence Collective and the Green Man festival in Wales show that the impulse to sing or create music for its own, or the immediate community’s, sake is inside many, if not each of us. Though the days when families had a piano in the front room and a Sunday sing-song are generally long gone, away from the onslaught of mass media, false celebrity and fame for ‘noffink’ culture, there will always be individuals with a desire for a return to ‘simpler’, ‘less fast-paced’ times, and not just in a weekend-at-Glastonbury commercialised way, or people simply playing music for their own means without any conscious decision to be engaging in any form of folk music. Idealistic it may be but this book demonstrates this culture is slowly occurring and has been for some time below the surface and will no doubt continue to do so under its own steam. Whether songs by the likes of The Kinks or The Stones nevermind James Yorkston or (God forbid) Rihanna will become folk songs as in songs of the people that have evolved and being disassociated from their origins is for another century’s musical ethnology to try and ascertain.
Thankfully by no means a stuffily academic tome of musicology, as a snapshot this thought-provoking book will have bypassed many inclusions (nothing about the midlands continually being a bedspring of heavy metal), based as it is subjectively, using people known to the author and his own references as a starting point, but it is an affecting and vibrant portrait of not just the songs that roam around it but the island of Britain’s spirit itself. Full of wit, wonder, loneliness and tinges of sadness aswell as communal spirit and kinship it’s almost a song in itself.
Stu Gibson

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