Saturday, 6 November 2010

Progressive Folkism

Not all music genres were created equal.

When I walk into university everyday it's impossible for me to ignore the flyers taped to post boxes and telephone poles advertising all sorts of artists I've never even heard of before. I can hardly open my email inbox without being inundated by an avalanche of Facebook invitations to events hosted by MC Shamtastic or the Croydon Dub Masters. Many an evening have I walked away from the DJ booth in shame after being told that no, sorry, they don't take requests for Paul Simon at Lizard Lounge.

We live in a prejudiced world.

Long gone is that golden era when 'folk' and 'club' were two words that frequently appeared in the same sentence. How I wish I could experience those salad days, when I wouldn't have to panic when asked, so what kind of music do you like?

But there is hope. The few hundred visitors I get on this site every week all stand testament to the stalwart remains of folk fandom. The emails I get from readers suggesting new tunes and bands I haven't heard about fill me with unparalleled joy for the future of our encroached genre. We're still here, I whisper to my tear-stained reflection, And, dammit, we're going to stay.

And so to my humble comrades of the Good Music Resistance, to my fellow folk freedom fighters, I implore you to carry on resisting, to spread the good word of Folk. Slowly, we can persuade the non-believers, inch by dulcet inch we will retune their chart-deafened ears to the strumming of acoustic guitars and the chorus of three-part harmonies.

To aid you in your quest of conversion, I gift you with an excerpt from The Little Folk Book: Quotations from Folkmaster Luke. Spread yourselves throughout the countryside and speaketh my Word to those who will listen, for within folk lies the answer to many of life's deepest quandries.

The Little Folk Book: Quotations from Folkmaster Luke
Chapter 7--Coming Out the Folk Closet
There comes a time in every person's life when he or she must come to terms with what he or she truly is inside, a time when those feelings that have been bottled up for so long must finally be faced head on and properly understood. Usually people encounter signs that make them realise once and for all that they do truly like folk. You might have experienced these signs too. Perhaps you heard Mumford & Sons on the stereo at Old Navy and it made you feel...funny. Perhaps your friend put some Johnny Flynn on while you were hanging out and you felt an incredible loneliness when the track ended.

However you discovered that you like folk, the first thing you must understand is, there's nothing wrong with you. Many people throughout the world feel exactly the same way as you and it's perfectly normal.

Of course, life for the folk-initiated isn't always easy. At some point you're going to want to tell your friends and family, and if you don't handle it perfectly there could be dire consequences.

Luckily, the Generous and Exulted Folkmaster Luke and the National Party for the Advancement of Wonderous Acoustica have compiled a list of advice for what you should do when you finally decide to come out of the folk closet.

#1 Don't always tell people you like folk music, it might confuse them
A difficult question for any folk fan is, so what music are you into? Tread carefully, comrades. There are several ways to answer this question. Firstly, judge the questioner. Does she seem cool to you? What is her body language telling you? Is she genuinely interested in what you are going to say or is she only making awkward small talk while you both wait desperately for your mutual friend to come back into the conversation?

Act accordingly. If you don't think she will respond well, shrug off the question. Here are some handy phrases for you to employ:
- Oh, you know, I like everything, mostly acoustic stuff really.
- Well, I'm not really that into music, I just like simple stuff.
- Hmmm, do you know that guy Jack Johnson? Yeah, he's pretty good, I'm into him right now

Of course, there is the chance that your questioner would be receptive to a truthful answer. Don't be afraid to humbly offer 'folk music...?' as a response. If she smiles, lifts up her sleeve and reveals a tattoo of a heart with the words JOSH RITTER etched inside, it could be the start of a beautiful relationship.

#2 No one likes pretentiousfolk
Some people like to spread the good word of folk and that's fine. The problem is, there will inevitably be those who don't want to hear about your enlightened sense of existence. I know, I know, what's the point in knowing about the greatest genre of music in the world if you're closest friends can't? Believe it or not, though, some people do not wish to hear about your slightly unorthodox taste in music. Some people are not big enough fans of music in general to be impressed that you think Devendra Banhart is too mainstream for the freak-folk outfit or London neo-folk got left behind with Alas I Cannot Swim. Some people don't like sitting next to the guy at parties who spends forty-five minutes individually explaining the pseudo-biblical references in each of 'The Trapeze Swinger's eight separate verses.

There was a time when this guy at parties was me, but as I became less of the Guy At Parties and more of the Guy at Home By Himself On A Friday Night Wikipedia'ing The American Civil War, I realised that subtlety, modesty and calm were the best attributes to have when listening to friends talk about how Jason Mraz is the best acoustic artist of our generation. Just grit your teeth, smile and hum along with your friends to 'I'm Yours'.

#3 Learn to play guitar
Do you know what is even cooler than writing folk music? Converting pop music into folk music. It's like aural alchemy. Most pop songs are based on three or four chords. If you can figure out these three or four chords, learn how to do a nice little fingerpick with your right hand, and slow everything down, you can turn everything into a folk song! These are the tunes that people want to sing along to at parties. These are the tunes that will make people realise they love folk without even realising it. If you don't believe me, ask William Fitzsimmons:

I hope I've been able to return to you lonely folkies out there some of the hope you bestow upon me every time you visit Shut The Folk Up. Honestly, folk is making a resurgence. These days you can hear good folk in places other than just phone adverts and Gossip Girl. Mumford & Sons are just as likely to be featured on a hip trendy website like this as they are on your mainstream radio station, and I think that is a sign of the times.

This week's reward for your tireless persistency in folk promotion is, in the opinion of myself and Papa Burns, one of the most beautiful pieces of folk music ever written. Judee Sill was probably the most unassuming heroin addict you have ever seen, and her untimely death at 35 appears all the more catastrophic when you hear what a genius she was at her craft. In the copy of her song 'The Kiss' below, I've chosen to leave in the brief intro in which she tries to explain to a live audience the hidden meanings behind the track. She seems to get lost in her own thoughts as she speaks, though, as if the true story behind the lyrics has escaped even her, the person who conceived it. What kills me the most is when she quietly, but with undeniable authenticity, tells the audience that she hopes they'll like her song, before launching into it. I feel this way every time I try to introduce folk to one of my friends, lining up something on iTunes that's been haunting me for weeks, sitting them in my chair and throwing it all into a click of the mouse.

I let the folk do the rest.


  1. Sympathise too much with this post. Glad you've included some Judee Sill, just goes to show folk is timeless in the face of today's fickle chart-pop - after all, don't hear anybody listening to Jay Sean's multi-platinum single "Down" anymore and that was as recent a release as 2009!

  2. Wow, Luke I had never heard this song before and I absolutely love it, thank you for sharing. And now I'm sad that Judee Sill died so young and so much talent was wasted.

  3. Anonymous12.11.10

    Brilliant that you included the Judee Sill song - thank you! This is a recording from her Live in London sessions for the BBC. There is another, I think better, version, recorded for the Old Grey Whistle test in the early 70s and available as a You Tube video. (Bob Harris was responsible for introducing a lot of people in Britain to quality music from the US. I heard Jackson Browne - another person you should showcase at some point - on the programme a year before.)

    More people need to know about Judee's talent. I've been hearing from various contacts who saw her on the UK tour she made in 1973 and everybody loved her.

    Somebody saw her at a folk club in Plymouth where she said "I don't do drink - only dope" Sadly prophetic.