The pioneering music researcher of the early twentieth century, John Lomax, spent years travelling though America to find authentic folk music – songs of cotton fields and river banks. He left the making of grassroots music to those who were experiencing the things they sang about. There’s an important difference between the middle-class researcher studying working-class tunes and the middle-class hippie liberalism of the early ‘70s which declared ‘a working class hero is something to be’. Folk, critics lamented, was now in the hands of a privileged, pot smoking petit bourgeoisie. Let’s take a look at what’s changed forty years on.
‘I got the bourgeois blues, gonna spread the news all around’. The words of a Marxist pamphleteer in 1905? Actually, no – Leadbelly, the defiant black American song-writer of the 1940s whose words ringing truer with every new ‘bourgeois’ folk band entering the musical arena.
Class is so central to folk music because the genre, purists proclaim, always meant to represent the toiling masses. Dylan’s first album only featured two of his own songs, the rest being traditionals such as ‘Freight Train Blues’ with the gloriously American line ‘Freight train was it taught me how to cry’. Dylan chose to cover, and not write, these working-class songs because he understood he was born into a tolerable, if not comfortable, lifestyle. It is poignant to note that out of the two songs written by Dylan on the album, one is a dedication to Woody Guthrie, the socialist folk-singer of the ‘30s whose anthemic ‘Pretty boy Floyd’ rang true for many: ‘some will rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen.’ Few could imagine eighty years down the line, across the pond the folk scene would be singing ‘in five years time we could be walking round a zoo’ – the startling message coming from the usual drainpipe-wearing hipsters the acoustic scene has grown used to.
It could be said that little has changed. According to the critic Robert Emmett, the icon of the anti-establishment, Pete Seeger, ‘was a member of the privileged classes’. And yet within his songs one can hear the admonishing lines of ‘you better build you a union’. An upper-class New Englander, telling workers what to do? And yet Seeger provided a rallying cry for a generation to oppose exploitation. Not your average pop-figure, then.
The difference between then and now, of course, is that folk music back then was political. Given a platform on which to speak, those with any standpoint whatsoever used that soapbox to cause change. How successful those attempts were, it’s impossible to know. But these songs provided a soundtrack to the struggles of their times. What would the great depression be without the rough sounds of a repressed Robert Johnson? What would the ‘80s be without Billy Bragg’s class-war anthem ‘Which side are you on?’ Even now, how many of us even know which side we are on? It seems after forty years of free-market ideology many have adopted the ‘they’re all as bad as each other’ formula. Music, meanwhile, has glossed over the issue and for a melodic critique of the modern system we turn to public school boys Mumford and Sons, whose message is ‘hold on to what you believe’. No comment there about those who believe in selling off public assets or selling arms to dictatorships.
So where is our Woody Guthrie, our Billy Bragg? Or even, dare I say it, our Dylan? You could look to the London scene, in the post-punk acoustica of Frank Turner. His ‘Thatcher Fucked the Kids’ would certainly raise a few eye-brows in the corridors of power. But one of the most persistent problems facing these artists now is that if they don’t fit the indy, quasi-folk paradigm of jingly chart-toppers, they don’t get the signings. Look no further then this very Frank Turner, who despite being able to sell out nearly every gig, can only get the backing of a tiny, risk-taking label.
There is indeed nothing to dictate that folk should be the sole carrier of radical popular polemic. Public Enemy held that baton perfectly well in the late ‘80s, alongside rebels like Gill Scott Heron. But even those voices are now essentially defunct. Our hip-hop is misogynist and our folk fatigued.
Or maybe fatigued is not the word. Deluded might be more apt. Britain faces the greatest onslaught against working people since the 1930s and our sole response is song-writers who picked up their guitars at Eton while dorming with future Tory leaders. That is not to say their songs aren’t beautifully crafted. Stornoway, one of the rising stars of the new-folk mood spreading the nation, write some of the most moving and innovative tunes currently on the shelves. But it is aloof from everything ordinary people are facing. As delightful as Stornoway frontman Brian Brigg’s vocals are, somehow the fact that he’s an Oxford Ph.D in Ornithology makes the music that bit more distant and disconnected. Perhaps that’s why we turn to Top 10 chart-stoppers.
Escapism crops up in every culture, but more so in our increasingly disillusioned, de-politicised one. Millions (though not everyone) are looking forward to the grand wedding in May of our prospective heads of state. I can only hope that while the republican street parties make their way through the flag-waving crowds of London, there’s a new ‘Which side are you on?’ to sing along to. Dylan wrote ‘a man’s gotta do what he has to do when he’s got a hungry mouth to feed’. Just pray that some of those men and women pick up their harmonica and stomp-box and shout of what’s really going on.