Mataio Austin Dean of Shovel Dance Collective closes his eyes and sings with determined passion into the Real World Studios microphone. He is wearing a blue shirt and his tightly curled hair hangs just below his shoulders.
Mataio Austin Dean of Shovel Dance Collective in a still from The Broadside Hack film

The Broadside Hack (film), a review

The Broadside Hack film combines beautifully recorded performances from a new generation of tradfolk musicians with revealing discussions on the genre's everlasting allure.

The Broadside Hack introduces an alternative young folk scene to those who may be a bit bored with the same old lineups at the same old festivals. It is a fascinating riposte to the notion that traditional folk music is on its last legs. If this mini-doc is anything to go by, it’s very much alive, and it’s doing things you probably never expected, mostly with people that you may not have heard of.

The short film, directed by Crispin Parry and produced by British Underground, is structured around a handful of performances filmed at Real World Studios, interspersed with brief soundbites that sum up what these young musicians believe folk to be. It focuses on the work of four bands – Shovel Dance Collective, Thyrsis, Caroline and Broadside Hacks – with brief retro-looking footage of Boss Morris and their esteemed musicians, Miranda Rutter, Rob Harbron and Sam Sweeney. It’s a shame that Boss and their merrymakers don’t get to speak to the camera, as they’ve been a huge part of this new revival in folk interest, but you get the sense that the producers wanted to focus on the groups that make up what might loosely be referred to as the new South London folk scene.

Nonetheless, it’s fascinating to hear Shovel Dance Collective’s Nick Granata, Mataio Austin Dean and Daniel Evans explore what traditional folk songs could mean. Folk music has always been open to political interpretation, and for this band, that seems to be the main attraction. Diversity, inclusivity, and even the search for outsider art are all aspects of what they do. Evans talks about discovering the existence of folk music through recordings of Indian musicians, highlighting the fact that this generation started their folk exploration in a more global environment than their 1960s counterparts, while Granata talks about trying to find silenced voices in folk songs – “queering the folk songs of the past… There are aspects of peoples’ lives here that aren’t in the history books.”

The performances are filmed and recorded with beautiful clarity. Shovel Dance Collective, gathered like a meeting of disconsolate monks, chant ‘My Husband’s Got no Courage in Him’ [Roud 870] with a level of palpable, protofeminist disgust that previous artists have failed to pick up on. They talk of their admiration for Shirley Collins, the Copper Family, Wordsworth McAndrew, and anyone willing to, “push the idea of English folk outside of just whiteness”, and return at the very end, post-credits (so don’t leave your seat early), to sing an unaccompanied rendition of the shanty, ‘Lowlands’ [Roud 681]. Understanding their political interests only serves to make their repertoire all the more intriguing. You find yourself hearing songs you may have known for years, from perspectives you might not have previously considered.

The second performance comes from Thrysis. It’s a rendition of ‘Brigg Fair’ [Roud 1083], and it’s an extraordinary, mesmerising sound. Singer and pianist, Dominic Baum, explains that he spent his musical education studying 20th-century choral music, and it has clearly had an influence on the group’s harmonic, structural and vocal styles. It’s folk classical, performed in a jazz band setting, and it’s startlingly original. If you leave this film and remember one thing only, I’m pretty certain it’ll be the hypnotic power of Baum’s voice.

Caroline are perhaps the best-known band here, and the only one to perform a non-traditional song. However, their debt to traditional folk music is clear. This is drone-heavy and rich in English pastoral harmonies. During their interview, they talk about how they grew out of folk sessions, learning to play instruments so that they could be a part of what their peers were into. They talk about folk as, “an everyday practise that people do that is not necessarily a public thing”. It’s beautiful music, reminiscent of some of the psych-folk bands of the early 70s (Heron, in particular, springs to mind) but it’s the only sequence that feels slightly out of place, given that the other bands (and frustratingly silent Morris dancers) are so inspired by, and committed to, the tradition.

Last up are Broadside Hacks, the band that lends its name to the project. Their massed ranks perform a rendition of ‘Barbary Allen‘ [Roud 54] with aplomb, exemplifying the themes common to this cadre of musicians. An amalgamation of the styles of Caroline, Shovel Dance Collective and Thyrsis, they specialise in group singing over loose, jazz-tinged, acoustic ensembles. It isn’t intricate and it isn’t necessarily what you’d expect from a traditional folk band, but it is warmly communal and carries with it a sense of purpose – a determination to bring people together. As the singer, Naima Bock, explains, “There’s a certain attitude towards it which isn’t that pre-meditated – we don’t pay too much attention to arrangements, which can sometimes bite us in the arse… This is just fun. We don’t think too much about the intricacies.” As if to underline that point, their final moments on screen come to a close with an unaccompanied chorus of ‘The Flash Lad’ [Roud 30101], which owes something to The Watersons’ interpretation of the song under the title, ‘Adieu, Adieu’. We hear ramshackle, full-throated singing, and the desire to join in is almost irresistible.

Whatever this generation’s attraction to traditional music may be, one thing never seems to subside. “Folk music is an act of solidarity across time,” says Nick Granata. “The thing that really grabbed me about traditional folk music is this genuine act of sharing across hundreds of years and millions of people.” For as long as that sense of inter-temporal inquisitiveness remains, traditional folk music is here to stay. The Broadside Hack is an interesting snapshot from the most recent leg of its journey.

The Broadside Hack will be screened at Kings Place, London, on August 25th. The event will also feature performances by Broadside Hacks and Shovel Dance Collective. To book your tickets, click here.