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Fay Hield stares into the camera. She is holding the neck of a five-string banjo.

Fay Hield on Access Folk and the Folk Singing Symposium

Professor Fay Hield chats about her multifaceted career, the Access Folk project, and the upcoming Folk Singing Symposium in Sheffield.

Professional musician, academic, parent, organiser – Professor Fay Hield wears an impressive number of hats. While those involved with the folk scene know her primarily for the collection of albums she has made with Topic Records, it’s her work as a senior lecturer and ethnomusicologist at the University of Sheffield that currently holds the spotlight.

Regular Tradfolk readers will have spotted news of Access Folk, a relatively new project exploring ways to increase and diversify English folk singing that Hield has set up with a number of other academics, including Esbjörn Wettermark and Kirsty Kay. Ahead of the Folk Singing Symposium (an open weekend of singing, workshops, discussions and “sticky paper on walls”, taking place in Sheffield on February 24th-25th), we caught up for a chat about her many plans – past, present and future.

I’ve always got something going on. I’ve never not been organising something.

Fay Hield

Which was the first folk club you ever went to, Fay?

Bacca Pipes in Keighley. I was brought up in Keighley. Peter Bellamy used to go there, as he lived in Keighley, and Steve Tilson and Maggie Boyle. I think my dad used to go there, and my mum was a Morris dancer as well, for Oakworth Ladies Morris. I did lots of Morris dance-outs and days of dancing with my mum, and then, as a teenager, my sister and I went to the folk club ourselves quite a lot. My mum died when we were quite young and I stayed in that community. When I was sort of 14-16, I used to nanny for Steve and Maggie’s kids while they went on tour, and Maggie became a sort of big sister/aunty/mother figure. We set up a business together and she sort of helped and advised me. I’m still in touch with lots of them in Keighley. When COVID happened and I set up the COVID Sings project, we trialed that at Bacca Pipes. They’re like family to me.

And you’re heavily involved in Soundpost as well, aren’t you?

Yeah, I set that up after my PhD to put my findings into practice. I have always organised stuff. My PhD focused on singing and community – how does singing create that community, and how is that perceived by people outside? What are the barriers? How does it work? What’s going on? So I kind of identified a few stepping stone things to help people come in, and Soundpost has allowed me to apply that research, really, to see if those things worked. It has been going for ages now. We’ve got some regular events that happen, lots of weekly clubs, loads of young people getting involved in the music side, and annual weekends and one-off projects. It’s brilliant. We do things like the Sheffield Carols in the city centre.

And how do you balance all of these different things with being a professional singer?

Google Calendar! [Laughs] So, I’ve got three strands – singing, researching and organising – and all the way through I’ve wondered which one to drop and how to drop it, and I’ve never been able to. And now it’s come to a point where it makes sense, and I’m glad I never could. I’ve always done those three things well, and they all seem really important to me. I love singing, and it kind of puts my other things into practice. People seem to enjoy it as well, so it feels like that’s an OK thing to do. What I don’t want to do is become the kind of hobby singer who just keeps releasing albums that no one wants to hear… that’s a bit of a fear, but I can still justify singing, so I like that, and I like putting repertoire together as well. Organising events has always seemed important to do, to make things happen. I’ve always got something going on. I’ve never not been organising something.

You did Bright Phoebus in Sheffield as well, with Kit Bailey, didn’t you?

That was brilliant.

Does that still exist?

We used to have a great venue that could hold about 300 or 400 people, and then it went down into a much smaller venue and Kit ran it because I had started Soundpost. But COVID pretty much stopped it. I think it’s pretty much ad hoc now. If I needed to gig in Sheffield, I’d ask Kit to promote it. We should definitely bring it back.

And then there’s your academic work.

The studying has always come through as well, yeah. As a parent making music, I made a conscious decision. I didn’t want to be a full-time musician on tour. That’s not something I wanted to do, so I always knew I needed something else to go alongside it. I’m really good at doing funding applications and projects, and I really enjoy studying, but I never really thought you could get a career in that. It seemed a bit arbitrary to be a folk music academic, but now I’ve stayed here and I’ve managed to keep them all going. I don’t see myself as one thing more than the other, though.

Is the musician version of Fay Hield planning anything new?

[Laughs] I’ve got two projects in mind, yeah. I can’t really talk about the first one because I haven’t asked anybody if they want to do it, but it would be brilliant. It’ll be amazing if that happens. Really big, large-scale, fabulous. And then the other one is incredibly small, so they’re like total opposites. The other one is writing an incredibly personal album. My last album, Wrackline, was kind of 50-50 songs about folklore; original songs paired up with trad songs. This one would be me looking at my life and my Englishness and my relationship with that Englishness. So the songs might be less folkloric, but again, trying to pair them up with other songs that deal with similar emotions.

The stuff that younger people are interested in is the folklore, the stories, and most folk clubs don’t really advertise any of that stuff.

Fay Hield

Let’s talk about Access Folk and the Folk Singing Symposium, coming up in February.

The symposium is a gathering of people – everyone’s welcome. Basically, I want to get a snapshot of where folk singing is now, what the issues are, what we know about it, who’s doing what, and that, I think, has to come from academics, but also organisers and singers and audience members themselves as well.

The hot topics in the academic world at the moment are “participatory research”, “coproduced research”, “collaborative research”, but there haven’t been very many collaborative conferences or symposiums. So this is getting everybody together and thinking critically about it. We’re not expecting the artists and singers to suddenly be academics, and we’re not expecting the academics to suddenly be able to play fiddle, but we want everybody to come with the stuff that they know and share it.

We’ve got a really full programme and the callout has worked really well. We’ve got some really prestigious European academics, but it’s not going to be a heavily academic thing. It’s going to be a lot of fun. Big names like The Unthanks and Jon Boden are coming, and then people who’ve motivated and sort of galvanised themselves, like the Esperance Group and Queer Folk. George Sansome is going to come and do a talk, and we’ve got a disability group as well. So there are a few strands, really.

We’ll be looking at the issues of folk club organisers and that side of it, and then the issues around nationalism and identity. Frankie Armstrong‘s coming to talk about the natural voice approach – what are the sounds of folk singing? What is the head stuff all about? How do you organise a workshop around it? So, basically, we’re just trying to cover everything that’s interesting about folk singing, what works, what doesn’t work. And then we’ll have a singaround on the Friday night, which is being led by Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne and George Sansome.

It’s under the Access Folk umbrella, isn’t it? What are you hoping that Access Folk will uncover?

The purpose of Access Folk
The Purpose of Access Folk
The purpose of Access Folk is to understand: What is the place of folk singing in contemporary England? How do people want to engage with English cultural traditions through song? How can we facilitate participation in folk singing in England?
In general, it’s about increasing and diversifying people’s access to folk singing. Access Folk is split into two parts. In phase one, we’re trying to understand what’s going on now [on the folk scene] and what the problems are. And then, once we’ve got that, we’ll decide what this project can achieve. So, I can’t tell you now what the whole project wants to achieve, because I didn’t want to decide that at the beginning. I didn’t want to just say, “OK, these are the things that are important.”

So this first phase, which is coming to an end in Spring, has been about consulting with people, talking to people who don’t do folk singing to get their opinions about it, talking to people that organise folk singing, and we’re about to launch a big survey as well. So once we’ve got all that data, we’ll work with our board and prioritise, and then I’ll be able to tell you what we’re hoping to achieve at the end, specifically. But we don’t just want more people to be at folk clubs – we want different kinds of people to be engaging with English cultural heritage in ways that they want to.

It’s very specifically English cultural heritage, then?

The word “English” is really difficult. “Folk singing in England,” we’ve been using a lot. As soon as you say “English folk song”, that conjures something up for people. So if you say that, then you have to give a definition of what you mean by that.

Taken from the About page of Access Folk

I may be complicit in continuing a kind of colonialist repertoire and culture, even though that doesn’t sit with my ideology at all.

Fay Hield

We want to include the experiences of everybody in England, but you have to have some boundaries around it. So, not necessarily people celebrating cultures in England where they themselves don’t recognise it as being part of an English cultural tradition. Religious music, as well, is difficult because folk singing isn’t religious in itself, but so much of the material is tied to religious customs or calendar customs, and often mentions religious stories. So, yeah, it’s all very messy, but essentially people who are practicing something that gives them a sense of connection to a heritage in England.

What have you seen in the first batch of research? What issues are people reporting?

The consulting group report was really interesting. We’re just getting that drafted at the moment. We worked on the protected characteristics outlines and had groups discussing their experiences of folk singing and whatever characteristic we were talking about: age, race and ethnicity, disability, political, religious and belief systems, socioeconomic and class, and sex, gender and sexuality. Of course, there are lots of intersections between these things, but you have to do it practically.

Obviously, these things are all very issue-based. If you just said, “OK, what’s wrong with the folk scene?”, a lot of those things wouldn’t come out. So it was very specifically trying to get those things. And some of the main things that they were talking about was the explicitness of stuff. For example, for physical access, if you don’t know anything about the venue, you’re not going to risk going out to it. But it’s not just about physical access. If you don’t know the kind of political approach of the venue, you might not feel comfortable as a young person. If you don’t know that the venue has a sexual harassment policy, you might not feel safe. If that is clearly put on the website somewhere, or there’s a Pride flag somewhere, people know that they’re welcome. The folk scene thinks it’s welcoming and wants to be welcome, but they never actually say these things anywhere. So how are people supposed to know? A lot of it was about communication and transparency. So you don’t actually have to change anything, just say what things are.

Then there were some things around safety and making sure that venues and organisers understand the needs of certain groups of people and what they need to feel safe and be safe. Because, obviously, the fear puts you off. So it’s not just about bad things happening. The fear of bad things happening stops people coming.

Age was interesting. That was a harder one because people tended to talk about young people rather than their own experiences of being a young person. But when we did a young people’s focus group, there was lots of enthusiasm, lots of people loving the music and loving the content and the concept of folk music, but not liking the environment. That was a big thing.

Did you notice in your research that there are younger people starting folk clubs and other folk events, but looking at different ways of doing things?

Yeah, definitely. The other research thing that we did was ‘Ask a Friend’, which was where we asked people who are into folk singing to talk to a friend or colleague, or anybody that doesn’t do folk singing, to find out what they think about it. And that’s been really interesting.

There’s a huge love and openness and welcomeness around the word ‘folklore’, and a load of really negative feelings and cynicism and sort of humour around ‘folk music’, ‘folk singing’ or ‘folk singer’. ‘Customs’, ‘traditions’ and ‘folklore’ have a completely different attitude around them. And I kind of see that in the stuff that the younger people are organising. It’s very much back to the materials, it’s back to the stories, and quite often they’re tied to events and calendars rather than being a weekly Friday, social thing. There’s obviously a social aspect around it, but that doesn’t seem to be the conscious driver of people doing it. So that seems quite a big change.

I don’t want to get too far into my recommendations, but that would be something I would think about for these clubs that are sort of settled into a pattern. The stuff that younger people are interested in is the folklore, the stories, and most folk clubs don’t really advertise any of that stuff. Some might put on a special event around a calendar custom, but it’s quite rare. But that is what seems to interest people.

That’s interesting. When I started the Tradfolk website, it was based around a similar sense that there was a missing link. You would see Instagram accounts like The Stone Club or Weird Walk, with tens of thousands of followers after only a very short time. I noticed the proliferation of similar accounts, but noted the almost complete lack of traditional folk music within what they were doing. And then, on the other side, the folk music scene only occasionally seemed to venture into that more folkloric area. It occurred to me that, if you’re interested in folklore, the songs must have some interest to you as well, and vice versa.

I think the songs do hold some interest, but again, it’s the environment. Two fascinating points came out of the data. One had to do with 1960s beards. One of my research associates designed this word association game. So the interviewer says, “folk singer”, and the interviewee says the first thing that pops into their head… and the word ‘beard’ just comes up an awful lot. So there’s obviously this very particular kind of folk singer – a guitar-playing, bearded person – that is still very strong in people’s minds. Maybe it’s trendy again now, but if you don’t particularly see yourself in, or want to associate with, that kind of scene… It’s a very human thing. If you’re looking at legends or stones or, you know, the natural world, you can identify with that in a very different way from how you identify with groups of people.

So, yes, there’s a sort of 60s hippie kind of image, but then there’s also a massive nationalism fear – a worry about practising nationalism as a group of people, and what that says about you. Most of the folk singers and people that I know and come across would find that an alien concept, and when I have talked to a few people, it has really upset them, actually, the thought that they might be seen to be being nationalist.

Even worse (and this is something I’ve grappled with, so I’ll own this one) is that I may be complicit in continuing a kind of colonialist repertoire and culture, even though that doesn’t sit with my ideology at all, but by singing this particular set of material, calling the band The Full English when it’s clearly not, what am I contributing? And that is really hard for people to hear.

How have you dealt with that?

By starting this project and thinking about the songs I sing. I’ve dropped several songs from my repertoire that I always felt a bit uncomfortable with – that I always dismissed as, “just folk music”. But now I just feel it’s not appropriate. There are loads of songs. Sing something else.

Which songs, for example?

Well, I would never have picked something really uncomfortable. But ‘The Grey Goose and Gander’ [Roud 1094] is a song that I’ve sung. It’s a good chorus song but it’s got a line in it: “The blacksmith is black, but his money is white.” He’s clearly not a black person, and it’s not being used in a specifically racist way, but this idea that he is coloured from his work, which makes him black, and is given a negative connotation, while his money is clean and white… that is enough for me to feel uncomfortable singing that. I’ve dropped it. There are a couple of other little changes I made like that and I’m really grateful to have been made to check myself, actually.

And that’s what sparked this whole project, actually. I was writing the funding application around Brexit and around Black Lives Matter, during that first bit of COVID lockdown when everyone went, “right, okay, reflect on yourself, what’s going on?” You can’t just make little changes around the top, like, “OK, so you need a wheelchair ramp, and you need to be careful about this, and then people will come.” It’s not about that. It’s about a fundamental change on what is Englishness; what is acceptable? If you change that and everybody understands that bit of it, then your safety policies follow. You behave in a very different way. Quite how you change the whole country’s perception of Englishness through one academic project, though, I don’t know…

In the process of doing this, have you felt that people are keen to engage, or has there been pushback?

It has been brilliant. I did some training at the beginning about negative social media interactions, because a lot of these are just hot topics that people might want to get involved with, and you get people who are just out to cause trouble, but then there are people who get upset about things in a genuine way. I’ve had a few people questioning it from a kind of academic, critical way – “what do you mean by Englishness?” “What do you mean by folk music?” – but haven’t had anything negative from the communities about wanting to look at it. I think there’s such an enthusiasm for new people to get involved, and there’s a love of the music, and people genuinely want these things to change. I think that could be different when we try and show people what they might need to do in order to change, but that’s part of the project as well – trying to work out how we communicate things in a helpful way.

I’m not naive. If somebody’s been running a club the same way for 50 years, they might not want to change. And, you know, that’s totally fine. People can go, get out of it what they want to get out of it, and we can’t change everything. But there’s no point sending a big report around to all the folk organisers telling them what they’re doing wrong. That’s not going to be helpful to anybody. Showing best practise and how other clubs are doing things and being successful – that could be really useful.

Find out more about Access Folk at accessfolk.sites.sheffield.ac.uk. For more on the Folk Singing Symposium, and to book your place, head to onlineshop.shef.ac.uk.