In his sweeping history of British folk in the 20th century, Electric Eden (2010), Rob Young writes of how music can serve as a “portal between time zones.” For many, this gateway has transported them back to a pastoral idyll, far from the troubles of the modern world, but there are others who have used it to tap into more primal forces.
The British folk-music revival evolved in parallel with a burgeoning interest in the country’s pre-Christian past: magic, occultism, pagan rituals and the mystic energies embedded in the country’s landscape. At the height of the late-1960s/early-1970s psych-folk boom, these esoteric pursuits became hopelessly entangled with the music itself. But even the staunchest purists would admit that there’s some pretty heterodox stuff lurking in the canon of traditional song.
That said, when a recent issue of Uncut magazine featured a free CD of modern folk, subtitled “Sounds of the New Weird Albion,” it provoked a few eye-rolls among veterans of the scene.
“I don’t think it’s a particularly popular viewpoint that I have, but I think the mainstream media is very, very, very lazy in the way that it treats traditional music,” says guitar virtuoso Martin Simpson. “There’s just been this huge thing in England, about people going: ‘Oh, folk music, it’s so weird! It’s dark!’ And actually, no: It’s about people, and therefore it will have darkness, and it will have violence, et cetera, et cetera. But it’s not weird, intrinsically—it’s realistic.”
In order to have any meaningful discussion of ‘weird folk,’ it’s necessary to define what we’re actually talking about. In modern English, the word ‘weird’ is applied to things that are strange and uncanny, beyond the realms of common experience. But in Old English, the word ‘wyrd’ had a very different connotation: it carried a sense of becoming, describing something with the power to control a person’s fate or destiny.
Try to specify the limits of ‘folk music,’ and the ground gets even boggier. In a narrow definition, it refers to everyday songs, passed from person to person, without formal training or commercial motives. It might also apply to the legions of songwriters who perform their own material in a folk idiom. But there are also artists who are engaging deeply with folk traditions, or behaving in the manner of folklorists, while operating well outside the stylistic parameters of the folk genre per se.
Folk music is about people, and therefore it will have darknessMartin Simpson
Simpson blames the media’s current fascination with weirdness on US rock critic Greil Marcus, who introduced the concept of the “old, weird America” in his 1997 book, Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes. Though contentious, the phrase caught on, inspiring David Keenan to coin the term ‘New Weird America’ in the early 2000s, to describe the then-burgeoning free folk underground in the US.
That’s clearly what The Quietus had in mind when they came up with the moniker “New Weird Britain” five years ago, as a catch-all term for the boundary-blurring DIY artists operating beyond the mainstream music industry in the UK. This fertile, amorphous scene is well-represented at events such as Birmingham’s Supersonic Festival, where in 2018, I heard Gazelle Twin give the debut performance of her Pastoral album, then the following evening caught a boisterously received set by Shirley Collins, then 83 years old.
Collins is firmly entrenched in folk tradition, while Gazelle Twin’s work sits at the outermost reaches of the firmament, but you wouldn’t call either of them conservative. The recorder melodies, nursery rhyme chants and jagged electronics on Pastoral – with its lyrical allusions to paganism, William Blake and Brexit – seem to tear into England’s green and pleasant land and expose the seams of violence and bigotry lurking just under the surface. But the vision of folk tradition that Collins offered on her stark 2016 comeback album, Lodestar, was also a frequently brutal place to be, full of apocalyptic foreboding and bloodshed.
Many of the songs buried away in the library at London’s Cecil Sharp House would stop a modern listener in their tracks: tunes that hover uneasily between major and minor keys; lyrics that speak to the grisliest aspects of human experience. It’s all a long way from the comforting, bucolic depictions of Albion conjured by mainstream folk artists such as Kate Rusby.
Multi-instrumentalist Nick Hart specialises in unearthing the oddities in the traditional canon. The standout track on his new album, Nick Hart Sings Ten English Songs, is ‘Lucy Wan,’ an incest ballad collected in his native Cambridgeshire, which uses the Lydian mode – exceedingly rare in English folk.
“That, for me, is just about one of the most precious songs we have,” Hart tells me. “The colour of the melody is so strange and unsettling, and the subject matter is so stark and unpleasant.”
Whereas Irish traditional music is well established in the popular consciousness, he says there’s less awareness of British, and especially English, folk. Leaning into the weird can be a political act: “As a former colonial power, I think we still see ourselves as the default culture, globally – and everyone else is, to a certain extent, sort of ‘fascinating’ and ‘ethnic’. I think there’s something gently radical in trying to engage with the very small and strange things that are, you know, our funny little things.”
There’s something similar going on with London’s Shovel Dance Collective, who perform traditional material with a very contemporary emphasis on queer and feminist narratives. The recordings they’ve released to date are raw and earthy, full of droning/groaning instrumentation and strident unaccompanied vocals, like the group are reaching back to the rural pubs and workplaces where collectors like Cecil Sharp ventured over a century ago in search of songs.
Cornwall’s Angeline Morrison takes this even further. On her forthcoming album, The Sorrow Song: Folk Songs of Black British Experience, she crafts a body of song for the generations of Black people who are missing from the canon altogether, in a process that she calls “re-storying.” It’s a fitting project for an artist whose solo work has the hushed intensity of a seance, as if she’s channeling the spirits of the dead.
This leads us to the many singer-songwriters whose work is rooted in folk. Glasgow resident Alasdair Roberts has spent the past two decades releasing visionary original music in the spirit of groups like the Incredible String Band, while keeping one foot in the world of traditional folk. Newcastle’s Richard Dawson has ploughed an even more idiosyncratic furrow, though his 2017 masterpiece, Peasant, dreams up a medieval prog-folk fantasia of the highest order. Meanwhile, Elspeth Anne, currently based on the Welsh Borders, performs a mixture of originals and traditional material with the dark intensity of early PJ Harvey (look out for her third solo album, Mercy Me, later this year).
Various strains of pastoral psychedelia have persisted to the present day. Herefordshire’s Sproatly Smith drift between delicate folk reveries, earthy drones, musique concrète and hauntology. The group sit at the centre of the straggly Weirdshire collective, which also includes the wonderful Alula Down. During lockdown, the duo released four seasonal Postcards from Godley Moor, on which their ethereal folk seemed to merge with the landscape.
That’s a common trait among the broad range of artists making music that might be considered folk-adjacent, conjuring sounds steeped in a powerful sense of place. Laura Cannell, who’s interviewed elsewhere in this issue, is a good example, though you might detect a similar quality in the work of artists ranging from Kemper Norton to Richard Skelton. The labels A Year in the County and Folklore Tapes have both amassed a substantial library of music that gives expression to the psychic vibrations of the British Isles, even if there’s little that sounds like folk, in the conventional sense.
Then again, who gets to decide what folk sounds like? The most illuminating conversation I had while writing this piece was with Debbie Armour, one half of Scottish duo Burd Ellen, who pair traditional song with ghostly drones and washes of ambient electronics, to frequently spine-tingling effect. She says they’ve found more of an audience across the border in England – joking that they’re popular among “guys with, like, huge synthesisers in their sheds and stuff” – but have so far made little headway within mainstream Scottish traditional circles.
“Instrumentalists generate new work in the trad idiom all the time, but they are very, very firmly traditional musicians,” she says. “Whereas I use exclusively traditional material, and I’m not regarded by a lot of people, I don’t think, as a traditional musician.”
Burd Ellen aren’t the only ones making striking use of contemporary production techniques in their engagement with traditional repertoire. Newcastle’s Me Lost Me has done some remarkable versions of traditional songs that bring to mind the cyborg pop of Holly Herndon. Northumbria’s Frankie Archer caused a stir recently with a debut single, Over the Border, that sounded like trad folk by way of Laurie Anderson.
When we get talking about other artists, Armour raves about Japanese producer Jap Kasai’s OWN ºC, praising the “integration and harmony” in the way he uses traditional minyo and ondo in his work. She’s also keen on Arun Sood’s recently released Searching Erskine, a sonic evocation of the remote island where the Scottish-Indian artist’s grandmother grew up, which weaves snatches of oral histories and field recordings into its oneiric soundworld.
Is it weird? Maybe. Is it “folk”? Maybe it should be.
“If you want to contribute to a living tradition, then you should still be collecting, right?” Armour says. “You should still be archiving, you should still be documenting, you should still be trying to give impressions of a place – and maybe a 16-verse ballad about drowned babies isn’t the way that we do that now, d’you know?”
This article was originally published in Japanese in the June 2022 edition of Ele-King, a Japanese music magazine. The original publication can be purchased from their Amazon store.