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Show Of Hands should be disgruntled at having returned empty-handed from last week’s BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards. The West Country duo were nominated in two categories, but their song “Roots” lost out for best song to Karine Polwart’s wan, smothering “Daisy”, and the duo award went to Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick.
On the night, Show Of Hands stormed through “Roots”, accompanied by northern groaners Coope, Boyes and Simpson, and Fisherman’s Friends, a choir from Cornwall made up of boatbuilders, fishermen and lifeboat crews. This curious anthemic polemic starts almost as a comic song before arguing its way into something more serious. “I’d be richer than all the rest,” sings Steve Knightley, looking back on a quarter-century’s itinerant busking, with Phil Beer sawing along on violin, “if I had a pound for each request/for ‘Duelling Banjos’, ‘American Pie’/It’s enough to make you cry.”
Knightley takes a swing at Kim Howells, the minister who declared that his vision of hell was listening to three Somerset folk singers in a pub; worse, Knightley counters, are “pubs where no-one ever sings at all/and everyone stares at a great big screen/over-paid soccer stars, prancing teens/Australian soap, American rap, estuary English, baseball caps”. Entwined with cultural assertiveness here is a revulsion against modernity. And this leads to strange places, notably the suggestion that “Indian, Asians, Afro, Celts/It’s in their blood and below the belt/they’re playing and dancing all night long/so what have they got right that we’ve got wrong?”
Show Of Hands represent a constituency silent in British music and British life: the rural poor. (Compare the US, where the same people have the mighty behemoth of country and western as a voice.) Their best songs are a litany of complaints about the fate of a south-west of England with “no trains, no jobs, no shops, no pubs”, as they put it on the earlier “Country Life”. “The Bet” is a sideways ghost story about a marginal chancer who stumbles on £10,000 in cash and lays it off in bets around the A303 edgelands: “Bridgwater, Crewkerne, Chard, Axminster, Bridport …” an itinerary as resonant as Route 66.
Show Of Hands draw defensive lines. Theirs is a bucolic vision, however ironic and defeated; they are anti-metropolitan and anti-urban. But they are reluctant to share. Holiday homes mean that “one man’s family pays the price for another man’s vision of country life”.
Attempts to write English national songs tend to founder on the question of conservatism: does English identity mean no more than an insistence that nothing should ever change? Maggie Holland made a valiant attempt in 1999 with “A Place Called England”, which begins with her riding “on a bright May morning”, a hat-tip to Langland’s Piers Plowman, and offers that “whatever the land that gave you birth, there’s room for you …as long as you love this English earth”. But it also mocks “people who think that England’s only a place to park your car”. And Holland’s disdain for “retail park and Burger Kingdom” matches anything in Show Of Hands’s litany of scorn.
A decade ago, in a pamphlet for Demos, Mark Leonard tried to tell some new stories about British identity. Britain, he argued, should see itself as a “hub”, the world’s crossroads; as a creative country; as a hybrid nation committed to diversity; as a dynamic nation open for business. Billy Bragg’s “England Half-English” celebrates this assimilation and recombination: “My breakfast was half-English …a plate of Marmite soldiers washed down with a cappuccino.” But attempts to assert a narrow English identity all pull in the opposite direction.
One person who was honoured at the Folk Awards was Danny Thompson, the veteran double-bass player, who received a Lifetime Achievement Award. As well as Pentangle, John Martyn and Nick Drake, he has worked with musicians as far-flung as the Malian kora virtuoso Toumani Diabate. There is nothing conservative about Thompson’s career: it represents a more inclusive version of England, of a country where everyone is welcome.