Jon Boden is one of the yeomen of the current wave of English folk music, a hardy, defiantly unfashionable perennial. He must be one of the hardest-working men in folk: he is half of the fiddle-and-squeezebox duo Spiers and Boden; he fronts Bellowhead, an 11-piece country dance band; he is one of the Ratcatchers, Eliza Carthy’s backing group; he has just released a solo album. And in his spare time he is writing the scores for two plays.
“The biggest musical fulfilment, for me, is singing in a pub,” Boden says. “Folk’s utility is as social music. Twenty people sitting in a pub singing ‘Spencer the Rover’: that’s as good as it gets. As soon as you put the music on stage, it’s a bastardisation of that.”
We talk about the incongruity of songs composed by agricultural labourers be-coming the province of
middle-class music students. “English traditional music is the inheritance of anyone who lives in England now,” Boden says, although he agrees that the music is rooted in “a sentimentality about place”.
I incautiously categorise Boden’s work as “new folk”. No, he objects: he is “old new folk” as opposed to “new new folk”. New folk of Boden’s generation is robust and physical: it concentrates on traditional songs about (as the title of Tim van Eyken’s sprightly new CD has it) Stiffs Lovers Holymen Thieves. Violins and melod-eons abound; it’s the English equivalent of oompah.
By contrast, the new new folk of artists such as Devandra Banhart tends to a precious ethereality. Confusingly, the patron goddess of new new folk is Vashti Bunyan, who is, historically speaking, old folk, but has the elusive, evanescent fragility of her modern-day admirers and collaborators.
Listen, for example, to Tunng’s ‘Woodcat’: the acoustic guitars sound like folk, but the words are about drinking coffee, lying in bed watching TV, having a lovely time: not a wronged maiden in sight. You’d be hard put to ceilidh to it. And in the end, the laptop scritching makes it clear we are in a very modern world.
Boden nominates the Brighton-based singer Mary Hampton as a bridge between new new folk and old new folk. Her EP Book 1, homemade, its lyric sheet folded like origami, presents six “songs of refusal”, barbed evasions and rejections. There’s “Silver Dagger”, in a quiet and sullen contrast to Dolly Parton’s berserk Appalachian horror-folk reading of a few years back, and “Let No Man Steal Your Thyme”, less carefree than Pentangle’s joyous version. Hampton sings old new folk’s material with new new folk’s emphasis on minute sonic detail.
If folk is a big tent, many inside it are sneaking to-wards the exits. Boden’s own Painted Lady, with its dark tales of leather boots and cigarettes, sounds more like Tom Waits than Martin Carthy; Jim Moray, once a cutting-edge reinterpreter of traditional ballads, has decided his future lies in torch songs; the folk darling Kate Rusby now steps out, musically speaking, with Ronan Keating.
It was ever thus. EMI have just re-released Donovan’s Anaheim concert from 1967, and it makes a fascinating document. Donovan was on a cusp: a couple of years earlier, he’d been a wide-eyed Dylan wannabe, patronised on film by the original in Don’t Look Back. In 1967, much of his repertoire was still folk, but he was sliding into a glam psychedelia. Half the material here sounds like a template for Nick Drake, the other half for Hunky Dory-era Bowie.
Does this mean folk exists in a permanent state of embarrassed self-negation? Boden says this, too, has always been the case. When Cecil Sharp, in the early 1900s, recorded the dying folk song canon, his elderly performers often preferred to sing music hall ditties and had to be coaxed back to the material he wanted. “Acoustic guitars aren’t traditional. Harmony singing isn’t traditional. Singing in tune isn’t traditional,” Boden says. Purity, in the end, can only be sterile.
‘Painted Lady’ is released by Soundpost. ‘Stiffs Lovers Holymen Thieves’ is on Topic. Donovan In Concert (The Complete 1967 Anaheim Show) is released by EMI.
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