Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Singing From The Floor : A History of British Folk Clubs by JP Bean

I think this can only be described as an oral history. In some ways it reads like the transcript of a lost documentary series on the history of the British folk movement. A more in-depth Folk Britannia if you will. Or won't.

The British Folk movement seems to have come out of the politics of the 1950s - CND, The British Communist Party - in a disorganized way. The politics is important influencing people's reasons for pursuing folk as a musical outlet. This seems to have merged with the influence of folk/blues musicians from the USA and Alan Lomax school of looking for the roots/survival of traditional music.

Bean's book tells that story from its emergence, through what I'm going to call 'peak folk' in the 50s & 60s and into the more entertainment led 70s (with the emergence of people like Jasper Carrott, Billy Connelly and Mike Harding) and through what looks like decline in the 80s and 90s. In fact it is less a decline and more a shift from a club based circuit - although they still exist - to a festival based circuit.

Throughout the book Bean introduces the key individuals, the clubs and the controversies let's those who played, saw and heard the music tell their own stories and it pays off. Because what comes across is the importance of the music. There are tales of the debates between those who wanted 'purity' in the music - Peggy Seegar and Ewan McColl's rules at the Critics group being the more puritanical - and those who basically just wanted to play the music they liked. These debates seem to get people's hackles up, on one side or another, even now.

The book also has a chapter on Bob Dylan - what he bought to and took away from the British Folk Club circuit - which seems to vary on whose account you hear. There's also a chapter, 'Following in Footsteps' on the children of the first folk generation who have now gone on to have folk music careers of their own: Seth Lakeman, Eliza Carthy and others.

In fact the 'new folk' movement (or whatever we want to arbitrarily labelled it as) is where my personal experience begins. I got into Folk slightly late in life - if you exclude buying Clannad albums in my youth - so I kind of discovered the music in the reverse order to this book. I started with the descendants and influenced and then went back to discover what had influenced them. So for me this book has been a real pleasure to read. Opening my eye to people who I was obliquely aware of and making me want to listen to their music.

I always think the key test of a book about music - which might not actually be the objective of the writer at all - is whether it makes you want to listen to the music being discussed. And this book definitely passes that test. It also reminded me of the lost mid-80s of my youth when I loved Billy Connelly, Jasper Carrott and Mike Harding (along with Max Boyce), which I had almost entirely air-brushed from my memory.

But that is damning this book with faint praise really. It's a fascinating series of stories weaved centered around the Folk Clubs. It opens your mind up to a whole almost forgotten period of British history and the people that were involved in driving it and their motivations.

I'd recommend it not just as a oral history of a particularly kind of music but also as a history of a different time political, culturally and socially. So go buy it. Ideally from Bookmarks Bookshop or any other independent bookseller and not our uber-capitalist literature overlord A****n. It would be a fitting way to mark the book's subject matter.

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