Tuesday, 22 January 2013

There's Nowt So Queer ...

From the outside, the folk scene looks like a placid, nostalgic world of beards, real ale, choruses about maidens in the new-mown hay, shanties and Morris dancing. It's forgotten that folk was as radical in its time as skiffle, rock & roll and - later - punk in that it was a rejection of the bland, repetitive offerings of Tin Pan Alley. Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs and others followed in the footsteps of people like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger to forge a radical, often politicised, form of music in the 1960s. And anyone could do it: all you needed was a few chords and a battered old acoustic guitar. Such democratisation of music wasn't to happen again until the Sex Pistols.

Alongside all this was developing from the 1950s onwards an increased awareness of and interest in traditional folk song, tunes and dance, a phenomenon known as the folk revival, which rejected the commercial by searching for the authentic voice of ordinary people. Unsurprisingly, traditional folk often appealed to the Left; the best known example was probably Ewan MacColl, noted (or perhaps notorious) for taking an almost Stalinist approach to authenticity. The traditional often sat uneasily alongside the contemporary (as I can personally attest), but at the same time there were singers and musicians who created folk rock, though they didn't know it at the time, by playing traditional songs and tunes on electric instruments. Fairport Convention were the first, rapidly followed by Steeleye Span, the Albion Band and many others such as Five Hand Reel and Horslips. They did this in the spirit of experimenting and pushing the boundaries rather than any expectation of massive commercial success. It's a curiosity that folk rock was originally reviled by hard line purists (it's not just Bob Dylan who upset people by going electric), but is now viewed with affection and nostalgia by certain generations of folk fans.

The cosy image of folk continues to this day despite the success outside the folk scene of performers, some quite young, such as Eliza Carthy, Bellowhead, Kate Rusby and Seth Lakeman and his brothers. Show of Hands have even sold out the Albert Hall, and the folk-tinged Mumford and Sons are regulars on Later with Jools Holland and the Radio 2 playlist. But the stereotyped view of folk music is hardly surprising, given that, apart from the occasional spot on Later ... (the Mumfords excepted), the only regular national coverage of what is quite a large music scene has been Mike Harding's weekly folk programme on BBC Radio 2 which he has presented since 1997.

And it's here that controversy has hit the folk world: the BBC has sacked him. Harding, you may recall, had an unlikely hit single with Rochdale Cowboy in 1975, and later had his own BBC TV series. He ran the Radio 2 folk show until December 2012 and also hosted the annual Radio 2 Folk Awards. During that time, he built the audience for his radio show from 70,000 to 860,000. He has made no secret of his bitterness about being summarily sacked; when told that they wanted to make the show "more live", he commented, "I didn't know I was dead."  For once, the cult of youth can't be blamed as his replacement is Mark Radcliffe, aged 54 to Harding's 68. I don't recall many positive comments about Harding while he ran the show, but then perhaps folk fans had the same attitude to him as football fans to team managers: they're sure they could do a better job themselves. I have consequently been surprised about the extent of the furore this decision has caused; there's even an on-line petition to get him back. Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got til it's gone?

However, if you miss Mike Harding, all is not lost. He now has an internet radio programme, The Mike Harding Folk Show, that seems to be doing well, having already been nominated for a European Podcast Award. Over on the Beeb, Mark Radcliffe's Folk Show on Wednesday evenings included a session last week by Chris Wood, and this week he has folk rock pioneers Fairport Convention (yes, they're still going) in the studio.

The end result of all this upset seems to be that we now have two folk shows instead of one, so clearly it's an ill wind that blows nobody any good. Instead of taking sides and boycotting one or the other, the logical thing for fans of folk music would be to enjoy both. And if you live in the Merseyside area, you have a third option: Britain's oldest radio folk music programme, BBC Radio Merseyside's Folk Scene on Sunday afternoons at 4.00 p.m.

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