Writer Tim Cumming surveys a wealth of new and established artists exploring the living and ancient legacy of Britain’s myriad folk traditions and provides 20 folk albums that are well worth exploring further.
British folk music has rarely been in more vigorous health than it is today. Love songs, murder ballads, pagan carols, rebel songs, songs of struggle and tales of the supernatural, all with enough passion, power, transgression and violence to fuel a thousand contemporary dramas, sit alongside rich and strange tune traditions from across the British Isles. Britain’s folk music stretches back to medieval sources and beyond, and while on the surface we may be digitally scrolling ourselves further and further away from the analogue world from which traditional songs and their stories stem, in reality the hunger for human connection that is at the heart of the folk tradition remains undimmed. It’s not a museum culture, but a space anyone can move into and inhabit.
These days there are hundreds of annual folk festivals up and down the country, from Cornwall to the Orkneys, from small-scale one-dayers to epic week-long blow-outs. There are folk music degrees, a new National Youth Folk Ensemble, the annual BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, and dozens of clubs and pubs playing host to a vast range of new and established artists from the UK and Ireland as well as Europe, the Americas and beyond. British folk music takes its place alongside roots music everywhere, expanding the musical palette and breaking down the boundaries of genre, culture and language. British folk is part and parcel of the national conversation in a multicultural age, not a pastoral retreat or a muttering on the fringes.
British folk is part and parcel of the national conversation in a multicultural age, not a pastoral retreat or a muttering on the fringes
In recent years there have been major albums and stage productions that address the present while exploring the past. There is The Imagined Village, an ongoing multicultural folk band putting English balladry into radical new settings. 2013’s The Full English, a multi-generational supergroup led by singer Fay Hield, drew together a range of significant early 20th century folk song collections, reinterpreting and returning them to the contemporary world. The Elizabethan Session from 2014, another supergroup featuring veterans such as Martin Simpson alongside rising new stars such as Bella Hardy, drew direct inspiration from the age of the Virgin Queen on a set of new songs drawing their inspiration from the Elizabethan period while speaking, too, of the here and now.
Roll on a few centuries, and the recent revival of Peter Bellamy’s ballad opera The Transports, following the fate of two convicts on the First Fleet to Australia in the 1780s, explores anew the themes of migration, colonialism and assimilation. The Ballads of Child Migration (2015), about the 100,000 or so children shipped overseas between 1869 and 1970 with the promise of “a better life”, did much the same with its contemporary folk and singer-songwriters’ account of The Transportsfor unwilling minors. And, at the beginning of the post Brexit-referendum era, Songs of Separation (2016) featured ten female folk musicians from Scotland and England reflecting on separation in its many forms, through the medium of traditional song.
These are all ambitious projects from the past few years featuring major artists from the post-war folk revival and the emerging artists of today. They are indicative of how previous generations of folk greats – the likes of Martin Carthy, Peter Bellamy, Fairport Convention, The Watersons, and later Waterson:Carthy and Eliza Carthy’s groundbreaking solo albums – continue to provide the scaffold on which a 21st-century generation can climb and build and discover its own vision of Britain’s collective past, its myths and folklore as they speak, shape, and reinterpret our present.
And whether it’s the song archives of Cecil Sharp House, the “home of English folk music” with its vast recording and manuscript archives, or the huge catalogue of field recordings on the Topic label, 21st-century folk innovators are returning to the original sources to create a multifaceted music of the future.
There is a generation of outstanding female singers, songwriters and musicians who have all carved deep and distinctive furrows through the field of traditional music in the past decade
Outstanding keepers of the newly revived song-collecting tradition include Sam Lee, who has done much to highlight the crucial role the Travellers and Romany gypsies played as song carriers and preservers of the tradition for centuries. They are the lifeblood of the British folk tradition, holders of its hidden treasures, the crown jewels of an island history that never tarnish, and are owned by us all, not by one privileged clan. Decades after the great song collectors of the 1950s packed away their reel-to-reels, believing the living tradition well and truly over, Lee’s sourcing of new and unknown ballads from Travellers’ camps across the UK has fuelled a song-collecting renaissance. One major figure to step from it in the last ten years is Irish Traveller singer and storyteller Thomas McCarthy, who made his singing debut outside of his own tight family circles at one of Sam Lee’s song sessions at Cecil Sharp House in the late 2000s.
Lee’s own interpretations of the ballads he has collected are radically different from their origins, and from standard post-war folk music mores – there’s not a guitar, fiddle or accordion in earshot. And there are plenty of other artists drawing on the folk tradition with the same probing sense of innovation and experimentation. Take south London singer Lisa Knapp’s work, mixing found sounds and field recordings with subtle, near-magical arrangements fusing her own lyrical vocal style. Her focus is on myths, magic and folklore and how they play out in modern contexts. Jackie Oates, a fine fiddler as well as one of our finest singers, has long drawn on the traditional songs of the west country, while her brother Jim Moray, an innovative artist who has melded Grime and electronica with traditional balladry, has put his name to some of the new century’s most striking interpretations of traditional song.
Lisa Knapp’s first album, Wild and Undaunted, came through in 2007, and it’s a title that could be applied to a generation of outstanding female singers, songwriters and musicians – the likes of Bella Hardy, Olivia Chaney, Lucy Farrell, Nancy Kerr, Emily Portman and Hannah James, who have all carved deep and distinctive furrows through the field of traditional music in the past decade. Farrell and Portman are part of Anglo-Scots supergroup, The Furrow Collective, alongside Alasdair Roberts, who has his own eclectic and singular solo career. South of the border, Northumberland’s Unthank sisters have taken the music of their region to the world, and are now one of Britain’s most distinctive groups in any genre.
At the same time, there is a new wave of English instrumental music that is stepping up to rival the wealth of tune-making in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. For decades, England was seen as more or less tuneless, especially in comparison to its Celtic neighbours. But by plunging into the songbooks from the Jacobean period onwards – especially John Playford’s Dancing Master from the 1650s (a bestseller of its time, sold at the foot of St Paul’s Cathedral) – groups like Leveret and Tom Kitching’s Interloper are putting English tunes at the forefront. Extending that instrumental tradition into classical minimalism and systems music is the Bristol-based quartet Spiro, who create ecstatic, interlocking, intricate patterns that are as hypnotising, beguiling and elegant as the most complex Fibonacci sequences. Leveret’s oldest number is the magisterial, semi-pagan Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, first documented in August 1226, but likely much older. Leveret violinst Sam Sweeney was a longtime member of Bellowhead, one of the new century’s biggest folk bands, and headliners at many a festival in the UK and Europe. His recent work – including Made in the Great Warand his debut album for Island Records, The Unfinished Violin – reveals him as one of these islands’ finest fiddle players.
Over the border in Scotland, with its deep and ancient tune traditions – ones which never died out, and for which there was never any need of revival – there is a stellar cast of rising and well-established players, from fiddler John McCusker to the anglo-Scots power trio, Lau, through to Duncan Chisholm, whose lyrical, impressionistic albums evoke the landscapes of the Highlands like no other. Chisholm is a member of Gaelic singer Julie Fowlis’s band, who is, alongside the likes of Karine Polwart, leading a new generation of young Scots vocalists. Upcoming instrumental artists, meanwhile, include Glaswegian concertina player Mohsen Amini, whose bands include Imar and Talisk, each of them recently laden with awards.
However much the world changes, much of our essence as human beings stays the same. And that essence is what fuels the old songs and tunes that make up our folk traditions
Wales’ folk tradition has tended to be seen as a thing apart, but with the rise of 9bach, led by singer Lisa Jen, there has been a new wave of artists and bands taking an alt-folk approach to their traditions, and how they address the contemporary world. New band Bendith follow a similar, if more lyrical, sunlit path, while Jamie Smith’s Mabon are to riotous Welsh and Manx tunes what Bellowhead were to a boisterous English shanty.
Across the water in northern Ireland, singer Cara Dillon is the best known export from a region soaked in tunes. Married to Sam Lakeman, from Dartmoor’s prominent folk family and brother to the bestselling crossover artist Seth Lakeman, her pure drop of a voice is the equal of the finest from rest of the UK – whether that’s Julie Fowlis, Jackie Oates, or emerging electro-folk singer Georgia Ruth.
Before the likes of Ewan MaColl, Martin Carthy and the Watersons spearheaded the British post-war folk revival, the general opinion was that our folk traditions were dead; war memorials had superceded maypoles on village greens, and few pubs rattled to sound of local singers who’d lived with an old song so long they’d made it their own. But general opinion is generally wrong, and it couldn’t be more wrong then, or now. After a difficult 1980s, British folk returned reinvigorated in the 1990s demonstrating that, however much the world changes, much of our essence as human beings stays the same. And that essence is what fuels the old songs and tunes that make up our folk traditions. And as it’s a renewable fuel, it’ll never burn out. Let’s leave the last word to a young Bob Dylan, who learnt much from the British folk tradition, and who once told a journalist: “There’s nobody that’s going to kill traditional music… All these songs about roses growing out of people’s brains and lovers who are really geese and swans that turn into angels… They’re not going to die.”
Tim Cumming is a journalist and poet from the UK - a contributor to news outlets including The Independent and The Guardian whose poetry can be found in collections including The Miniature Estate and The Rumour.
A British Folk Album Playlist - Tim Cumming's Top 20
9bach – Tincian
Bellowhead – Revival
Bendith – Bendith
Eliza Carthy – Anglicana
Olivia Chaney – The Longest River
Duncan Chisholm – Strathglass Trilogy
Cara Dillon – Hill of Thieves
Julie Fowlis – Alterum
Furrow Collective – At Our Next Meeting
Bella Hardy – With the Dawn
Lisa Knapp – Wild and Undaunted
Lau – Race The Loser
Sam Lee – Ground of its Own
Leveret – New Anything
Jim Moray – Sweet England
Jackie Oates – Saturnine
Emily Portman – Coracle
Spiro – Welcome Joy and Welcome Sorrow
Talisk – Abyss
The Unthanks – The Bairns