Tuesday, 27 August 2013
Shrewsbury and identity quests
Rows of tented booths selling leather hats, tie-die shirts, mandolins, curries, and a huge marquee looming over all. Yes, it's a festival: Shrewsbury Folk Festival, scene of a swift one-day sun-blessed evaluation yesterday by your roving correspondent.
It's a very pleasant, orderly, smallish, easy-to-attend festival; but I'm thinking that this folk music thing is actually stranger than it looks. Shrewsbury is well-established and successful, it all looks quite straightforward, but I'm not so sure it is. Why do so many of us like folk music?
The tradition evolves slowly, and is mostly anonymous at source. Contemporary singers and players find ways of delivering these songs and tunes to suit us and them. This music grew out of a social, often a work-place, context, but it is now performed as art music. Why hasn't it died out as its social contexts have slipped away from us into our pasts?
My answer, for what it's worth, is that in a time of rapid social and cultural change, people who feel displaced, unsure of where they stand, go back into a real and imagined past. I don't mean that as a sneer; it's a bit more significant than nostalgia, and - who wouldn't feel the need for solid ground underfoot when faced with the lunacies of Twitter and the relentless babble that insults us via TV adverts each evening?
At Shrewsbury there was quite a different feel from pop/rock gigs - less separation and adulation, smaller scale, less tension and drama around performance. Perhaps all this helps people feel connected through more than Facebook. (Festivals in general do so, I'm sure.) It felt convivial.
And of course a lot of the music yesterday wasn't folk music in any traditional sense. Singer/songwriters are usually lumped in with folk music if the simplicity of their presentation and accompaniment, as well as their singing style, is on nodding terms with the anonymous tradition - especially since they often sing more traditional music as well. What's in a label, anyway? But such singer/songwriters are perhaps seeking to connect their work with something much older than, say, Franz Ferdinand are looking for.
Morris dancers- easy for a lazy joke. Signs are it's never been so popular as it is now (perhaps in part because women have been taking part for many years.) I'm no expert, but there was some marvellous leaping thumping and prancing going on yesterday. Again, morris dancing may be (even) stranger than it looks.
I enjoyed the dancing very much yesterday, but after a while I began to feel I would simply have to sink my teeth into the next tinkling bell-bedecked calf than tramped past me. One can have too much of a good thing!
I reckon the morris is part of the same impulse, and it's this that makes a festival like Shrewsbury so interesting, as well as enjoyable. My theory is that it's full of people (including me) looking to reinforce their sense of identity, searching for connectedness and conviviality, wanting to grow roots down into something that feels old and solid. Even if it's actually quite recent, even if it was written yesterday by a named artist, so long as it shares a "folky" ethos and style.
Music matters so much to us that it's always about more than the music itself. It's about who we are.