[This piece was originally written for Loops magazine, which I think just stopped at some point before they published the issue that this was written for]
Folk doesn’t need Reviving!
The English countryside appears to enjoying something of a revival of late. Patrick Keiller’s Robinson in Ruins (2010) delves into the dark arts of biophilia, lichen metaphors and the crumbling post-revolutionary stakes of a rural idyll that is somehow just as much a base for the military-industrial complex as it is for butterflies. Rob Young’s recent Electric Eden casts a similarly wide-ranging and sympathetic eye over British folk music from Arnold Bax and Vaughan Williams to Ghost Box. Less than 20% of British people reside in the countryside, yet we are obsessed with visions of Albion, of some sort of calm, greenish idyll, even if we forget that the British countryside is also the history of enclosures, of the destruction and put-down of peasant revolts, of heavy militarization, of bigotry and racism.
When the British National Party membership list was leaked in late 2008, I was saddened to see that many of the names came from Wiltshire, and from Corsham in particular, where I went to school, and that some of the names I recognised as fellow pupils. In 2007, Nick Griffin, Chairman of the BNP ‘patrolled’ the streets of Corsham with the recently elected local BNP councillor. The Countryside Alliance, who in 2002 marched almost half-a-million strong through London under the banner ‘Liberty and Livelihood’ enjoy a strong presence in the county, and can be seen protesting against the ban on foxhunting, putting up signs saying ‘Buy British Beef’ and ‘Keep The Pound’ and stomping around in green Wellingtons. During the foot and mouth crisis, mounds of burning animals could be seen by the side of the road, providing perfect post-apocalyptic imagery for Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men, who well captures the creepy brutality of the British countryside in the early 21st century. But for every army base, tank manoeuvre, red-faced bigot and ‘save the pound’ car sticker, there is a softer, stranger side. This, for me, is the vision of David Inshaw, painter of eerie, surreal Wiltshire landscapes; the hunt for golden hares; the crack of woodpigeons as their wings clip branches of trees; but, above all, the sound of my Dad’s band rehearsing in the garage as I try, but fail, to sleep.
For as long as I can remember, my Dad has played in a folk/jug band called ‘Hokum Focus’. The name is strangely appropriate to the ramshackle bunch of people and instruments that comprise the band: God, a beekeeper, who plays accordion and is the only professional musician, making his minimal living from playing medieval French music and fixing instruments; Dave, a fiddle player; Gus, who plays washboard, jugs, bodrum and other blunt noise-making things; Geoff on guitar; John on banjo and my father, Clive, on bass and double bass. Early on, Sue, a hippie with long blonde hair and a McGarrigle Sisters fixation, sang wildly and strangely (especially when it came to the traditional Breton song ‘En filant ma quenouille’). Her then boyfriend, Russell, once taught me how to say his name without speaking by scrunching up a piece of paper (‘rustle!’). Occasionally, Tim, a travelling carpet-salesman with a cross-dressing streak, would don a wig and play tambourine. Many Sunday afternoons as a child were spent in local pubs, watching the increasingly inebriated band and audience muddle their way through covers of older songs, reinvigorated by the recent popularity of Steeleye Span (‘One Misty Moisty Morning’ and ‘All Around my Hat’) and other old folk classics (‘Blackjack Davey’, ‘Scarborough Fair’, etc. ). One sunny afternoon, a man with a beard swallowed a wasp along with his real ale, which stung his tongue on the way down; whenever I think about listening to my Dad’s band, I think of this wasp incident, along with the time one of the pub owners burnt his pub down to claim on the insurance, which he never received because his footprints were plainly visible in the pools of petrol he’d used to ignite it. Although both of my parents were raised in big cities – Bristol and Cardiff – they always had a kind of hippie-ish affection for the countryside, and a kind of pioneerish desire to start again from scratch. The dilapidated dwelling they bought in 1977 took thirteen years to turn into something remotely inhabitable – during the renovation my life was almost curtailed on three occasions – once when the scaffolding fell from the front of the house onto the ground where I was playing; again when I pressed my hands against an upstairs window whereupon the entire frame fell out almost taking me with it and finally, and most painfully, when I jumped from a bed into a broken fireplace head-first while pretending to be a member of a circus. The three-inch scar across my forehead is a charming reminder of the many dangers of trying to combine home improvement and child-rearing.
Whilst Hokum Focus were hardly at the forefront of any of the many folk revivals that periodically turn up in the UK, their presence in local pubs and fetes fed into larger circuits of festivals and gigs scattered all over the southwest: the Trowbridge Pump Festival, where I once saw Ozric Tentacles, as well as more gatherings with more of a traditional flavour, such as the Chippenham Folk Festival (Chippenham, incidentally, is the site of rock and roll hero Eddie Cochran’s early death in 1960, aged 21, when his taxi hit a lamppost. Every year there is a small festival dedicated to him in the town, when men with quiffs come to stand next to the plaque at Bowden Hill). Going with my Dad to see Kangaroo Moon or travelling across the border to see Wolfstone in Shepton Mallet were about as exciting as it got, aged twelve or so. The first Glastonbury I went to, aged 15, I shunned the pleasures of getting stoned with my younger brother to spend all my time in the Folk tent. This resulted in having my toy dog strung up to a tent-pole and biscuits being crushed in my sleeping bag as an odd form of drug-fuelled sibling punishment; my dear brother has since been to every single Glastonbury in the intervening sixteen years, and has since spent his life working as a builder and playing music in and around Bath and North Wiltshire. He no longer inflicts harm on my soft toys.
Wiltshire, if people have heard of it at all, is really only famous for its really old, and incomprehensibly built things: Stonehenge, Avebury, West Kennet Long Barrow, various hill forts, Silbury Hill (Europe’s largest man-made prehistoric mound), chalk white horses carved into the side of small hills. These oddities, plus ley-lines and the relatively recent appearance of crop circles, executed either by aliens or the farmers that would charge a quid or two for you to wander around in them, attract a particular kind of ruralist: the Stonehenge Free Festival, which ran from 1972-1984 until the Battle of the Beanfield in 1985, where police viciously beat up members of a convoy, contributed to attracting a more subdued kind of Wiltshire hippie, well … at least until rave turned up.
Sadly for me, I was just slightly too young for rave, though it was very clear, even at the age of eleven, that something very interesting was going on. In about 1990, suddenly everyone was talking about ‘crusties’, everyone had those little plastic dummies around their neck and smiley faces were everywhere. The remaining bits of common land, often the sites for travellers’ communities, were fretted over once again (the history of England is in many ways the history of making sure that no land is ever ambiguous). There was of course a kind of continuity between rave and earlier returns to the land, and groups like Spiral Tribe sought to plug into an earlier utopian vision of the countryside, via modern pharmaceuticals: William Morris meets ecstasy. The crop circle/ufo/crystal healing tendency that surrounds the old stones quickly morphed into something flooded with a harder chemical edge. I’m sure there was some resistance from the old real ale and trad folk guard, but the libertarian impulses of the rave scene fitted nicely with the suspicion of landowners, enclosures and edicts from on high that has always been a part of non-conservative, subversive ruralism. By the time of the Criminal Justice Act of 1994, though, which infamously banned rural trespass and ‘sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats’ in a cack-handed attempt to shut down illegal gatherings, it seemed clear that rave had already reached and passed its high point.
But what rave seemed to represent was nothing new, besides, just as the various folk revivals since Arnold Bax and Vaughan Williams were already iterations of a ‘tradition’ that has always been curiously permeable and protean, as is only fitting. For all the conservative elements of the British countryside, and intra-hipster-type annoyances over the sudden ‘coolness’ of folk, the most striking thing about folk in its various forms, electric or otherwise, is its inclusive nature. As Rob Young in Electric Eden is careful to point out, with particular reference to Vaughan Williams, his music is an example of how ‘a national music can reflect a native consciousness without recourse to rabble rousing or xenophobia. Indeed, there is the sense in Vaughan Williams that a universal music is only achievable via a thorough immersion in the immediate life of the locality’. Today, raves still operate across Wiltshire, though they feature much less in mainstream cop shows (such as the unintentionally brilliant 1992 ‘rave’ episode of Inspector Morse, ‘Cherubim and Seraphim’. Disused Ministry of Defence land temporarily sheds its militarization in the name of a new-old Albion…Welcome to the rural-industrial complex…
In 2005, when the 2003 licensing laws meant that even two musicians without amplification playing in a bar would require the landlord to pay for permission, absolutely nobody I know paid the least bit of attention. The law, originally designed to make it harder for city clubs to operate after a spate of gun crime, was as clumsy and as misshapen as its Criminal Justice Bill predecessor, and once again brought out the amused non-conformity of rural musicians. Despite its invocation of a ‘type’ of people, a locality and tradition, ‘folk’ conceived of its broadest sense is at its best when pointing out the idiocies of puritanical laws, and the quite obviously still feudal desire of the ruling class to tell the proles what (not) to do. Folk doesn’t need to be revived, least of all in the British countryside, as it’s the oldest story there is: here’s to a great deal more peasant revolts!