Sunday, 26 February 2017

Why I can't bear Fairport any more - a post-it note on British Folk

A friend recently went to see Fairport Convention live and reported back that they were "okay" but that one of the band seemed "a bit egotistical onstage", and it dawned on me. It must've happened years ago, decades even, that they became an 'act' rather than a band.

In other words, people go to see them because of the people in the band. They associate with them, they 'like' them, adore them even. Perhaps they agree with them about things, find them comfortable, like an Uncle.

I guess its a way of earning your corn when three Jim Morrison's have all gone, but it struck me that this is one of the things I didn't like about them.

The chumminess.

The message that "we are all one big happy family". All the same. All looking the same way and having the same kind of thoughts.

Okay I will say it....

The thought that "We are all white English men and rosy cheeked English women, who centuries gone by would have plowed the fields and made good Kentish ale.

Gradually the penny drops that Folk music really can be rather right wing, just by definition.

So, I must confess, I do still "like Fairport", but it's the Fairport of years gone by, not this Fairport. For me its really just 'What we did on our Holidays' and 'Liege and Lief'. 'Unhalfbricking' is also quite good.

I used to like Full House, Angel Delight, Rising for the Moon and Babbacombe Lee, but they fell away I guess. I noticed how prosaic they are. Plodding and empty.

The rest I just dont like. Worse still, I dislike them. So what happened?

Well, obviously, the various departures happened of course. The combination of Sandy Denny, Dave Swarbrick and, to a lesser extent, Richard Thompson must have been amazing at the time. That line-up couldn't last, I guess, but it had to be incendiary as long as it did.

But there is an argument, even then, that the balance of best work was perhaps away from this band. This band that lays claims to have been the fulcrum of British Folk Rock.

I think Dave Swarbrick's best work, for a start, was mostly with Martin Carthy. His playing on these albums was simply wonderful.

Similarly, Sandy Denny's best 'published' work was on her solo albums, especially 'North Star Grassman' and 'Sandy'. Fotheringay is also superb, but best of all, for me, are her demos and sessions, where it is just her and a piano, or her and a guitar. I know none of that is folk rock, its all either folk or pop, but those are the songs I feel her greatest emotional strength and connection are.

Some of her early radio sessions are unbelievable and her home demos with a piano and metronome are simply shattering. On these i think she emerges as the talent that was over-moderated, over-produced on her formal published albums.

In truth, her career was mostly spent working with well-meaning amateurs, and she never had her 'Atlantic years', but that may not be such a tragedy.

Funnily enough I've not liked much of Richard Thompson's other work but at least he broke away and it's hard to deny he is a genuine artist, trying to make new things, having a purpose or artistic intent.

The rest of the Fairport crew though, strike me as either hangers-on or, worse.

What can be worse?

Well, Folk artists have to be careful. You can use the form, the songs of peoples lives, the social history, but be careful you don't create a nostalgia industry of Et in Arcadia Ego. The next steps from there are cultural onanism, sectarianism, nationalism...

I guess that's why the best Folk artists, at least for me, either retain a singularity of purpose or else use Folk as a platform for a transcendent leap.

Shirley Collins for example, never overplayed a song. Martin Carthy, too, mostly concentrates on the words and tune (thats hard enough), though he was much criticised for being 'too jazzy'.

And I am a big fan of both these acts.

The bands who take a more transcendent leap tend to be more liberal in instrumentation and in their mixture of cultures and genres... these are the likes of Incredible String Band, Mister Fox, Dr Strangely Strange, John Martyn and Gryphon.

I won't comment on these as they are really a separate genre altogether, often given the maligning category name of 'acid folk'.

But I would just say that the rest of the sixties Folk brigade... the Pentangles, Bert Jansch's, John Renbournes and so on, simply don't satisfy the entry fee. They are good technicians and don't err on the side of nationalism, but all seem to be way too slick for my taste and neither pursue a pure Folk goal nor seem to have a genuine artistic purpose.

I still like 'Crazy Man Michael' though.

HEALTH STATEMENT: The note above contains no references to American artists, since their definition of 'folk' is so different to our own, yet the role played by Jackson C Frank in Sandy Denny's development did perhaps warrant a mention.
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