BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards : an eye witness account

BBC folk Awards
The Radio 2 folk awards? Got to be done.
I’ve not been to enough folk stuff on this long and strange musical journey. It always seem to be just over there in the next valley, existing.
Every year at the Beautiful Days Festival I get a dose of folk and it sounds great, from the drunken jigs to the heartbreaking ballads it seems like every stage has some sort of connection with folk which sits in very well with the punk related bands and the dance acts, this is not a coincidence as the festival promoters are here tonight.
It seems weird how every other folk music of the world is celebrated but English folk is neatly bundled away? For some reason people still go on about beards and sandals like they do when the whitter on about vegetarians. I’ve never seen a vegetarian with beards and sandals and whist there are some beards here tonight here are certainly no sandals.
Why did we lose touch with our folk roots? Why did we let pop music become so celeb based? Was it the Industrial revolution and the rush to the cities that meant we forgot what was once so much part of us? Did we replace it with pop music? It’s great that we love blues and reggae and everyone else’s folk music but why do we sniff at our own? The songs are powerful and the current set of performers are some of the finest we have ever produced, there is also a growing interest in the form from the young generation with plenty of fresh faced young musicians here taking their first steps in folk and not in high decibel freakage.
At first it raises eyebrows as I stalk into the folk awards in my punk rock attire, surely I must only listen to one type of music I tell myself, the old 1,2,3,4 and nothing else. But if there is one truism in life it’s that all great musics from reggae to metal to Manchester to psychedelia to so called world music to punk and folk are linked by their spirit.
And if punk wasn’t the late seventies version of folk then I don’t know what is. It even uses the same chords! There’s plenty of C/ F/G going on tonight in the musical sections and lots of political and social lyrics. I remember being in Greece years ago and they had a market selling amazing folk cassettes – like shepherd’s songs from Romania and Greek Rembetika and in the late seventies English folk section it was all punk – it changed my way of thinking, the future music was actually part of a long tradition of aural dissent and that made it feel better.
The folk awards are great, they are like the pop awards without the cocaine, the egos and the puffed up pidgeon chest self importance. There actually seems to be a room full of people here who are into the music and they beam the broadest of smiles all night long, celebrating a culture that they claim to be looking after for the time being. It’s that notion of it not being there’s, of them being custodians of an ancient spirit that is at once enthralling and also quite healthy.
Mike Harding is the host, he’s been part of the folk scene for years and his warmth comes across, a perfect anchor – like a garden gnome with an acid wit he ploughs through loads of awards presented by those comedians who always appear on endless Friday night quiz shows on TV which I can’t be arsed to list but it seems like June Tabor and the Oyster Band have won most of them. They play a mini set and her pure voice cuts through the room, she has that earth mother hippie look and the serenity of someone who is genuinely talented, she was also once on university challenge which is not something you can say about a lot of singers. The Oyster Band have that comfortable camaraderie of a band that plays together and stays together and I’m buzzing when I recognise bass player Al Scott who once produced a Goldblade album!
There’s plenty of great musical interludes, Don Maclean plays a couple of tunes, his guitar is totally out of tune for one song, god knows how but it doesn’t matter as he has one of those rich perfect voices that fills the room with a warm and treacle like glow. I never realised what a  fantastic singer he is. If there is one thing Don should do is ring up Rick Rubin when gets back to the States and do one of those great comeback albums with the hairy one. 
The Brighouse And Rastrick Band then enter the stage, all thirty of them with their brass band outfits and music stands. It should be a bit end of the pier but it’s not, they play a powerful, emotive song with these three women doing incredible vocals, plaintive and very northern with all perfectly bent vowels. It’s a thing of beauty.
Christy Moore delivers a chilling song about the cockle pickers who died in Morecambe Bay when the tide swept in, his rich voice delivering the powerful lyrics perfectly.
The main slot goes to The Dubliners who are the coolest looking band on the planet complete with silver hair and beards, the totally deliver Whisky In The Jar and Dirty Old Town- a song that ties the evening up perfectly with its connection to Ewan McColl the local lad who started the folk revival in the fifties and was born a couple of hundred yards from here.
It’s rare to see any roots music in the national media, that’s why these awards are a great and powerful statement. Like punk, folk is shunted into a corner and ignored, too many awkward questions and powerful emotions, there’s way too much reality for the plastic surgery disaster world of prime time media and entertainment.
 But as we all know you can’t kill a genuine culture.

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Award winning journalist and boss of Louder Than War. In a 30 year music writing career, John was the first to write about bands such as Stone Roses and Nirvana and has several best selling music books to his name. He constantly tours the world with Goldblade and the Membranes playing gigs or doing spoken word and speaking at music conferences.


  1. John , I watched this on TV with my 15 year old daughter who is a big fan of new folk artists like Laura Marling. To me they are missing a trick,there was hardly anyone appearing on that stage under the age of 60 and it all seemed a bit ‘cliquey’. I thought they missed a big opportunity to attract a new audience. Btw the three women singing with the brass band were the Unthanks and definitely the highlight of the show (for me anyway).

    • I for one agree with Steve, so many good young “folk” singers about and very few mentioned, apart from the brilliant Lucy Ward.

  2. I confess, I was disappointed. I was hoping to see Peatbog Faeries (who’ve been around a while now) win best live act.
    Those who won awards and played on the night, were no doubt worthy. I have not a bad word to say about any of them.
    Except… It reminded me of the old Folk Club Scene. If you’re in, you’re in if you’re new, forget it. Even the ‘best original song’ category allowed for what are basically cover versions, so didn’t really ‘encourage’ the writing of new material.
    Now, I understand that folk music is about preserving tradition and of course we ought to be able to re-interpret the old tales, but surely it equally is about pushing the boundaries of how we express those traditions! If we don’t encourage that with such awards, then folk music will become more and more the preserve of old men and women in the back rooms of dusty pubs and one day, believe me, folk music will die!

  3. Reading the previous two comments, I’m glad I wasn’t the only one disappointed with this year’s awards.

    It got off to a good start with Lucy Ward getting best newcomer (her album is one of my favourites from last year in any musical genre, and her songs were stunningly raw and emotional when she performed at last year’s Shrewsbury Folk Festival), but I doubt if any viewers or listeners under the age of 30 would have had the patience to make it to the end once it became apparent that both the awards and performers were heavily biased towards older, and mostly male, artists. The only performers under the age of 50 were Seth Lakeman and the Unthanks, who were great, but they’re both well-established artists so where were the up-and-coming acts? The winners of the lifetime achievement awards got to play more than one song each live, so why didn’t Lucy Ward get to perform even one?

    I’m 41 and have only been into folk music for a few years so I don’t claim to have extensive knowledge of the genre, but I am aware that there’s a currently a thriving scene of young female singers like Emily Smith, Hannah Peel, Heidi Talbot, and Abagail Grey amongst others. Bella Hardy did win best original song for her “The Herring Girl”, but even this was a bit of a back-handed compliment as she had to share it with a man in his 60s. I agree that it’s important to acknowledge outstanding contributions made over many years, which is obviously what the lifetime achievement awards are for, but it felt like this was the not-so-hidden agenda of the awards in general and that the few younger acts were just token gestures. I suspect a lot of this may be due to the people who are picked to choose the nominees, who, on the basis of the winners this year, must have been mostly old men.

    The award for best live act was for me symptomatic of the awards as a whole. After all, folk music is primarily a live medium rather than a recorded one like pop or rock music, so this was perhaps the single most important award, and should surely be given to the most exciting and enjoyable live act – in fact I’d have been happy with any of the Peatbog Faeries, Bellowhead or the Unthanks winning. But there was one major omission from the nominees – I was lucky enough to see the Demon Barber Roadshow’s “Time Gentlemen Please” show last year and it was absolutely amazing, bringing folk music and traditional dancing up-to-date by mixing it with hip-hop, human beatboxes and street dancing. If the folk scene wants to appeal to people under the age of 50 then this is exactly the sort of thing they should be promoting and getting as many people to go and see it as possible (in fact, it should be shown on BBC4 it’s so good.) So for a bunch of old blokes I’ve never heard of win best live act was a travesty. In fact (Lucy Ward apart) the whole event was a massive missed opportunity to promote the vibrant young folk music scene and get more people interested in it.

    I’d like to see the Folk Awards have:
    – a more balanced mix of ages and sexes be nominated for and win awards
    – a maximum number of awards that can be given to one act so that they can be shared out to more artists (ironically I do like the Oysterband, but was disappointed by their album with June Tabor that won them all the awards)
    – limited to British artists or artists working mainly in Britain (what was Don McLean doing in there? He must be comfortably living off royalties from all his hit singles so I doubt he needed another award!)

    So come on BBC folkies, get your act together!

  4. In answer to Marks comments above.
    I have been a folk singer and musician for over 30 yrs and I purposefully never watch the Folk Awards for all the above reasons that you state. They are never representative of the fantastic talent out there and the same old cronies seem to win all the awards.
    There are many young artists which need the coverage and accolades from such a programme so BBC please open your eyes and ears, they are the future of folk music and should be encouraged.
    I am currently helping out a young(22yr old) singer/song writer who is fantastic and deserves recognition and she will go far given the right encouragement. Check out Kim Lowings on Reverbnation.

  5. Quran (4:104) – “And be not weak hearted in pursuit of the enemy; if you suffer pain, then surely they (too) suffer pain as you suffer pain…”

  6. Hands down, Apple’s app store wins by a mile. It’s a huge selection of all sorts of apps vs a rather sad selection of a handful for Zune. Microsoft has plans, especially in the realm of games, but I’m not sure I’d want to bet on the future if this aspect is important to you. The iPod is a much better choice in that case.

  7. Zune and iPod: Most people compare the Zune to the Touch, but after seeing how slim and surprisingly small and light it is, I consider it to be a rather unique hybrid that combines qualities of both the Touch and the Nano. It’s very colorful and lovely OLED screen is slightly smaller than the touch screen, but the player itself feels quite a bit smaller and lighter. It weighs about 2/3 as much, and is noticeably smaller in width and height, while being just a hair thicker.


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