40 years is a very long time! In the 1985 interview with Martin Carthy that we re-published last autumn as part of our Back Combing series, he commented that “If the people who were listening to this music that they were just discovering twenty years ago – if they could have heard a record made in 1985, they wouldn’t have believed it. How on earth do you get that from this?” So just imagine if people from our birth year of 1979 could experience all the amazing music being created from traditional roots upwards in 2019. And the conditions in which it’s made.
Or look at it through the other end of the time telescope. Many people reading fRoots these days, certainly a high percentage of the artists now carrying this music forward so well, weren’t even born at the time our first modest issue was sent out into the world. Can they have much of an inkling what things were like back then?
In so many respects, things are appreciably better now for music makers and music consumers. As a working folk artist in the 1970s, not much had changed since the 1960s folk club boom. Performing conditions were primitive. If you wanted to be sure of decent sound you had to haul your own PA system around with you: monitors were barely known. Good lighting was minimal, as was accommodation (a sleeping bag on a floor was still not uncommon).
Happily, the growth of venues like professionally run arts centres has had a positive knock-on influence across the board, and the immeasurable benefits to musicians have also improved audiences’ experiences no end. A happy artist gives a much better performance, and conducive staging conditions allow more adventurous music to flourish, especially where acoustically unbalanced combinations of instruments are concerned. Music is possible now that simply hadn’t been before outside the studio.
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The tools for making music and a career in it have been democratised beyond imagination. It’s not just that better-quality instruments are more within reach. The idea that studio-standard digital recording, video making and publishing facilities would be ubiquitous and affordable, meaning that the only limits are the user’s creative skills and imagination, would be mind-boggling to our 1979 reader.
And funding? Who would have imagined back then that funding would ever be available for folk music projects? For example, back in the 1980s, the English Folk Dance & Song Society was a moribund, decaying dinosaur, widely mocked in our pages as DEAFASS (the Dance Earnestly And Forget About Song Society). Who could have conceived how a few million from an enlightened 21st-century Arts Council bestowed on a hard-working, creative staff might turn the Society and its historic headquarters at Cecil Sharp House into the powerhouse that it is today?
For this issue’s 40th anniversary celebratory Back Combing features, I chose to concentrate on the early ‘80s. In many ways that saw a sea change. Time was up for unbending old folk clubs; this was the beginning of the massive boom in festivals replacing them at the hub of everything. Imagination and inquisitiveness ran riot in a way we’ve probably not seen since; this was when the punk generation who had been steadfastly shooed away by ‘70s stick-in-the-muds found their way in the back door and a new younger generation began to appear. It was when horizons lifted both geographically and musically, laying the foundations for most that has gone since. Was this partly our fault? Others must give that verdict!
But while many things have changed, some haven’t. The mainstream media still treat folk and roots music abominably. There’s still only one dedicated hour of folk a week on national BBC radio, still hardly any column inches in the press. If we succeeded in breaking musical moulds, we failed in influencing mainstream media ones.
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Ah, you’ve noticed that I’m still here! This hadn’t been the intention: I’ve been trying to organise slipping out of this seat for several years. But I’ve wanted to do my best to guarantee a smooth transition, and plans and negotiations for another publisher and Editor to continue fRoots in seamless fashion are taking a bit longer than I’d intended. Hopefully next issue I’ll be able to tell you more.
But at least this allows me to seize this 40th anniversary opportunity to give thanks to everybody who has allowed the good ship fRoots to sail so reliably and regularly – every one on time – for 40 years!
To my co-founders Lawrence Heath and Caroline Walker, to all the fRoots staff down the years – Beverly Hill, Sarah Coxson, Lisa Warburton, Tatiana Spencer, Gina Jennings, Vanessa Lawley, Sofi Mogensen and more. To all the freelance helpers ever, currently Steve Hunt, Nancy Wallace, Kitty Macfarlane and Jon Wilks. To all our wonderful freelance writers and photographers, far too many to mention but particular long-service shout-outs to Colin Irwin, Elizabeth Kinder, Tim Chipping, Jamie Renton and Andy Cronshaw at the typewriters and Judith Burrows, Dave Peabody and Jak Kilby pressing those shutter buttons. To our printers Stephens & George. To unsung backroom people like Nick Freeth, who has masterfully mastered every one of our compilation albums, and Anna Smith, who built and ran our original website. To heroes who have helped with financial support in times of need. To all you readers and advertisers. Huge, huge gratitude. We couldn’t have done it without you, and no doubt thanks to you it’ll all be able to continue doing it without me when I shortly manage to sneak out the back door to freedom!