There are few certainties in this world, and it feels like the number is decreasing. For example, at the time we went to press it was still not clear whether the UK would crash out of the EU into penury soon after this issue is published. Ho hum. But two things become more certain to me with each passing year: that you can’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you come from, and that the older you get the less you realise that you actually know, and knew all along.
The first of those certainties has many examples in the world that fRoots covers. I won’t go into detail because there has already been a bit of a shitstorm on fBook, but in February the EFDSS removed a video display from an exhibit at Cecil Sharp House because it included footage of a much-celebrated traditional folk event that somebody there thought could be found offensive. It doesn’t appear that there were any actual complaints from the public, and it’s hard to see how this squares with EFDSS charitable objective 2.1.1 “to preserve English folk dances and songs, and other folk music (including singing games), folk tales and folk drama, to make them known and to encourage the practice of them in their traditional forms.”
You can’t make history go away by hiding it, especially as there is very little suggestion that the way things could be interpreted nowadays by the uninformed is actually how they were. Far better to educate and explain the background. And if part of that education is gaining the basic realisation that things aren’t always as they first seem – and that offence appropriation on behalf of others isn’t really a very good default position – then better still.
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We’re also at a crucial point in the history of the folk community. It’s now 50-heading-towards-60 years since the fabled 1960s ‘folk boom’, when every town, many villages and most colleges had a folk club and the modern folk festival movement kicked off. But age and the reaper are starting to be unkind to the participants. I mentioned this briefly in our Summer issue last year, when we shone a tail light on the 1965 Keele Folk Festival: that it’s important to pass on the experiences of that generation – if only so as to prevent people wastefully re-inventing the wheel.
The point was that Keele did something which many currently popular ‘boutique’ festivals outside the folk world now do: they included talks and discussions. I’m recently back from this year’s Folk Alliance bash in Far Canadia, and one of the things they include each year is a public conversation titled Wisdom Of The Elders. A few UK festivals have public artist interviews, often conducted admirably by our very own Colin Irwin, but I believe it would be a fine thing to extract some wisdom out of the people who did stuff too – organisers, presenters, producers and the like – even audience members.
There seems to have been very little attempt to do this, either as public infotainment, or as input to the various degree courses concerned with folk music. There certainly doesn’t seem – to my knowledge – to be much done in the way of oral history interview recording. And whilst there are the occasional mentorship schemes for career-oriented musicians, I don’t know of any directed at those needed to power the future infrastructure. There is so much valuable experience to be collected and passed on before it’s too late – and it’s fascinating and often entertaining too, dammit, not just dry formal learning.
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Of course, I’d be the last to discourage people from doing things off their own bat (which brings me to certainty No. 2). There’s a lot to be said for deciding that something needs doing and going for it, provided that it’s tempered by two important guiding principles: “Do something well or don’t do it at all,” and the fear of fucking up in public!
Wallowing in nostalgia, as old farts like me are prone to do, the day I write this is the 50th anniversary of the opening of a UK tour that I organised for legendary blues man Fred McDowell. I look back at what, blessedly, was a triumph for all concerned and wonder what on earth possessed me! I was only 21. I knew nothing other than my own recent experience of touring. I couldn’t possibly put myself in the shoes of a 64-year-old tractor driver from Mississippi. If I’d only known marginally more than dimly what I know now, I could at least have asked Shirley Collins, who’d unearthed Fred in rural Como a decade earlier. But in my bumptious ignorance I just went for it and it worked. Luckily! Down the years I’ve done the same with running record labels, broadcasting, producing festivals and a whole load of other shit that, in retrospect, I was lucky to get away with without the wisdom input of elders.
Forty years ago this June, we published the first issue of something called The Southern Rag, which over time evolved into fRoots. Again, I now realise that neither I nor my co-founders Lawrence Heath and Caroline Walker really had much of a clue about what was involved with launching and running a magazine but – and here I often quote that saying that the bumblebee is aerodynamically unable to fly but nobody told the bumblebee so it keeps on flying – we wanted to do it. Though I suppose we sort-of knew that we had to do it well, and I was certainly scared of fucking up in public even if the others weren’t!
This one completes our 40th year of publishing. Next up is our 40th anniversary issue. We published every single one on time (because nobody told us magazines can’t do that, so we just kept on doing it!). Please buy lots of adverts in it to congratulate us and make an old man very happy!