At the time of writing, I’m on a bit of a high here. We just found out that we’re to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from Folk Alliance International at their annual conference which takes place in February in Montreal. And if that’s not impressive enough, our fellow awardees include Joni Mitchell, Buffy Sainte-Marie and the late Leonard Cohen. Crikey!
It’s quite a while since I regularly used to go to what was then the North American Folk Alliance – or ‘Folk Aliens’, as American chums would wittily refer to it. The first one I attended was in Boston. We knew of the American notion that anybody who plays an acoustic guitar and writes songs is the central core of ‘folk music’, but the reality of it was still quite a cultural shock. I’d hardly settled into my jet-lagged seat on the official shuttle bus from the airport when the first singer-songwriter whipped out a guitar, burst into nasal song and then proceeded to hand out business cards. Entering the lobby of the conference hotel, every available wall space including in the lifts was already plastered with advertising fliers for private showcases that take place – this is true! – in people’s hotel bedrooms (bear in mind that US conference hotel bedrooms are rather larger than those in your average UK Travelodge…).
I found myself on a panel called something like “Opportunities In Europe”. Fellow panellists included then BBC Folk On Two presenter Jim Lloyd, and a Swedish folk festival organiser. Jim and I decided to do the good guy/ bad guy routine: he’d cheerfully tell people how friendly and welcoming we were, and I’d be the one to say, “but if you’re a fake Irish band, or a white bloke with a National doing the Robert Johnson songbook, or a singer-songwriter – forget it, we’ve got enough already.” This message wasn’t awfully well received! When it was time for questions from the floor, a barrage started, all of which seemed to begin with the words, “I’m a singer-songwriter, and…” Eventually our Scandiwegian friend hauled himself to his feet and barked (I won’t attempt the accent), “There is something you need to know. In Europe we do not consider that singer-songwriters are folk music.” Badoom. Sits down to a stunned room. They were talking about it in the bar for the rest of the conference. That year became popularly known as “Death by singer-songwriter.”
Apparently, actual folk music has made a strong comeback since then, much helped by the rise of heroic people like the Carolina Chocolate Drops’ alumni and Elizabeth Laprelle. Looking forward to finding this out in February.
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At a subsequent FA I was on a panel about ‘world music’ which – at that time, mid-’90s – was booming in the USA. That was the one where a fellow panellist from New York let us know how much easier it was for us Europeans to encounter world music as we lived so much closer to it. To be fair, while we Euros were rendered speechless, several of his fellow Americans did jump in to point out that all he had to do was ask his NY taxi drivers to play him their favourite home music, or cross the border to the south…
A couple of years later (with drink having been taken) I set off up and down the hotel showcase tower late one evening with my DAT Walkman and a microphone, an amused US folk label proprietor pal in tow. Doing a piece for the BBC World Service, I discovered that if you point a microphone at anybody and open with the words “I’m from the BBC…” they’ll answer any question totally seriously, even the very tongue-in-cheek. There was a sub-plot: whichever floor we got out of the lift on, there was a didgeridoo player in the stairwell – but always above us or below us: we never found him. Wish I could find that tape: it got more hilarious as the night went on. The only person we found singing a traditional song was Steve Tilston!
My favouritest of all was in Memphis in 1999 where I found myself in a group conversation after a Copper Family gig and suddenly realised that, apart from the Coppers, gathered around were Pete Seeger, Alan Lomax, Woody Guthrie’s daughter, Leadbelly’s niece and Robert Johnson’s nephew. I’d already met Geoff Muldaur in the coffee queue. If my teenage self could have seen me then… Later that evening came the pleasure that allows me to tell the story that begins, “When I was walking down Beale Street with Bob Copper…” You don’t get that at EFExpo!
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Progress report. Following our amazingly well-supported Kickstarter rescue, these much-liked bigger, better quarterly issues – is this already the fourth? – have stabilised everything. I may not be getting paid myself, but no longer are HMRC’s wolves snarling at the door! However, we’re no closer to nailing a transition plan that will allow me to retire after our 40th anniversary coming soon now: we can’t identify the right person(s) or model. Lots of things have been explored, but without funding or a rich patron they aren’t realistic.
This may mean that our days of being proudly – the word may actually be ‘stubbornly’ – independent have to end. In current media realities, to be a single-title publisher bearing all the overheads and workload on one magazine doesn’t seem possible any more. So right now we’re exploring finding another existing publisher – with better 21st-century publishing and marketing skills – to take us in. Unity is power, and all that. So on the off-chance anybody reading this has contacts we haven’t considered…
But we approach that 40th anniversary more proud of fRoots and its lifetime of achievement than we’ve ever been, and aiming for lots more. As a famously grumpy rock singer once said, “It’s too late to stop now!”