Murderous and suicidal thoughts don’t tend to trouble me, but both sprang to mind repeatedly recently in a way that made me think of McCartney happily whistling away one evening, penning Helter Skelter, and its subsequent impact on Charles Manson.
I was in a yoga class. Laura the genius who normally leads us to a supple place of calm aided by some low-volume minimal or ambient music was away. “Relax!” shouted someone else through a barrage of the most pointless collection of synth string sounds ever recorded. With every repetitive splashy chord of total hippy shit (suggesting the composer’s limitless stupidity), the target of my murderous impulse widened. Starting with the hapless instructor it moved to everyone who’d ever linked a keyboard to a computer in the name of New Age music. And then to thinking: “much quicker and simpler just to kill myself”.
These thoughts of murder and suicide led me naturally to folk. Not that folk music incites active engagement in either form of violent death, but rather tells grisly tales of people who haven’t slacked on those fronts. When I was a teenager living in Frome, I had no idea about the dark underpinning of folk or the churning complexity in its depths.
Unable to see beyond the surface simplicity of pretty much everything, folk seemed as pointless to me as that most pointless collection of string-pad sounds ever recorded. The singers in the pub were too loud and leery and the songs too dreary or twee. Morris men? Well, just fat and mad. I played in indie-rock bands, man. Then with the discovery of ethnomusicology, the fabulous delights of world music fuelled my passion for life and lit up my mind.
Here was something integral to how people lived far and wide. Here was music that informed work and play, and lay at the heart of identity. It rooted human beings in their culture and in a sense of place in relation to others. And from the songs of the Babenzele pygmies to the tunes of the Piobaireachd pipers, it touched me too. This deeply local music connected us all. Then over ten years ago (when I was twelve), I started writing about it for fRoots. I just kept quiet about folk.
But then Ian Anderson introduced me to Shirley Collins. Shirley, her voice, unused for so long, so powerful and true. And the things she sang about! (See above). So I stepped through the looking glass she held up into this extraordinary land where the ‘local music from out there’ was also here all the time; this land where all human life is laid bare.
And I set out on a wonderful, exciting journey strewn with glittering gems of varied and extraordinary beauty: everything from swirling instrumentals in festival fields (thank you Spiro and Telling The Bees), to unaccompanied solo vocals during phone conversations (thank you Shirley Collins for those snippets of songs). It’s always a total privilege to meet the people who make this brilliant, meaningful music and dance its fantastical dances.
Folk music’s warm embrace may have been unexpected, but New Age will never ambush me. Its inherent fatuousness will always inspire my murderous impulse. And I bet there’s a folk song that can show me how best to carry it out.