Folk London meets Jon Boden
Jon has produced a new compilation CD
The Ultimate Guide to English Folk

Why another anthology on the market when there have been so many over the years?

I think that what was interesting to me was to take, I suppose, a quite specific angle on it which is just traditional music from the English folk revival. I don't think that there are any other anthologies that really specify that specific. The folk scene is so big and amorphous that you could have any amount of anthologies that focus on different elements of it. I think that it is good to have this anthology that has such a targeted approach.

So who do you think is the audience for this CD then?

I suppose that when I was thinking about what tracks to put on I was thinking about somebody who has got into Bellowhead through listening to us on Radio 2 and doesn't know much about the folk scene but is interested in finding out a bit more. Hopefully someone who is looking for a gateway into the English folk scene.

Could you expand a bit on your philosophy on what tracks you chose?

I wanted to home in on traditional tracks. There is one exception to that which is the May Song (by Dave Webber) which acknowledges that I am missing out on a whole raft of songwriting. I was quite keen to have a chronological approach to it, so intitially I tried to get a good representation from each decade. When we put it in order it wasn't chronological at all but I think that the chronology is there in the content. Then I was keen to get a reasonably good mix of male and female singers and I wanted to get a couple of instrumental tracks on there to represent that side of the folk scene. Beyond that it is tracks that I have loved and tracks by artists that have meant a lot to me. The hardest thing was choosing which tracks not to put on which was very difficult. Unfortunately there are a lot of great and very significant artists who are not represented but I think that that is inevitable really.

I think that there are plenty of dyed in the wool folkies who are going to say why isn't so and so on there. Looking at it as a chronology of the development of the folk scene the most obvious absences are McColl and Lloyd.

Yes, I suppose that my view on McColl and Lloyd, particularly on Lloyd is that his significance is as a researcher and as a provider of material than as a performer. His significance is there, I would guess that there are half a dozen tracks that came from him. McColl, again I suppose that his influence on the folk scene was more philosophical and also as a songwriter than as a performer of traditional songs although his performances of traditional songs, especially Scottish songs were fantastic. To me they are not as key to the evolution of the performing side of the folk scene as, say, Carthy, Bellamy and people like that.

(at this point the waiter arrived with our coffee)

Well we had a short break there and the lady from the record company was mentioning how well the promotion had been going. How much do you think that this is going to push folk music into the general perception?

It is difficult to quantify I suppose but the great thing with ARC Music is that they have a strong history with these sort of compilations in all sorts of genres, particularly various traditional genres. I think that there is a whole interested audience out there who are interested in what ARC would sell. It is important just having this in their list of titles as there are still people who don't know that there is such a thing as English folk music. It is really important to have it represented in a series such as the ARC series. My feeling is that its not the kind of thing that converts people cold. It is more people that have an inkling of an interest in the genre and are looking for more. Hopefully this will give them something substantial to latch on to. I suppose that I was thinking of the process that I went through aged eighteen when I was becoming more interested in English folk music and had quite a limited range of artists that I was interested in. I listened to Kate Rusby and Eliza Carthy and I had one Martin Carthy record. If I had had a CD like this at that point that would have taken me off to a number of different avenues. Obviously I now follow those avenues anyway but it would accelerate that process and make that entry easier.

We mentioned previously that you had, of necessity, left out a lot of people. Apart, obviously, from individuals there is a matter of style. The instrumental tracks were all very much for concert performance and there is a whole separate strand of dance revival with bands through the whole gamut from Old Swan, through Committee Band, Was that deliberate or accidental?

It was neither. It was a difficult decision not to put something representative of that branch on. I suppose that it came down to the fact that there was a limit to the number of instrumental tracks that I could put on and my feeling was that the presence of John Kirkpatrick (playing an arrangement of Speed the Plough) is so significant that I felt that I needed to have a solo track from him on there. I could have put an Old Swan track on and I am aware that I am neglecting that whole end of the scene and that is a shame but this is primarily a song CD. It is an unfortunate necessity.

What really impressed me was the two archive recordings. I think I must agree that The Coppers and Joseph Taylor were probably the two most significant individual performers or sets of performers there.

In terms of old recordings Joseph Taylor was notable for his technical acomplishments. In terms of equivalent recordings he was the most accomplished traditional singer around and therefore he had a lot of influence on revival singers. Certainly people that I admired like Louis Killen and Peter Bellamy really latched on to that kind of technical virtuosity. With the Copper Family, they bridge the gap between source singers and revival singers. I think that the revival was so enormous because they were a presence. They gave the whole revival a solidity by their involvement with it. What is tremendously important about The Copper Family of course is their chorus singing. An ensemble singing tradition which is not documented anywhere else. If they hadn't continued their family tradition we could be thinking of English traditional song as a soloistic tradition in the way that Irish and Scottish music generally is. Again I think massively influential on the whole ethos of the English folk revival.

One of the things that captured me when I first went into folk music was the whole idea of chorus singing which is something that you don't encounter elsewhere.

Me too, I got into folk singing through singing round the campfire with Forest Home Camps which is a sort of left wing boy scout sort of thing that I did as a kid. We would sit around singing Copper Family stuff, reading it out of a songbook but everyone sings it. When I got into the folk scene I was amazed by how little “congregational” singing there was. If some one was singing “Fathom the Bowl” you didn't join in with the verses you waited for the chorus. I have got used to that now and there is a lot to be said for it but initially I was disappointed by how soloistic the folk scene was. It is one of the identifying factors of English folk song as against Scottish and Irish. That is a bit black and white, there are chorus songs of course in Scottish and Irish music but it is notable that the English folk scene is more focussed on that. I think that it is a great asset.

I have noticed recently with the younger performers that they are going for heavier arrangements and we are hearing chorus singing rather less and seems to be accompanied by the number of folk choirs that are around.

For me I think that there is a slight structural problem with the folk scene. We tend to conflate the performance end of folk music with the social end. That can end up damaging both sides. It almost means that performers have to pretend that they are not doing it as a performance which is a restriction. At the other end of things genuine social singing can be quite difficult to come by. In a lot of function room folk clubs its not about singing together its is about getting up at the front and is essentially a performance not a congregational activity. Maybe the trend that you are identifying there is almost a recognition by the performance part of the folk scene that it is part of the music industry which is something that I came to terms with a long time ago as you might guess from Bellowhead. Maybe the social end of the folk scene is moving towards more social means of singing such as folk choirs. The club that Fay (Hield) and I run is very much a club in a public bar not in a function room and it is very focussed on congregational singing and I have noticed other clubs doing similar things.

To finish let's talk a little about the re-release of your original CD.

“Painted Lady”, 10th anniversary and it was out of stock so we decided to do a re-release. I have recorded three new tracks for it, two of which are traditional and one of which is a cover of a Whitney Houston song.

So it will give a lot of people excuses for doing Whitney Houston songs in folk clubs now!

If that is the case then my work here will be done.

Buy the CD from Amazon

Review from Folk London magazine

This double CD compilation is part of a series by ARC records that also includes guides to Irish Folk, Scottish Folk and Spanish Folk. For this collection Jon Boden was invited to come up with a selection he felt would fit the title. This was quite a task for Boden to take on - a noble undertaking. However, personally, I believe anything that claims to be the 'Ultimate Guide' to something has a lot to live up to.

Given that Boden has reached the level of popularity that he has, people who are curious about folk music may want to use this compilation and his recommendation as a starting point. Those whose first exposure to folk was Bellowhead, he is hoping, will see his name associated with this and get themselves a copy.

Boden begins in 1906 and ends in the present. The earliest recording on this compilation is The Murder of Maria Marten by Joseph Taylor, captured by Percy Grainger on wax cylinder. The context that Jon gives in the sleeve notes is really interesting. Grainger was anxious to record Taylor because he and his fellow collectors believed they were documenting 'the vestiges of a self-made, self-propagated, self-contained social art form'. Today we often view these early recordings as a beginning, but in Grainger’s day they genuinely felt that these songs would be lost if they weren't captured in some permanent way. Thank goodness the technology was there to be able to let them do so. As gramophones and phonographs developed, this music reached many more people and awareness grew, until we reach the point we are at today. Boden argues that ultimately the downside of this is that it has turned some people into passive musical consumers instead of active musical participants, which is interesting.

It is difficult in some ways to write a critical appraisal of a compilation without being subjective; each listener will doubtless have their own personal choice, their own favourites. Jon admits it was more difficult deciding what not to include than what to include here. For me there are some omissions, for example there is nothing by Dave Swarbrick, (or Fairport Convention for that matter), no Richard Thompson or Shirley Collins. Other people will of course have their own ideas.

The choice to include a re-working of The Weaver and the Factory Maid by Steeleye Span from their 2002 album Present - The Very Best of Steeleye Span for me is an odd one. It has nothing of the energy, drive, and rhythmic excitement of the original from Parcel of Rogues. However, others may hear it and think the exact opposite, and if the inclusion of this version makes someone explore Steeleye Span’s mid-seventies heyday then it's 'job done' as far as Boden and ARC records are concerned.

There is, however, plenty of interest on the 2 CDs, with songs by Peter Bellamy, James Findlay, Chris Wood & Andy Cutting, Blowzabella, Nic Jones, Anne Briggs, June Tabor & Martin Simpson, Jackie Oates and more besides. The sleeve notes for each selection are interesting and informative, Boden has really done his work on this. As I've already said, the introduction and context in which he places his choices is excellent. There are also a few paragraphs in the sleeve notes that outline his own way into folk music, which was initially Led Zeppelin.

He has included his version of Prickle Eye Bush that he recorded with John Spiers, and why not! it's superb, and arguably knocks spots off any other version of the song. (Including Led Zep’s Gallows Pole).

Whether this is the Ultimate Guide to English Folk is open to debate. However there are some great choices here. Also what sets it apart from many other compilations is the informed starting point, the informed perspective and the attention to detail that someone like Boden gave to the project.

I hope it achieves its goal of turning people onto this vast wealth and richness that there is out there.

Nygel (The Goose Is Out!)

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