London meets Jon Boden
Why another anthology on the
market when there have been so many over the years?
Jon has produced a new compilation CD
The Ultimate Guide to English Folk
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?
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?
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.
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?
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.
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
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.
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.
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!)Return to our folk shop