*Warning: contains copious subjectivity
I’ve always loved anything related to folk: I remember being introduced to 1970s prog folk (Fairport Convention, Pentangle, Jethro Tull and the like) as a child, and having my young mind blown by the mystery and delicious poignancy of the songs. And it’s struck me recently that my love of folk might not just be down to childhood indoctrination or a vague personal perversion: there might be some specific reasons why it captures the imaginations of so many people, and these could be put to good use in modern songwriting. I’ve catalogued these reasons in a handy list, as follows:
One of the first things that struck me when I started listening to “normal” bands was the lack of complex and unusual vocal melodies. I get the idea that most bands come up with the chord structure first, then lay the vocal melody over the top (band people, is this right?) which often tends to flatten and restrict the melody from doing anything really “out there”. But traditional folk, by its very definition, was written by ordinary people, not trained musicians. So the people composing the songs probably didn’t have any formal schooling in the rules of musical theory, and if they played an instrument, it was just as likely to be a melodic one, like a violin or tin whistle, as a chorded instrument like the guitar. This has helped to form much more unusual, interesting melodies, unrestricted by backing instruments or any prior knowledge of the “rules” of music. (My producer informs me that folk melodies are also very good at indicating what key the whole song is meant to be in, probably as a result of them being sung a capella).
A lot of people make the mistake of thinking a simple, bland melody is more catchy, but complex melodies are more distinctive and often contain more musical “hooks” – they just need to be repeated in order to drill them sufficiently deeply into brain of the victim (listener! I mean listener). One thing I hate is getting “lost” in a song – hearing all these wonderful musical turns of phrase, but only once before they move onto something else, and before you know it you’ve lost track and can’t work out whether it’s the same song or has gone onto another one (Laura Marling is very guilty of this). Folk music, with its narrative nature, is repetitive by necessity. And since most people composing folk songs couldn’t write them down, the melody would have to be strong and distinctive in order to be remembered – an opinion shared by Paul McCartney, who bemoans in this article the fact that “dozens” of early Beatles songs were simply forgotten the morning after due to the absence of portable music recording devices.
The Beatles can’t help me on this one. Lines about holding hands and love are absolutely no substitute to songs that are actually ABOUT something. From piracy and highwaymen to hangings and lost polar explorers, folk songs were used as much to carry news or spread a cause as they were for entertainment. Of course, like every genre, they have their clichés. I once developed a game of “folk bingo” to be played at folk gigs, where points to be crossed off included:
The events of the song taking place “in the merry month of May”
Awkwardly attempting to get the phrase “press-ganged into the Royal Navy” to scan
Visual rhymes like “the wind” and “to find”
“Milk white steed”
Singing in a strong yet completely unrecognisable regional accent
But despite all folk’s faults, nobody could say the lyrics were an afterthought. That’s a relatively modern phenomenon. West End producer Richard Andrews puts it perfectly I his book “Writing a Musical”, and it’s just as true in folk as it is in musical theatre:
“People don’t appreciate the difference between pop songs and show songs. Once upon a time they were the same thing, but since the 1950s they have each moved in different directions. My definition is that the most important thing about a pop song is the sound, while the most important thing about a show song is the meaning. Lyrics are often the last thing to be added to a pop song, after the music track is finished, and their importance is certainly less than it once was.”
Once I’d got over thinking all popular music was rubbish (which it couldn’t possibly be, right?) I just assumed that people must be listening out for completely different things in songs than I did. Being raised on an ungodly combination of folk and musical theatre, it was no surprise that I’d automatically go straight for the lyrics and vocal melody. But what else is there if the rest is just a load of guitars?
I will never for the life of me understand how, out of an entire world full of instruments, modern music has been built almost exclusively on guitars. It’s like deciding to make all bands for the rest of history play nothing but different kinds of xither or bassoon, and obsess over the tiny differences offered within this niche.
Michale Chabon, editor of McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales (an anthology of “proper” short stories with a beginning, middle and end), bemoans the prevalence of the “plotless, self-revealatory” short story, stating all modern short stories have been forced into this single, narrow format. He puts it this way:
“Imagine that, sometime about 1950, it had been decided, collectively, informally, a little at a time, but with finality, to proscribe every kind of novel from the canon of the future but the nurse romance.”
Well, guitar bands are the musical equivalent of the nurse romance. (Gosh, that’s not a sentence I ever thought I’d say!)
Folk music, on the other hand, offers a diverse range of musical instrumentation so refreshing that I even like this song (composed by scientists using the most commonly hated aspects of music).
Obviously there are hundreds of exceptions to every one of these rules, many of which reside happily in my music collection. But I’ve had a good rant, and hopefully this will be helpful, or at least interesting, to some of you. Of course, everybody has different tastes and different songwriting methods, and I’d be really interested to hear some of yours – feel free to prove me wrong!