Why folk music is objectively* the best kind of music

*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:

1. Melody

Folk 008
Well, I don’t know who this man is, but I sure like his style!

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).

2. Repetition

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.

3. Lyrics

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

Folk 004
Who are these people and what on earth are they doing? Ah well, at least they’re having fun!

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.”

4. Instrumentation

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).

Conclusion

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!

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An Interest in Interesting Interests

Steampunk Tea Dance 2

blonde octo

There’s no hiding the fact that I have some bizarre interests. I’m obsessed with the Victorians, I can’t stop hand-sewing octokittens, and, most prominently, I’ve been known to keep Giant African Land Snails as pets – to the extent that I proudly answered to the epithet “Snail Girl” all through primary school. Now, I’ve always taken it without question that if you have an unusual interest, it will inevitably put off a certain proportion of people from wanting to become a friend or potential suitor. And that’s fine – that’s just how it is. But what I’ve never really thought about is: what exactly is it that they’re scared of?

Lovely snails!
My most recent charges, Herculine and Chevalier.

I think it’s an interesting question that I’d genuinely like to get to the bottom of. Are they worried I’ll refuse to talk about anything but snails? Or that I’ll bring snails to the date? Or do they equate unusual interests with being unstable / unpredictable / not very down to earth in the context of a relationship? I feel a bit conned by the latter explanation, because despite my unusual interests, but I’m actually a disappointingly boring and normal person deep down (as anyone who’s attempted to make me “go out” and “have fun” on a Saturday night will attest). In fact, maybe some people think having unusual interests means the person is boring – although I’d have thought the exact opposite!

Strawberry Fields
Strawberry Fields (2012)

Still more infuriatingly, how come some people seem to be able to “get away” with being strange more than others? I had a friend who was far more bizarre than me really, but people never seemed to notice as much. Are certain “kinds” of bizarreness more acceptable? I think appearance has a lot to do with it – I’ve seen countless films where the main characters’ behaviour would have got them sectioned was it not for their aesthetic value. The protagonist’s beautiful, arty, pathologically manipulative sister in the 2012 British film Strawberry Fields is a scarily realistic example.

I think gender comes into it too. This article discusses the way in which eccentric men tend to be labelled as “visionary” or “genius”, while women are often dismissed as “mad” or “quirky”, or filed under the Manic Pixie Dreamgirl stereotype. And it’s something I’ve personally experienced a lot as a performer, as well – there was a whole year when one compere of an open mic night never used any other adjective to describe me apart from “crazy”, but would describe even the most randomly surreal male acts far more thoughtfully. I found this quite dismissive, and a bit of a cop out, too, because although my songs often have unusual subjects, if you listen properly there’s method in the madness – in fact, I think they’re often quite well thought-out and witty (but then I would). As the above article says, “To call stories like this quirky is to admit that you haven’t really listened”.

I’ve forgiven him now, though!

I’ve also been pondering about where people’s interests come from in the first place. My theory is that once they reach a certain age, people’s brains want to learn deeply about something, so simply latch onto the first vaguely suitable thing that presents itself at the time. That’s why a lot of people’s interests can seem very random. Of course, there’s obviously a logic behind some people’s interests: family / friend influences and wish fulfillment are the most prominent factors that come to my mind. I know that my interest in snails is at least partly due to my fervent childhood desire to own a horse – this being impossible, my mind simply latched itself onto the nearest garden animal that I quite liked, as a more practical pet on which to focus my affections.

Fancy pigeons

I think fashions work in a similar way – society seems to simply latch onto the first random thing that people might conceivably be interested in. This is the only possible explanation for the nation’s all-consuming obsession with pigeon breeding in the 1850s (to the extent that Charles Darwin was advised to re-write The Origin of Species to be on this subject – and the opening chapter is, indeed, about pigeon breeding. The craze was also responsible for our modern infestations of town pigeons. Thanks, Victorians).

This is why I’ve always pronounced myself “not cool enough to be a geek”. In geek culture, there seem to be certain things that it’s cool for people to be interested in (sci fi, comics, anime etc.) and other things that are not so cool (snails). But why one thing, and not another? Is there some kind of logic behind it, or is it just random?

I really would be interested to hear your thoughts and theories on this matter. Where did your interests come from? What runs through your head when you find out someone has an unusual interest? In fact, maybe all this will become a new INTEREST of mine!!!!!!!!!!!

In Search of Evil

I spend quite a lot of time thinking about the concept of evil. I’m not really sure why. Of course, everybody loves a good villain. But it’s deeper than that – how do we define evil? By actions or intentions? Is evil circumstantial, or objective and immutable?

I seem to be one of the few people who still suspects that some people are simply born evil. I don’t know why, I just get the feeling that there are people who, regardless of circumstances or the era they’re born into, will default to evil acts. Obviously, there are also thousands of people out there who are forced into evil acts by their circumstances (as the recent and controversial Derren Brown episode, where ordinary, law-abiding citizens were manipulated to the point where they would push a man to his death, will attest – although its authenticity remains suspect in my cynical eye). But there are also people who seem to perform evil acts out of some deeper urge. So how true is my assumption?

Sweeney Todd

Historically, the idea that people are evil simply because they’re born evil was by no means unusual – in fact, up until the early 20th century, it was the default. It’s only recently that the idea of the sympathetic villain has come to the fore – in the past, this would have been seen as scandalously morally ambiguous. Contrast the original “penny dreadful” serialization of Sweeney Todd, “A String of Pearls”, with the modern-day Tim Burton film adaptation. The Sweeney Todd of 1846’s motivations were seemingly limited to greed and the sheer joy of being evil. In a predominantly Christian society, there was an obvious moralising purpose to this: he was simply a force of the devil, over which the force of good must (and invariably did) prevail.

Phrenology head

But, without the knowledge of genetics and psychology that we take for granted today, there really was an idea that people were born to an evil “type”, and this was often associated with physical appearance. In the 1840s crazes such as phrenology were all the rage, and the shape of the head was meant to reflect traits as far-ranging as secretiveness, parental love and the perception of colour. Sweeney Todd himself was described as “a long, low-jointed, ill-put-together sort of fellow, with an immense mouth, and such huge hands and feet, that he was, in his way, quite a natural curiosity.” Such unrefined features were commonly associated with evil (which had ugly connotations regarding race, social class, and a whole host of other pre-Victorian prejudices).

(As an aside, Dracula caused controversy by being one of the first attractive villains – although the deeply homophobic author, Bram Stoker [who, incidentally, stole Oscar Wilde’s first girlfriend, Florence Balcombe], appeared to have scored a bit of an own goal there. The sensuous, beguiling depiction of Dracula that has set the hearts of readers fluttering ever since was originally intended as a portrayal of unattractive, immoral un-manliness.)

The modern film adaptation of Sweeney Todd concocts a sympathetic back-story for our antagonist, involving an evil, wife-stealing Alan Rickman and 15 years of forced labour in an Australian penal colony (which would certainly explain Jonny Depp’s preposterous accent). With psychologists like Freud introducing the idea that past experiences build who we are today, modern audiences see a sympathetic villain as more believable. And, I suspect, we like to feel the thrill of moral ambiguity that comes with sympathising with man capable of slicing the jugulars of unsuspecting customers with a shaving razor and then baking them into pies. Such a questioning of morals would be unheard of in the Victorian era.

In fact, I’ve always thought that the Victorian view of evil was less moral – if someone’s evil out of the sheer joy of being evil, it implies that there’s joy to being evil, and maybe even that that’s what we’d all become if we yielded to our temptations or “let the devil in”. It gives evil an attractive allure, something that Robert Lewis Stevenson captured all too well in Jekyll and Hyde. A tortured, unhappy antagonist gives a far superior moral message. But that’s not the pure, unadulterated evil that I’m talking about.

The closest real-life example of pure evil in today’s society is, of course, the psychopath, whose absence of fear and empathy is caused by an underactive amygdala (the region of the brain responsible for memory, decision-making and emotional reactions). Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test suggests that this ruthlessness is what enables business and political leaders to rise to the top. In fact, the book estimates that people in positions of power are four times more likely to be psychopaths than the average population – in other words, those responsible for shaping society and building the world we live in are not the same kind of people as us – society is disproportionately geared towards psychopaths. (No wonder I feel so discombobulated all the time.)

“Aha!” I thought, flicking through its pages, “I was right! Some people really are just born evil!” But what the book doesn’t mention is that even a condition as extreme as psychopathy can be brought about – or at least exacerbated – by early childhood experiences. One of my friends knows a social worker who is under strict instructions to keep an eye out for any babies or young children not receiving enough physical affection – because apparently, a lack of hugging can turn you into a psychopath! I always knew hugging was good for the soul.

So why do I still believe in the idea of pure evil? Maybe because I find it so impossible to empathise with unrepentant evildoers, or even to see them as real people like me. As first, I was worried this failure of empathy meant that I myself was a psychopath – but Jon Ronson’s book was quick to reassure me that if I was worried I was a psychopath, that meant I almost definitely wasn’t one – because if I was one, I wouldn’t care. And that’s what makes them so scary: it’s like there’s no way you can reach them. If you try to tell them they’re doing wrong, they don’t believe you, and even if they do believe you, they don’t care. As Neil Gaiman said in his latest anthology, Trigger Warning, “the people who scare me are the ones who are certain of their own rightness”.

Things That Only Made Sense at the Time

Ever since a gig I did this summer at the Phoenix Picturehouse, where local musicians teamed up to perform iconic songs from films, I’ve been thinking a lot about lyrics that must have made perfect sense at the time they were written, but whose meaning has since descended into baffling obscurity. Old films are a great source of these oddities, and there are some good examples among the songs I performed that night.

One of my favourites is the jazz standard “Paper Moon”, originally written in 1933 for the catastrophically unsuccessful musical “The Great Magoo”. In the same year it appeared in a slightly more successful film version of the catastrophically unsuccessful musical “Take a Chance”. It was popularised by Ella Fitzgerald in the 1940s, and finally gave the title to the 1973 Oscar-winning film “Paper Moon”, about a father and daughter conman duo.

Dreamworks-logo

It’s a good song, proven by the fact that it managed to withstand such an inauspicious start, and the clever lyrics centre around the idea of the old-fashioned photo studio where customers would pose sitting on a giant crescent moon – something that everyone seemed to be completely obsessed with in the 20s and 30s, to the extent that it’s it seems to have entered into the cultural catalogue of iconic images from the era, and has even become the Dreamworks logo. But there’s one lyric that people always ask me about:

“It’s a Barnum and Bailey world

Just as phony as it could be

But it wouldn’t be make believe if you believed in me.”

What’s “Barnum and Bailey”?

Barnum and Bailey

Well, it turns out that the elusive Barnum and Bailey were actually 19th century circus owners, who ran the modestly titled “Greatest Show on Earth”, an iconic institution at the time. So to the 1930s listener, this would have been a universally recognizable reference to all that was showy and fantastical. It’s just one that’s got lost in the mists of time.

But when it comes to songwriting, it’s not a simple task to make your lyrics futureproof. After all, how can we know for sure which turns of phrase will last and which are simply lexical fads? Modern-sounding phrases like to “hang out” or to have “beef” with a wrongdoer have actually been in use since the 1920s (unfortunately for me, “old bean” appears to have stood the test of time rather less well).

Although I’m sure current chart hit “Hotline Bling” isn’t going to become a timeless classic any time soon.

But I digress.

Another example that I’ve (infuriatingly) never been able to get to the bottom of comes from the iconic 1954 film “White Christmas”. Quite apart from a completely baffling (and, for all I know, deeply racist) sequence in which they reminisce about the nebulous ins and outs of a “good old minstrel show”, a subject that was already nostalgic at the time, there’s this lyric in the third-act-dilemma torch song “Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me”:

“Love, you didn’t do right by me

As they say in the song

You done me wrong.”

As they say in what song? Why are they even referring to another song within their own song? I can’t even find record of any songs called “You Done Me Wrong” that predate 1954! To use an oft-worn catchphrase, what does it all mean????

mock turtle

There must be countless lyrics like these whose meanings are lost forever, and still more that are simply passed off as nonsense or surrealist through lack of context. I only recently learned that the Mock Turtle in Alice in Wonderland isn’t just a whimsical flight of fancy, or a psychedelic product of Lewis Carroll’s opium-addled mind – well, it is, but it’s also a clever and topical play on words. In the book, the mock turtle is a creature with the body of a turtle, and the head, hooves and tail of a calf. And that’s no coincidence. While the super-rich of the Victorian era dined on real turtle soup, a much more common starter was mock turtle soup, made from – you guessed it – the head, hooves and tail of a calf. It doesn’t take much of a leap of imagination to picture this as an actual creature called the mock turtle. How many other insightful references have since been dismissed as nonsense verse?

(As an aside, I strongly suspect that a lot of David Bowie lyrics from the 1970s fall into this category. Although, he was taking a lot of drugs at the time, so I don’t think even he could tell us for sure.)

clara bow
Here she is posing on a crescent moon. Told you, didn’t I?

It also gets me thinking – what is it that gets some things remembered as icons, and other things that were equally popular at the time, if not more so, relegated to the cultural oubliette? The present day seems to have, magpie-like, selected almost at random a selection of films/ artists/ songs that they have decided are emblematic of the era, and ignored everything else, regardless of actual popularity at the time. I recently saw a documentary about the silent film actress Clara Bow, who was indisputably the Marilyn Monroe of her era: the inspiration for Betty Boop and the original “It” girl – but who has been retrospectively eclipsed by contemporaries like Greta Garbo.

So what is it that gets some songs remembered, and some forgotten? It’s not like they’re all incredibly specific 1970 – 80s novelty one-hit wonders like The Brat’s “Chalk Dust” (which is, in actual fact, still unaccountably entertaining). That’d be a good topic for a future post, actually – “Things That Were Really Popular At The Time But Have Since Been Completely Forgotten” – at least, it would be if anyone could remember them! Any suggestions, folks?

But there are always some lyrics that make perfect sense regardless of the era. I’ll leave you with a verse from the scandalously ribald “Willow’s Song” from The Wicker Man, pieced together by Paul Giovanni from ancient medieval verse:

“Fair maid, white and red

Comb you smooth and stroke your head.

How a maid can milk a bull

Mmmm-mmmm, and every stroke a bucketful.”

 

Ahem!