Styles & Forms | Alternative Folk

Alternative music is often seen as a controversial idiom, reflecting those who have sought to change the existing styles by fusing it with others, or approaching it from a different angle. It is criticized by purists who believe in the folk ideal, but supported by those who argue that stagnant music is a dead music and that it must be changed for it to survive.

For all those who say there is nothing new under the sun, where there is an established musical style, there will always be somebody trying to turn it on its head and create something new. Purists invariably get angry, the media is reprimanding, and, more often than not, the experiment turns out to be a never-to-be-repeated disaster. And yet occasionally, often more by luck than judgement, a genuinely exciting, significant breakthrough emerges from the most unlikely of fusions.

Folk music has long been a target for young artists with new ideas, determined to shake off the cobwebs and make it relevant and vibrant for contemporary audiences. This has happened almost since the folk revival began, when Davey Graham and Shirley Collins sought to blend English traditional song with jazz, blues and Indian music on the Folk Roots, New Routes album in 1964. The early stabs at folk rock were radical for their time, but it would not be too long before these fusions had graduated to the mainstream. Critics were soon bemoaning the lack of initiative and imagination in the bass-and-drums format, which was the rhythmic norm for these bands. The injection of brass into the equation, primarily via The Albion Band and Home Service, opened up another alternative, as did 1980s punk folk bands such as The Pogues, The Men They Couldn’t Hang and the more country-influenced Boothill Foot-Tappers.

The growth of importance in technology in recording studios opened another hornet’s nest for an organic music that prides itself on instrumental virtuosity and live performance. Technology is still the enemy for many folk artists and commentators, and yet folk has a natural affinity with dance music. On occasion, traditional tunes have worked spectacularly well in the hands of a judicious producer or mixer, adding beats and samples for a new audience of clubbers. Afro Celt Sound System has, perhaps, been the most successful, employing the extremes of both the oral tradition and the new dance culture in a bold amalgamation of African and Celtic styles. Eyebrows were raised when the great Irish sean-nos singer Iarla O’Lionaird became involved with the London producer Simon Emmerson’s attempt to find common links in Irish and African music, but it was important to Emmerson that both the Irish and African ingredients were authentic. As a result, The Afro Celts have become a hugely successful international band.

But they have not been the only ones to experiment with technology. While regularly busking in Edinburgh, the Newfoundland-born fiddle and bagpipe player Martyn Bennett one day found himself playing jigs and reels to...

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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