Styles & Forms | Contemporary Folk

It may not fit into the purists’ ideal, but contemporary song has long been an essential element of folk music. The art of the singer-songwriter, from Woody Guthrie through to Bob Dylan, and a whole host of artists who emerged in their wake, fuelled much of the early folk revival.

Today’s singer-songwriters borrow heavily from many disparate influences and styles, yet the image of the solo performer with an acoustic guitar writing songs about social issues remains a vivid and precious image of folk music.

The days of the contemporary folk artist ruling the music world are long gone, but people have not stopped writing modern folk songs. Many are applying their own music to folk values so neatly that, sometimes, it can be difficult to see the join. The great English revival singer Nic Jones – who sadly hasn’t performed since a major car crash in 1982 – used to write original music so closely in the style of traditional songs that most people assumed they were traditional – and he took great delight in not correcting them. In 2002, Ashley Hutchings put together an interesting album called Street Cries, which updated old folk songs and rewrote them in modern contexts. There is such emotional drama in traditional music that it is not surprising when modern writers employ the form. The young Barnsley singer Kate Rusby has written several songs that could easily pass as traditional, one of which – ‘Who Will Sing Me Lullabies?’ – even won an award.

On songs such as ‘Nobody’s Wedding’ and ‘New St. George’, Richard Thompson was one of the first to use the mechanics of traditional music in his own writing. He continued to employ the technique with later material such as ‘Beeswing’ and ‘Galway To Graceland’, a magnificent modern opera about an Irish woman who thinks she is married to Elvis Presley. In many cases, it is the form in which they are presented, rather than the songs themselves, that is used to identify their pedigree and terms of reference. Most people assume that the great chorus ballad ‘Will Ye Go, Lassie, Go?’ is a traditional song, but The McPeakes, a Belfast family who were prominent in the early days of the UK folk revival in the 1950s and 1960s, insist it was written by their ancestor Francis McPeake. They claim that when a folk song collector visited, the song was confused with a selection of traditional songs McPeake performed for the tape recorder.

Story Songs Of Working-Class People

Contemporary folk, though, has also been fuelled from an unlikely source. In the early days of the folk revival, performers and audiences alike were often split into the two camps of traditional and contemporary music. There were distinct borders, but they became blurred when the great traditional singer Ewan MacColl started writing his own songs. In more recent times, fine performers of traditional song such as Christy Moore, Dick Gaughan and...

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


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