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Where are the young singers?
The Living Tradition - Issue 45 Nov/Dec '01 - by Steve McGrail


TODAY'S FOLK SCENE  is barely recognizable when compared to the early Sixties Revival. Now, that statement shouldn't occasion an instant gloomy ballad on the Decline Of The Tradition, and so on. It's simply a fact. There's been great change losses, but clear gains also. In many ways, the music is pretty healthy in Scotland and Ireland, although rockier in England. One area stands out, of course, the huge growth in the amount and quality of playing, particularly amongst young people. We're worlds away from the earliest days. Then, instrumental work was often rough. And certainly rare, as Archie Fisher says: "At the 1967 Blairgowrie Traditional Music Festival,  there was just one melodeon player flying the flag, one Northumbrian piper, one fiddler, one whistler and all of them, Colin Ross!"

Yet if playing is advancing, is singing, which after all led the Revival? Well, no, sadly it isn't. Rather the opposite. Ireland largely excepted, singing is struggling in these islands despite no lack of good songs, new and old. In some places, singers are quite rare. Worse, tensions and even splits are even occurring between them and instrumentalists. The music's core values of communality and mutual respect are at risk as some sessions and clubs  become virtually tunes only or songs only.

The shifting balance between singers and players has many roots. For a start, singing's early primacy was fostered by the politics of the day. There was change in the air, and big issues to sway people, like nuclear weapons. And strikes: it was no surprise that key to the Revival was England's north east, with its heavy industry. For would be singers, it was all a heady brew, with heroes a plenty, Baez, McColl, McNaughtan, Dylan. Their songs, it seemed, could be sung by almost anybody. Even pop, with its simple structures and melodies, was very singable compared with now. Singing, in short, made sense.

Today's situation could be hardly more different, as shown by the lack of young singers, especially males. From sessions to stages, singers are typically middle aged. They are, in fact, mainly that Revival cohort, with some welcome later additions. Waistlines thickening (as this writer should know!), hair greying and the rest, their enthusiasm is undimmed and many are singing better than ever before. But middle aged they undoubtedly are. And they won't go on for ever.

So, where are those who would eventually replace them? Very thinly  scattered, it seems. Ireland's problems here are smaller, but then that's a country deeply respectful of song. Scottish Gaeldom boasts several fine young artists (mostly women), like Fiona Mackenzie, and amongst non Gaelic Scots there are superb performers like Karine Polwart. Scottish male singers, however, are sparser. Amongst the best would surely be Jim Malcom and John Morran.  England, more populous, can muster proportionally more fine singers, the likes of Tim Van Eyken, Kate Rusby and Jon Boden. Yet neither country is overloaded with them, professional or amateur. Some parts of Britain may be virtual ‘song deserts'. George Butterworth of the Folk Bus project says of Dumfries and Galloway: "We've got none here. Actually, in local sessions I sense that many people, of all ages, think song's boring". 

One thing behind this apparent dearth of singing is the rise of sessions. Probably most traditional music now is heard in them, by folkies and non folkies alike. Clubs are relatively declining. Scotland, for example, has lost half  its complement in the last twenty years. But pub sessions are plentiful, fast ‘n' furious and overwhelmingly tune driven. "I could attend sessions in Glasgow every night", says music student Jenn Butterworth, George's 19 year old daughter. "They'll be mostly tunes, with perhaps the odd Gaelic song when Islanders turn up. Sessions are about fun, and honestly, young people find the old songs rather depressing when they're out to enjoy themselves. They certainly aren't keen on unaccompanied singing. I don't know anybody my age doing it. I love the music myself, but I'm just giving the truth".

The wildness of pub sessions certainly attracts. "However", says George Butterworth, "as a musician, I dislike the endless fast reels. They might sound good, but it means that even a slow air hasn't much chance, never mind singing. And that's assuming singers could be heard, given the normal noise level". He sees a certain ‘selfishness' in this, an ignoring of other people's potential contribution. He's equally aware, however, of the reverse ; domination through wall ;to wall songs.

It would be wrong to pillory the (stereotyped) fast tune session as causing a lack of singers. It may largely be a symptom, albeit one exacerbating other problems. There are perhaps some interesting gender politics abroad, thinks Jenn Butterworth. "Players are mostly male, singers female, but women instrumentalists are increasing now. Might men lose their place? Even sing more? Until now, peer pressure on men is that girls do singing. A status thing?" Singer, musician and educator Sandra Kerr has another view. "It was basically once much easier for men to sing. Young or old, they could identify with all that industrial song (‘though women correspondingly couldn't). But now the industry's gone, and you just can't get fired up over computer assembly in the same way".

There seem to be prestige differences between singing and playing. Put simply, people take singing for granted but are in awe of playing. "That's particularly true of youngsters", thinks George Butterworth, "there's almost a snobbery about being able to play very fast". The belief is that ‘anybody can sing' (true, although not necessarily well) whereas playing equals ‘real' skill. "It does", says Jenn Butterworth, "but I think singing demands more. Play a tune, and everyone joins in, supporting you. That's a smaller step than standing up and singing, even accompanying yourself, with everyone's eyes on you". Johnny Handle goes further: "Frankly, flashy playing is easy, but singing takes far more out of a performer. You can't hide behind an instrument, you actually have to think, you're far more emotionally vulnerable. I wish more instrumentalists understood that".

Something else is at issue also singing being no longer normally done in schools, even Primary ones. Arguably, that encourages what later becomes  peer pressure against singing. "Singing isn't cool, except in  rock", asserts 14 year old Glaswegian Jemima Sutherland.  "I like songs like The Wife Of Usher's Well, but my friends would just call that weird". Singing (or playing) folk has always been a minority interest, of course, yet it's worrying if it's being so totally scorned by the young. "Pressure on youngsters to conform is terribly harsh, so much of it's about consuming", thinks George Butterworth. "I often hear folk called ‘not cool'". Young enthusiasts face isolation, which takes spirit to handle. "Nobody at my school likes folk", sighs 14 year old Northumbrian, Sarah Hayes, a song finalist in this year's Radio 2 Young Folk Awards. "But I love the music, it's funny being part of this big folk thing that my friends know nothing about. But it makes me sad there's nobody of my age here to sing with me".

The effort to turn the young into conforming consumers will increase. Already, there's a new target, so called ‘tweenagers', a potential ‘market' apparently worth 11bn. The thrust, of course, will be to further separate the generations, to tackle the troublesome problem of parents' values impinging on their childrens' lives. That thrust has implications for youngsters getting into folk in the first place.

There may be effects already, shown by what some see as a growing gap between young and old in folk. Generations fretting about each other isn't exactly new, of course. Youth is rightly  impatient and passionate, always wanting to push the limits. If it didn't, music would die. But things have to relate to what could loosely be called ‘the tradition' and its associated values. That implies a balance between various elements, tunes and songs at least, and perhaps story and dance, too.

Non stop playing (and that's certainly not a feature of young musicians alone) isn't about balance. Nor is non stop singing. Tunes and songs should complement each other, not compete. Some observers of the scene suspect that some youngsters simply aren't aware of what they're part of (as clearly Sarah Hayes is). "I've knocked around with Jenn and her pals, at Sidmouth, Whitby etc.", says George Butterworth. "It's all the new tunes from Flook and Liz Carrol good tunes, but the youngsters rarely show  interest in the existing repertoire. I honestly doubt they're conscious of what they're doing".

"There is an issue", believes Johnny Handle. "Take ‘World Music'. The basic idea's ok but too many youngsters aren't learning enough about their own culture first. But you just can't sing north east songs if you don't know what they mean in terms of places, people, history, landscape, beliefs, the lot". There are other voices, too. Even the famously gentle Cathal McConnell ventures "Some of the youngsters are sometimes a wee bit lacking in the tradition". Fellow Ulsterman Kevin Mitchell is more trenchant about some young musicians: "Great players, of course, but that's all they want to do play. They don't seem to know the ‘rule', that you give people space, that you put your instrument down and listen to an unaccompanied song, maybe. Many youngsters, I'd say, don't have any real respect for the singing". He goes on to add, pointedly and accurately, "not just youngsters, either" .

Crucial for young people joining the folk world are role models. Would be instrumentalists have no problems, there are Michael McGoldrick, Flook, numerous others. But singers? "Not so easy", says Sandra Kerr, "but role models are important as I know myself, from starting out with Ewan McColl". Jenn Butterworth finds things alright for women: "It's easier, what with Eliza Carthy, Bill Jones and Kate Rusby around, but  difficult for men". Sandra Kerr's 25 year old daughter Nancy, herself a singer, player and teacher agrees: "I see it a lot in my teaching, no role models for men. I reckon it only needs a couple of really good male singers to get them singing. But there needs to be emphasis on song. Even when Carthy does workshops, I think he concentrates  more on accompanying. Where are the male role models? Even on the trad. music degree at Newcastle, I think all the singing tutors are female".  A major role model for 24 year old Jon Boden from Winchester, noted for accompanying his singing with fiddle, was actually Eliza Carthy. He hadn't known of Barry Dransfield.

Unfortunately, there are snags with role models some, perhaps older ones, might just be too good. "If you hear the likes of Dick Gaughan or Nic Jones", says Jenn Butterworth, "mightn't you just give up trying? I mean, how can you follow that?"  Sandra Kerr found much the same at one of her workshops: "I played Joe Heaney as an illustration, there wasn't a dry eye there, people asked ‘How can you get anywhere near that?'"

‘Through  being supported' and ‘self confidence' are maybe part answers. Being reared to the music helps, having a family or some similar connection to it. The seeds of the tradition have to be sown somehow. They obviously were for Jenn Butterworth and Nancy Kerr. As for Sarah Hayes, her parents aren't themselves traditional musicians but have a love for the music, which included taking her to see Battlefield when she was quite little. (She has another advantage, of course, that of living opposite Sandra Kerr!)

Good fortune also gets people into folk, Jon Boden for one. As a youngster, he regularly attended camps linked to The Woodcraft Folk. "It was great, there was lots of fireside singing, not really traditional, just anything, mostly unaccompanied. Good or bad, you could sing your heart out. You got praise for it and it was presented as an absolutely normal thing to do. Non competitive too, importantly. Campfire songs maybe get many people started". Fortune smiled on him later, too. When at Durham University, he discovered a very unusual music session. "It was just middle aged men in a pub, they'd argue about football one minute, then would drop into a lovely tender song, unaccompanied. Then it would be chat again. It wasn't like a folk club with everybody watching you. That's hard for beginners. But that pub really helped me".

He makes as living out of music, he says. He's lucky, but as this article has tried to show, luck isn't generally enough. It simply doesn't seem as easy for young people to get into folk as formerly. There aren't enough role models (particularly for singers), the enlivening politics aren't around, performing venues may be a problem, there's negative peer pressure, audiences don't demand songs, especially unaccompanied. Not, it seems, a happy picture.

But wait... There's no need for that gloomy ballad yet... Because many organisations are working to change things through workshops, folk choirs, academic courses, the internet. Next month's magazine will see a follow up on all these varied initiatives. And for singing, there may already be straws in the wind. Of England, says Nancy Kerr: "I see a few young guys starting singing now. I can only explain it  by the fact that the repertoire's always been there and it's so good. There are gorgeous songs for men in the English tradition and now the guys are discovering just how gorgeous".

Steve McGrail

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