queer as folk

like most people of a certain age, the late lamented john peel played a pretty big part in my musical education. huddled under my nylon sheets, headphones (or usually earphone) on, i'd be regularly exposed to damascene experiences of all shapes and sizes, from linton kwesi johnson to ivor cutler to god knows what.

so far, so obvious, i suppose. but equally peel often educated me as to what i really didn't like. for instance, his interest in folk music struck me as unfathomable. often he'd play something ineffably fantastic by pere ubu or the raincoats or the slits or whoever, only to follow it with a selection of jigs and reels by the bothy band or some dirge by june tabor about walking out one midsummer morning and seeing a pretty maiden. i could see or rather hear no redeeming features in this music. it felt alien, but not in a good way. it was a culture that had nothing to do with me. surely this was the sort of thing they played on radio 2 for god's sake...

though for some weird reason i had bought steeleye span's 'all around my hat' on a single, my aversion to folk music remained very firmly in place for years, despite the fact i did have a soft spot for arran jumpers (i blame my gran's exceptional knitting skills). instead i devoured increasingly industrial amounts of krautrock, jazz, prog, post punk and avant rock. and though i had developed a love for john martyn, that was pretty much as close as i got. and anyway, he wasn't proper folk, was he?

in the late 80s i joined a band called three straw men. their guitarist andy bole had played with a very fine band called the lowest note on the organ. i had one of their singles. he hung out with fred frith and the like. they sent me a demo tape and though it sounded suspiciously like, well, folk music, i assumed all that would change and we'd become some wilfully odd experimental outfit.

i was wrong. andy was about to leave and we only managed one gig together; and i found that the other members were deeply into traditional breton and eastern european folk. but we had lots of gigs and studio time and despite my misgivings about the music, i stayed on, thinking that a broadening of my musical experience was probably not a bad idea.

i was right on that front but it was often a difficult experience. most audiences actually regarded us as a wilfully odd experimental outfit, so i had got my wish i suppose. and though initially the sight of accordions, melodeons, hurdy gurdies, pipes and banjos among our fellow musicians (not to mention their beards) that we shared bills with all over the country filled me with abject terror, eventually i learned at least some tolerance towards them. and their sincerity and passion for tradition began to trigger something slightly more profound in me, though my listening habits remained largely unchanged. while on tour in ireland, i would habitually slink off from some marathon pub session to listen to motorhead on my walkman.

something changed though, and it was probably in ireland that it happened. while i was deeply impressed by what went on in the sessions - the passion, the knowledge, the idea of a shared vocabulary of tunes and the notion of music as a precious and essential part of everyday life, the music itself still refused to speak to me, if that doesn't sound too pretentious. actually this routine by tommy tiernan sums up the pleasures of a good irish session beautifully.

but on my return i found myself with a hankering to hear some of that music. my bandmate ashley compiled a tape of irish tunes for me, and it rarely left my side for months. i still have it. but though i loved it dearly, this was music that was essentially exotica - as foreign to my cultural roots (whatever they were) as john zorn or linton kewsi johnson or ornette coleman.

so began a love/hate relationship with english traditional music that has of late became more of a love/love thing. there's much that still pisses me off about the folk scene (froots magazine, for instance and the indiscriminate use of the term 'folk' for anyone who has an acoustic guitar), though i do find these days i'm probably more on the side of those who'd ban drumkits and amplification from the stages of the cambridge festival; not because i think such things are contrary to the spirit of the music or that it cheapens it, rather than there's enough of that kind of thing elsewhere. i even tolerate accordions for fuck's sake.

i think part of this is might be born of some kind of desire to feel part of a cultural lineage, however bastardised it's been. but maybe it's more a desire to hear something that's somehow unmediated, unaffected, something honest. it's still somehow transgressive to hear someone like chris wood sing about how we wishes he were still a maid, or martin carthy declare his love for a blacksmith....i don't know, it's hard to explain. but increasingly it's the only kind of music i really want to listen to.

better get meself a tankard.

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