Mudcat Café message #2600956 The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #119211   Message #2600956
Posted By: Mitch2
30-Mar-09 - 11:32 PM
Thread Name: Tom Bliss Article -So long and thanks
Subject: Tom Bliss's article in TLT
Has anyone else seen the excellent article by Tom Bliss in the current edition of The Living Tradition? In it he explains why he is retiring from the folk scene and offers some reflections upon it.

First of all, Tom, along with many others, I'm sorry that you're packing it in. I agree with almost everything that you write in your article, but I think that it's worthy of some discussion.

Tom talks about the necessity of maintaining a core of professionals to develop the folk music movement. I couldn't agree more. Whereas there is a strong network of willing and able (to varying degrees) network of amateurs who keep the home fires burning, it is true that the pros represent the figurehead of the folk movement.

Many will disagree with me, but look at it this way; there are plenty of amateur orchestras, rock bands and jazz groups, all playing in local venues for nothing more than their own personal satisfaction. All very laudable, and many of them are excellent. But- they don't advance the cause of their chosen spheres of music. That's the job of the London Philharmonic, U2 and Gary Burton (just names that came immediately to mind at random; per-lease let's not get sidetracked!)

He goes on to bemoan the paucity of gigs for up-and-coming new performers. I would question his figures slightly, but essentially he's right; the clubs are run and populated mainly by people of pensionable age who (with the utmost respect for all of them) will not be active for that much longer.

What he doesn't go into, and it's something that concerns me as a performer, listener and lover of folk music, is the long-term future of the movement in general.

Let's suppose that the folk clubs last another ten years or so, which is a realistic estimate, given the age of the organisers and audiences. What will the knock-on effects be of their demise?

Traditionally, the folk clubs have been the breeding-ground for new performers. (1) You start off by doing floor spots. (2) If you're any good, clubs begin to book you. (3) After a few years you get a national reputation. (4) You move onto the festival and arts centre circuit. If there's a way to short-circuit the process and move directly to stage 4, bypassing stages 1 to 3, I'd love to know how to do it, (I really would!) but I don't think there is.

So what happens when the folk clubs cease to exist? With no new performers breaking through, the festivals will continue to book the same names year in and year out. They are understandably reluctant to take a chance on new faces, so we will begin to see a preponderance of the same established artists going round and round, year after year. All very well for them- or is it? What happens when the punters have seen Seth Lakeman and Kate Rusby at every festival they've attended for the last five years and are offered the same choice at every event this year? No disrespect intended, but might they not decide to give them a miss this time? Might they wish for something new? Where is it going to come from? When they decide to give this or that festival a miss this year, the festivals will begin to lose their audiences and close down. Give it another ten years or so and we could see the death of British folk music, with no platforms left even for the most established artists. And bear in mind that the old guard of whom Tom writes in his article will eventually go into retirement themselves. If we continue on the way that we're heading, I'd give the UK folk music movement another 20 years at most.

What's to be done? There are other posts on this board about venues such as the Magpie's Nest in Islington, that are heralded as the saviours of folk music. Sorry, but... the Magpie's is my local club, if it can be called that, but I stopped going there some time ago. It's been written about before so I won't dwell on it; suffice to say that Sam Lee does a great job in organising it, but he deserves a better class of clientele. If you want to listen to a loud folk-rock band or a full-on Irish jigs 'n' reels band in a noisy pub environment, fine. If you want to appreciate the ballads and tunes that form the core of the folk tradition, performed in a setting in which you can appreciate the nuances of the performer's delivery, don't bother.

(By the way, I can't understand why people pay to go to the Magpie's just so that they can chat with their mates or ring their friends on their mobiles. There are about five other venues within a few minutes walk that offer live music, including folky bands with free admission, so why stump up the price of a ticket?)

The other venue that I visit quite often is the Green Note, just a short tube ride away in Camden. It's a great venue for performer and audience- a quiet, listening venue where people go to appreciate the music, not talk over it. I'd like to think that that's the way forward as well, but the brief is more for blues, world music and jazz, rather than traditional folk. This is not to demean it in any way- it does a grand job, but it's not a stage for the traditional singer. Apart from that, I don't know any other venues like it, except the Acoustic Routes club in Cambridge. And for a performer, getting into these places is as difficult as getting into an arts centre or festival.

When I got into folk music in the 1970's it was exciting. It was a young person's thing. I was 17 when I went to my first folk club and I was probably the youngest person in the room, but the oldest was probably around 30. And on an average night we had about 80 people crammed into the club room, regardless of who was the guest. What's happened since then is that the remaining audience has grown older, but very few youngsters have joined it.

Of course, then, we were revolutionary. We wore our CND badges with pride, drove our Citroen 2CVs (once we were old enough to get a licence and afford the driving lessons) and lived the lifestyle. We might be trainee computer programmers by day, but every club night we were the Blacksmith, the False Night on the Road, or we might be waking up, after sleeping on the pallet on the floor to say "good morning America, how are you?" or going down to the river with Suzanne. My God, it was exciting back then, if a bit naive. Why has this music lost its appeal to the teens of now? Could it be lack of TV coverage or lack of a credible folk music magazine? (Sorry, fRoots, but you lost touch with the club scene a long time ago.) Back then, at least we had the folk page in the "Melody Maker" and even a folk records top ten!

Where I do slightly disagree with Tom is that his experience is not entirely typical. He is a performer of his own original songs (note that I carefully avoid calling him a singer-songwriter!) I've seen him and thoroughly enjoyed what he does- he writes some good songs, is a superb performer and an entertaining raconteur. But.. (sorry about this Tom...) he ain't traditional. And the tradition is still at the heart of the English club scene. So it's probably a little bit easier for performers of traditional material to get gigs than it is for him.

Nevertheless, sorry to say, I see the UK folk scene dying a death within 20 years. Anyone have any rescue plans?