RE: Degrees of Folk

Facebook’s a marvellous thing sometimes. This morning it alerted me to a post written on another blog talking about the degree I studied. I felt I should probably reply to it…

Here is the original post:

Just lately I’ve been listening online to what’s been emerging from Newcastle University’s Folk Music degree course. Here’s a typical example of some of their third year students in action.

(For videos, please see Andy’s original blog)

I worry a bit about endless cohorts of students forking out nine grand a year and thinking there’s a living as a folk musician waiting for them at the end of it. (I worry about my Religious Studies students too, but at least they come out able to write an essay). But mostly, while the standard of musicianship is obviously high, I worry that it’s all so excruciatingly nice. Wouldn’t you rather go and see the old guy singing down the pub than something so…polished?

If folk music has a place in the academy then perhaps a bit of competition would be good for business, maybe somewhere down South. I’ve had some fun trying to think of what my folk syllabus would look like.
Obviously students would need to learn about the tradition and how to play their instrument.

But I’d get them to read up on carnivalesque theory and go hunting misericords. I’d get them to see some traditional folk customs and write an essay about it. I’d get them to jam with musicians with whom they shared no language, and then try and copy the style of another instrument entirely. I’d send them to the Glastonbury dance tent with instructions not to come back until they’d fallen to the floor in a delirium of sweaty ecstasy. I’d get them to shut the fuck up and listen. I’d make them sleep a night or two under the stars. A passionate love affair and a heart-break or two would probably be character-building. And for their final practical, I’d pack them off to France for the summer with nothing but fifty quid, their instruments and their wits to see how they got on. A bit of enforced busking does wonders for performance skills I find.

Oh hold on a minute, that’s what I did. Forgive me. I’ve committed the unpardonable sin of thinking that my life could provide a template for everyone else. Please accept my sincere apologies. Utter hubris.

But there’s a serious point here. If folk music is as relevant as we claim then it has to have something to say. It has to have arisen, unbidden and insistent out of the sheer messy fact of being alive. It has to have come up through the feet, to have lingered in the loins, rolled around the heart and soared out from the belly. It has to give voice to what the Welsh call the hwyll and the hiraeth – loosely, joy and sorrow. That’s not something you can teach, nor something you can buy. No wonder it all sounds so clean. The poor sods haven’t had a chance to live yet.

Here’s some folk music straight from the source. It’s from Gyimes in Transylvania, and is I believe a style unique to that area. The wild intonation of their fiddles may be too tart for Western ears but for me this is the pure drop.

It makes my fingers tingle and my feet itch in a way that, sadly, nothing I’ve heard from the Folk Degree ever does. If I were eighteen with nine grand in my pocket, I know where I’d go.


And here’s my response:

Hello Andy.

I’m Ellie, I studied the Folk Degree between 2003 and 2007. I graduated with a 2:1, major in performance, and now work as a primary teacher in Tanzania, having studied a PGCE and passed at Masters level. I CAN write an essay, mainly because of the practise I had in writing them on the folk degree… Just thought I’d clear that bit up.

I was in a year group that included many mature students and many, like myself, who were 18 or 19 when they began. Before I moved to Newcastle, the only contact I had with other folk musicians was with my Mum’s Morris team. I lived in a small town in South Northamptonshire, there was very little public transport – none after 6 at night and I can’t drive. I applied to study at Newcastle, but I also applied (and was accepted) for Ethnomusicology at Queen’s in Belfast, Norse, Saxon and Celtic at Cambridge and Music combined with English and Folklore at Sheffield. I chose to study at Newcastle because I felt comfortable in the city, I wanted to learn from the tutors available and I wanted to study folk music. For me, it was the best choice I could have made.

I ended up living in Newcastle for 9 years, making friends with other students, getting to make music with them, being taught by some amazing singers and having opportunities that I doubt I would have had if I had chosen one of the other courses.

But should I have been allowed to sing folk music at 19? I had barely lived! What had I done by that point? I’d worked since the age of 14, I’d stayed up all night in the happy hardcore tent at Gatecrasher and put in an 8 hour shift in the morning. I’d had my heart broken, I’d been stalked, I’d been a witness in a rape trial, my parents had split up, I’d been to Brittany and Normandy to play with musicians there. I’d had work experience in two, rather large, West End productions, and auditioned for a third. I’d volunteered with children with learning difficulites. But I couldn’t sing a folk song properly becuase I hadn’t lived.

Whilst on the degree I had more opportunities, I got to work with musicians, singers and dancers of different styles, genres and ages. I worked at festivals both onstage and backstage. I ran a summer school with 120 participants. I went to Hungary to perform at an International Folk Dance Festival in fromt of 5000 people. I stayed up all night, each night for the week dancing and singing with Greek Cypriots, Turks, Hungarians, Italians, French, Aboriginals, Israelis…

I didn’t enjoy every single aspect of the degree, and not everyone I enrolled with completed the course. But, I have friends who have studied many different subjects at many different universities, and (surprisingly) they’ve not enjoyed every aspect of their degrees and not every member of their cohorts graduated either. Not everyone will – it’s a hard choice to make at any age, deciding what you are going to dedicate yourself to for the next 3 or 4 years. But I do not ever regret that I have done it.

My modules for the first two years were picked for me, to give me a broad musical knowledge alongside specific folk knowledge and specialised teaching in folk styles that I hadn’t had before. But in my 3rd and 4th years, I chose my modules, I chose my singing teachers. I studied Corsican and Sardinian traditional choral music, Medieval music, contemporary culture, popular music, jazz, music business and musicc teaching. It allowed me to get gigs, because I had an opportunity to meet festival organisers, folk club organisers, other musicians. My performances aren’t polished, I wouldn’t want them to be, I make mistakes, I forget words and re-write them on the spot, I talk nonsense on stage. But for others, they have the ability for excellence and want to show it.

I was never under the impression that I would have a professional career in folk music and this was never perpetuated by the tutors on the degree. If anything, they stressed the fact that very few of us would make a living from it and that we should diversify our skills. I was always going to train as a teacher, partially fuelled by a conversation with my secondary music teacher who, when I applied for the degree, said “It’s not proper music, but it’ll suit you.”

Enough people ridicule folk music and knock it down for being less worthy than classical, or jazz, musical theatre or even pop, that I think if you love the music you should encourage people for getting it out there. You may think that the performers you saw are overly polished, it’s not your taste, so what? They are doing what they enjoy, they are learning, they are developing, they have opportunities. I would not say that they are typical third years, I would say their performance is typical of them. I know them and I am very proud of them for what they have achieved (and I know that they certainly have ‘lived’ despite their young ages).

Sometimes I would like to see a bloke singing in a pub, but sometimes that can be utterly awful, out of tune and uncomfortable to listen to, but I suppose it’s allowed because he’s over 40 and being out of tune is more authentic.

I am not a fan of every performer that comes from the degree, but I wouldn’t expect to be. There is a range of style, genre and talent there (I would put myself amongst the less talented), but I am not a fan of every person I hear at a pub, folk club or festival. Variety is good, why knock people for doing what they want, if you don’t like their music, don’t go out of your way to listen to them again.

If you think that folk music has to rise unbidden then it will die away. I am teaching folk music of the British Isles to my Tanzanian students because I had an opportunity to learn about it, I am teaching here partly because I have studied it. Had I just relied on my music GCSE and A level to inform me about it (as most secondary music teachers do) then they would confidently know that folk music consists of ‘What shall we do with a drunken sailor?’, ‘Scarborough Fair’ by Simon and Garfunkle and Bob Dylan songs.

I’m still under 30, I’ve still not lived enough to sing folk songs because I’ve not busked, I’ve never been to Glastonbury, I’ve not read up on carnivalesque theory (and probably can’t spell it), I’ve not had torrid love affairs, I suppose I had better close my mouth and stop singing.

P.S. These 18 year olds that started this September don’t have 9 grand in their pockets, it’s loans that they will probably never pay back, they start to repay once they are earning over £21,000 a year but that have no impact on their credit record, applying for mortgages, loans, credit cards etc. The repayments come out at source and so, like tax and NI, could be seen as a payment that you never had. I worked as a careers adviser for teenagers for 3 years, I did read up on this a little bit in that time. But yes, if I had £9,000 in my pocket I would like to go all over and experience different things, but I didn’t so I studied something I loved instead and it has since opened those doors for me.

Please feel free to add your own comments here. I realise that my reply is rather lengthy, but it’s what I felt I needed to say…

3 thoughts on “RE: Degrees of Folk

  1. Well said Ellie! Knowing you, you made a fantastic choice and did what you needed/wanted. I know that your strengths will be with you and there are some very lucky children in Tanzania to be learning from you. I don’t know who Andy is, but he needs to broaden his outlook and remember that his opinion is just that: he speaks for himself. It is such a pity that some people have to belittle things that they probably have no understanding or intuition about!

  2. That’s a fantastic, measured and coherent response Ellie. Something lacking from the original post to be frank. I never studied on the course but met some of the most fascinating people and my closest friends to this day from that course and all its attendant sessions, gigs and even parties! It introduced me to a wide array of folk and other musical styles as I believe the crossover with the other music degrees is clearly beneficial. Before the course began I would never have even considered spending a week in the mud at Sidmouth. Andy’s dismissal of the academic side of the course is simplistic and ill-informed. Having been called into action to offer my advice and thoughts with my friends’ essays and dissertations I was surprised at the level of expertise required with the research and reading required. I’m thinking Ethnomusicology in particular! I am also quite an expert in the Shetland fiddle tradition now! Andy’s selection of his ‘example’ was shallow and unfair. I, at least, expected several examples. To contrast this group with the Transylvanian video was surprising, unhelpful and frankly irrelevant. After all, we can’t all be Brythonic dance accompanists. Wouldn’t the world be a much duller place if this was so?

    I’ve been involved in this debate several years ago on the Mudcat forums. It is even more redundant now than it was on the time as the output and variation of the graduates’ work will be shown as they mature and develop. I have been amazed at the transition of people’s individual styles and the various directions you all have taken.

    Your response and subsequent comments actually brought a tear to my eye as your passion is so clear to see. Great stuff. Thank you.

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