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By Josh Davis
In recent years British mainstream music has been inundated with folk artists, from the hugely successful (Mumford & Sons and Noah and the Whale) to the less well known (Johnny Flynn and Alessi’s Ark). A glance at this year’s BRITS, at which Laura Marling and Mumford & Sons both picked up awards, is enough to gauge the huge success of modern folk music. But even to new listeners it must be obvious that the music produced by the folk musicians of 2011 is a far cry from the folk music of 1960s America or traditional English and Celtic folk music. Many critics consider the work of artists such as Mumford & Sons inauthentic because they ‘quote’ other folk genres without exploring what they adopt in depth, leaving the listener with a mishmash of stripped down, easy to access folk. But is it wrong to criticise an artist because they are inauthentic?
This was certainly the response that Sigh No More received from Pitchfork’s Stephen Deusner in 2010. Deusner suggested that “this West London quartet really does sound more like a business than a band, supplying value-added products “at discount prices”. This approach is typical of the folk purist, who disapproves of the way artists such as Mumford & Sons take elements of folk music and create with them a finished product which is almost a pastiche of the traditional folk song. Ironically, the more a band attempts to appear authentic, the less authentic they become. With their Victorian fashion sense and the quaint wording of lyrics, Mumford & Sons do on occasion sound like a 21st century band pretending they’re several hundred years old. Yet in spite of the criticism they received, it is undeniable that Mumford & Sons have had huge success; the masses, unlike the critics, don’t have a problem with authenticity when it comes to danceable tunes and rousing lyrics.
Within discussions of what constitutes a pastiche of folk music, it is sometimes forgotten what actually constitutes the real thing. The rise of folk music in Western culture began in the 1960s, notably in America, with artists such as Joan Baez and Dylan (before he went electric) among the most prominent. This music was characterised as being both very earnest and anti-establishment: the sound-track to an alternative lifestyle. For some, this is the quintessential definition of authentic folk music. But what is it about the folk of ‘60s America that is so definitively authentic? The movement of which Dylan was a part was itself a revival of yet an earlier style.
Folk music was revived again in the 1980s in the form of the ‘anti-folk’ movement, with artists such as Beck and Billy Bragg among its numbers. Thought to have been influenced by punk, the anti-folk movement expressed an intensity sometimes lacking in its forbearers of the ‘60s, but continued to use the acoustic instruments and melodies of traditional folk music. What is especially interesting about the anti-folk movement is that it is defined by what it is not: traditional folk music. But anti-folk is not so far removed from folk music itself. What distinguishes it from very traditional folk, however, is that it is concerned with progression, with dealing with relevant, current issues and with ensuring that folk music is regarded as a living and developing genre.
Folk music is often wrongly considered to be a genre only concerned with the past, yearning nostalgically for a time that has gone. Although this is one of its qualities, the music of the anti-folk movement has shaken off this image and defined itself as a genre which can be pertinent and adapt with the changing times. Laura Marling, sometimes dubbed ‘anti-folk’, makes music which has all the earnestness and poetry of traditional folk music, but which is not afraid to be accessible to a modern audience. Woven in amongst the traditional melodies and old-fashioned lyrics, Marling deals with the timeless issues of everyday life, family and love.
Without greatly betraying their folk sensibilities the 21st century folk artists prove that they are capable of existing in the modern world as well as that immemorially ancient world of the folk song. Alessi’s Ark, among others, used MySpace as a platform to begin her career, while Noah and the Whale erred hugely in the eyes of the critics by selling ‘5 Years Time’ to a TV advert. Despite supposedly ‘selling out’, the publicity helped them on their way to producing a second album that received great critical acclaim. So what is authenticity worth and where does it begin? Is it not better for the modern folk artists to keep the genre alive by adapting and remoulding it, as it has been adapted and remoulded before, than to let it die and death, buried under cries of “Fake!”?