I have never felt greatly inclined to grow a beard myself. (Not that I could ever manage the full naval Prince Michael of Kent. A rather precious goatee would probably be the limit of my facial hair-growing powers, and the contumely and derision it would surely attract from all right-thinking people obviously rule that out.) But pop music has recently entered one of its occasional beardie phases, as folk music not only gains new popularity, but also comes right back into fashion, on both sides of the Atlantic.
In the US we have such bands as Midlake discarding the soft-rock stylings of their first album to go way down deep into late-1960s British folk-rock. We have The Decemberists, a wonderfully odd and uncompromising band, with their strange blend of prog rock and acoustic gloomy storytelling folk (people in their songs are always about to be keelhauled, it seems to me). And in this country we have such acts as Mumford & Sons, whose slightly whiny indie-folk suddenly presses everyone’s buttons, to the extent that they were not only nominated for this year’s Mercury Prize (some sort of folk performers usually are, just for show) but might even have won.
A majority of record buyers still alive missed the previous Folk Revival in the 1960s, so we now have our own Folk Revival Revival. And a wonderful thing it is, too.
Why now? What’s it all about? It’s tempting to say that a Conservative(ish) government might have something to do with it. Folk is traditionally, and often fiercely, left-wing. Listen to Mike Harding’s folk hour on Radio 2 on Wednesday early evenings (as I often do) and you will hear, unadorned, the stern and unwavering voice of the politicised common man. At least once a month there’ll be a song about the miners’ strike. Norman Tebbit should tune in: it would make his head explode. And I don’t think it’s any accident that the old agitprop band Chumbawamba, whose then lead singer tipped an ice bucket over John Prescott at the 1998 Brits, have recently embraced folk with great enthusiasm. (Try their album The Boy Bands Have Won, which is as musically sweet as it is lyrically bracing.)
But I’m not sure that politics is really driving this thing, other than on a personal level. Maybe the lack of graduate jobs is more significant. Listen to Mumford & Sons being interviewed on the radio and they are all splendidly posh. I’m not sure there’s a single ‘nu-folk’ band in existence that doesn’t have someone called Oli in it. David Willetts said you should start a business if you can’t get a job, and that’s what they have done.
In fact, the reasons for the Folk Revival Revival — it may even be the Folk Revival Revival Revival — are much more mundane. Pop music, like anything driven by fashion, is cyclical: it’s probably folk’s turn. And since musicians stopped coming up with any genuinely new ideas in about the early 1990s, they look to the past for inspiration, which is to say, ideas no one else has yet recycled.
Finally, there’s the claustrophobic technical cleanness of so much new music. It’s all so loaded with studio jiggery-pokery that you start to yearn for a couple of ugly old blokes with acoustic guitars singing slightly out of tune about the Tolpuddle Martyrs. Which is a stereotype, admittedly, but only just. Authenticity in music is something people work so hard to fake, but folk is steeped in credibility. Beards take time to grow. Wear a false one and people might notice.
Myself, I’m still listening to Rachel Unthank & the Winterset’s The Bairns (2007), although I’ve heard that the new one, recorded as The Unthanks, is good, too. Northumbrian songs old and new, sounds as though it was recorded in someone’s front room, with the string section squeezed in behind the sofa. I also commend to you the oeuvre of James Yorkston, a very gloomy bald Scotsman, whose subtle, intense songs acknowledge the old forms rather than ape them. The Year of the Leopard (2006) is a magnificent record. And let’s not forget the honey-voiced Scottish singer-songwriter Karine Polwart, whose Scribbled in Chalk (2006) is an album of real substance; or Yorkshire’s Kate Rusby, who does write within the tradition, and whose The Girl Who Couldn’t Fly (2005) includes ‘No Names’, a divorce song of heartbreaking brilliance.