You would think that asking for and receiving the names of the judges of a set of BBC awards would be a straightforward matter. The corporation’s own awards guidelines, available on its website, demand transparency. So it was surprising that when I asked who chose the winners of the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, thinking I’d write about them in my music blog, The Glamour Cave, I was told it was a secret.
It was a more unpleasant surprise that a follow-up Freedom of Information request was denied on the grounds that the award ceremony, in the view of the BBC’s FoI department, was protected as 'journalism'. If an awards ceremony qualified as journalism, I was left wondering, then what could they possibly consider my blog to be? Did I want to know?
What began as idle curiosity became irritation and then anger.
The BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards are broken, this matters and here’s why.
The folk music scene in England and Wales at the beginning of 2013 is this country’s most undervalued cultural asset. To be a folky here, right now is to be jangling the keys to a cultural palace, something quietly demonstrated by the brisk, growing business that folk festivals have been doing for the past decade in the face of collapses elsewhere in the festival sector, more loudly by the clamour of superlative young talent jostling to fill these festival’s stages and also because it is the solution to the problem – musical, cultural and political - of Simon Cowell.
Far from seeing music as a plastic vehicle – a Ka, if you will - designed to have the juggernaut of someone else’s success (Cowell’s) crash into it, your average folk musician is a multi-instrumentalist who intends to make a life of it. And, boy, does it show when you hear them play.
For a better appreciation of this, go to YouTube and check out Bellowhead - who win cross-genre best live band awards the way some bands lose plectrums - Seth Lakeman, Show of Hands, The Unthanks, ahab, Josienne Clarke & Ben Walker, Jamie Smith’s Mabon and any one of a hundred other world-class English and Welsh folk outfits presently plying their trade on these shores.
Bellowhead may have made the Radio 2 A playlist in January but the English and Welsh folk scene remains vastly underexposed: an underground success story that is winning on its own cultish terms despite continuing to be widely mocked as an idea by those unfamiliar with it. But there are no fingers in ears here.
Mumford & Sons is arguably the biggest band in the world right now, having had the fastest-selling album of 2012 – Babel - many of them sold in the United States. The world thinks of them as English and folky and doesn’t have a problem with that. So ask yourself: why don't the English think the same?
Let’s round up the usual suspects: class and post-colonial anxiety about how the rest of the world sees us. UK plc is certainly much more used to serving up comforting dollops of Downton Abbey and The King’s Speech for export than breaking the mould and revealing what we’ve always really been made of, socially speaking. Numerically we’re more Chatsworth estate than Chatsworth, more Baldock than Blenheim Palace. But you might never guess it from the social emphasis of our cultural exports and the scions of great families who populate the pages of our newspapers and glossy magazines. Idealising the hereditary is one of the more obvious ways we maintain our steeply unequal society and reproduce the self-loathing of those required to stay quietly put now, as a nation, we’ve given up on social mobility.
Folk is as much a process and an outlook as a genre, containing a version of this island’s history that wells up like an aquifer from underground, travelling through our roots and filtering through every strata of society. Each traditional folk song was pop once, making folk both sustainable pop music and a vessel for collective memory.
This magazine’s editor, Fraser Nelson, made the point during the preparation of this article that Celtic Connections, Scotland’s annual folk fest in Glasgow, which serves as an international shop window, is only necessary because those 'connections' were broken when the music was displaced around the world by emigration. And yet four of the 12 songs on the very English Bellowhead’s bestselling new album, Broadside, are sailing songs.
The misery and poverty of the English working class drove it around the world just as surely as those forces drove the Scottish, Welsh, Irish and Cornish. For every Nova Scotia there is a New England and for every Captain Bligh there were hundreds of press-ganged Englishmen trapped on the King’s ships. While the officer class may have had beautiful homes to return to, millions of others left this land and never returned. Their tales of hope and despair are in this music along with everything else and it’s nothing to be ashamed of.
Moreover, it’s really not a competition about who was the most miserable, simply a matter of telling our island story better, by which I mean more fully and with greater care. Class warfare clouds the issue.
Look at the way the Mumfords are treated on their home turf. Widely despised on the folk scene for being posh boys in a genre where they are the exception rather than the rule, it’s true that they’ve benefited from many of the advantages that an expensive education tends to confer: ready connections in the international music industry – ridiculously, their Wikipedia page says they were once turned away from an otherwise welcoming professional recording studio for not yet owning any musical instruments – and an appreciation of the realities of marketing and marrying well (Marcus Mumford is married to Hollywood actress Carey Mulligan).
But they are also despised because of what they tell the rest of the folk scene about it itself: namely that it’s not that people are uninterested in this music, it’s that you don’t have the social wherewithal to market it effectively yourselves. Ouch.
This is why the BBC Radio Two Folk Awards matter. In them the BBC wields the most powerful tool there currently is for promoting British folk, enabling with public money what Mumford & Sons have done through social connections. It would be nice if the Mumfords actually played there this year or, probably more to the point, if the organisers had the gumption to ask them. (Asking John Leonard, who runs the relevant production company, Smooth Operations, whether this was likely to happen, produced the response that he was sure the Mumfords were too big to be bothered with his small folk awards event. If this had been accompanied by a tug of his forelock and an apology for being no better than he ought to be, I wouldn’t have been at all surprised.)
Moreover English folk music is crying out for its own version of Celtic Connections. At least Scotland has an international showcase for the locals to criticise and the descendants of the ancestors turn up from New Brunswick for a listen. In England the Arts Council’s money for folk and roots is scattered about so many small projects that none of them has the wattage to act as a beacon. In other media – film, television, literature - we proudly export our culture as a lucrative national treasure to the English-speaking world and far beyond. What does it say about us that we ignore folk: are we really so ashamed of our ordinary roots that we’ll allow it to get in the way of a serious business proposition? By contrast, Celtic Connections has kindly invited a delegation from England to Glasgow this year. Last year its 'foreign' guest was the Canadian province of Nova Scotia and the year before that Norway. Nuff said really.
So no, the BBC cannot currently be trusted as an arbiter in this situation, not while the suspicion lingers that the folk awards are being used as a financial back-scratching exercise for the corrupt middle men and women of the folk music world who have little interest in celebrating new bands (the BBC freely admits that this year’s 190 – yes, really – anonymous judges were asked because they make their living from the existing folk scene). Likewise the Freedom of Information Act is evidently broken.
So let’s fix these defective institutions and move on. The world deserves to hear more of our astonishing folk talent and these scrappy but world-class musical insurgents should get the international audience they deserve, unencumbered by the leaden weight of institutionalised social prejudice.
Anyone who’s seen the mighty Bellowhead live will be less inclined to regard this as a class-based analysis and more as a self-evident truth.
The BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards are taking place today in Glasgow as part of the Celtic Connections festival. Emma Hartley's blog, The Glamour Cave, is here.