Image Courtesy of Vivid
On the first weekend of June some of North America’s most exciting musicians including members of indie folk band Megafaun, jazz collective Fight the Big Bull, former Be Good Tanyas lead singer Frazey Ford and Bon Iver frontman Justin Vernon will be taking to the stage of the Sydney Opera House concert hall as part of the Vivid festival. But rather than performing their own tracks these musicians will be reaching back in time into the legendary songbook of folklorist and collector Alan Lomax for Sounds of the South.
That these musicians, many of whom have had the word “folk” used to describe their own original music, are tapping into traditional music and bringing it to their audiences feels as though the music is coming full circle and that the indie-folk of the modern singer-songwriter is being somewhat folded into the tradition.
While there have been artists interpreting and refining the traditional folk music canon since the first collectors ventured out in the late 19th century every now and then an artist will emerge who takes traditional music in a completely new and exciting direction – away from the simple guitar or harmonic singing (both of which are fairly recent additions to the folk tradition themselves). From bands like Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span infusing a rock beat and electric instrumentation into folk songs to The Pogues punk take on the celtic tradition, there have always been musicians who are willing to shake off expectations and push the boundaries of traditional music.
We thought it was time to explore the current crop of artists who are doing new and interesting things with traditional music, who are redefining folk music. If you like your traditional music with a generous dash of the contemporary read on:
Having apprenticed under the late Scottish Traveller and ballad singer Stanley Robertson as well as collecting and documenting music from the Romany Gypsy and Traveller communities of the British Isles and Ireland, UK singer Sam Lee seems to be the heir to the great folklorists of the late 19th and early 20th century. But there is something ultimately modern about the way Lee has distilled this traditional music on his debut album A Ground of Its Own which ultimately earned him a Mercury Prize nomination. His music is filled with unconventional instrumentation (or conventional instrumentation presented in an unconventional way) and sounds both timeless and fresh all at exactly the same time. Sam Lee is also involved in The Nest Collective folk club which promotes inovative folk music in London and even has its own show on Folk Radio UK.
Anaïs Mitchell’s latest album with folk singer Jefferson Hamer, Child Ballads, presents seven new versions of songs found in the collection of American folklorist Francis James Child. The album is beautiful and a must for fans of traditional music, but in itself doesn’t push too many boundaries when it comes to the presentation of these folk songs. What makes Mitchell special is her indie-folk pedigree and the audience that comes with that pedigree. Her 2010 “folk opera” album Hadestown, a retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, saw Anaïs Mitchell working with some of the brightest lights in the indie folk scene including Justin Vernon (Bon Iver), Ani DiFranco, Ben Knox Miller (The Low Anthem) and Greg Brown. For many of those who discovered Anaïs Mitchell via Hadestown and her famous friends and subsequently followed her career from there, Child Ballads is their first introduction to this traditional music.
Sam Amidon doesn’t consider himself a conservationist when it comes to traditional music. The American-born, UK based singer is something of a folk alchemist – deconsructing traditional music to its bare bones and then rebuilding it into something completely new. Often he changes the melody of these songs, even more regularly he changes the words and in doing so the songs take on a new tone and in many cases a brand new meaning. While Amidon’s versions of familiar songs are so far from what traditionalists would be used to the process he uses to rebuild the songs is really what’s been happening in the folk tradition for hundreds of years.
Jenny M Thomas and The System
As a young country (at least as far as our European history is concerned) the Australian tradition is probably not as established as those of our UK and US cousins. But we do have our own canon of “bush” songs which have either been reinterpreted from old Irish and Scottish ballads, have come out of the shearing sheds and droving trails of the early pioneers or are taken from our rich history of bush poetry. Jenny M Thomas and The System have taken the existing Australian tradition and have spun it into something really dark, really contemporary and really unique on their album Bush Gothic. “here’s a stack of really fabulous and scary, horrific traditional songs of ours in Australia,” Jenny M Thomas told Timber and Steel’s Bill Quinn last year, “But usually when people play them … it’s very jolly”.
The influence that folk-big-band Bellowhead has had on contemporary audiences reconnecting with traditional music has been astounding. A favourite on not just the folk circuit in the UK but also at contemporary music festivals like Glastonbury, Bellowhead have taken traditional songs and given them an orchestral spin. The band is the brainchild of folk singing duo John Spiers and Jon Boden and boasts eleven members who all play an array of instruments, many of which would not be considered traditional “folk” instruments. There’s something quite soundtrack-like in the way Bellowhead arrange the traditional songs of their repertoire, as though they’ve been invited to turn folk songs into a rollicking Broadway musicial, and as such they’ve been embraced by a whole new generation of fans who may not have heard these songs otherwise.
For more information on Sounds of the South check out the official Vivid Festival site here.