Thursday, February 28, 2013

The New Old School

The folk club is losing its traditional domain. And by traditional I mean folk club, not music. "Folk" is the new hip word bandied about by pop singers and talent shows. Mostly it seems to mean a rock band with a banjo in it. It probably started with The Pogues and has arrived at Mumford and Sons - both excellent bands in their own eras (I discount the earlier folk-rock bands like Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span because their repertoire was folk music but they were true rock bands). This is a bit of a Brit-centric view, I admit: American culture seems to have no need of a folk uber-category as blues, country, old-time, bluegrass and more have always transcended traditional boundaries and remained relevant and contemporary in the mainstream American musical culture (or so it seems to me from my antipodean armchair). I also suspect that the "folk club" is largely a British contrivance whereas the American genesis seemed to be the coffee house.

Most New Zealand folk clubs are not significantly different today from the club I joined over 30 years ago. Important aspects seem to be that local performers are enjoyed and respected and they provide a platform for visiting artists from time to time. With an ever-increasing cohort of touring artists on the road at any one time there's stiff competition for audiences and well run venues. It's not unusual for highly polished acts to be playing tiny venues to small audiences. This more intimate atmosphere is not without its charm - it's certainly better than playing an old style booze barn with nobody listening. Most folk clubs (with the notable exception of Devonport and its legendary Bunker) operate out of such a venue; a cafe or bar, or occasionally a community hall or sports club. Some run house concerts. But whatever the format, the club always consists of a willing bunch of volunteers who organise and facilitate these events.

Apart from the mainstream appropriation of "folk", the folk club is also losing its traditional domain insomuch as it is not the only game in town where acoustic music is concerned and, conversely, benefits from being part of the big loose network of small venues and acoustic artists throughout the country. Acts for whom once the very thought of performing at a folk club was anathema to them are now engaging comfortably with clubs that once might have thought the same of them too. And both are better for it in my view.

However, it remains to the folk club to uphold the tenets of music, tradition and community that keeps it a parish of appreciation and endeavour: to provide the opportunity and encouragement to beginning and aspiring players and singers. Only by cultivating the culture of folk music (whatever that is) do we ensure that there will be audiences worthy of the artists they bring, banjo or not.

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