Who gives a folk?

Battle of Ideas festival 2023, Sunday 29 October, Church House, London


No longer resigned to fringe festivals or countryside pubs, folk music is enjoying something of a revival. During the Lockdown period, sea shanties became all the rage after former postie Nathan Evans’s performance of ‘The Wellerman’ went viral. The hit singer Lil Nas X – famous for bringing country music and chaps to the world of rap – has also expressed his interest in the genre. ‘Hear me out’, he told press at the premiere of his documentary, ‘I want to do some folk music.’

While folk music has always had political elements – think Joan Baez, Lead Belly, Bob Dylan, Odetta, Ewan MacColl – but discussions about folk music today tend to prioritise its activist potential over the tunes themselves. During this year’s Proms, award-winning cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason weighed in on the perennial debate over ‘Rule Brittania’, suggesting that it might be ‘a bit different’ to replace the anthem with some ‘older folk tunes’. Perhaps Morris ankle bells could replace flags at next year’s final night.

Across the pond, folk made headlines when ‘Rich Men North of Richmond’, a debut protest song by Oliver Anthony about the working-class of America, became a viral hit – reaching number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart with tens of millions of views and streams. While Anthony’s song might have been successful with the masses, its lyrics about benefits and the establishment led to a backlash among critics, who labelled it ‘doggerel’ and ‘nasty’.

What is the status of folk in contemporary life? It seems to be more popular than ever – with cèilidhs up and down the country packed with young people content to learn steps to reels, jigs and ballads. Folk is constantly revisited – with stars like Ed Sheeran making millions from folk-inspired songs like ‘Galway Girl’.

Does this mean folk has lost its fuddy-duddy reputation? When asked why his song had struck a chord with so many, Anthony told reporters it was because it was ‘no editing, no agent, no bullshit. Just some idiot and his guitar. The style of music that we should have never gotten away from in the first place.’

Is he right? Is folk the purest genre of music today? And from protest songs to commercial deals, is folk in danger of being co-opted and sanitised just as it seems to be reinvigorated?

Brian Denny
trade-union journalist, Rebuild Britain; author, Folk and the radical English tradition; curator, Working River: songs and music of the Thames project

Maeve Halligan
founder and musician, The Hooligans; student

Denis Russell
building contractor; former trade-union activist and union representative, National Union of Railwaymen

Ella Whelan
co-convenor, Battle of Ideas festival; journalist; author, What Women Want