I grew up with traditional music. It was there before my classical studies and long before I discovered the joys of alternative rock. The sounds of The Corries and Runrig imprinted on idyllic Scottish holidays like nothing before or since (except, bizarrely, 80s musicals). My cousins are to this day still active with the Bampton Morris side and we would spend regular Whit Mondays trekking round the village as they danced the new season in. It was, and is, a key plank with which I build my musical perceptions and opinions. So it was some surprise to then grow up into a world where it is often deemed a lesser, primitive music by those who pretend to be educated in Music. Equally, it was bizarre to meet those who held traditional musics like a flaming sword of purpose, using it to settle quibbles of identity and ownership whilst stubbornly refusing to let it evolve. Stranger still were the remaining few who used the form as shelter from the modern world; a way to turn back the clock and dissolve into an assumed Albion. The traditional music I know evolves and moulds itself to the times; it is vibrant and witty and fun. Something that the utterly joyous Bellowhead wield with gleeful abandon.
Unlike many of my recent subjects (like Kaizers Orchestra and Bowie), I actually saw Bellowhead as a whole before they broke up. I even spent a very surreal evening watching some of the constituent parts of this supergroup (Spiers and Boden and Faustus) perform in St Mary’s church in Bampton; the church where both my real uncle and fictional Cousin Matthew are buried. On both occasions they played the three part ‘Jiggery Pokerwork / Haul Away / Seven Stars’ and on both occasions I was hooked. As performers they are magnetic; beacons of professionalism bursting at the seams with creative energy. The arrangements flit between string choirs, brass fanfares and indie rhythms without pausing for breath. There was nothing quite like it, a group fully understanding of the form and aware of the boundaries that presented. No boundaries. It presents no boundaries. Like all music you are only restricted if you allow yourself to be. We must ignore the protectionist thought which actively discourages communion between the genres. Yet so often we let this genre exceptionalism run rife. But Bellowhead, by being honest with what the form represents, forge ahead with confidence. Who else would successfully recreate disco in a folk setting? Not the folk puritans or nu-folk hangers on that is for sure.
Of course, this opinion only stands if your view of the form is the same of mine; if your belief in the form is the same as mine. It’s a big ask to make of you, so I’ll lay it out as best I can. Music is music. In the grand genre scheme of things, there is none better and none worse. Individual songs and artists can disappoint aesthetically but that decision is made on a case by case basis and not by some blanket algorithm. Traditional music, to me, is a form that is defined by it’s lineage and the development within it. Unlike ‘Classical’ music which is held in time by notation or ‘Popular’ music which is held by definitive recordings, Traditional music has a freedom to it. This in turn conveys ownership as everyone can perform these songs and tunes if they want without fear of ridicule. It doesn’t matter if you can’t sing or play, just join in and add something. Obviously the early 20th century saw a rise in the academic value of the form with a slew of British composers writing orchestral rhapsodies after certain melodies. Obviously the early 21st century saw the instrumentation and ambience adopted by the Popular mainstream. To me I see this as part of the endless story the form will present to us over the course of existence. It’s not something to get precious about. When I left that North Welsh venue after my first exhilarating hit of Bellowhead, only to be met with an “it’s not proper folk” from my respected lecturer, my mind was set. This is a band that knows more than any of us. You can do worse than losing yourself in their legacy.