Modern British folk singers

I’m looking for a bit of help here.  One of the styles of music that I love is what you might call “modern folk” — I don’t know if there is a proper name for it.  What I mean is reasonably sparse singer-and-a-guitar songs, cleverly written to be about something.  Current examples would include people like Dar Williams (listen, for example, to her song February or When I Was a Boy) and Richard Shindell.  Older and maybe better-known examples would be Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, and a band like Crosby, Stills and Nash.

My problem is that all these artists are American.  Not a problem in itself, but if I stand up at the local folk club and sing a cover of, say, Dar Williams’ The Hudson — which is a song not just about America but specifically about New York City, where I have spent a grand total of four days of my life — it’s just going to sound stupid.  Likewise if I sing Richard Shindell’s The Next Best Western, which is about a long-distance trucker in the mid-west looking for a hotel that’s part of a chain most Brits have never even heard of.  And don’t even get me started on Paul Simon’s American Tune.  (As it happens, these are three of the songs I can do a passable job with, and so constitute about 50% of my entire set.)

So where are all the British folk singers?  After all, Paul Simon initially established himself playing in folk clubs around England — there must have been some Brits there doing the same kind of thing, mustn’t there?  But who were they?  And who is doing that kind of thing today?

I know about the folk tradition of people like Martin Carthy and June Tabor, but that is very different.  It’s mostly their versions of very old traditional songs which have a distressing tendency to be about jolly tinkers or barmaids and sailors, or indeed about Childes Rowlande.  Actually, I quite enjoy that stuff, but it’s different from what I’m looking for here.  I want insightful singer-songwriters with their own material that touches on ageless and universal themes through personal and specific songs.  And I want them by British singers.  Is that too much to ask?

Who should I be listening to?  Who’s writing and playing songs that will leave me with a new and profound insight into, well, whatever the song is about?  And who’s doing it in Britain?

Oh, and don’t say “Billy Bragg”.  I am unreasonably demanding, and like my singers to be able to sing, and ideally to play guitar as well.

84 responses to “Modern British folk singers

  1. I was going to ask if Canadian was close enough, but I suspect you’d lump Canadians in as American like you did with Joni Mitchell. :-)

    Otherwise I would have recommended Dan Mangan.

  2. Ah, well … I could just man up and apologise for lumping Joni in with Americans, but instead I am going to take the easy, cowardly way out and claim that I was using “American” to mean “from the American continent” rather than “from the USA”.

    Thanks for the recommendation — even though Dan Mangan is far from British, I will check him out.

  3. Perhaps I’ve misunderstood your requirements, since you didn’t mention them and can’t really have missed them if you turned on a radio at any point last year: Mumford & Sons.

  4. KG, I truly have not turned on a radio to listen to music since about 1981. The signal:noise ratio is just not good enough; when I listen to the radio at all, it’s either Talk Sport or (more often) people being professionally witty on Radio 4. Hence my utter ignorance of Mumford & Sons. Many thanks for the recommendation.

  5. Well, you _have_ to add Stan Kelly to your list. In the programming world, he’s known as Stan Kelly-Bootle, author of the The Devil’s Data-Processing Dictionary, and as a columnist for Computer Language, Software Development, Unix Review, ACM Queue, etc. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stan_Kelly-Bootle

  6. Thanks, konakoda.

    One more thing, y’all: I’d really appreciate it if, when you recommend and artist, you’d also nominate an album that you feel is representative of their best work. (And if canspice, KG and konakoder could possibly revisit and recommend albums for Dan Mangan, Mumford & Sons and Stan Kelly, that would be great, too.)

    Keep ’em coming, folks, this is a valuable education!

  7. Mumford & Sons only have one album: Sigh No More.

    A good example to see whether it’s in any way what you’re after: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gh_bTkyJV5s (their single “Little Lion Man”, Youtube region restrictions permitting…)

    If you like that song (either musically or lyrically) you’re in luck: All their other songs are pretty much identical :)

  8. Dido.
    And some of Richard Thompson’s songs should fill the bill.

  9. He’s Scottish, and more roots than folk, but recent solo Mark Knopfler may fit your bill. He gets much better with his age, and only rarely rocks out as much as he did with Dire Straits. “One Take Radio Sessions” will give you a really good idea of what he can do when given one take to get out a song, as they used to record Mississippi-delta bluesmen in the early 1900s. From his album Shangri-La, “Song for Sonny Liston” is raw and very good indeed, and I doubt “Donegan’s Gone” would have been conceived and played like that by an American. Most recently, on his album Get Lucky, “Border Reiver”, “Piper to the End”, and “So Far From The Clyde” are distinctly from the British Isles. Most of these are on YouTube live if you care to take a listen.

  10. I feel like I should have good recommendations, but I’m at a bit of a loss. I’ll think about it, but in the meantime I’ll recommend Candian singer/songwriter Corb Lund as somebody worth listening to. He’s a stretch as an answer to your request; he’s closer to modern country than modern folk, but his album Five Dollar Bill has a number of very folky songs, and he’s just generally really good (here’s a pretty good solo performance).

    I’ll keep thinking.

  11. Johnny Flynn is my current favorite musician of all time, and he seems to fit the bill (British, recent, witty, fits the genre). Like Mumford & Sons, but somehow much better.

  12. Oh, and of his two albums, I prefer the first (A Larum).

  13. I’m away from my record collection this weekend – so I may revisit when I can get back to it – but a good starting point would be using iPlayer to listen to Mike Hardings BBC show.

    Specific recommendations – Rachel Unthank and The Winterset / The Unthanks – work through the albums in order as they get less folk as you go through, but there’s a good mix of traditional and modern. Although they are not quite troubadours but rather a group. But I did cry while listening to them in the car a couple if weeks back.

    Alistair Roberts – I couldn’t say which album is best.

    I really like Ben Reynolds but most of his albums are instrumental – but theres some good live videos to be found on YouTube

    Peter Greenwood – although the album is more folk-rock YouTube has a lot of acoustic solo perfrormance

  14. Mike, recent but avid fan of your Doctor Who reviews, but this one caught my eye. I have to say that arguably my favorite folk singer of all times Johnny Flynn. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jJ3h4XLu5go

    He’s only got two albums A Larum (which features the song I just linked) and Been Listening. A Larum is much simpler and less produced and very easy to get into. Been Listening is his more recent album, has a noticeably higher production value, and also features a bit more instrumentation. Initially I couldn’t get into it but if given a chance it’s as good if not better than A Larum. I’m not sure if they come any better than Johnny Flynn and the Sussex Wit.

  15. Thanks, KG. The verse of “Little Lion Man” has almost exactly the same tune as that David Gray song. Rough voice, though. And I am not sure that “All their other songs are pretty much identical” is a description of an artist that is really going to do it for me. (Part of what appeals so much about Paul Simon is how very different his songs all sound to each other.)

    Jim, I do like Dido very much (more than I am prepared to admit here), but she is rather a lot more “produced” than the style of music I am looking for here. Richard Thompson is a name I’ve heard before, and now that you mention him he might be just what I am looking for.

    Jason Catena, although I really like Dire Straits, especially their first album, Mark Knopfler would never have occurred to me. I’ll check it out. (After all, Francis Dunnery’s solo work is very different from the Prog-Pop that he did with It Bites, and much folkier.)

    NickS, thanks for the Corb Lund recommendation. Although I am looking specifically for Brits, that doesn’t mean a good Canadian is useless to me :-) Although I am wary of anything described as “country” I like the idea that the subject of most of his songs is the experience of rural Albertan cattle culture. “Some songs just have to get written to justify all the field research” also appeals to me, and the sample lyrics are good.

    Ben and Conor Grogan, I will look for Johnny Flynn’s A Larum.

  16. Since you’re a programmer, you might be interested in Nerdfolk as well. We Should Be Hippies, for example, has very catchy lyrics to sing along. :) http://weshouldbehippies.bandcamp.com/

  17. Mark Knopfler is English by the way, not Scottish. He lived in Glasgow until the age of 7, but his parents are English and Hungarian. Newcastle is his home and that comes through in a lot of his song writing. I’d suggest Golden Heart and Ragpicker’s Dream as two of his best albums.

  18. Seth Lakeman comes to mind. I enjoyed his first two albums (punch bowl, kitty jay).

  19. Seth Lakeman? I am not into folk but one of my colleagues is familiar with his work and he seems quite highly regarded.

  20. I guess you know my short list: Chris Wood (Albion, Hollow Point); Martin Simpson (Never Any Good, One Day); Dick Gaughan (The Devil & Pastor Jack); Andy Irvine… Some people have said good things about Phil King and Ruarri Joseph, although they don’t do it for me specially. Alisdair Roberts is astonishing, but I’m guessing not what you are looking for. On the American front, look up Tom Paxton (“The Bravest”) – when he’s not singing about bunnies and marvellous toys, he does old-school folk about contemporary events.

  21. Thanks to you all once more — it’s great to be getting so many recommendations.

    JulesLt, I used to love Mike Harding’s show back when it was on, but I guess I was ten or twelve there and it’s only the comic songs that registered with me (“When the Martians Land in Rotherham” being particularly memorable). The idea of him as a serious singer is a strange one for me, but I’ll check it out. Your other suggestions also noted.

    habbie and Mark, good to get two recommendations of the name guy — Seth Lakeman. That shoots him up the list.

    Andrew, it’s often been a source of puzzlement to me that both you and I like things called “folk music” but there seems to be so little overlap. (Though I loved ABCDEFG and the Martin Carthy collection that I got has really grown on me, so maybe it all would given time?) I guess it just goes to show how misleading musical categorisations can be, especially of styles that have been around for a while. Thanks for the summary list; I will audition them all.

  22. I can heartily recommend Dan Mangan’s ‘Nice, Nice, Very Nice’.

  23. I was a little harsh when writing “All their other songs are pretty much identical” about Mumford & Sons. They were so overplayed on German radio* that their songs began to run together in my head, so don’t let my comment put you off entirely. Another of their more popular songs to judge for yourself: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rn22aimYrfY

    * I never deliberately turn on a radio myself, but my car’s audio system at the time had a mind of its own.

  24. I’m glad that the Corb Lund recommendation didn’t scare you too much. Really he’s my favorite contemporary singer/songwriter, so even though it was a stretch I wanted to mention him.

    I do have some more recommendations that are a little closer to what you’re looking for (as long as the last 25 years can count as “modern”).

    The two that seem like the best match are Dave Goulder (probably Stone, Steam And Starlings) I know people that have learned and sing “Dry Stone Walls”, “The January Man”, and “Proper Little Gent” and all of them are great songs. His website is here, lyrics to “Proper Little Gent” are here just because they’re worth reading.

    I’d also recommend Sunsets I’ve Galloped Into by Archie Fisher. It has a couple of weak songs (I can’t stand “Bill Hosie”) but a number of good ones as well (“Ashfields and Brine” and “Merry England” are favorites).

    I’d recommend Richard Thompson’s 1000 Years of Popular Music recordings, though it isn’t “modern folk” it’s just a fun project (and, though you’re looking for, “sparse singer-and-a-guitar” I have to say that Debra Dobkin’s drumming is really a treat on some of the tracks for example).

    My tastes are probably similar to Andrew’s since I was tempted to recommend Dick Gaughan. I think Live In Edinburgh in an amazing album but, honestly, I can’t imagine you learning any of the songs off of that. Also, since you mention Martin Carthy I’ll recommend Life And Limb as an album of his that I like.

    Two American recordings that I’ll recommend anyway:

    Bowl Of Crystal Tears by Sylvia Herold is really good, and is mostly traditional British songs.

    Also Dreaming Down a Quiet Line by Cindy Kallet is almost worth it just for “Tide And The River Rising” — a song that everybody should know.

    Finally, another personal favorite of mine, Separate Ways by Teddy Thompson isn’t a folk album, but it could be. Here is a lovely solo performance on the Jules Holland show of two of the songs from the album. Warning, however, it’s a break-up album full of depressing and bitter songs, but some of my favorite songwriting of any album from the last 20 years.

    Finally I should mention Flanders and Swann just in case you don’t know them, even though they aren’t modern and aren’t folk*. Who else would sing about The First and Second Laws Of Thermodynamics. (note Tom Lehrer’s line, “I realize that the piano is not a traditional folk instrument but imagine, if you will, that I am playing an 88 string guitar.”)

    Hopefully some of those will be helpful.

  25. I meant Mike Hardings radio show on Radio 2 as a presenter rather than singer – he covers a lot if the folk spectrum.

    Bragg might not actually be a bad one if looking for songs to play – I think he’s a good songwriter even though I don’t own a single record or like his voice.

    Oldies – Bert Jansch – still going and one of the best there was

  26. Mike, I have the impression that you and Andrew also like things called “Doctor Who” but with less overlap than one might expect…

  27. g, it is true that pre-2010, Andrew and I were not particularly strongly in agreement in our assessment of Nu-Who episodes. But we were much more ins accord when it came to Series 5. What Andrew thinks about Series 6 I do not know, as he has yet to bog about it.

  28. Its strange how people’s tastes differ, but it’s a comfort to know that everyone, everywhere thinks Torchwood is rubbish.

  29. That missed apostrophe is driving me crazy now. For fellow sufferers: ‘

  30. What’s this, you perform folk music???

    I’d second (third?) Jim and Nick about checking out Richard Thompson. (Though he ranges from “reasonably sparse singer-and-a-guitar songs” to all-out rocking!)

    Though you say you’re not so keen on Country, I’d still suggest Gillian Welch. Particularly her album ‘Time (The Revelator)’ which, unless I miss my guess, is all about the trials and tribulations of playing that old-time music in this modern world of ours.

    More of my whitterings on such subjects, on Thompson and Welch.

  31. Gavin, I don’t perform yet, but I intend to. I’ll probably do a short set at an open-mic night at the Forest Folk Club, and see how that goes; on that basis I will either give up or try something more ambitious. At the moment, I just sing and play around the house.

    Thanks for the Thompson re-recommendation, and Gillian Welch.

  32. I too sing around the house.

    In my case, it’s probably for everyone if I stay there…

  33. Quick notes: First, the “Jules Hollland” reference earlier should, of course, be “Jools”

    Second, I looked up Debra Dobkin, since I realized I don’t know who she was beyond hearing her on 1000 Years Of Popular Music and I noticed that there are two good Richard Thompson performances that you can download freely from her website if those don’t appeal to you that would be a sign that you’re probably not going to like Richard Thompson.

    Finally, as long as people are mentioning American Folk/Country performers, I happened across a gorgeous Rosanne Cash performance this morning. I don’t know any of her albums, but that is quite a performance.

  34. I’m a fan on pretty much all the singers you cited so I hope I can help you out. Two English folk singers to look out for:

    Jenny McCormick http://www.jennymccormick.com/
    Sharon Lewis http://www.sharonlewis.net/

    .. also one more American to look out for:

    Rose Polenzani http://www.rosepolenzani.com

    I don’t know where in the UK you are based, but you may also want to check out the agenda here:

    http://houseconcerts.org.uk/

    I was a regular attendee before I moved away to Germany and I can only say it’s a lovely way to see these kinds of musicians.

  35. Thanks, Geoffrey, recommendations much appreciated. House Concerts sound awesome, but living out here near the Welsh border the location is prohibitive. Mind you, I was amazed to see the Richard Shindell played there four years ago! Richard Shindell! I would certainly have made every effort to be there for that one!

    And thanks, NickS, for your additional suggestions. I am accumulating a long list here, should keep me busy for a while!

  36. If you haven’t listened to Frank Turner (http://www.frank-turner.com/) you really should – he’s excellent. Pete Coe (http://www.backshift.demon.co.uk/) is also very good. Emily Barker (http://www.emily-barker.com/) lives in the UK (even tho’ she’s from Australia) and is also worth a listen

  37. Try Laura Marling or Nat Johnson and the Figureheads (ex Monkey Swallows the Universe). The latter is a bit

  38. Missed off the end of the comment there :

    is a bit more indie leaning than folk but see what you think

  39. As it happens, we are hosting a House Concert for Jason Carter, an English singer/guitarist. His style is more flamenco/jazz than folk though, so probably not exactly what you’re looking for. Ironically, although we are hosting the concert in our home, we will not be able to attend, as we will be elsewhere that weekend, most likely listening to you singing in the bath :)

  40. Thanks, Benedict, Mark and Vince — more recommendations, much appreciated.

    Vince, that is rather tragic house-concert timing. But if you ask VERY politely, I might favour you with my unique rendition of Richard Shindell’s The Next Best Western at Taylor Acres. (Fiona has a pretty good guitar as well, so you and I can duet a little.)

  41. The Totally Acoustic podcast, run by MJ Hibbett. And friends.

    http://mjhibbett.co.uk/totallyacoustic/

    http://mjhibbett.co.uk/

  42. I’ll second the recommendation of Dick Gaughan, and specifically recommend “Handful of Earth”. You also might like David Francey, a Canadian originally from Scotland; maybe start with “The Waking Hour”.

  43. He’s scottish but i think it’s close enough… Fionn Regan.

  44. Maybe not “modern” considering his age, but might be “modern” by your description – I just found out that Ralph Mctell is doing a tour September-December!

  45. Thanks, Mark. By “modern” I just meant “singing songs written in the last fifty years or so”, to distinguish from people like Martin Carthy who mostly sing songs from centuries ago.

  46. As a note, people sometimes use the term Singer-Songwriter as an alternative to “folk” to specify that somebody isn’t singing traditional songs or in a traditional style. Certainly the term “folk music” has always been somewhat contested. Personally I liked your description, in the original post, of, “reasonably sparse singer-and-a-guitar songs, cleverly written to be about something.”

    I’m curious, actually, to know, when you have time to report back on whatever you’ve ended up listening to, if you end up being more interested in the “pop” or the “folky” side of what’s been recommended here.

  47. I think the actual definition of folk (which some of us punctilious types still cling to) is to do with open tunings. Songs don’t have to be sparse, they can be rollicking yee-hah dance numbers,

  48. Hmm, there is nothing about open tunings in The Wikipedia article about folk music, which explicitly covers both traditional and contemporary folk. Where did you get that notion?

  49. Well originally from my Dad. Anything purporting to be folk that wasn’t in open tunings would be enough to throw him in a fearful temper!

    I’m quite surprised the Wikipedia article doesn’t mention them. Its list of ‘Characteristics’ mostly seem to do with the music’s generation, rather than style. I know whether a piece of music is baroque or hardcore punk just by listening to it. If I want to know whether some other music is folk, do I need to go off and investigate whether it was “transmitted through an oral tradition” or is “related to national culture” or not? I mean, obviously back in the day folk was an expression of a general culture in a way punk or dubstep isn’t, but even so…

    (The Wikipedia piece on open tunings states “Open tunings are common in blues music and some rock and folk music.” I am rather surprised they would put rock before folk there.)

    Without this element we do get the situation we’re in where folk and singer-songwriters just get confused. Your original definition of ““reasonably sparse singer-and-a-guitar songs, cleverly written to be about something” was fine as a catch-all for “songs I could sing by myself in a pub gig”, but not very useful as a definition of folk. It would make Billy Bragg’s ’New England’ folk but not Fairport Convention’s version of ’Matty Groves’, despite that being an ‘authentic’ folk tune written by Trad.

  50. “If I want to know whether some other music is folk, do I need to go off and investigate whether it was “transmitted through an oral tradition” or is “related to national culture” or not?”

    I’m going to stand by my position that this is contested ground. Consider, for example, Leon Rosselson’s comments distinguishing his much from “folk music”

    “These songs are not folk songs. They may, it is true, have been influenced by the idiom of folk song. It is true also that without the folk revival and the folk clubs, they would probably not have been written and would certainly not have been sung. . . . ”

    “I think the traditionalists are right in wanting to keep the term–if it is to have any meaning at all-to describe the traditional culture of a particular class. These songs are self-conscious rather than class-conscious, self-centered rather than community-centered, personal rather than impersonal. In any case, I don’t believe modern folk songs can grow in the sort of urbanized, fragmented, intensely individualistic and competitive society we live in.”

    I don’t know the history of the Folk Revival in Britain but, in the US, I think it was, speaking very broadly, a reaction to the increasing power of a national culture and national media which made people interested in studying and preserving the local traditions which were being displaced.

    I know that there was tension around the question of whether it was appropriate for “folk music” festivals and venues to promote people who were performing traditional music that wasn’t their own cultural tradition. In some ways this was just a concern with “purity” but it was also a practical problem. Speaking very broadly again you had middle-class people from the East Coast who had a formal music education going into the South and into Appalachia and learning the regional music traditions — out of a sincere love of the music, and they would end up being a lot better than the local musicians at promoting themselves and applying for festival spots or money, and that displaced people who had grown up with the music.

    So the concern about the roots of the music, and where the performer stands in relationship to those traditions is not a purely intellectual concern.

    That said, I accept that the term “folk music” doesn’t have a precise meaning, and is used in different contexts to refer to a wide range of music. I don’t know that there’s much point in arguing for a purist definition of the term, but there are good reasons why people take the purist position.

  51. One more comment (and I’m trying not to use this thread as a soapbox unduly). As a working definition, I’m fond of the line that I quoted here.

    “If I sing something not the way you’re used to hearing it, and you think I’ve got the tune or the words wrong, then it isn’t folk. On the other hand, if you think I’m singing a variant–then it’s folk.” — Charlie Baum

    Incidentally, in that post I say that I really don’t know what term to use for contemporary songs written in traditional styles.

  52. ”These songs are self-conscious rather than class-conscious, self-centered rather than community-centered, personal rather than impersonal. In any case, I don’t believe modern folk songs can grow in the sort of urbanized, fragmented, intensely individualistic and competitive society we live in.”

    Interesting quote from Rosselson and in general. In fact, I think that’s part of what was bugging me about conflating folk music and singer-songwriters. Singer-songwriters are almost the last word in personal expression. When Joni Mitchell sings “I” in a song, chances are she means herself. With traditional folk songs, even when the singer sings “I” you feel they really mean “we.” Matty Groves isn’t so much a character who’s a commoner, as a representative of commoners.

    At the same time, we need to be wary of the thing folk fans are always being accused of – idealising the past. It’s all too easy to fix on problems in contemporary society, such as our atomised lifestyles. Just because a song has “(trad)” written against it in the liner notes, that doesn’t mean it was collectively agreed upon by everyone.

    Overall, however, I’ll stick to my guns in saying any definition of folk needs to be a musical one. Of course it’s all a kind of Zen exercise, we’re never going to reach one that’s precisely delineated and satisfies everyone. (That wouldn’t be true of any other musical genre, let alone one with the baggage that folk has.) It’s probably more a matter of keeping up the chase in order to frame the questions, if you see what I mean.

  53. Are Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span too un-sparse for your taste? They (along with Stan Rogers, who is Canadian, not British) are where a lot of my (American) generation picked up a lot of British Folk music.

    Broadside Electric is an American band that does mostly British Folk. (Full disclosure: I went to college with most of the players in the band.) I prefer their earlier albums, when they did more Childe ballads and the like.

  54. I’ve not heard Steeleye Span, which is an obvious gap that I should fill.

    I’ve listened to Liege and Lief, which I believe is generally considered Fairport Convention’s best album, a fair bit — eight times this year. I’m still waiting for the lightning to strike. I know it sounds terribly philistine, but I am inclined to describe it as “passes the time pleasantly enough”. I did consider singing one of their songs (Matty Groves) but the problem is that so much of what makes it work as well as it does is in the arrangement rather than the song itself. As a bloke-and-his-guitar song, it lacks interest.

  55. I recently read ‘Electric Albion’ – which is largely a history of the 70s folk-rock boom, but the first few chapters cover the development of the folk revival in the UK and there’s some interesting stuff in their about ‘the purists’.

    An important one was that a lot of traditional folk songs were just songs – i.e. traditionally they had no instrumental accompaniment. There was also traditional folk music (dances, jigs, etc) – but the two things didn’t really overlap much. ‘Folk’ has basically ended up as a ragbag of all traditional pre-C19th music.

    Which makes it interesting when the likes of Ewan McCarthy and his Critics Group started laying down a purist line in the 1950s, while playing traditional folk songs with a guitar accompaniment – about as traditional as Dylan going electric.

    Secondly, it seems that the early C20th folk song collectors (like Cecil Sharp in the UK, or Alan Lomax in the US) were a bit late, in that the pure oral tradition of folksongs had long been corrupted by the distribution of broadsides, chapbooks, etc. (Even the Child Ballads relied on a lot of broadsides).

    In some cases, by the 50s folk purists were effectively arguing for the traditional purity of commercially written songs, or the commercially published version of traditional songs.

  56. I can’t believe that nobody has mentioned Kate Rusby.

    A mix of trad and modern, but Jon Boden’s A Folk Song a Day is probably the quickest way of getting acquainted with what could be described as the English folk canon.

    If you feel like rummaging for interesting songs, I can highly recommend searching Spotify with the string “label:topic”. They’re the definitive English folk label.

  57. Pingback: British folk music update | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  58. You’re on the right track! Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell were leading lights for me when I started back in the 70s. I host an Open Mic here every month and have worked in a non-profit organization supporting folk music for some 30 years here in the Seattle/Tacoma area of Washington state. You might enjoy some of my YouTube videos, my own, and those of friends as well… I also just enjoyed your piece on C.S. Lewis’s ‘Mere Christianity’ and left you some ideas there. Visit my Sound Possibilities Forum and let me know if you run across anything of interest. Cheers!

  59. since you didn’t mention them: Nick Drake (all 3 albums) and Van Morrison (astral weeks)

    more american folk bands: Bon Iver and Fleet Foxes

  60. I should have mentioned Nick Drake — although all his songs sort of blend into one in my mind, they are gorgeous, without a doubt. I really should listen carefully through his oeuvre and see if I can find a single, self-contained song that I could add to my set. I have a feeling that all his songs use trick tunings, though, which is a big downside for me.

    As for Van Morrison — sorry, can’t stand him. I have Astral Weeks in my MP3 collection, and I just can’t listen all the way through it. I am out of patience with the rambling, unstructured excuses for songs, and the whiny undisciplined voice. Yes, yes, I know it’s One Of The Greatest Albums Of All Time. But it’s not actually any good.

  61. I just found Ella Edmondson and she is a great, modern, British singer/song writer of folk music English style. Also listen to The Bad Sheperds – a bit quirky but rather good and maybe also you might like Jim Moray and Rachel Unthank . Hope this helps :)

  62. Laura Marling? Agree with Johnny Flynn and Mumford & Sons. Also, how about Newton Faulkner, Pete Roe, Bobby Long, some Tom McRae and Peggy Sue (Brighton band).

  63. Pingback: Top albums of 2011, #7: Help! (1965), The Beatles | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  64. James Vincent McMorrow. He’s world class, his album “Early in the Morning”

    Listen, Love.

  65. Try listening to Lucy Ward. Here is her rendition of “Maids when you’re young”.

    And she has several other songs on youtube too.
    Also consider Lady Maisery (three young women), Nancy Kerr and James Fagan (duo), Jonny Kearney and Lucy Farrell (duo), etc. You should be able to listen anywhere in thr world to Mike Harding’s programmes on BBC Radio 2 on Wednesdays, then available for 7 days.
    Among the older generation, Leon Rosselson, Jeremy Taylor, Bob Davenport, Nadia Cattouse, the Copper family, the McPeake family. Among the departed, Ewan McColl, Bob Roberts, Harry Cox.

  66. I would like to assist but I’m a bit wobbly at the mo, a bit brahms to be frank…

  67. If you like your songs to be about something, then listen to Christy Moore singing On Morecambe Bay.

    Christy is Irish, not British, but this is a song about one of the great disasters of modern times in Britain, one which brought shame on a lot of people and led to changes in the law. If you have not heard of the Morecambe Bay disaster of 2004, read here:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2004_Morecambe_Bay_cockling_disaster

  68. Thanks for that, Tim. Yes, I’m familiar with Christy Moore: not British in the strict sense, but British-Islesish, which is darned sight closer that your Dar Williamses and Richard Shindells.

    I’ve attempted his Ride On a couple of times at the Forest Folk Club — without actually embarrassing myself either time, but also without having found a way to make it take wings. Must try it again some time. Maybe it’s about finding the sweet spot in my vocal range.

  69. Glad you like Christy Moore, Mike. Actually we British are an inclusive lot. For example, T.S.Eliot is our poet, even though he was American. Anyone who comes here and makes his home here is one of ours, doesn’t matter what his passport says.
    I may have missed it, but it seems nobody has yet mentioned Steve Tilston, a fine singer who writes his own songs. I bought two of his recent CDs, Ziggurat and The Reckoning, at a gig in Colchester 3 weeks ago. Visit his website and you can hear samples of six of his recent songs. There are also numerous Youtubes of him performing.

  70. Beth orton

  71. No-one seems to have mentioned the Isle of Man’s Christine Collister – check out her album ‘Live’ on Fledg’ling Records – it’s a killer! Also with former partner Clive Gregson – “Love is a Strange Hotel’ – Special Delivery records is their most ‘acoustic’ album [both mates of Richard Thompson] Also Martin’s daughter Eliza Carthy has put out an album of self-penned songs, ‘Neptune’ on Hem Hem Records – let’s hear it for the ladies
    Mike of NZ

  72. Thanks for the recommendation, Mike. I’ll keep an eye out for Collister.

  73. Seeing some activity on this thread I wanted to thank you for the mention of Christy Moore in your 2012 listening list.

    I did think of one other song I’d recommend, if you look up the John Renbourn album “Live In Italy” that version of “From Sandwood Down To Kyle” is amazing. The whole album is good, but it can be expensive (at least in the US) and that track is clearly the standout, in my opinion, so you could get it as a stand-alone download.

    Written by Dave Goulder, who I recommended above.

  74. Yes, good to see this sudden mini-flurry of activity. A few comments to update you from the UK.
    1. Mike Harding no longer hosts the BBC’s Radio 2 folk show. It is now “The Folk Show with Mark Radcliffe”, on every Wednesday in what was MH’s slot. Here is a sample
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03jtgd5
    only good for about another 48 hours from now. Note that Mark Radcliffe presents other genres of music too. He usually presents his folk show himself but sometimes there is a guest presenter, e.g. Cerys Matthews, who gave us a programme of Welsh folk music recently.
    2. A new English folk phenomenon is “The Full English”, which is the name of a digital archive of English folk dance and song, managed by the EFDSS and available to all. It is also the name of a band of star musicians led by Fay Hield who have just toured the country. I attended one of their gigs, in Colchester, and they were magnificent. Yes, they sing traditional songs, so they may not interest you, Mike. But in some cases they match an old tune to an old song for which the archive only had the words. “The Man in the Moon” is an example of this, and this song alone is worth the price of the CD. .
    3. Another good radio source is BBC Radio Scotland. Here is a sample programme, good for another 5 days as I write:
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03jyhwf
    This programme goes out on Thursdays, repeated on Sundays. There is of course a lot of Scottish folk music, but also music from the rest of the British Isles, and around the world.

  75. Thanks for the pointers, Tim. I do feel that I ought to care more about traditional songs than I do, and I wonder if an epiphany is approaching. I like some a lot more than some others. I think partly I find it a bit alienating that there’s this huge repertoire of songs that everyone else seems to know and I don’t.

  76. “I think partly I find it a bit alienating that there’s this huge repertoire of songs that everyone else seems to know and I don’t.”

    Like pop music, there are some classics that everybody knows but, mostly, everybody knows some songs but not necessarily the same ones.

    Think about an anecdote about “Fairytale of New York” (which I was recently reminded of

    When they needed to film something to go along with the lyric, “The boys of the NYPD choir were singing ‘Galway Bay.'” The story arrives at this exchange:

    “I don’t think they knew Galway Bay, I’m trying to remember what they sang.”
    “It wasn’t Galway Bay.”
    “They asked us to sing a song that we all knew the words to.”
    “They didn’t have exactly a repertoire of Irish songs . . .”
    “We were singing the Mickey Mouse theme song”

  77. You Americans have the famous collection, by the Lomaxes and others, of your folk songs. Many of them correspond to ours. Many of ours are based on yours. It really is a single tradition with many branches, UK, ireland, USA, Australia, etc. And admixtures from everywhere, for example the great Belizean, Nadia Cattouse.
    Why worry about the huge repertoire of songs, few of which you know? What about the similarly huge repertoire of songs from Spain, Argentina, Colombia, Cuba, Bolivia, Mexico and so on, which perhaps you don’t know?
    Have you read every play by Shakespeare? Have you read every novel by Henry James? Probably not. Does it matter?
    Here in Britain we have a folk group called the Churchfitters who sing in English and Breton. This is because they live in Brittany, and they tour every year throughout France and Britain. There must be any number of bands who sing in a variety of languages. The scope is infinite. Down with uniformity. Vive la différence!

  78. “Why worry about the huge repertoire of songs, few of which you know?”

    Oh, not just because they exist! But because people sing them in folk clubs, and I can’t join in.

  79. Mike, if you simply google, you will find the lyrics for practically every folk song, even the modern ones. So it’s just a matter of learning them by heart. Or print them out, take them with you, and sing from the sheet.

  80. That’s fine for the words. Not so much for the tunes.

  81. I should give a plug for http://mudcat.org/ which is an excellent source of traditional music and contemporary folk-style songs. It isn’t complete, and I suspect it’s stronger on American than British material, but I’ve had many occasions on which I could find songs there which didn’t turn up on google.

  82. Mike, you said (10th December, 1.20 pm) you only wanted to join in. That means the others are already singing the tune. Or is there more to it than that?
    And I agree with NIck S about Mudcat, an excellent site, where you can spend hours pursuing a song or a singer.

  83. I can’t join in a song I don’t know; knowing a song means knowing both the words and the tune. I don’t understand why this is complicated :-)

  84. Pingback: #harkive 2016 liveblog | The Reinvigorated Programmer

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