Last weekend saw the second annual festival dedicated to Hull Folk music, following the various strands of the genre from traditional to contemporary.
With the concept of “give Folk a chance” it embodies Hull’s need to be recognised, in the same way that Folk music is no longer branded as a single genre. An event which has not been as hyped-up as those which sandwich it, Hull Folk Festival offered something different, with a range of musicians as well as over 50 Morris Dancers and fringe events which include “Survivor Sessions”.
And so I had to ask, what is Folk? A representative from organisers Sowden & Sowden said there were 6 strands, but gave no further details than “traditional” and “contemporary”. The only people to ask: the folk of Hull.
Questioning people who attended the main stage, based at the Minerva pub, members of the general public about their business in the city centre and a collection of my own friends, there seemed a clear inability to put the genre of music into simple words. It is not that Folk music is fractured in any way, but that many found it difficult to refer to as a form of music or as defined by any era of time in the way we can categorise other genres.
UK-touring Folk act, The Hut People commented during their set that “when you think of Folk Music and a popular tune, you think of Morris Dancing” and requested the audience to get their “hankies at the ready”. Yet, even this could not be defined with a singular expectation. Several Morris Dance groups were showing off their skills alongside the marina, dressed in a range of costumes. From traditional peasantry attire to leather corsets, you could see from the different dynamics of Yorkshire’s Morris Dancers that there are no rules on maintaining all the customs associated with the Folk dance. There was certainly a modern feel to what can only described as a Morris Dance-Off with performances based on Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and comments from the crowd such as “I’ve never seen Morris dancers with blacked-out faces before” – this referring to Hull-based Rackaback Morris, who wear their black, purple and green colours throughout their outfit.
The age-range of Folk fans too is cross-generational. Starting at midday on Saturday with a 100-deep audience stretching three generations, I asked various people what Folk truly meant to them. The consensus was that of two ideas, though nobody could offer a pure definition.
It certainly seems that Folk is a genre broader than music; that you cannot place it in one hat. And still Folk as a genre is undefinable, and more an experience. One couple who had planned to attend the festival admitted that they never listened to the music in their home and that “if there was a building offering folk dance [they] wouldn’t go in”. Yet, “when it’s like this … scattered” they thoroughly enjoy it, arranging their weekend around the event.
This tied in with the view of a mother and daughter who both described themselves as having grown up with Folk music, and said that it is important in maintaining heritage. They explained that to them Folk music is the telling of stories and keeping history relevant. Two performers in the festival echoed this, with Sally Currie (stage name The Dyr Sister) stating that “Folk is quite broad nowadays … for me Folk is like storytelling” and Lyn Acton agreeing and adding that this was dependent on where in the world the story was being told as to what genre it matched musically.
And so I find that the notion of Folk is constantly changing and indifferent to place and time. Folk music and dance both tell a story, but can be adapted to ensure that it is entirely applicable to its audience.
Hull at one time was the third-largest fishing port in the UK, and the people of Hull are proud of this heritage. Simply holding the festival at the marina and displaying the docking of the ships brought this home.
For me, Folk has always been about remembering the past and sharing your experiences. Whether this is sea shanties which remind me of those family members who served as fishermen or songs about completing a 1000-piece jigsaw, Folk is about sharing your experiences with a wider audience and finding that common ground. Folk is about holding onto the past while you sail into future horizons.
Bands such as The Hillbilly Troupe, local favourites, define true Folk. They not only headlined the Folk Festival but also closed as headliners at Freedom the week prior. And the next big music festival in Hull features them too. With former Paddington’s Lloyd Dobbs there is an indie-punk element to their music, and – again crossing generations with the introduction of young Victor on flute – an eclectic mix of instruments.
What is Folk?
Folk is everything and almost anything.
Folk is the past. Folk is the present. Folk will exist in the future.
Folk is storytelling, the passing of knowledge and understanding from one generation to the next. It is a chance to be something collective and the possibility of sharing yourself with the world. As Hull is becoming a bigger piece of the jigsaw that is the world of culture, Folk is at the heart of Hull.
Article was originally written for Yorkshire Gig Guide.