The Fair Folk
It’s confession time and, believe you me, this isn’t going to be an easy one. I suppose I should start with a bit of background. Which means a trip back through my childhood. Brace yourselves.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I think there are two kinds of people in the world when it comes to music. Never mind which genre you chose to set up your base camp in. Never mind what you’re currently listening to or what you truly detest. The way I see it, you either grew up listening to the same music as your parents or you immediately turned your nose up at it. In some cases, you might keep the same taste as your parents. In other cases, you might rebel against it as soon as your friends snigger at the music they find lying around in your bedroom.
I have danced around that second variation for a lot of my life. I definitely started off listening to the same music as my parents. Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’ still makes me feel about five years old, in a good way. As does any of Peter Gabriel’s 80s material. Although, for the record, I’ve always considered ‘Big Time’ a far stronger tune than ‘Sledgehammer’.
At some point early on in my primary school career, I began to realise my friends were listening to very different tunes to me. They didn’t know who Elvis Costello was. They thought Ringo only did the voices on Thomas the Tank Engine. They thought Pink Floyd was a cartoon character. I suppose I should’ve tried to win them over or reason with them but, like a good little school friend, I quickly learnt to listen to what they liked. In those days, that meant watching a lot of Top of the Pops. It was a decision that didn’t last too long in our house.
I still have a very strong memory of the night Dad found me watching Kylie Minogue and turned the TV off.
“I don’t know what that was exactly,” he said, standing over me. “But I’m sure we can find you something better.”
Then he put his headphones over my ears and played ‘Gypsy Eyes’ by The Jimi Hendrix Experience pretty damn loud. So began an interesting time in my life. My friends would talk about who they liked in the charts and I would talk about King Crimson, Captain Beefheart and Weather Report.
Over those years Dad introduced me to the prog end of rock and the ECM end of jazz. We listened to a lot of early, darkly hued Richard Thompson on holiday and Led Zeppelin on quiet weekend afternoons. The Neville Brothers would introduce me to the danger of earworms whilst Cannonball Adderley blasted out before I went to school. Tom Waits would often come and go, his sound mutating from pickled bar blues to marching, howling madness. Sadly, those halcyon times couldn’t last. Hormones saw to that.
High school brought Radiohead, Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins into my bedroom. My father did not approve. Which is ironic when you consider he is now a bigger Radiohead fan than I am.
As my teens took the wheel and steered me into my early twenties, I drifted away from the parental record collection. I discovered Pixies, Pearl Jam, Beastie Boys, Beck and a lot of movie scores. Meanwhile, much to my horror, my parents started to dabble in folk. Folk?! I couldn’t stand it. I buried my head close to my own speakers and basked in the gloom of ‘Kid A’ and delighted in the scratchy quirks of Kid Koala. I nodded along with DJ Shadow and wrote whilst listening to the ever shifting career of Eels.
After that, me and the parents rarely touched base on our musical tastes. We shared those early favourites, but our current choices rarely fit together. I found my way into hip-hop and the heavier side of rock. They kept going to little pubs to see little, middle groups of fading hippies sing about maidens and knights. My dad even tried to convince me that Morris Dancing wasn’t that bad. Oh, the embarrassment. I nearly cringed myself into a coma.
So, all of that said, here’s my confession…
I’ve started to listen to folk.
It happened recently and it happened totally by accident. It was like cracking a code or finding where I’d hidden a key to a locked door in my head.
I guess it began with the TV show ‘Detectorists’. I love that show. It’s such a subtle and down to earth piece of comedy. A classic in the making. In the first episode of the new and possibly final (gah!) series, they gave a nod to the classic ghost story. Over a montage of the history and loss that had played out in spot, they used a haunting song about a magpie. I didn’t realise it at the time, but that song was planting something in my head.
You see, of late, I’ve been struggling to find anything I want to listen to in my CD collection. Spotify is a great place to find stuff, but you need a North Star to get you moving. It’s tricky to browse on there without knowing roughly where you want to end up. I wasn’t finding anything new that grabbed me. I was getting lost or going around in circles. Most of the time, I was just dipping my toe into the rabbit hole that is podcasting.
Then one morning last week, whilst working on a Christmas ghost story, I found myself remembering that magpie song. I looked it up and found it was by a band called The Unthanks. I downloaded the album, expecting that I’d only like the one song, but it all struck some chord in my head for some reason. A chord that had been silent and untouched for 37 years. Folk started to make a little sense to me that day. I could finally translate that haunted quality in it and see past the roadblocks I'd set up myself. I could see its value and, through that, the ancient emotion locked in those tunes took hold of me.
I played the album a few times that day. I think the muted trumpet and orchestral work helped lodge it in place. That night, intrigued by this new addiction, I downloaded some albums by similar artists. I tried to dip into everything from the truly traditional to the more modern flavours. It was a case of experimenting. For all I knew, I only liked one album by one band. It could just be a fluke.
Only I can now confirm that it wasn’t a fluke.
Whereas, normally, I would rebel against the historically loaded lyrics, I found they made more sense to me. It was like watching Shakespeare. There is always a moment where you go from overwhelmed culture shock to relaxing into the flow. You begin understanding what you can in those lines of crafted dialogue. You surf that understanding until you are swept away in an undertow of brilliance that comes from words that are moving you through history.
It really has been a surprisingly few days. It’s rare I’ve done such a complete turn on a genre of music. I guess I was just never been able to wrap my head around what that world had to offer and now it’s speaking to me clearly. Not that it ever had to change what it was saying. It just waited until I was ready to listen and see the culture beyond the cliché. I get it now. For some reason, after this pretty rough year, I’m in the right place to key into the stories it’s telling me. Stories that share some common ground with my own stories. Maybe that’s part of it.
I’ve been writing ghost stories for the past four or so years now, but I failed to see the connection between modern ghost stories and folk music. It took some brilliant directing by Mackenzie Crook to show me the way. When he set ghostly figures and tragic events to tender and haunted tones of The Unthanks, I saw how well they fit together. I saw how the old world I borrow my ghosts from also penned these tunes with its cruel hand. It’s a pretty great feeling. There is something about folk that stands aside from any modern problem or frustration. It can echo it or steal from it, in a similar way to jazz sometimes, but it can remain true to its own voice as well. Driving home at night, as we follow the larger roads to the lanes near our new home, I’m starting to see its fingerprints. Where there are ruined farm buildings or overgrown patches of land caught by the headlights traversing road, I think a little of folk. It’s in the untamed nature lurking just past the end of our homes and streets. It's not going anywhere.
When I told my dad about what had been going on, his eyes gleamed like freshly lit fireworks.
“I’m not really sure what changed,” I told him. “It just makes more sense to me at the moment.”
“It makes sense if you think about it,” he told me. “It’s part of your history. I guess that means it’s in your bones already.”
He’s not wrong. That really is how it feels.
The stories I’m working on at the moment feel more grounded now that I’ve located the Folk Key in my head. There’s a common thread binding them with the music I’m being drawn towards. It’s a thread that was woven a long time ago. A time when the storytellers and the musicians used to sit by the same fire, I guess. Now I’m starting to see the glimmer of the flames for the first time with my own eyes. Here’s hoping I don’t lose sight of it anytime soon.