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BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards: bottom of the class

30 January 2013

You would think that asking for and receiving the names of the judges of a set of BBC awards would be a straightforward matter. The corporation’s own awards guidelines, available on its website, demand transparency. So it was surprising that when I asked who chose the winners of the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, thinking I’d write about them in my music blog, The Glamour Cave, I was told it was a secret.

It was a more unpleasant surprise that a follow-up Freedom of Information request was denied on the grounds that the award ceremony, in the view of the BBC’s FoI department, was protected as ‘journalism’. If an awards ceremony qualified as journalism, I was left wondering, then what could they possibly consider my blog to be? Did I want to know?

What began as idle curiosity became irritation and then anger.

The BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards are broken, this matters and here’s why.

The folk music scene in England and Wales at the beginning of 2013 is this country’s most undervalued cultural asset. To be a folky here, right now is to be jangling the keys to a cultural palace, something quietly demonstrated by the brisk, growing business that folk festivals have been doing for the past decade in the face of collapses elsewhere in the festival sector, more loudly by the clamour of superlative young talent jostling to fill these festival’s stages and also because it is the solution to the problem – musical, cultural and political – of Simon Cowell.

Far from seeing music as a plastic vehicle – a Ka, if you will – designed to have the juggernaut of someone else’s success (Cowell’s) crash into it, your average folk musician is a multi-instrumentalist who intends to make a life of it. And, boy, does it show when you hear them play.

For a better appreciation of this, go to YouTube and check out Bellowhead – who win cross-genre best live band awards the way some bands lose plectrums – Seth Lakeman, Show of Hands, The Unthanks, ahab, Josienne Clarke & Ben Walker, Jamie Smith’s Mabon and any one of a hundred other world-class English and Welsh folk outfits presently plying their trade on these shores.

Bellowhead may have made the Radio 2 A playlist in January but the English and Welsh folk scene remains vastly underexposed: an underground success story that is winning on its own cultish terms despite continuing to be widely mocked as an idea by those unfamiliar with it. But there are no fingers in ears here.

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Mumford & Sons is arguably the biggest band in the world right now, having had the fastest-selling album of 2012 – Babel – many of them sold in the United States. The world thinks of them as English and folky and doesn’t have a problem with that. So ask yourself: why don’t the English think the same?

Let’s round up the usual suspects: class and post-colonial anxiety about how the rest of the world sees us. UK plc is certainly much more used to serving up comforting dollops of Downton Abbey and The King’s Speech for export than breaking the mould and revealing what we’ve always really been made of, socially speaking. Numerically we’re more Chatsworth estate than Chatsworth, more Baldock than Blenheim Palace. But you might never guess it from the social emphasis of our cultural exports and the scions of great families who populate the pages of our newspapers and glossy magazines. Idealising the hereditary is one of the more obvious ways we maintain our steeply unequal society and reproduce the self-loathing of those required to stay quietly put now, as a nation, we’ve given up on social mobility.

Folk is as much a process and an outlook as a genre, containing a version of this island’s history that wells up like an aquifer from underground, travelling through our roots and filtering through every strata of society. Each traditional folk song was pop once, making folk both sustainable pop music and a vessel for collective memory.

This magazine’s editor, Fraser Nelson, made the point during the preparation of this article that Celtic Connections, Scotland’s annual folk fest in Glasgow, which serves as an international shop window, is only necessary because those ‘connections’ were broken when the music was displaced around the world by emigration. And yet four of the 12 songs on the very English Bellowhead’s bestselling new album, Broadside, are sailing songs.

The misery and poverty of the English working class drove it around the world just as surely as those forces drove the Scottish, Welsh, Irish and Cornish. For every Nova Scotia there is a New England and for every Captain Bligh there were hundreds of press-ganged Englishmen trapped on the King’s ships. While the officer class may have had beautiful homes to return to, millions of others left this land and never returned. Their tales of hope and despair are in this music along with everything else and it’s nothing to be ashamed of.

Moreover, it’s really not a competition about who was the most miserable, simply a matter of telling our island story better, by which I mean more fully and with greater care. Class warfare clouds the issue.

Look at the way the Mumfords are treated on their home turf. Widely despised on the folk scene for being posh boys in a genre where they are the exception rather than the rule, it’s true that they’ve benefited from many of the advantages that an expensive education tends to confer: ready connections in the international music industry – ridiculously, their Wikipedia page says they were once turned away from an otherwise welcoming professional recording studio for not yet owning any musical instruments – and an appreciation of the realities of marketing and marrying well (Marcus Mumford is married to Hollywood actress Carey Mulligan).

But they are also despised because of what they tell the rest of the folk scene about it itself: namely that it’s not that people are uninterested in this music, it’s that you don’t have the social wherewithal to market it effectively yourselves. Ouch.

This is why the BBC Radio Two Folk Awards matter. In them the BBC wields the most powerful tool there currently is for promoting British folk, enabling with public money what Mumford & Sons have done through social connections. It would be nice if the Mumfords actually played there this year or, probably more to the point, if the organisers had the gumption to ask them. (Asking John Leonard, who runs the relevant production company, Smooth Operations, whether this was likely to happen, produced the response that he was sure the Mumfords were too big to be bothered with his small folk awards event. If this had been accompanied by a tug of his forelock and an apology for being no better than he ought to be, I wouldn’t have been at all surprised.)

Moreover English folk music is crying out for its own version of Celtic Connections. At least Scotland has an international showcase for the locals to criticise and the descendants of the ancestors turn up from New Brunswick for a listen. In England the Arts Council’s money for folk and roots is scattered about so many small projects that none of them has the wattage to act as a beacon. In other media – film, television, literature – we proudly export our culture as a lucrative national treasure to the English-speaking world and far beyond. What does it say about us that we ignore folk: are we really so ashamed of our ordinary roots that we’ll allow it to get in the way of a serious business proposition? By contrast, Celtic Connections has kindly invited a delegation from England to Glasgow this year. Last year its ‘foreign’ guest was the Canadian province of Nova Scotia and the year before that Norway. Nuff said really.

So no, the BBC cannot currently be trusted as an arbiter in this situation, not while the suspicion lingers that the folk awards are being used as a financial back-scratching exercise for the corrupt middle men and women of the folk music world who have little interest in celebrating new bands (the BBC freely admits that this year’s 190 – yes, really – anonymous judges were asked because they make their living from the existing folk scene). Likewise the Freedom of Information Act is evidently broken.

So let’s fix these defective institutions and move on. The world deserves to hear more of our astonishing folk talent and these scrappy but world-class musical insurgents should get the international audience they deserve, unencumbered by the leaden weight of institutionalised social prejudice.

Anyone who’s seen the mighty Bellowhead live will be less inclined to regard this as a class-based analysis and more as a self-evident truth.

The BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards are taking place today in Glasgow as part of the Celtic Connections festival. Emma Hartley’s blog, The Glamour Cave, is here.

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Show comments
  • gracie

    I live in the USA. We are always amazed how trendy you are in the UK. I can probably hear more English, Irish and Scottish “folk music” in the Bronx, Bay Ridge Brooklyn, and Kearny New Jersey than I can hear in most parts of the UK. I constantly hear raves about new acts in the UK and 95% of them are the “folk” equivalent of Flock of Seagulls. Mumford and Sons are not considered “folk” here. They are thought of as being like the Decembrists or REM but of lesser talent.The winners of the awards are for the most part highly thought of here especially Nic

  • Andrew McDonnell

    An article on music by the Spectator hiding anti-BBC bias. Gadzooks, who’d have thought it? Also Mumford and Sons are just awful. They use folk to windowdress their vacuity. It’s not about being posh, it’s about not being very original. I’d take a 1000 Alasdair Roberts over them.

  • Susie Stockton-Link

    Whilst not decrying any of the talent suggested by the Invisibles, did anyone ELSE think that the field was rather narrow? I’m a Jim Moray fan… but, like your man in Sussex, out here on the Welsh Marches borders, we know of so many others who we feel should hit that list. Lennie – are you listening?

    I DO think it’s time we Brittunculi had an English / Welsh Folk Connections. “Brittannia Connected”?

    And tell the tv moguls that we’d like to out-Cowell Cowell. We’ll have our OWN televised local & regional heats and ask the punters who they like the best. All competitors to have two hours’ training on how to look good in front of a mike / tv camera.
    And a national razzamatazz final. Marvellous.

    One flies overhead…

  • John De Little

    I have heard many times that the Folk awards are a cosy stitch up; never followed them and not that interested. I run a club in Sussex, and we celebrate local acts, playing to local audiences for …. and this is the word to remember…FUN!!! No pretence, no awards, not a lot of money, but pure enjoyment. Get along to your local folk club / acoustic music venue and support live music, and forget these primadonnas on the Radio!!! Harumph!!!!

  • Bramsley

    Folk music,
    marketing and commercialism should never be bedfellows. Part of the beauty of
    folk music is that it is played and sung by people who love playing and
    singing, or hearing others, and it is part of our heritage, whatever country we
    are from. Its the love of the tradition and the music that keeps folk music
    alive no matter what the financial state of the country – often speaks most
    loudly in the more difficult times. Folk music doesn’t have a ‘star’ system.
    You can talk to your heroes over a pint at the bar, or listen to them play in
    small venues where you don’t need opera glasses or a huge screen to see who is
    on stage.

    Agreed, people need to know the music is there and exposure at any level is
    always good so that they can become aware of it and maybe find things they
    like. But if it were marketed and promoted it would soon become the property of
    those investing in the hype to make money – and these wouldn’t be the people
    who are into folk for the love of it. If it were as widely hyped as pop music –
    then that is what it would become, just another facet of the commercial music

    Part of the problem – the embarrassment at our English culture – is that the
    Media – and therefore those who listen to the Media – seem to believe that folk
    music is only about people singing unaccompanied with their fingers in their
    ears, or dancing outside pubs with ribbons and bells, which is perhaps least accessible
    to those weaned on 3-minute formulated pop songs. Folk music covers a huge
    range of musical styles – bluegrass, country, folk-rock, shanties, protest
    songs, contemporary songs and songs and tunes from centuries ago to the present
    day, played on every kind of acoustic or electric instruments (including
    electric guitars, basses and full drum kits), or with no instruments at all. It
    is difficult to see how anyone who likes listening to music couldn’t find
    something to their taste. But it’s that very diversity that makes it difficult
    for the Media and the music industry to pigeon-hole it for marketing and
    promotion. But if you speak to any of the real musicians in mainstream music,
    most of them will have folky influences somewhere in their past.

    So Folk has its phases – those times when it seeps into popular awareness and
    is suddenly ‘discovered’, becomes ‘flavour of the month’ and everyone is saying
    ‘Why don’t we make more of it’ and those times when it seems to be forgotten,
    and the grass root folk clubs around the country struggle to attract enough
    custom to pay even a small fee to those who are trying to make a living from
    it. But the music and the people will always be there, for the very reason that
    these grass roots people are amateurs and don’t expect to be paid for keeping
    the music going through the hard times.

  • rec

    As a matter of interest, am I the only person who thought Roy Harper was a total embarrassment? Given a (rambling – ‘he was always there’) puff from Michael Eaves, he seems to think himself something of A Legend. He succeeded only in being gratuitously rude about the Scots and their First Minister but, worse, overstayed his welcome. Then I remembered he has often appeared with Tony Benn – another self-appointed ‘Legend’ in his own field. Well matched.

  • zakisbak

    I saw a maiden on the lane,Fair as silk ’twas she,I spied ye captaine in the brig,A’swigging on his brandy,Young Miss I cried,With great alarm,In great danger ye be,She dropped her posie,Twirled about,And this she said to me.A fol de rol,a fol de rol,a fol de rol said she,A fol de rol,a fol de rol ye be……. etc etc etc ad infinitum.
    The horror.
    The horror.

  • Daisy Le Helloco

    I find this piece completely baffling. If you want folk to get more exposure, why not actually write about it, instead of doing this weird marketing pitch? This is the only newspaper/magazine piece I’ve seen about the awards and all you do is drone on about a band that is neither a) folk or b) that good, because they’re already famous. You don’t mention any of the winners except Bellowhead, and you don’t even mention that the latter won an award last night (which, since you think they’re good, should surely please you?). It’s not the BBC ruining folk, it’s that noone else except them pays it any attention at all.

  • Laurence Silvester

    Why not mention some of the festivals in the UK Shrewsbury Folk Festival, Warwick Festival, Sidmouth Festival or Towersy Festival. All of good size and with ages o-100 enjoying themselves with little or no trouble.
    I also believe that Mumford and Sons have turned down a number of these when asked to play

  • eeore

    Freedom of Information requests are rather like ATOS, they exist to turn down applications and serve no public good.

    As for folk music, if it is good it doesn’t need an award, and if it is really good it will not be on the BBC.

  • David Holmes

    Three lifetime awards I am not saying they don’t deserve them, but three, would they not be better spending the time/awards on all that new youing talent.

    • John Phipps

      I understand the nostalgia vote for Nic Jones but just being nominated should have been enough.

  • jm

    Radio 2 – beg ON YOUR KNEES for Mike Harding to come back. I no longer consider you worth listening to.

    • John Phipps

      Or have another folk show to broaden air time. Bring back Lester and Mick. Genevieve Tudor was afraid of being thrown off the air.

  • John Connor

    Steve Knightley – “Roots” – says it all.

    • Emma Hartley
      • Linda Hall

        Agree – and we have an ignorant comment by a government minister to thank for it! Good coming out of bad. :-)

  • telemachus

    Why sack Mike Harding?

  • HooksLaw

    I would not recognise a bit of folk music if it fell off my the Empire State Building and hit me on the head. Music generally.

    But the BBC and awards? I think we can take it as read that the BBC will slant awards committees to suit its cultural and political bias.

    And ‘entertainment’ as far as the BBC goes is to have singing contests for people who cannot sing, dancing contests for people who cannot dance quiz programmes for people who do not know the answers and comedy programmes featuring its closed and favoured group of people who are not funny.

    The BBC has learned that it is easier to expose lack of talent than take the tricky route of nurturing it. I suppose this is because it is full of producers who cannot see beyond their noses

    I know nothing about music but I know enough to know that Cowell has destroyed the pop music industry. I suppose this we can lay at the feet of ITV.

  • disqus_Ew34c0Bcfv

    I don’t think folk music is in competition with the stuff Simon Cowell produces, really. Is it reasonable to expect it to become the mainstream? Why not jazz, say?

    Also: Mumford & Sons aren’t really a ‘folk band’. They trade on a ‘folksy’ image but don’t play any traditional songs, write ballads nor appear to have any roots in the tradition unlike, say, Karine Polwart, who writes. M&S write pop songs and play them with banjos, which is fine if you like that sort of thing, but not really anything to do with folk music. I certainly don’t despise them for their effective marketing, or because they’re posh… I’m completely indifferent to them because they make tedious music.

    I also agree with the poster who says they don’t really need the extra coverage. Fair play to the BBC for inviting Laura Marling along a year or so ago – she’s pretty much in the same boat as M&S and they invited her. Tedious, yes, but it probably pulled in a few teenagers who might have seen something else they liked.

    English folk music has been in the doldrums for years, yes, but for the past five years or so it’s been doing pretty well – flourishing, even. A Celtic Connections equivalent is an interesting idea. The EFDSS is working on an interesting project called The Full English, which is a pretty good start and worth looking at.

    I don’t see how attacking the Folk Awards – the biggest shop window the scene will have all year – helps. Who cares who the judges are? No one makes a fuss about the Brit Award judges, for example. Will you be sending them FOI requests? It’s hardly a surprise that the FA judges work in the industry – and it doesn’t follow that that means they wouldn’t encourage new talent: quite the opposite, I’d have thought. Wouldn’t you want the scene to blossom and develop if your livelihood depended on it?

    It would be a terribly shame if the Folk Awards were cancelled because of this sort of pressure.

    • Jebediah

      The folk scene in England seems very People’s Front of Judea or was it the Judean People’s Front…

    • Terry Collmann

      If there’s nothing to hide, why are they hiding it?

  • BBCwaste

    You have unwittingly uncovered one of the unbelievable FOI derogations the BBC has. It frequently uses and abused the “journalism” defense to avoid many embarrassing FoI requests.

    For example an FoI request into how much the BBC paid annually to fly Stephen Nolan from Belfast (where radio studios sit idle) to Manchester to host his 5Live radio show was refused.

    This was denied on “journalism” grounds, How travel budgets have anything to do with journalism I have no idea, I wasn’t asking for an itemized bill, there was no question of revealing any confidence journalistic sources,

    It was pure obfuscation.

    Thankfully Conservative MP Alun Cairns has a bill before parliament on March 1, to require the BBC to be as transparent as other public service organisations and disclose operating expenditure above £500. I hope that this bill is passed into law and that we see the end of the culture of waste at the BBC.

    Ironic that your FOI request was also denied after the acting DG appeared before the DCMS Select Committee late last year and told MPs that the BBC need to be more transparent.

    Clearly the mandarins in the BBC “Information” Office didn’t get that memo.


    • Emma Hartley

      Thanks for the “unwittingly” 😉 But yes. The folk awards isn’t the only thing at the BBC that’s broken

    • Murun Buchstansangur.

      “Defence” in English. “Defense” is Americanese.

  • In2minds

    We do things differently here thanks to the BBC. In Norway the band,
    Farmers Market, is treated well by the broadcast media, as is Bela
    Fleck and the Flecktones in the USA. We have a lot to learn.

  • Rhoda Klapp2

    I can’t help but feel that having secret judges avoids the problem of judges being subject to campaigning and undue influence from just the evil people in the music industry you are complaining about. The problem of access to backing is not confined to the folk genre. It applies to many others. You just can’t get signed or rely on support from the industry any more. But there are new models. They rely on finding your own audience and building a fanbase through non-traditional means. The BBC is not a player in that, it is part of the old way. Rather than rue its influence, you should celebrate its obsolescence. The music, the performers, they will find a level based on real support. If they deserve it, they will get it. They do not need the gatekeeper of the Beeb, or its irrelevant awards.

    Oh, and if the public like Simon Cowell’s crap, however unacceptable to you, it is arrogant to presume that the thing you like is what they ought to like.

  • Simon HB

    There’s not much space for folk music on Radio 2. Do you really think the best use of the highest-profile slot it gets in the years is giving yet more airtime to Mumford And Sons – or might it make sense to let some artists who don’t have the luxury of a Grammys slot to get some space?

    • Daniel Maris

      All folk is fake but some is more fake than others and Mumford’s mummery is most definitely top of the tree.

    • Emma Hartley

      Having the Mumfords play would attract a new audience to the folk awards, was my point.

      • Rhoda Klapp2

        Emma, your coming back here to respond below the line is truly appreciated.

        • Emma Hartley

          360 degree digital journalist innit :-)

  • Reconstruct

    Good piece. But it’s not surprising that it features the BBC in its familiar role as our own cultural upas tree.

  • Josh Tordoff

    Great piece. Routing for the Roberts siblings myself for best duo and best original song. Oh, and the second Mumford and Sons album is called ‘Babel’, not Babylon. :)

    • Emma Hartley

      It was close though…

      • Chris Morriss

        Mumford and Sons can’t really be called ‘folk’. Even the ‘Smoke Fairies’ are arguably more folky. Eliza Carthy, Katherine Tickell and John Tams certainly can, though they are all in one way or another getting a bit (or more than a bit) long in the tooth now.
        The folk scene will survive though. Who would have thought that the most interesting offering in the adjacent space of ‘Americana’ last year would be from two eccentric but talented sisters from Sweden? (First Aid Kit).

  • monty61

    Great piece. Speaking as a Scot living many years down south it’s hard to fathom the lack of seriousness or respect that England pays its own traditional music and the musicians who play it. It’s a national treasure that ought to be celebrated and supported not least by the national broadcaster.

    As with everything in England I’m sure there’s a class angle to this but it can’t be beyond the wit of man to find a way past this.

    • Fraser Nelson

      Monty, it’s not much better in Scotland – just look at the priorities of the so-called Scottish Arts Council. Acts as if its very title is a contradiction in terms, so it spends millions paying folk to sing songs in German and Italian. Scotland still suffers a “cultural cringe” that the Irish don’t have but we, alas, still do.

      • telemachus

        “It’s called cultural cringe, a condition which can best be described as an acute feeling of embarrassment, reticence and general discomfiture when it comes to the achievements, traditions and in particular, culture of the mother country.”
        Funny this never comes across to we English
        Are you for example ashamed of the Edinburgh Festival?

        • dalai guevara

          No, it is the international attention the Edinburgh Tattoo attracts which you have missed out.

        • John McClane

          Is there really nothing you have an opinion on, tm?

      • Daniel Maris

        Interesting thing about “Irish” folk music. It was invented in the 1950s. Before that no one would have thought of banging a drum with a bone or playing a bouzouki.

      • eeore

        The Arts Council is a total scam.

  • Noa

    “…Folk…is the solution to the problem – musical, cultural and political – of Simon Cowell.”

    And its poor portrayal exposes the role played by a BBC, which cannot be trusted as arbiter in such matters? And so, presumably requires reform.

    Works for me.

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