Chris Wood, and the cult of classification

‘Oh, so you’re a folkie!’

As pigeonholes go, it’s one of the least satisfactory. On the one hand highly prescriptive – evoking a narrow-minded gallery of bearded, finger-in-the-ear, ale-drinking stereotypes – the term is also ludicrously unspecific. I could be all or any of the following: a trad song-and-tune obsessive, a ceilidh maniac, a nu-folk fan, a highly-politicised lover of protest songs, a dubious Summerislander (above), or simply an admirer of any music that is somehow acoustic and/or authentic. And those are just the top-level categories; there are plenty more crevices in between. (For the record, I’m a trad man.)

The point is, ‘folk’ simultaneously means everything, nothing, and something. And that, in its way, is brilliant. Few things fly more stupidly in the face of music’s quicksilver, abstract appeal than the urge to classify people’s tastes to within an inch of their lives. As someone whose musical upbringing was entirely indiscriminate, I should really be delighted to see such a trotted-out term as ‘folk’ teetering on the edge of meaninglessness. And yet, for some reason, I still find myself occasionally caught up in – and confused by – the schizophrenia of being a ‘folkie’.

Why is this? A comparison with pop points the way. Like folk, pop is both somewhat unfashionable and ridiculously all-embracing. A critical difference, however, is that pop fans tend just to get on with enjoying the music, and any attempts at taking ‘pride’ in their passion are invariably tongue-in-cheek. Partly this is because fashions change, leaving no grand ‘tradition’ to cling on to; partly it’s because pop never benefits from being taken too seriously. Most of all, though, it’s because pop-lovers simply take too much pleasure from poking fun at the pomposity of other genres.

And therein lies the rub. Because folk can sometimes feel like one of those self-important styles. Even though most of the trad stuff I love is irreverent, hilarious and as plain as pop in its emotional power, the ‘folk’ label is too often worn as a badge of honour. And although I don’t mind if people mistakenly think I love Mumford and Sons, or that I know my ‘do-si-dos’ from my ‘willow-stripping’, I become just a little bit self-important myself when people think I’m making some kind of statement with my tastes.

It’s for this reason that I occasionally strop off Twitter when folk artists criticise their pop counterparts for miming, or make blanket statements about the supremacy of ‘live’ music, as if there’s no merit in musicians using computers to realise their sonic imaginings. And it’s also for this reason that I flinch – or, more typically, go to the beer tent – when I’m at a folk festival, and a singer-songwriter with a political bent takes to the stage.

It’s nothing to do with political convictions. Most of the time I’m too busy dithering anyway – too able, like the novelist I am, to see both sides of an argument. But even when I applaud the singer’s sentiment, I feel the same irritation. It’s not the politics I dislike so much as the mob mentality: the presumption that I share a certain conviction, and the pride which that arouses in me; the pride that wants to protect my individualism and, more pretentiously, the complexity and diversity of other people’s opinions.

All of which, naturally, has the potential to backfire in a big way.

A case in point is Chris Wood. When I first encountered the Kentish troubadour a few years back – at festivals in Hertfordshire and Cambridge – I was listening with prejudice. Given the superficially political slant of a lot of his songs, and the reception they received, my pride told me to resist. Rather than hearing the songs as they were, I heard what I expected to hear from another tub-thumping run-of-the-mill folkie. In particular, I interpreted his masterpiece ‘Hollow Point’ as a splenetic, thoughtless tirade against the police who shot Jean Charles de Menezes, and Tony Blair’s warmongering government – possibly justified, but lacking the subtlety needed to raise it above ‘playing to the gallery’.

It was only later, after being disarmed by the world’s best fish-n-chip-shop-love-song, that I reconsidered his more overtly political numbers – whereupon I didn’t just fall in love, but recognised his greatest strengths to be exactly what I thought were absent: nuance, depth, and a determination to acknowledge different sides of complex arguments. Heard through fresh ears, ‘Hollow Point’ became exactly as ambiguous as I’d wanted it to be; a trait that will doubtless be evident in his upcoming album None the Wiser – the title alone confirming  just how off the mark I was.

For me, it’s a cautionary tale, and a further reminder of why the slippery game of genre classification is for mugs – prone to raise false, prejudicial expectations on all sides, and so imperil the discovery of artists you might really love.


Posted on February 15, 2013, in Folk music, Music and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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