Your five-step guide to being a folk expert

21 October 2015

There are an estimated 500 folk clubs in Britain – full of fun, friendship and great music. If you want to join in but don’t know your sea shanties from your Mumford and Sons, follow our easy guide.

1. What is folk music?

Folk music is traditional working-class music - songs sung by labourers in the fields, fishermen, even prisoners, about the conditions they live in and the lives that they led. 

Many teem with love and death, turn events of their times into poetry, or turn stories into fantasies, sometimes with a whiff of myth. 

No subject is off-limits in a folk song: adultery, murder and incest all feature - although sea shanties are often joyous. Imagine tabloid news sung by someone who's had a few shandies, with choruses to sing along to. 

Read more about the resurgence of folk in the UK's 21st-Century folk clubs

2. The very brief history of folk music 

Folk music began whenever people started inventing and singing songs to pass the time, so no-one knows its exact origins. 

But it started to be treasured in the early 20th century, with figures like musician Cecil Sharp and composer Vaughan Williams transcribing folk songs from ordinary people. 

Once recording technology became transportable, archivists like Alan Lomax started committing this music to tape, and programmes made about these songs inspired the folk revival of the late 1950s. British folk clubs blossomed as a result, and their influence fed into rock and pop: Bob Dylan and Paul Simon started their careers in these venues in the early 1960s.

Read more - festivals for the over 50s

3. Folk singers to namecheck

You might not get many brownie points for mentioning obvious people like Mumford and Sons to any folkie friends. 

But you should get an appreciative nod for listing current names such as singer Shirley Collins, who was at the forefront of the 1960s English folk revival, the husky, northern Norma Waterson, her husband Martin Carthy. 

Folk became cool again in the 2000s, thanks to American folk-influenced artists like Joanna Newsom and Devendra Banhart, and Dartmoor-based folkie hunk Seth Lakeman. 

But be warned: ‘folk’ is an epithet often wrongly ascribed to musicians who are singer-songwriters (see Laura Marling: she has a folk sound, but her music is definitely not folk, because it doesn't take traditional songs as its source material). 

Excellent new folkies (i.e. musicians who sing the original songs) include Scottish singer Alasdair Roberts, young folk-rock group Trembling Bells and the Mercury Prize-nominated Sam Lee.

4. Best British folk clubs 

As recommended by folk renowned folk musicians Jackie Oates and Belinda O'Hooley

5. Best folk festivals

  • For folk's three-day Glastonbury, there's the fabulous Cambridge (late July). 

More traditional week-long celebrations are at: 

Boutique festival-lovers should try: 

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The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.