FolkWorld #61 11/2016
© Editorial by Seán Laffey

The F Word

Alan Lomax

Artist Video Alan Lomax:

Over entertained and under informed could be the motto for the times we live in. We have no end of diversion in our pockets, from free sports on the mobile to movies on your tablet, being on-line, always connected and in touch is the social crisis that many people, especially young adults face.

In this new cyber age we lose our secret identities and become brands of ourselves, we watch what we want and believe what we believe, often without the challenge of fact. Op Ed masquerades as news and experts with agendas to peddle are wheeled out as surrogates to truth, seldom having the wisdom or opportunity to look at a problem from all angles.

The counter argument of course is we often turn to cyberspace for our daily dose of the stuff we like, whether that be Donegal fiddling, a look at rare archive footage from Fleadhs in the fifties or online interviews with players who tell us about their back stories and their arcane methods of making music.

Ewan MacColl

Artist Video Ewan MacColl:
FW#6, #35, #47, #59

Surfing for authenticity is the key here, and it is a concept not without its problems. For example, revisionists are looking closely at the work of Alan Lomax, a man who can be accused (often in a nice way) of inventing American Folk music. His field recording set the standard for what was considered folk in the 1940's, it is a legacy we are still challenged by today.

A contemporary of Lomax was Ewan MacColl whose life has been celebrated in a special concert at Dublin's National Concert Hall on October 11th. MacColl was a complex character, with strong opinions, both political and cultural, but there is no denying his ability as a song-writer. His Shoals of Herring, School Days Over, The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face and Dirty Old Town have all become folk revival classics.

They also set the bench mark for folk music to be more than entertainment. In MacColl's world folk music had meaning and purpose, it was rooted in the trials and travails of ordinary lives, a shorthand writing of the small history of the human condition, it knew no barriers of ethnicity, race or geography, folk music could speak to all those who took the time to listen. His own music was made for the message not the money.

The Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem

Artist Video Tommy Makem:

Lomax was working chiefly with the rural poor of the southern states of the USA; MacColl set his terms of reference as the marginalised working class poor of the industrial cities of Britain. Song in Ireland doesn't quite match either of those paradigms. As Tommy Makem said, 'Songs run in our family like a wooden leg'. Song in Ireland has many facets; it can speak to us of culture, reflect history and ambition for a better future, look to liberty and self determination or fall back into better entrenchment.

What was funny or acceptable to one generation may be either distasteful or simply bemusing for the next. Songs shift with the times, they enjoy periods of fashion and fade, and other songs persist, despite there being better material in the filing cabinet. A singer who plays to the gallery and feeds off easy applause is seldom progressing artistically, but those songs keep the tills ringing in bars up and down the land, and why would a singer deviate from what works?

So we raise a glass to those individuals who move above the ordinary herd and make music that is both familiar and strange. Catch the best of all worlds at Sligo Live, immerse yourself in authentic traditions at the Return To Camden Town Festival, why not go north for the full nine yards of Irish culture at Oulu in Finland, or west for a milestone moment at the Celtic Colours Festival in Cape Breton? If you want to hear something authentic, visit the Cork Folk Festival and listen in on a singing circle chaired by Jim Walsh. All of those will be grand nights for sure, yes you will be entertained, but better still, you will be informed.

Enjoy our 'show and tell culture' ... Slán, Seán Laffey

First published @ Irish Music Magazine #255, October 2016 (

Photo Credits: (1) Alan Lomax, (2) Ewan MacColl & Peggy Seeger, (3) The Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem (unknown/website).

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