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Ian Anderson

The Editor's Box

Ian Anderson's comment column

Welcome to the annual Festival Issue. There’s something about completing this one which makes it feel like winter’s on the way out. And as befits the theme, this month we concentrate on what might be called ‘festival bands’ – those bigger line-ups who bring joy to major events and probably are only able to exist in these difficult times because of the larger stages, better technical facilities and (most importantly) budgets that festivals can provide.

We also take our annual look at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards nominees ahead of the gong-giving bash on 5th April. More steam than usual was generated on social media when this year’s list was revealed, caused by the very high – some said disproportionate – Scottish/’Celtic’ content. It started numerous discussions about whether English music would be helped by its own equivalent to the Scottish ‘Na Trads’, which in turn benefit from local Scottish radio and TV support of their musical traditions which simply doesn’t exist in England.

While Scottish folk music gets plenty of the respect and exposure it deserves at home, England gets to share one measly hour per week on ‘national’ radio with the rest of the UK. Which would be fine if the English regions did their bit, but they largely don’t. Compare the South West’s 9.3 percent of the UK population or the Midlands’ 16.8 percent with Scotland’s 8.9 percent and you can then see why English folk musicians feel hard done by as well as proportionately unrepresented. That’s even before you bring into play the factor that voting in the Folk Awards now takes place during the prime enthusing/schmoozing time of Celtic Connections… Here at fRoots, we know how the proximity of such showcase events can change things: we’ve regularly seen a ‘Womex effect’ on early November votes in our annual Critics’ Poll. And talking of which, don’t start me on the historical omission of English music from Womex…

But how would an English event work without it being labelled as ‘racist’? How could the guidelines be constructed without ending up in an endless and ugly ‘what is English folk?’ debate or having tokenist ‘other’ categories? Because England, much more than Scotland, has a wonderfully mongrel cultural mix, historically. How far back do you go? Where did all those polkas and waltzes and accordeons come from?

Songs sung in English? – that seems fairly uncontroversial. Traditional songs or tunes learned from sources living or who lived in England? – no problem there. Songs or tunes newly written in England with roots in any musical tradition found here? Songs or tunes from other traditions that have become naturalised? (Bampton Morris have long danced to a tune now known as The Italian Job thanks to Mr Stradling.) Musicians born in England or with permanent residence here? And then leave it to a sensible and wide-ranging enough voting academy who can use common sense gut-feeling (having been given pro-active guidelines but not hard-and-fast rules). Would all that be enough to ward off people who want to knee-jerk accuse it of being racist while preventing it from being co-opted by people who really are?

Ian Anderson

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