Nearly 300 folk music festivals are taking place in Britain and Ireland this year, according to The Living Tradition magazine.
My local is the Girvan Folk Festival, which takes place during the first weekend of May. It is over 40 years old, but still run, as far as I can judge, on a small budget by a small group of volunteers.
My wife and I have been visiting for about 20 of those years. Among the artists we’ve seen perform at Girvan during that time are: Allan Taylor, Mick West, the Wrigley Sisters, a youthful Blazin’ Fiddles, Davy Steele, Sheena Wellington, Lunasa, Altan, Session A9, Daimh, Alistair Hulett, Calasaig, Sheila Stewart, Roy Bailey, Arthur Johnstone, Gill Bowman, Annie Grace, Ewan McVicar , Emily Smith, Siobhan Miller and Alistair Ogilvy.
Around the time that the Girvan Folk Festival began, many young British musicians were influenced by traditional music: bands such as Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span, Lindisfarne, Gryphon, the Incredible String Band, Horslips. Nowadays, although many young artists play acoustic instruments and are clearly influenced by Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell, fewer are influenced by British traditional music. The folk and pop/rock genres stay distinct.
One impression I have formed about the folk music scene from my 20 years of concert-going at Girvan, plus regular listens to BBC Radio Scotland’s long-running Travelling Folk, is that most of the younger generation of musicians are instrumentalists rather than performers of songs. The latter group, as collectors of traditional material as well as occasional writers, tend to be older. Talisk, recent winners at the Radio 2 Folk Awards and due at Girvan this year, are another example of that tendency.
I once read Dick Gaughan say something (although I can’t find it on the current version of his web-site) to the effect that folk musicians are pushed into song-writing by publishers who want royalties. I wonder if the lure is more likely to come from the example of a few talented and celebrated songwriters from Britain and the USA who have gone before.
One element of the modern folk music scene which I have not seen at Girvan has been the artists who blend traditional and acoustic tunes with dance or electronic rhythms and timbres, such as the Peatbog Faeries, Tuung and the Owl Service. However I do know that this sub-genre has been represented elsewhere in south-west Scotland at the Knockengorroch World Ceilidh which we once visited as part of an Amnesty International stall.
Although The Living Tradition is inclusive enough to name it in their long list, the Knockengorroch event is more a “boutique” (to borrow the modish term) rock festival rather than a folk festival. On my one visit there, the familiar pop/rock audience niceties were being observed. At Girvan, you feel that many people believe that the impromptu passing on of the tradition is one of its most important functions.