‘Folk music is part of our nation’s history and evolution,’ says singer, songwriter and professional folk music champion Kellie While.
‘There’s a fantastic history in this country of singing, playing instruments, dancing and customs – it would be a shame for that to be forgotten,’ she continues.
Kellie is assessing the importance of traditional music in Britain, tracing its roots back from the singers and songwriters of today to the men and women who have performed this music in their regional dialects for centuries.
As head of creative at 7digital, she manages the team responsible for delivering the flagship BBC Radio 2 Folk Show and its related annual Folk Awards, and has an encyclopaedic knowledge of our traditional music vernacular.
She’s been steeped in British folk music since birth, so her progression from musician to folk champion has been instinctive.
Her mother is singer songwriter Chris While and her father is a pianist songwriter Joe While, who themselves met in the folk clubs in the north east of England.
In the late nineties, Kellie joined Ashley Hutchings in The Albion Band, and she’s since gone on to write and release her own music, and perform extensively with her mother Chris.
Here, she chats to us for our Folkways feature in the current issue of M magazine about Britain’s precious folk music heritage…
Is the traditional folk vernacular still strong in Britain? If so, where do you hear it loudest?
Yes, it’s still very strong. From my experience, the folk tradition is heard most loudly in Scotland. North of the border, traditional music seems to have a stronger identity and connection to the community than it does elsewhere. We tend to hear a disproportionate number of great albums coming out of Scotland, relative to the size of the population. Also, there’s often a more competitive culture in the Celtic music nations and that encourages more prodigious young instrumentalists. A large percentage of the entries we receive for the BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award are Scottish; likewise, many of the winners of the Horizon category at the main Folk Awards (which we also produce) have been Scots. However, that’s not to say that English, Welsh and Irish folk music isn’t still going strong! It’s found in all parts of Britain, although it does seem that traditions have been preserved more keenly in some areas.
Why do you think it’s important to keep these traditions alive?
Folk music is part of our nation’s history and evolution – it’s part of what traces us to our ancestors. There’s a fantastic history in this country of singing, playing instruments, dancing and customs – it would be a shame for that to be forgotten. Thankfully, there have been people like Cecil Sharp who have traversed the country and collected traditional music to ensure it can be passed down through the generations. These traditions are fascinating, beautiful and British. I believe if people want them to be kept alive, they will survive. I do wonder what will be perceived as ‘traditional’ in 50 or 100 years, and how listeners will view songs that are written in 2016.
Why do you think songwriters and musicians still revisit traditional folk?
I think there are two main reasons. Firstly, learning something entails discovering where it comes from, delving into the history behind it. Songwriters learning their craft naturally want to explore music by other songwriters they admire and, in turn, find out what influenced them. They might look into Bob Dylan’s catalogue and find albums like The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan where tracks are directly influenced by folk songs, some of which he learned on his trip to England in the early sixties. So that leads listeners back to folk songwriting in just one generation. If you look back in musical history, no matter what path you go down, you’ll end up somehow linking back to tradition every time.
The other key element that encourages artists to revisit traditional folk is that songwriters are looking to tell a story – to say something about their life or comment on what’s happening in the world. Traditional folk songs do that best; they are created by ordinary people and relatable for every human being. They’re about everyday struggles, work, love, life and death, and those are experiences that unite all people, no matter who they are or what era they are living in. Layered on top of that is intrigue and drama: affairs, gruesome deaths and the like. We have a hunger for storytelling and that’s what those songs are, so we’ll keep going back to those themes because they’re central to being human.
For me, getting into folk wasn’t a conscious choice – it was just always there. I would be interested to know if I would have found the tradition if I hadn’t been from a folk-loving family. However, there is a definite allure to traditional folk that comes from it having been created and evolving over hundreds of years. It’s part of the fabric of our history, with so much of what has come after based on it, and that in itself is fascinating.
What role does traditional folk play in the acoustic music of today?
There are many artists today who are not only carrying the tradition, but also finding new and inventive ways of presenting those old songs. If we look at the most successful folk artists of the past ten years – people like Bellowhead, Seth Lakeman, Cara Dillon and Eliza Carthy – a significant percentage of their catalogue is derived from the tradition. What they’ve done is presented those songs in an accessible way which has helped that music to cross over to an audience that might not have heard traditional folk songs before.
Some songwriters like Kate Rusby, Emily Portman and Alasdair Roberts are crafting original compositions that are directly influenced by the format and form of traditional songs to the point where you might not know from a casual listen whether it’s traditional or written in the last week. It’s evolved in a really interesting way.