Where are we now?
In England today, folk singing is an expressive way for people to connect with their cultural heritage. Different people engage with English folk singing in different ways, such as joining folk clubs, community choirs, going to private parties, listening to CDs and more recently through online platforms such as zoom or tiktok. Although folk singing is often considered accessible and open by musical insiders, in practice, participation can be riddled with intricacies and unwritten rules, making it difficult for new people to simply “join in”.
Since the height of the folk revival in the 1960s, we’ve seen a major decline in folk clubs and fewer people taking part in other folk singing events in England. There is little indication that many new people are finding their way into folk singing communities. With Brexit and growing discussions of the impact of colonialism and empire on culture and national identities, it is also a time for many people to question what Englishness is and how they can connect positively with this national cultural identity.
What is the point of Access Folk?
For folk singing to remain relevant in 21st century England, new singers and enthusiasts need to engage with both the music and the meaning of a shared English identity. To that end, the Access Folk research project explores ways to increase and diversify participation in folk singing in England.
The project is built on co-production principles - this means that instead of academics leading how the work is conducted, the people who will be most affected by the results are given power in directing the research questions and are key decision makers about how the project’s resources are used. Access Folk will not only address the needs of existing musical communities but serve as an opportunity to meet the needs of a wider population seeking fulfilling leisure activities that align with their values.
The purpose of Access Folk is to understand:
What is the place of folk singing in contemporary England?
How do people want to engage with English cultural traditions through song?
How can we facilitate participation in folk singing in England?
These questions will be developed further as we progress and adapt to the different groups’ needs.
Who will be involved?
Folk singers and folk song audiences
People who might like to get involved in folk singing
People who work in the folk arts, either professionally or voluntarily
People who work in the wider cultural sector, either professionally or voluntarily, who might like to get involved in folk singing activities
Academics at the University of Sheffield and other institutions
What is Access Folk expecting to do?
The Access Folk project will:
Gather data about existing folk singer’s experience and aspirations for the future
Gather data on attitudes about folk singing from those who don’t currently participate.
Identify the issues faced by specific sectors of society and how they impact on folk singing activity.
Design new event models and test them out.
Evaluate the impact of these activities.
Support a community of people interested to be engaged in research in contemporary folk music.
How will this be done?
The whole project follows a Co-production approach. This means that the people who will be most affected by the findings are involved in the decision making, delivery and sharing results as part of the project’s research community. This will happen through: a Board holding overall responsibility for the project rather than a single academic or institution; dedicated consulting groups of experts sharing their knowledge and guiding the research; and reaching out to many people to help us gather data through designing and running events, conducting interviews and helping to build databases of information.
What does Access Folk hope to achieve?
Once the Board is established the specific outcomes will be refined, but we broadly hope to create a change in how folk singing happens in England. This may include changes in attitude towards English folk music and changes in how some folk singing events are organised and presented. Ultimately we want more, and more diverse, people singing.
How long will it take?
The project is funded for five years 2022-2027. It comes in three phases:
1) Understanding where we are, Identifying the problems, questions to ask and methods to use to get answers.
Recruiting a project Board and participants to our consulting groups and surveys.
A survey of folk song contexts in England before the pandemic; a snapshot of the folk song scene over two months at the start of 2020.
A survey of existing folk singers to understand their experience and how they would like their folk singing community to look in the future.
Interviews with people who don’t currently engage with folk singing to capture their experiences, thoughts about and desires to get involved in folk singing.
Six consulting groups with expert knowledge from different parts of society will produce reports outlining what we already know, how we know it and what we don’t know in relation to access and inclusion in English folk singing.
Establish a research community interested to explore questions related to the project.
The Board will look at the findings from these activities and create specific research questions and methods for phase 2…
2) Developing and testing new approaches
Creative projects will be designed and delivered in various sites across England. These will build on the findings in Phase 1 to investigate one or more of the research questions and test new ideas. The activities will be documented and reflected upon, then altered and redelivered over a period of time to refine and test different approaches.
Folk singers will reflect on how they portray or understand Englishness through their creative practice.
The project’s research community will provide ongoing feedback on project plans and outputs.
3) Assessing impact, analysing and sharing findings
All the information we gather will be analysed by academics, the people who delivered the projects and the project’s research community.
The findings will be shared in lots of ways, targeted at different audiences, including: academic papers, ‘how to’ guides, policy documents, events, talks, performances, social media and by word of mouth.