Episode 1 Transcript

Episode 1 - Rachel Elliott: The English Folk Dance and Song Society and youth involvement in the folk scene

[This is an edited auto-transcript of the podcast. Although we have tried to make sure it is all accurate be aware that there may be occasional errors in the transcript.]


Welcome to this podcast about participation and access to folk singing in England. My name is Joanie Bones and my name is Oliver Cross. I am primarily a folk musician these days. I play harmonica and Hurdy Gurdy But I also sometimes bring electronic instruments into my practice. I am disabled, and I'm also neurodivergent. And so, increasing access to music, and especially to folk music, not just for disabled people, but for all people is a pretty heavily vested interest of mine. 

I'm Joanie bones, I'm a singer. I sing unaccompanied folk song in the traditional style but I use experimental percussion. I use a loop pedal, and my performances are very performative with a lot of storytelling and people joining in. My mother is from Iran. My father is Jewish and I grew up in London. I recently realised that I too am neurodivergent and I am queer. So again, I'm not exactly your stereotypical folky and have a real deep-seated interest in trying to engage as many people as possible from as many backgrounds in this art form that I truly love. 

We are doing this as part of the Access Folk research project, which investigates ways to increase participation and Diversity in Folk singing in England. The project has just released a first report about the barriers people experience in, getting involved in folk singing, and this podcast will explore this further through interviews with some interesting people in the folk scene. If you want to look at the report yourself, you can download it for free on the project website. The link is in the podcast description.


For this episode. I interviewed Rachel Elliott, the trailblazing education director of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, the national organisation for folk music in England. I asked her about the involvement of young people in folk music in England today.


So the first thing I'm going to ask you is the simplest question of all, who are you? And what do you do?


My name is Rachel Elliot and I am the education director at the English Folk Dance and Song Society,


Wonderful and can you tell me more about sort of what your job entails within that?


Yes, it entails a lot of things essentially, I've got overall responsibility of the English Folk Dance and Song Society's learning program, which includes the National Youth folk Ensemble, it includes lots of activities at Cecil Sharp House, our choir, our adult learning, it includes London youth  folk ensemble. Our Inclusive Folk program for learning disabled young people, the Folk Education Network, which is a national network of folk educators that runs events around the country. Our dance development activities, producing learning resources, working with schools, working with music hubs, running all kinds of creative projects and essentially that is it, and advocating for folk music and dance, in particular within learning and participation


Your current practice and your work connects a lot with young people, and communities of young people. What sort of barriers and challenges frequently come up with the young people you're working with? Is it actually accessing folk music, whether it's song or dance or instrumental?


Yeah, I think the the main barriers are probably with the young people that were not working with. Which is obviously the absolutely vast bulk of the population. So say the barriers for most young people is , they don't know what folk song is they've never been exposed to it; and they don't have good access points for it; or they'll have very, to be honest, negative views of what it might be, you know, "folk, that old stuff that we're not really interested in", so it's attitudinal barriers. I would say. Yeah. So obviously we've done a lot of work with our online Resource Bank and we have an incredible range of really high-quality folk song resources for different ages of young people and sectors of education, including disabled young people and those in SEND school settings. So we're trying to sort of make high-quality inspiring, engaging relevant resources available and then, you know, deliver projects where we can. The biggest project we were able to deliver was the full English back in 2012, 2014, which was quite a large scale project. So, and it's working in partnership. So, we've worked with the Model Music Curriculum, we worked with the ABRSM with their new online classroom 200 resource. So, we really try to work with sort of bigger partners that have a wider reach in terms of reaching educators and young people. So think. Yeah. The way to summarize, it's lack of knowledge, lack of exposure and it's also prejudice.


I suppose this next question is kind of putting you on the spot a bit .


That's fine.


I hope it is not too much, but what would you sort of say, so certainly within the sort of circles you work in, what do you say the current state of progress is in making folk more accessible? And what do you think is the sort of next steps on the path?


I think there's a lot more to be done. I think there's some really good work going on in different places. If we're talking about young people, if we're talking about more broadly, then I think the growth of the community choir movement is fantastic, and it has a really important part to play in all this because there are more and more Community choirs and, you know, some of them are singing more English, let's call it that repertoire. I mean, our own choir is a, we feel ,is really important part of that. So Cecil Sharp House Choir, you know, for example, they're going to be performing in Trafalgar Square at the Feast of Saint George. They have a really Innovative sound. They've got a very highly skilled choir leader. I think this is important. I think the people leading this need to be really good at what they're doing. So, we're fortunate with Rose Martin. She's a brilliant choir leader, she's selecting an interesting repertoire and thinking about that, and how its framed, and how its presented. So, it's quite a big deal for us to be able to do that. And then they'll also be performing at a Young a free outdoor Festival in Kings Cross in the summer. So we're trying very much to sort of Reach people who are not already involved in folk. Much as it's very fun, singing at folk festivals and it's very gratifying and our choir love it, It's basically reaching people who already love folk so it's not really helped move it forward as much. So, we're very keen as much as we can to get as high profile as we can performing in non folk setting. So, we're reaching a wider range of people to try to draw them in


As you have the National Youth folk Ensemble, would you say that there's, for instance, a call for something along the lines of a National Folk Choir?


Possibly. I think, what you need to know is that when we were setting up the National Youth Folk Ensemble, we did a really careful consultation exercise. So we put a lot of energy into asking the sector what they thought and that report is on our website and the whole mapping exercise that we did. I think yeah, we need to think about that but then also equally we were able to start the National Youth Folk Ensemble because there already were instrumental groups in existence like Folkestra and the Fosbrooks  and so on, and we just spoke to them. So we were able to build on an infrastructure or an ecology that was already there. Whereas I don't see that with folk singing. Having said that there are lots of youth choirs and some of it they will sing is folk repertoire.


So, would you say then the sort of call for creating the atmosphere of folk song sessions, but more catered towards young demographic, sort of family groups instead?


Yeah possibly, I mean I personally would like to run some really exciting projects using folk song and with other genres and in partnership with other organizations and really do some Innovative stuff. I just don't have the resources to do it, but that's what I'd like to do. I'd like to, kind of, explore some models of how this could work because I think, yeah, it's sort of R&D [Research and Development] in a way and approach it, very creatively. Obviously, you know, one of the reasons we start the Inclusive Folk project is because we all know there are barriers to Folk for disabled people and particularly learning disabled young people and those with complex needs. Absolutely. So that, you know, We're very glad that we've done that and it's really flourishing and we want to build and we want to do more of that work. That's, that's really important to us and yeah, like I said, I would love to do more creative folk song projects with the Resource Bank and we did a great project in Essex, and that was commissioned by Essex Music Education Hub, and we worked in schools across Essex and it was a really creative and exciting project and, you know, we created great resources for them to now use within their county. So I'd like to do a lot more of that and it is resource dependent. So that's the other, obviously part of my job is contributing to getting the resources to do these things and it has to be said, it's getting harder and harder to achieve funding. Because funders are not particularly interested in any genre, they don't really care, what they care about is the sort of social outcomes or, you know, and particularly focusing on people in need in some way or people in challenging circumstances. So you know, that's an interesting thing for people in folk to think about, you'll be rare to find a funder who's actually particularly cares about what.. well there aren't any that care about folk, particularly they don't necessarily care about any genre of music. It's what that music is going to do for the participants, how it's going to help their lives. That's the way sort of kind of funding has definitely moved. You know, as our society becomes more unequal, then charitable funders are looking to plug those gaps in different ways. And if folk can fit into that and I think it can,  that's a wonderful thing about folk singing. It's about telling people stories, and it can give voice and creative folk [song] writing is a fantastic vehicle for young people to express themselves. So that's the kind of thing. I personally would like to be able to do a lot more of. So yeah, there we go. I think that's it's been a pleasure to talk to you Oliver.




That was so interesting.


It was


It sounds as like, she's done so much work across so many platforms to really try and get folk songs to be taken up more widely. And yet to hear of the struggles even within the institutions.




That we think of, that I thought of like "oh they have like big pots of money and they can they like..." no, it's not the case. It's a struggle.


I think the first thing I latched on to, probably because of my work in sort of music education, is the idea of funding and how the shift has gone from a focus on Excellence or the sort of idea of Excellence, to actually the benefit and effect that it has from the social point of view. And for the community point of view, especially when the focus for funding is moving towards inclusion and making Society more equal. I think that's a very interesting thing and I think that ties in quite a bit to some of the other issues that we'll be discussing it later episodes. For instance, the fact that in a lot of folk ensembles. Are you get people from those specific demographics? For instance, you have some folks ensembles which are very much white middle-class already, a family background in folk music. There's not really a lot of diversity in there. From what I can tell. what's, what are your thoughts of this sort of thinking?


I mean, I also was really struck by what she said about funding because I think I had in my mind this idea or belief that the English Folk Dance and Song Society themselves were a funder, now of course they do get out funds but I had  not made, hadn't understood that actually, they have to receive it from somewhere else first, and I was really struck, like, by this understanding that, "oh, there's nobody out there, specifically caring for folk music in England". And that's quite a thing. I think to sit without, like no one's out there is kind of really, kind of, supporting and thinking like, "we have a remit to make sure that this genre of music, which is, you know, traditional in this land is supported". Yeah I  feel quite sad actually about that.


It's definitely an interesting subject to discuss. And I'm not sure entirely how I feel about it myself. It is very interesting what she said about yeah, the very foundation for a lots of this education, a continuation of particularly the traditional folk song being in singing groups, especially how, you know, a few generations ago. It was you know part of the education system to have various folk songs actually sung and taught to Children. The older people the older generations in folk groups, and singing groups will have grown-up singing. A lot of these folk songs because they were part of what they learned as kids, you had some books newspapers, you had the teaching of singing in schools and indeed, there is still a little of that today, but I think I find it very interesting that the responsibility for carrying this tradition is now with these groups rather than you know, education system


Yeah, I mean, my dad talks about the National Song Book, and I remember years ago, I actually managed to find a copy of it on eBay, the Nationals Song Book, which all kids in England had, and I was at folk club last night in London and actually one of the songs, the group sang they introduced the saying, every, it was a Scottish woman. She said, "everyone in this audience who is English , will know this song", I didn't know it. I had to be taught it, "of a certain age" because, you know, we didn't have that in Scotland. So it's a really good point. The National Song Book and the fact that there are all these young people, like she said, I really struck me, she talks about lack of knowledge, lack of exposure and prejudice and it reminded me of two things. One is, about a month or two ago Eliza Carthy was on the radio. She said something, she said, you know, as far as she's concerned access to folk music is all about, just making sure people have exposure and she said in her experience, there's no one once you stick them in front of a folk band, they don't like it. And I had to think to myself. "You know what Eliza I wish that were the case" because I was remembering a couple of years ago, I have three very musical nieces and nephews, they've, grown up and, you know, in the kind of yeah, they're very musical and had access to a lot of music education. And I sang them one of my favourite songs. Do you know the song? The King of Rome


I do know the King of Rome


The one about the pigeon?


I do. I live in Lancashire. I cannot not know something about pigeons.


Oh well, and isn't it a fine song? I'd like to know some other songs about the pigeons, please tell me all of that. But this is the only song about pigeons. I know the King of Rome and about a carrier, a racing pigeon. And I sang it to my niece's thinking, you know, they will be so moved by this extraordinary moving story of the love between a man and his pigeon. And at the end, the eldest knees, she just burst out laughing and, you know, I was a bit mortified but I got over that. And when I sat with myself and I thought, what's going on here? Why is she, why is she laughing at this song? I realised she will have no experience of such a subject matter as being kind of subject matter for a song. You know, the story song that we are so familiar with in the folk tradition for all those young people and older people who aren't familiar with it. It's pretty weird to start with. It's not what then what they used to. So, I think her point about exposure to folk song, different to folk music because she makes an interesting point about, you know, there seems to be a lot of much more uptake of instrumental folk music, but you know we are interested in hearing how we get these songs out there. And yeah, I was just really, you know, it was interesting to realize that folk songs, the way songs are presented and carried the, you know, the ballads without a chorus. I remember singing a song recently to a pal that she was like, "oh, it'd be much better if you stuck a chorus in it".


I think is quite interesting what you said about your nieces, because I think there's that kind of ties in with my experience a little bit because I first heard that song when I was quite young and for me it had a sort of family connection because my, my my granddad actually used to keep pigeons when he was younger, long before I was born, but he used to keep it when keep it just when he was younger and it was very much I think that was more commonly done particularly in the north. So I think it's quite interesting because you've also got this thing about songs and subject matter. You know the majority of almost all of the folk songs that we have you know the the latest that we have for a lot of them are, you know, late 19th century early 20th century and so there's a sort of cultural background to those songs as well, that I think would be lost on younger people.


I'm aware there in terms of young people and folk music. What are we talking about young? Because when I go to a folk club in London, which is a City full of young people, millions of them literally, I'm often the youngest person there and I am 43, but you know going back to Rachel's interview when she's talking about the community choirs, the club I found in London with the youngest attendance, is actually associated to a choir. So there's a choir called the Morris Folk Choir and they run a monthly folk club and it has by far the youngest attendance of people of any folk club I have been to and also, I have noticed that the clubs were the younger attendees seem to be run by younger people as well. And when I say young and I am talking about people kind of in their forties and because I know when I was in my early twenties and I was wanting to get into folk singing and I came to London at that point and I went, I got really excited and I went to these folk clubs and I was quite stunned and saddened by to discover that there were mostly people in their sixties then, they're a lot older now. And, and it is the same now. And at that point, I think, if you haven't been to, you know, some people, they go to college and they said they go to UNI and they do. It felt good degree and so, they're really network there. But if you're actually just someone who wants to do folk singing because you love folk singing and you're younger than let's say, 60, it's very easy and not to mention all the other barriers that you've already mentioned. And that we're going to talk about a lot more in detail in the other episodes.


It's hard to kind of find a place that one feels comfortable. You know.


It is a sad situation in that we are slowly seeing the numbers of people and folk groups decline, of course, because of that sort of aging population. And if if we can manage to remove some of the other barriers on the sort of intersection or level with folk music then hopefully with a wider sort of range of musicians out there and a wider range of groups out of people doing folk music out there. It's my hope that more young people will be able to get in there because folk music, sadly institutionally can be so exclusive. You know, it's hard to get other adults into folk music, let alone young people I suppose.


And I was encouraged by, we were both at this really great Symposium recently in Sheffield as part of this project and there were a fair number of youngish people and they were, they were pretty cool. And then I have to say, you know, folk music, at least in the last few decades hasn't necessarily been associated with being pretty good, like cool and hip in terms of even what people look like. These things do matter, don't they? And it was great to see people like Maddie Morris and George Sansom and people who they just look really cool, you know . It's alright for Eliza Carthy because you know she's got her blue hair and she looks really Punky. But in a way I think you know with her lineage you could probably get away with anything if you're if you're if you're trying to become established in something, I think for a long time the folk scene or the folk singers that make it you know the women all  have... This is my impression as a kind of you know dark-haired low-voiced Londoner, ... like the women all seem to have long hair and these high nice voices, and a bit of me, just goes like "uugh,  where's like, where's the grit? Where's the grooviness?" And so, yeah, I do feel like there is some people coming into it now, who are really darn cool  and I have to say that I'm excited by that.


Yeah, I agree.


This podcast was presented by Oliver Cross and Joanie Bones and produced by Esbjorn Wettermark and Rowan Piggott. It was funded as part of the Access Folk research project at the University of Sheffield with additional funding from the University's Public Engagement Development Fund.