Digital Folk: intro/findings quick video

As I continue to work on the book, here’s a video introducing the principles of the Digital Folk project, along with a few of the headline “findings”…

Check out the video for detail, but those headlines go like this:

a) digital media and technologies are used prolifically in the pursuit folk and traditional arts participation, and have been for a long time. But

img_8397.jpg

b) there’s still a clear sense that ‘folk’ is something that happens offline. What happens online (or using digital technologies) is generally considered ‘behind-the-scenes’ support for facilitating live and relatively unmediated interactions.

c) digital media is understood as the trappings of everyday, vernacular life, rather than something fundamentally innovative. In this way, the modernity of digital media and the perceived antiquity of folk arts (as contents or processes) are reconciled.

d) there are more direct recommendations relating the nuts and bolts of developing/sustaining/targeting online digital resources for folk arts participants in our Digital Folk Report

There’ll be more to come as the work progresses, I’m sure!

 

 

 

Symposium: Participatory Arts in the Digital Age

27th November 2015, 10am – 5pm
University of Sheffield,
The Engineering Faculty Boardroom, Mappin Building, S1 3JD

The first in a series of research events from Digital Folk – a two year research project that examines the ways in which folk arts participants use digital resources.

Marking the mid-way point of this AHRC-funded project, this symposium will explore
how digital media and technologies have IMG_0916affected the ways in which people
experience and engage with participatory arts. Delegates will be invited to question the ways in which – and the extent to which – the establishment of the digital era has transformed and/or conserved  vernacular creative practices across forms such as music, dance and theatre. We will consider how and whether the involvement of digital technologies in these contexts have led to (e.g.):

  • the innovation of co-creative techniques;
  • access to/attraction of new participants;
  • the generation of new meanings;
  • other transformations, disruptions and changes;
  • the consolidation of pre-digital practices and communities.

Speakers will include:

  • David Gauntlett (University of Westminster – Media, Art and Design)
  • George McKay (University of East Anglia – Media Studies)
  • Sita Popat (University of Leeds – School of Performance and Cultural Industries)
  • Kerry Schaefer (University of Exeter – Drama)
  • Henry Stobart (Royal Holloway – Music)

Chair: Simon Keegan-Phipps (University of Sheffield)
Discussant: Nikki Dibben (University of Sheffield)
Event Organiser: Cinzia Yates (University of Sheffield)

The event is free, but places are limited, so please sign up at https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/digital-folk-symposium-27-nov-2015-tickets-18778516047

The project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, and hosted by the University of Sheffield in collaboration with the University of Westminster. More information can be found at  www.digitalfolk.org

Contacts:

Simon Keegan-Phipps (Principal Investigator): s.keegan-phipps@sheffield.ac.uk
Cinzia Yates (Research Associate): c.yates@sheffield.ac.uk
David Gauntlett (Co-Investigator): d.gauntlett@westminster.ac.uk

Follow us on:
Twitter: @DigitalFolkProj
Facebook: /DigitalFolkProj

Digital Folk

The study of digital media and creative culture: why the folk arts are a special case (3) Innovation and tradition

In this series of posts, I’m trying to work through some of the key differences between the folk arts and other types of creative activities when their participants are studied in terms of online/digital communities. Having written about the issues surrounding transmission and community in my two previous posts, in this post I’m going to grapple (very briefly!) with the strange antagonistic (or complementary) forces of innovation and tradition.DigiFolk_1_edit1

My contention here is that folk/traditional activities might differ significantly from some of the creative practices that are often discussed by scholarship on digital culture, for the following reason: much of that scholarship concentrates on exploring — and celebrating — the potential for collaborative innovations to occur via (specifically online) digital media. The interesting “problem” for the Digital Folk project is that, in the world of the folk arts, every impulse to innovate disrupts or clashes with an opposing (often stronger) impulse to do something precisely because it has been done for a long time (for some people, the older the tradition, the better!). Conservation may not be a primary or explicit motivation for all participants in the folk arts (in fact it certainly isn’t), but there is a very common desire to enact a respect for — and celebration of — cultural expressions rooted in the past. When I have interviewed people about why they take part in their particular folk activity, they often start by explaining their enjoyment in terms of artistic aesthetics, social relationships, and so on; but it doesn’t take long before they express their satisfaction at playing their part in the upkeep of a tradition.  And the concept of “heritage” — particularly zeitgeisty at present — is never far away.

The “tradition” aspect may be located in a particular unit of traditional material (e.g. a song, a tune, a dance, a story, etc.), but it may also be a way of engaging with material (e.g. a style of singing, playing a tune on a particular instrument, wearing a traditional costume, etc.). At least one of these categories is evoked in any folk arts activity, and very often both. OK, there are plenty of (e.g.) grass-roots folk musicians who write their own tunes, but for every self-penned melody they write, they are expected to know many more that are of anonymous authorship and unknown date. Meanwhile, there are many more grass-roots participants who don’t actively generate new material, and who have no desire to do so. A large proportion of folkies just want to play… that is, to play the old “traditional” tunes that they learn from books, archives, CDs, videos and (still, crucially) each-other in face-to-face contexts.

That said, of course, I have no desire to suggest that the folk arts are somehow “stagnant” in comparison to other vernacular, creative activities. Innovation certainly does take place in the folk arts, but it usually resides in the particular interpretation of traditional material by an individual or group. In fact, it is a conscious concern among folk musicians, dancers, etc., that their renditions of old material be in some way different from previous versions. Participants are encouraged to develop a new or unusual “take” on the old content, recontextualising the work in a way that acknowledges its relevance to contemporary society – that is to say, innovating in a way that celebrates folk’s “timelessness”. In many ways, what we have here is an articulation of the strange, blurry lines that exist between “performing” and “creating” in other senses, and this is something I will explore further down the line. Anyway, ubiquitous among folk artists is the discourse of a living tradition (with the ostensibly organic evolution of material being considered a once “natural” result of oral transmission). Recently, that discourse has been given a very personal (or individualist) flavour, with many a folk music workshop communicating the need to “make the tune/song your own”. The opening paragraphs of the English Acoustic Collective Summer School‘s website gives a clear sense of this. And so we find another interesting contradiction: while community is foregrounded as a rationale and driving force of folk activities, the “rise of the individual” would appear to be at hand — particularly in folk music — and there seems to be an artistic imperative that material be (at least to some extent) refashioned by the lone craftsman. The collaborative innovation and creativity tropes common in much recent digital sociology literature therefore seems a problematic place from which to start making sense of some elements of the folk case (although I suspect that dance and other fundamentally group-oriented practices may sit more neatly within that narrative).

So generating the “stuff” of material culture is a secondary activity among many folk participants; developing innovative style in the performance of pre-existing repertory is becoming seen as more important, but rather individualistic. However, other types of innovation are clearly going to be very important in the study of folk arts as digital culture. The workshops that took place at the Digital Folk Launch Event illustrated to us that those involved in developing digital and online systems and opportunities for facilitating participation in folk arts activities are as inclined towards collaborative innovation as any other creator. The history and ongoing development of abc notation as a method for the easy, efficient distribution of folk tunes online illustrates that there has been (and will certainly continue to be) considerable collaborative innovation when it comes to exploring transmissive methods and technological opportunities.

These very particular tensions between the simultaneous impulses towards innovation and explicit conservativism, creation and performance, collaboration and individuality, etc., are precisely why (I believe) this research will throw up some quite different results to the digital ethnographies that have come before, and it’s why I wanted (a) to do the study, and (b) to be part of an multidisciplinary team, with David Gauntlett and Cinzia Yates.

The study of digital media and creative culture: why the folk arts are a special case (2) Folkies and community

In the previous post, I suggested that the folk arts were unusual among amateur creative practices because the way in which knowledge (including repertoire, style, etc.) is passed between people is to some extent definitive of the activities. To study a change in the transmission of folk (i.e. through the use of digital media/technology) is to study a fundamental change in the way people envisage the activities themselves.

In this post, I want to explore a further peculiarity of folk participants (who I will, for the sake of ease and reflection of the vernacular, herein refer to as ‘folkies’!). Folkies are very aware of community as a concept. They are (I would dare to argue) more aware of the social element in the activities they participate in than the members of many other types of creative community. It’s a key, explicit, rationale for the things that they do, and it’s built into the common understanding of the activity itself. If you talk to people about their definitions of (e.g.) “folk music”, terms like community (albeit normally in the local sense) have normally appeared by the end of the second sentence…

The Dun Cow Session, Durham, 2003

The Dun Cow Session, Durham, 2003. Photo: Fred Phipps

Once again, the reasons for this foregrounding of community among folk participants are to some extent historical.  When many English folk revivalists worked to define, collect, and document examples of folk music and dance during the late 19th-early 20th century, their motivations hinged on the belief that the material found could be put to social purpose. Rather than ossification, a number of the key figures (including Sharp) advocated the teaching of the collected material to England’s school children, in order to encourage a reunion of the English people with their national songs and dances — and therefore, by extension, their national identity and pride. Thus, the “imagined community” of the nation has played a crucial role in the formulation of the folk concept.

In the mid-20th century, this romantic nationalist version of community was superseded by a post-war socialist narrative in which folk arts were reframed as the artistic expressions of the working class. Interestingly, however, the importance of locality (in a general sense) has remained a crucial thread through these differing accounts, and continues today. People will often feel compelled to sing songs, dance dances or tell stories that are thought to originate from a geographical area with which they have some kind of personal connection. The practical (and digital) illustration of that is the popular integration of maps as a way of discovering material in folk archives (such as in the case of the map function to the right of the search bar on the EFDSS’ The Full English site). And there is a general agreement among scholars, internationally, that “folk” or “traditional” arts tend to have an underlying connection with place (real or imagined) for those who participate in them).

All of this has practical implications for someone studying digital culture: the folk case study may be an interesting foil to other types of creative pursuits, in that the communal element of folkies’ activities is the element that they tend to think/talk about quite a lot, and it’s the other, activity-specific implications of new media (i.e. the impact of digital media/technology on the actual music/dance/stories/performances) that they are less instinctively conditioned to consider. That said, the extent to which folkies are conscious of the development of meaningful online communities has yet to be seen, and I know that’s something that my collaborator, David Gauntlett, will be keen to discover.

Beyond that, and in similar ways to the transmission issue, the digitisation of folk activities represents a dislocation and decontextualisation of practices for which the concepts of locality and physical context have been integral, even definitive. Herein lies another contradiction, the assimilation of which will be interesting to observe and understand through the Digital Folk project.

The study of digital media and creative culture: why the folk arts are a special case (1) Intro and Transmission

Research collaboration often results in discussions that illustrate perfectly the need to “step outside” of one’s research context every now and again, and to look at the people and activities that you’re studying from a newcomer’s perspective. I’ve recently enjoyed such a discussion with my collaborator David Gauntlett as we worked towards the launch event for our project – Digital Folk.  The discussion has revealed some big, important aspects of the folk arts which I am (as with most people working in/with the folk arts for a long time) guilty of taking for granted – things that are worth thinking about carefully when contemplating the relationships between the folk arts and new technologies and digital media. And, given the nature of the topic, it seems apt not just to get some of these “big ideas” down in writing, but to post about them here…  So my intention is to work through these ideas over the next few blog posts.

IMG_0945More about the Digital Folk project can be found here, but in a nutshell, it aims to understand — or, at least, improve our understanding of — how and why participants in the folk arts in England (e.g. folk musicians, dancers, mummers, storytellers, etc.) engage with digital media/technologies. Beyond the straight-forward “what?” and “how?”, we’re also trying to understand the kinds of impacts that these media/technologies are having (1) on the folk arts as intangible and material culture, but also (2) on the people that take part in them. And, underpinning all this is a desire to understand how folk arts participants reconcile the thoroughly modern nature of digital media and communications with the historically rooted, traditional nature of the things they set out to achieve.

OK, so here are my reflections on why “folk activities” or “the folk arts” are very different from the other types of creative  occupations that have received growing attention as online communities of practice…

1. The Significance of Transmission

The concept of “folk” normally has to do with the idea that something — it might be a song, a dance, an aesthetic, or a way of creating a song or dance, etc. — has been “passed down” from earlier generations to the present one. I’ll deal more with the notion of folk arts as historically rooted in a later post, but for now I want to concentrate on this “passing down” idea. Since people started writing and thinking about the “folk” concept, the idea of transmission has been central to definitions of the term. The collector and figurehead revivalist Cecil Sharp is often credited as the first to attempt a precise account of exactly what folk song was — and, crucially, what it was not — in 1907; his strategy was to identify a particular group of people, the carriers of folk song (i.e. the folk), and he described such people thus:

‘the unlettered, whose faculties have undergone no formal training, and who have never been brought into close enough contact with educated persons to be influenced by them.’ (Sharp, 1907: 3-4)

Needless to say, few folk artists nowadays (at least in the Western World) would agree with this portrayal of folk singers, dancers, musicians, or any other type of folk artist, as strictly illiterate! In fact, it was probably a little romantic and far-fetched even back in Sharp’s day – various scholars (Bert Lloyd for one) have pointed out that very few of those “folk singers” whose songs were collected by Sharp and his contemporaries were actually so removed from the trappings of educated society that they had not (for instance) sung a hymn in church, or had a letter or other news recounted to them by a literate friend or relative, even if they themselves were unable to read it. Nonetheless, the idea of oral transmission (the passing of cultural material directly from the mouth of one person to the ears and memory of another, without mediation) has stuck as a particularly powerful image. Sharp saw it as the process by which folk songs and melodies acquired their intrinsically authentic, vernacular (and, let’s face it, national) character. He believed it was what led to the instinctive selection or rejection of material — and variations of that material — over centuries, making the tradition a kind of living, breathing, developing (or evolving) organism. And that idea has stuck. A quick look at the Wikipedia entry for “folk music” illustrates the point: it [currently] lists oral transmission and unknown authorship as common features (the latter being most often the result of the former). Perusal of a large number of academic texts will further illustrate the resilience of the concept, and it is also found resonating in the current international discourse around the concept of “Intangible Cultural Heritage“. Most forms of mediation involve some type of recording, thereby making intangible cultural material tangible; so the fervent desire to conserve and celebrate intangible cultural heritage would appear to hang on the assumption that the “real thing” must be unmediated, and [in practice] that means orally transmitted and maintained. IMG_0942

Although everybody nowadays tends to accept that contemporary folk practice involves a good deal of mediation (e.g. through written transcripts, printed sources, recordings, videos, etc.), the idea of oral transmission remains a very important point for anyone trying to understand what the folk arts are. Because to understand what they are is to understand what they were (again, more on the historically rooted nature of folk activities in an upcoming post…). I have argued elsewhere that the importance placed on the concept of oral (or, more usefully, aural) transmission, has played a significant role in encouraging the use of digital recording technology in folk music sessions as preferable to written notation. While recording and transcribing are both forms of mediation, the former continues to involve the musician’s development of their aural skills – that is to say, they’re still picking up a tune “by ear”, but they can do this more reliably and more quickly: unlike the wizened and venerable fiddler installed in the corner of the local pub, the source from which a younger musician is learning comes with pause and rewind buttons, and is thoroughly portable!  And the digital recording can also be tuned (in case the old fiddler’s strings had slackened), and – best of all for the learning folk musician — slowed down. But — for some folk musicians at least — it all still fits with the folk ethos because, when all’s said and done, you’re still learning by ear.

And so all this is valuable context for considering the relationship between digital media and the folk arts. For the reasons given above, folk arts participants tend to be very conscious of the ways in which they learn and pass on material. In folk music, it’s very important precisely because it’s different from (e.g.) Western classical music’s sophisticated (and seemingly dominant) written transmissive system.  More generally, there are relatively few creative activities in the Western world where one’s method of learning is, in and of itself, so integral as a criteria for labeling and evaluating the resultant creation.  I realise, of course, that people in any trade or craft can claim greater credibility by citing their tutelage at the feet of some great sensei: a sculpture who had studied with Henry Moore would likely enjoy a certain cachet over less fortunate artists in that medium. But the specifics of exactly how Moore had taught this sculptor would not have much impact on whether or not we perceived his/her creations as being sculpture. In folk arts, the method by which things are learned has been, for some time, an ontological feature – an “essence”, all wrapped up with evaluative concepts of authenticity, immediacy, nativity, legacy and tradition.  To invest in digital methods of “passing on” the folk arts from one person or generation to another (e.g. via YouTube, or Facebook), is — to some extent — to redefine the activity, or at least to engage in a reconciliation of apparently conflicting cultural values.

This is one reason why I wanted to embark on the Digital Folk research… I wanted to find out how people reconcile the ideas of the traditional (including traditional transmission) with the modernity of new media. I’m looking forward to exploring how these two seemingly opposing worlds combine, not just in people’s behaviours, but also in people’s minds.

Englishness Rising – Symposium, University of Sunderland: 6th Jan 2015

You are warmly invited to Englishness Rising, a one-day symposium held in The David Puttnam Media Centre, University of Sunderland on 6th January 2015.
In the wake of the recent Scottish referendum there has been renewed political debate about “English votes for English Laws”, but it is worth noting that in the realm of culture there has been a rising interest in Englishness and the expression of English identities over the last fifteen years. The Englishness Rising symposium takes a look at new English identities and especially the ‘folkish’ impulse that can be seen not just in the resurgence of English folk arts themselves but as a wider tendency in English culture. The symposium will include not just prominent academic speakers, but also commentators from beyond the academy, including Sam Lee (Mercury Prize nominated folk singer) and the writer and journalist Madeleine Bunting (former columnist and Associate Editor, Guardian).

Conveners: Dr Trish Winter (University of Sunderland); Professor Michael Kenny (Queen Mary University of London); Dr Simon Keegan-Phipps (University of Sheffield)

Attendance at the symposium is free, but registration by 20th Nov will guarantee you a free lunch! For further information, and to register, please follow the link below:-

http://englishnessrising.wordpress.com/

The Blacking-up in Morris debate returns…

The Camerons have posed for a photo with a group of Border Morris dancers (in their traditional blacking), and so the debate over blacking up rears its head once more.  Whether or not it was a deliberate move by Big Dave to align himself in opposition to “political correctness gone mad”, one can only speculate. But it’s worth trying to understand why this debate perennially appears, why it matters, and what it tells us. The real answers would involve a lot more than a blog post, but here are a few thoughts on the subject…

The arguments on both sides would, at first sighting, seem simple enough: on the one hand people are outraged by the practice because it signifies (to complainants, at least) the kind of offensive racial stereotyping associated with (e.g.) the Black and White Minstrels, and other overt, dated displays of racism which should be considered intolerable in modern society.  On the other side of the argument are the dancers themselves, who argue that the practice has nothing to do with the representation of black people, and that it was simply a traditional method of disguise so that dancers through history would avoid prosecution for begging, or persecution from the church.

As with most things to do with the performance of English tradition, the practice (and the debate around it) actually says a lot more about the contemporary English political context than it does about history. Specifically, it tells us a good deal about the politics of white representation in a climate of increasing dischord over recognising and performing Englishness in contemporary, multicultural British society.

Perhaps one of the most interesting things about the way the topic is handled in the press is that this traditional activity is seemingly “discovered” – as if for the first time – whenever the story comes around. The fact that blacked-up morris dancers are “news” to people is telling in itself: it’s been happening for quite a while… OK, so the border tradition had died out and was revived in the 1970s, but the traditions of the Britannia Bacup Coco-nut Dancers (who also regularly come under fire for blacking-up) have been going strong for well over a century. There are literally hundreds of border morris sides, many of whom black up.  [A large number of sides go for the “safer” option of colouring their faces with multi-coloured face paints. It’s probably also worth noting that most border sides are represented not by the conservative Morris Ring (who every reporter runs to for a quote at moments like these), but by the relatively liberal/progressive Morris Federation and Open Morris.]  They perform not in the shadowy recesses of private events, but openly, on the streets and outside pubs in centres of population and at the few hundred folk festivals that take place around the country. The fact that they are happened upon and presented as a shocking abomination by the press, then, says something of the status of traditional folk arts in the English consciousness (although, as I – and others – have written elsewhere, that tide has gradually turned with the new-found popularity of folk music).

As to the “real” reason for blacking up – this is a difficult one.  Certainly there seems to be a certain amount of plausibility in the idea that this would have been done in order for the performers to avoid being identified by the local magistrate or clergyman as they went about illegally begging for money via the trappings of (apparently) pagan ritual.  Anyone who’s ever tried to quickly identify a single member of a border morris side while the whole group is in full kit and blacked-up will know that the disguise is pretty effective. But there has been some excellent recent research – including from within the morris community – that would seem to “bust” this as myth.  The practice of colouring ones face for ritualistic purposes could also be credible as an ingredient in this muddy mix, since it is a fairly common one worldwide (see for instance the whitening of faces in Xhosa circumcision initiation rites). The more uncomfortable possibility is that it did – at some time – perhaps have something to do with representing the “Moorish” people from whom it has been suggested the dances originated, or even that it did in fact originate with the rise of minstrelsy in early 19th century England. It’s interesting to note, though, that while some forms of morris dancing have this face-blackening as a feature, others (notably the most culturally “visible” form, Cotswold morris) do not. The fact is, then, that while historical contexts and narratives might explain the origins of the practice, they do little to explain the inconsistency of blacking-up, and even less to justify its continuation.

Which brings us to the next difficult sticking point: tradition as justification. BBC’s Newsbeat quoted the charity Show Racism the Red Card as branding the activity of blacking-up ‘no longer “relevant”‘. The concept of relevance is an interesting one to draw on in relation to this topic. It could, after all, be argued that to do something because it is “traditional” is precisely to do something that is “no longer relevant” in terms of its material content, but is significant only for its symbolism of arcana and history.  The further from function or ‘relevance’ a practice is removed, the greater the strength of the historicity and symbolism. The impact of a judge wearing a strange white wig is now far greater than it was when the things were introduced (in line with standard polite fashion) in the late Stewart period: the sight now evokes a sense of awesome, mysterious antiquity not because it reminds us of Charles II, but precisely because it is totally removed from any specific associations that might explain it. It reminds us only of a judge. It is precisely because people don’t generally know exactly why judges wear the wigs that the wigs become so culturally significant.

The crucial question, then, is what does the blackened face actually represent (a) to the people who do it, and (b) to those who look on. The answer to (a) is easy: clearly (and I can rely on the evidence of many years’ ethnographic fieldwork, here) there is not a morris dancer alive today who associates the blackening of their face with the representation of black people. To these morris dancers, that association is an irrelevance.  More significantly, a very large proportion of morris dancers are part of a larger “folkie” community that is overwhelmingly left-wing in its politics, and made up of people with an above-average awareness of – and concern for – intercultural cohesion and respect. For them, then, the idea that blackening their face speaks to minstrelsy and racism simply does not compute. It’s just a deeply upsetting accusation. And it’s worth mentioning that nothing else about (e.g.) border morris in any way mimics or stereotypes black people (as, for instance, minstrelsy did).

The answer to (b) is more problematic: clearly there are people for whom – on the face of it (no pun intended) – the activity indicates a regression to historic racisms, either because the complainants receive it directly in that way, or else because they believe it insensitive to do something that might elicit that association . Maybe the dynamics of historically rooted racial politics are simply too strong to be trumped by the “unrelated tradition” card – particularly when that card is being played by an overwhelmingly white, relatively privileged ethnic majority.  To those with no experience of border morris dancing (that is, to the majority of people in England), even the words “blacking-up” are understandably pregnant with racist undertones.  For such people the only cultural icon of such an activity is Al Jolson et al.  In the face of such popular associations, it might be reasonable to argue that blacking-up in morris dancing – however innocent in its motivations – just has to stop.  Maybe it is simply not possible to reeducate an entire, multicultural nation on this small part of English folk art in order to effect its complete rehabilitation.  And maybe it’s simply not worth the inflammatory argument.  But tradition doesn’t quite work like that: reason rarely prevails over more instinctive drives to celebrate local antiquity and identity; and the current drive to do those things continues to increase. The discussion will rage on.

As a final thought, perhaps it might be worth seeking the thoughts of a black morris dancer? There is – at least – one. I’ve interviewed him, and I know what he makes of the debate. But it would be interesting to see if any journalists covering this kind of story are ever moved to seek out that perspective…

“English votes for English laws”: will Westminster dance to the tune of English folk?

The Scottish referendum results are in, and the answer represents a significant – if not exactly overwhelming – mandate for the continuation of the British union… at least from the Scottish perspective. But no sooner has Huw Edwards’ twelfth cup of coffee gone cold, than the political rhetoric has moved on to the debate over the need for reforms for the English constituent of that union.  Cameron has already called for the need to move towards “English votes for English Laws” – a careful rebranding of the “West Lothian Question” – in a bold but remarkably delayed recognition of the constitutional imbalances on which the British political framework is now teetering.

It is, of course, worth noting that the English cultural landscape has, for about the last fifteen years, been moving well ahead of (mainstream) political commentary in engaging with the concept of Englishness.   I’ve written elsewhere about the fact that the period since c.2000 has seen a considerable increase in the profile and popularity of the English folk arts – by which I mean traditional music, dance, drama and festival activities that are specifically (often emphatically) labelled as “English” by those that participate in them. Whilst it might be easy to dismiss folk music and dance as tangential to mainstream English society, the resurgence has actually seen English folk arts becoming far more mainstream than they had been in the late 20th century… Morris dancing, for instance, went from being represented in a comical BBC 2 ident of robotic dancing 2s (in comparison to all the “serious” dance forms positively represented by the BBC 1 ‘Rhythm and Movement’ idents) to something that has since appeared on The Culture Show,  Later with Jools Holland, and in the closing ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games.  It’s still a bit of joke to large numbers of people, but it’s far more visible and acceptable to mainstream audiences than pre-2000.

1280px-Morris.dancing.at.wells.arp

But aside from these developments, and considered from the vantage of cultural political theory, the concept of “folk” is more generally significant as a weathervane of political change. This is because it does one – normally – of two things: on the one hand, it can speak to a sense of an ancient, “indigenous” relationship of a population with their “homeland”; on the other, it can invoke a notion of “the people” as the vernacular, labouring mass-underdog of political and economic structures.

The majority of people involved in the English folk scene at present have come to it (either directly or “second generation”) as a result of engagement with the socialist-leaning “second folk revival” movement of the 1960/70s, which did the latter of the two things mentioned above. But they have recently found themselves caught up in a growing impulse to re-engage with English folk as a performance of national identity, a project central to the “first folk revival” of the 1880s-1920s.  While significant (and largely successful) efforts have been made by folk artists to distance themselves from the unspeakable bigotry of the far right, the celebration of key characters and “collecting” activities of that earlier revival, specifically Cecil Sharp and his contemporaries, adds to the suggestion that the nationalist (or, at least, nationally conscious) underpinnings of the current English folk resurgence are undeniable. The types of Englishness that have been explored and constructed through this recent resurgence have been multiple and varied – ranging from images of very white people in green-and-pleasant-land portrayals, through to the radical, contemporary reworkings of Englishness by inter-/multi-cultural projects like the Imagined Village.

But the English consciousness has been awake in popular cultural worlds far beyond the boundaries of folk for some time, with the E word making meaningful appearance in the outputs of artists ranging from Shane Meadows to P J Harvey.  Meanwhile, academic observation and explanation of the phenomenon are now fully established in both the literature and in general discussion: on January 6th 2015, the University of Sunderland will play host to the one-day symposium “Englishness Rising”, itself to some extent following up on commentary offered in the earlier conference “Mad Dogs and Englishness” held at Queen Mary’s University College, London, back in June 2013. And the English/Scottish division is also likely to feature in discussion at a well-timed symposium on Scottishness and Music, being held in October at Newcastle University.

The devolution debate and referendum are a helpful reminder of the separation that can be seen between political decisions (which, as in this case, are very strongly linked to pragmatic concerns for economic stability), and cultural identity (which has more to do with a more instinctive sense of self, and our perceptions about with whom we share things like kinship, experiences, location, and history). While still muddied by post-colonial guilt, an English consciousness has emerged. Though a political break with Scotland has been halted, clearer definition, distinction and parity between the electorates of Britain’s nations must certainly be on the cards as an impact of this referendum result: a discomfort with the status quo has, after all, been a key creative driving force in English cultural activity for some time.