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


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

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


Simon Keegan-Phipps (Principal Investigator):
Cinzia Yates (Research Associate):
David Gauntlett (Co-Investigator):

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.

Research Associate post: Digital Folk (University of Sheffield)

I’m pleased to announce that the University of Sheffield’s Department of Music is now seeking to appoint a post-doctoral Research Associate to work on a new research project, entitled Digital Folk: Digital Media in Folk Arts Participation. The project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, and will consider the ways in which folk arts participants make use of digital resources, tools and networks in order to learn, collaborate, reinterpret traditional material and create new work.

The Digital Folk project and will run for two years from September 2014, and is a collaborative venture between Dr Simon Keegan-Phipps (University of Sheffield, Dept of Music), and Professor David Gauntlett (University of Westminster, Faculty of Media, Art and Design). Research questions will include: How do traditional musicians and dancers in England use such digital resources? How do they consider the use of modern digital tools and media in relation to the “traditional” nature of the material they perform? And what are the impacts of these tools on the performances and experiences of participants? The project team will address these questions by observing, talking to, and participating alongside musicians and dancers as they explore and experience folk in the digital world.

More information about the job, and how to apply, can be found here:

The post is full time, and fixed term for 2 years, running from 15th Sept 2014 (or as soon as possible thereafter).

The closing date for applications is 11th August 2014.

Informal queries can be directed to Simon Keegan-Phipps:

Digital Folk Project Announced!

I’m very pleased to report that a funding application which I’ve been working on for some years – including many months collaborating with David Gauntlett, has come to fruition!  Here’s the story:


Dr Simon Keegan-Phipps (University of Sheffield, Department of Music), has secured funding to study the various ways in which digital technologies and media are transforming folk music and dance in England.

The Digital Folk project is to be funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, and will run for two years from September 2014 as a collaborative veDun Cow session, Durham, 2008nture with Professor David Gauntlett (University of Westminster, Faculty of Media, Art and Design). The research will consider the ways in which folk arts participants make use of digital resources, tools and networks in order to learn, collaborate, reinterpret traditional material and create new work. It will explore their use of online platforms, homemade recordings, and archival resources such as the celebrated Full English archive (unveiled last year by Project Partner organisation the English Folk Dance and Song Society).

How do traditional musicians and dancers in England use such digital resources?  How do they consider the use of modern digital tools and media in relation to the “traditional” nature of the material they perform? And what are the impacts of these tools on the performances and experiences of participants?  The project team will address these questions by observing, talking to, and participating alongside musicians and dancers as they explore and experience folk in the digital world.

The project represents an exciting new collaboration between two scholars from very different disciplines: the project’s Principal Investigator, Simon Keegan-Phipps, is an ethnomusicologist with a background in research on English folk music and dance, while Co-Investigator David Gauntlett specialises in the study of online communities, digital technologies and their transformation of participants’ creative experiences.


Watch this space for more information!!