Finding Folk Music

by Carolyn Scott

One woman's exploration of the question: what is folk music anyway?

At the age of nineteen, I stumbled into my first folk music pub, quite accidentally. I had a guitar on my back which I could barely play, and a few Johnny Cash songs in my repertoire courtesy of my granny, but I had no idea what “folk” music was.

To me, the word “folk” initially brought about images of old men in Aran sweaters playing accordions.

Within half an hour I’d been introduced to half the pub. Within two hours, whisky in hand, I was singing along with some of the “well kent” traditional songs. Four hours later I’d played a couple of songs myself, been offered a gig the following week, and made the decision to drop out of university - my disillusionment with a physics degree being the very thing that had caused me to walk into a pub I didn’t know that evening.

That was over a decade ago now and I’ve spent many of the years that have passed since that night engrossed in the Scottish folk scene. But I still struggle to really know what Scottish folk music is.

To me, the word “folk” initially brought about images of old men in Aran sweaters playing accordions (of course, this is a feature of the folk scene, and a damn good one at times). I thought of Jimmy Shand or Take the Floor or music even my grandparents would refer to as twee and old-fashioned.

But, this wasn’t what I found when I wandered into Edinburgh’s Royal Oak. What I found was an eclectic mix of musics, and perhaps an even more eclectic mix of people. My curiosity sparked, I ventured back to university, this time to study music.

In academia, it’s common to categorise music, loosely, into three categories: art music, popular music, and folk music.

Art music is what we would know best as classical music, the high art form that requires intense tuition and study. It’s generally the music of the upper classes, owing to the cost of tuition, the required time commitment to studying and practicing, and the culture surrounding classical music performances.

Folk music is seen as the opposite of classical in terms of class structure, tuition, and accessibility. Folk music is the music of the working class, a music that is open to anyone with a song or tune in their heart. It grew from the people of the land, the working people, and formed as an almost utilitarian form of music, for storytelling, for protest, for dancing. Many forms of folk music derived from workplaces - the Scottish waulking songs taking their structure from the rhythmic beating of cloth - and during the industrial revolution, folk music was sung out from the factory floor.

Where classical music is performed in silent grand theatres and concert halls, the best folk music is often found in a dingy pup that hasn’t seen a proper mop in several years, where the crowds murmur over the tunes, and the floors weather the stomping of feet.

Throughout antiquity, in Scotland, music has brought people together, people of all backgrounds.

But, still, this wasn’t what I found when I wandered into a folk pub. These academic taxonomies of music don’t really help when trying to figure out just what Scottish folk music is. On any given evening in any decent folk pub in any town in Scotland musicians will gather from a variety of backgrounds. Some will have been practicing their craft for decades, with intense tuition and the dedication to regular practice. Others may well only play an instrument on the rare occasions they stop by a session, self-taught but passionate, with a song in their heart.

It would be easy to say that this muddy water is the result of a convergence in society, of the traditional being what is important over and above class and professional distinctions. But, this simply isn’t the case. Throughout antiquity, in Scotland, music has brought people together, people of all backgrounds, all classes, all levels of proficiency and technical prowess. For it seems that there is something more important than all of that - the music and the story.

A sign outside a music pub advertises live folk and blues music

Fundamentally folk music is about storytelling. From the old ballads that were shared to tell of hardship and shanties that brought home the stark realities of life on the sea, to the - according to academia - distinctly classical tunes like Farewell to Stromness. They all tell a tale, evoke an emotion. Folk music is often utilitarian, but that doesn’t limit its beauty, to me, it simply adds to it.

On any given evening you can walk into a folk pub and be met with an array of raw, unalloyed, emotive music, and perfected, intricate fiddle or pipe tunes. Whether it be a bothy ballad sung out by an old woman who was taught it by her granny, or an intricate lament that took months to perfect, it is the passion for the music and the story that needs to be told that, to me, defines folk.


Music used in the above audio version of this article is, in order of occurence:

Better Days by Marit Fält and Rona Wilkie, used with permission from Rough Justice Films

Wild Rover by The Hebrides Bar Collective, recorded by Carolyn Scott

Waulking songs collected by the School of Scottish Studies, used with permission.

Wild Mountain Thyme by Carolyn Scott

Spancil Hill by The Hebrides Bar Collective, recorded by Carolyn Scott

Scotland Yet Theme by Marit Fält and Rona Wilkie, used with permission from Rough Justice Films

0 comments on “Finding Folk Music

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.