Folk is growing up but it still has a lot to learn

The times they are a-changin for the genre – evident at a star-studded awards show at the Royal Albert Hall – but there's still room for the scruffy outsider to grow, writes Colin Irwin

• News: Bella Hardy wins folk singer of the year

The invited audience at the first BBC folk awards 15 years ago treated it all as a bit of a hoot. The self-appointed "music of the people" was considered no place for competition, self-aggrandisement or any of the other star-system evils perpetuated by the mainstream music industry. Folk music was the scruffy outsider that nobody understood or cared about … and mostly it wanted to stay that way. John Leonard, the man who started the awards, joked that when he first took the idea of a folk awards show to the BBC, it was suggested he hold it in the upstairs room of a pub.

How things have changed. The parade of mostly young, immaculately behaved nominees in their Sunday best who glided through the ornate grandeur of London's Royal Albert Hall for the awards on Wednesday were a far cry from the heckling mischief-makers at those first awards; and some of the more radical representatives of the crusading spirit of rebellion and discovery which originally fired the folk revival in the late 1950s and early 1960s are probably appalled.

Yet, as the, ahem, supergroup the Full English (featuring the likes of Fay Hield, Martin Simpson and Seth Lakeman) ably demonstrated as they picked up awards for best band and best album for their rejuvenation of material previously buried in archive books, the old music has scarcely been more popular, or more accessible. The relative youth and unfamiliarity of so many of the shortlisted names this year is indicative of the current vitality of a wide-ranging music that any sane person wouldn't dare try to define; and the profile engendered by these awards through the years is a key factor.

For better or worse – and it would be a hard-bitten cynic to claim the latter – careers can now be made on the back of these awards and they are taken very seriously. Only bad comedians now make jokes about fingers in the ear and pewter tankards.

The class of 2014 seemed to symbolise a sea change not just for the awards, but the British folk scene itself. After a succession of uninspired presentation speeches (where were the A-list luvvies of the Stephen Fry/David Attenborough/Bob Hoskins vintage who've dished out gongs in the past?) Jarvis Cocker delivered a wonderfully warm, unscripted citation for Martin Carthy's lifetime achievement award. Carthy, resplendent in what appeared to be a glittery white shirt, responded with equal informality before playing Died for Love with his daughter Eliza – their first official performance as a duo. With so many of the new generation picking up gongs drawing direct inspiration from Carthy – and happy to acknowledge as such – it did feel like the mantle was being passed.

Artists like the remarkable singer Lisa Knapp, who won best original song for Two Ravens, a charged reflection on alzheimer's disease on which Carthy plays guitar. Or the buoyant Horizon award winners Greg Russell and Ciaran Algar, with more than a whiff of early Carthy and Dave Swarbrick about them. Or Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin, whose mix of elegance and intricacy won them the best duo prize. Or American duo Anaís Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer, whose guitar work on their magnificent Child Ballads is strongly reminiscent of Carthy.

Mitchell and Hamer won the best traditional track award for Willie of Winsbury and, joined by two thirds of Lau – squeezebox player Martin Green and fiddle maestro Aidan O'Rourke (who'd just been named musician of the year) - showed exactly why with a spellbinding live delivery of the winning ballad.

Yet perhaps the sense of baton passing was most keenly felt when the Singer of the Year award, won nine years ago by Carthy himself, went to an emotional Bella Hardy. Had it gone to any of the other three candidates – Fay Hield, Lisa Knapp or Lucy Ward – the generational shift would have been equally felt.

The notorious Royal Albert Hall acoustics did few favours to some of the live performers, show openers Bellowhead and the Carthys included, but it did produce some genuinely uplifting moments. Lifetime achievement award winners Clannad haunting us all over again with Theme from Harry's Game while Martin Simpson teamed up with his Sheffield neighbour Richard Hawley to belt out a pulsating Heartbreak Hotel. Always good to see morris dancers too, not to mention Ashley Hutchings riding a bicycle on stage – even if the tribute marking the great Victorian song collector Cecil Sharp's induction into the newly instituted hall of fame was more suggestive of an outtake from an Olympic opening ceremony.

For emotional overload, though, nothing quite matched Fisherman's Friends making their first appearance since the freak death of their singer Trevor Grills and tour manager Paul McMullen in Guildford a year ago. They marched on, acknowledged the standing ovation and raucously belted out three sea shanties in the one performance of the night that threatened to disturb the grown-ups.

After this, a grand finale led by Peggy Seeger paying tribute to her recently departed brother Pete proved a bit of an anti-climax. What did they sing? Where Have All The Flowers Gone? Turn Turn Turn? If I Had a Hammer? We Shall Overcome? No, they went for one of Pete's lesser-known songs Quite Early Morning, which few recognised – even with the words in front of them.

The times they maybe a-changin', but the folk world still has something to learn about marketing itself.


Colin Irwin

The GuardianTramp

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