There’s a furore in the folk world, there’s trouble at t’mill.
Veteran presenter of Radio 2’s weekly folk show, Mike Harding, is to be replaced at the end of the year by Mark Radcliffe. Folkies, not known for embracing change, are up in arms. The spirit of rebellion is quietly simmering on Facebook and throughout the blogosphere. Ned Ludd is stirring in his grave.
I say replaced, but everyone knows Harding’s been sacked. He’s not going quietly and has made his grievances public. His fifteen years at the helm have seen his audience rise tenfold. He helped institute the BBC Folk Awards. A melodeon player, he has folk music ‘in his blood.’ Quiet rightly, he feels aggrieved.
His sacking was pretty unceremonious. I’m put in mind of Radio 1’s Night of the Long Knives back in the mid 90s, when the Smashie and Nicey generation of DJs were culled at one fell swoop. The reason given by the BBC is that it wants to take the show live (it’s currently pre-recorded) and that requires a proven hand upon the tiller. I suspect age has more to do with it – Harding is 68 – and one can’t help wondering if it has something to do with his never really being part of the BBC club.
But, however much I sympathise with Harding’s treatment and feel he deserved better, I shan’t be signing the petitions calling for his return. I never listened to his show. Honestly? I couldn’t stand it.
Arguments about taste are pointless and take us nowhere, so all I can say is that the kind of music the two of us like and consider folk differs. Fair play to him and to those who loved the show but my idea of folk is altogether less polished (the name of his production company, Smooth Operations, perhaps says it all). I’m altogether less fond of Kate Rusby.
In fact, I suspect that my idea of folk is so rooted in alterity, resistance, psychedelia, otherness, outsiderliness, trance, that it’ll never get played on a mainstream radio show (with perhaps the exception of the never-less-than-wonderful Late Junction, over on Radio 3), and I’d probably complain if it did.
The following quote turned up on Facebook recently, from an interview with the pianist John Tilbury, and it strikes me as relevant here. Asked how he viewed politicised folk music during the 60s, he replied:
Strong folk music is always the music of a repressed country, but we are the oppressors. Irish folk music is about the survival of their identity, but I think of English folk music being a lower middle-class museum music. I don’t hear it having a vivid and active presence here, but Irish and Basque folk music identify a whole nation.
I’m not sure I completely agree but there’s truth in what he says. An English lower middle-class museum music. Ouch.
I can’t help but feel that the folk industry of which Harding’s show was a part, has less and less to do with the session and the lock-in and the protest-camp and the land, and more and more to do with selling a sanitised idea of the folk to people nostalgic for a past they never had. That seems to me to be something genuinely worth getting up in arms about.
I’ve always liked Mark Radcliffe. I think he’s a brilliant and very witty DJ. But I doubt even he will change much. Perhaps the time for petitions is over. Perhaps it’s time for some genuine trouble at t’mill.
A writer and a folk musician, Andy is the author of ‘Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom’ and has published a range of articles and academic papers on subjects as diverse as psychedelics, paganism, bardism, environmental protest, fairies, shamanism and evolution. A modern day troubadour, he plays mandolin, writes songs, and fronts darkly crafted folk band, Telling the Bees. A leading exponent of the English Bagpipes, he plays for brythonic dancing in a trio called Wod.