For anyone who thought folk music was languishing in the musical hinterlands of dusty folk clubs frequented by the grey-haired and bearded, Bellowhead will come as a source of suprise. The 11-piece folk band play traditional English folk songs and by using over twenty different instruments, showcase a bombastic theatricality which has secured them the BBC Folk Award for Best Live Act four times.
Their fourth and latest album Broadside (named after the ballads that were printed on cheap paper between the 16th and 19th century), created with Stone Roses producer John Leckie, recently made the Top 20 and the band are currently on their biggest UK tour to date.
Jon Boden, lead vocalist, fiddle and tambourine declares “We’ve had a fantastic response, especially on Radio 2” but whether this will translate into a wider commercial success “is quite hard to tell with a band like ours.”
But with their third album Hedonism being the highest selling independently released folk album of all time, I ask whether they feel increased mainstream attention is bringing them closer in line with neo-folk artists such as Mumford and Sons, Dry the River and Laura Marling et al?
Jon replies gruffly, “With Hedonism, the key word there is ‘traditional’ and I think that’s what is unusual about us, we sing traditional songs, old songs and that makes us different. We’re bringing older songs into hopefully more mainstream recognition and I do hope that people who get into Bellowhead follow that journey to the bands who are less in the media eye. I do hope it brings people in and get them to folk festivals and folk clubs. Its kind of a lifestyle really, being a folkie.”
As part of this, the band source their song material by uncovering a canon of old and largely forgotten folk songs. Jon explains, “it’s an ongoing thing,. It’s part of a job of being a folk singer that you’re always looking for songs. It’s not like being a singer songwriter, its a gradual continuous process – you have books round the house. And being around the folk scene you’re always hearing other people’s songs.”
It is not hard to detect a faint trace of deep-rooted folk purism underpinning Jon’s attitude towards the traditional folk circuit. I ask him whether he feels at all condescending towards the likes of Mumford & Sons, often credited with bringing neo-folk to the masses? Jon hastily counters “Not condescending no. People that get to the incredible heights as Mumford & Sons don’t do so without hard work. We’re much more about discussing in the third person rather than first. I’m always very keen to draw that distinction between us. It’s not a criticism but I think a lot of people don’t understand that fundamental difference.”
The revival of interested folk music has been associated with a renewed approach in examining popular cultural traditions. As a genre historically rooted in local, working class cultures folk music has proved an immensely rich resource for social historians. Given the latent political edge to much of their music, (‘10,000 Miles Away’ laments the story of a 19th century lad forced to leave his sweetheart as a convict bound for Australia) I ask idly whether Bellowhead would ever consider putting a more explicit political twist on their songs in the future. This is where our interview acquires a subtely hostile edge. Jon is adamant, “No is the simple answer, for the simple reason [that] it’s just not what we do. I personally don’t enjoy political song writing, that’s the brutal truth. We do songs that have political themes built into them. It’s not at all because I’m not political. People assume that because we don’t do political stuff that we therefore don’t have a political standpoint. We were quite involved with starting up Folk against Fascism. We do old songs . . .[but] it’s complicated because if you’re doing a song that’s 200 years old, some of them might have a political theme that you sympathise with but others won’t [because] people 200 years ago had very different views. You have to retain some kind of detachment; you’re a presenter of material rather than internalising it.
I mention that Chumbawumba’s album English Rebel Songs 1381-1914, was an interesting example of a natural fusion between folk music and popular political expression. Jon remains apprehensive. “The problem I have about [political songs] when it comes down to it, is for example, with Chumbawumba (and I’m friends with Chumawumba, I was on their last album [ABCDEFG]) there were songs I disagreed with. For example, there was a song saying we shouldn’t play Wagner anymore because he was a Nazi, which I don’t agree with. As much as you should condemn his political views, I don’t think you should write out whole parts of human culture because of the political views of the artist . . .as an audience member, if the person on stage is expressing a political view that you don’t agree with, that can be quite alienating.”writing, that’s the brutal truth. We do songs that have political themes built into them. It’s not at all because I’m not political. People assume that because we don’t do political stuff that we therefore don’t have a political standpoint. We were quite involved with starting up Folk against Fascism. We do old songs . . .[but] it’s complicated because if you’re doing a song that’s 200 years old, some of them might have a political theme that you sympathise with but others won’t [because] people 200 years ago had very different views. You have to retain some kind of detachment; you’re a presenter of material rather than internalising it.
But over the course of their nine year career, fuelled by the band’s penchant for adding uproarious and idiosyncratic twists on traditional tunes, Bellowhead have not escaped criticism from more ardent wing of the folk scene. So do the band feel that folk purists are holding the genre back? Jon replies “In general that traditional folk scene is very open minded, a lot more than people give it credit it for. Although some people at the more traditional end of the folk scene might not like Bellowhead, we get a lot of support for what we’re doing. It’s a very broad church. In many respects I consider myself quite a purist, but in my own head that doesn’t contradict with Bellowhead. The interesting thing about Bellowhead is that a lot of the band members are instinctively quite purist, but when we get together we go off on musical adventures that completely take us out of our comfort zone…
“In terms of musical instincts, the band is very disparate. Half of the band are not from a folk background, there’s a huge range of musical instincts. It’s not an issue [because] the point of the band is that we come at [making music] from different directions and meet in the middle.”
Folk has well and truly transcended socks-and-sandal, real ale territory. Just don’t mention Mumford & Sons.