Wednesday, 16 February 2011

The Mumford Paradox

I'd like to congratulate Mumford & Sons for their success in the Brit Awards. I'd like to slap them on the back and tell them "well done" for being the folk band which took on the best of the rest of British talent and triumphed. 

I'd like to ... but I'm struggling. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to The Mumford Paradox!

The Brit Award for Best British Album of 2010 going to the Mumfords for Sigh No More has been hailed as a coup for British folk music, with the band beating competition from pop megalith Take That (the obvious favourites) and a clutch of flavour-of-the-year contenders. This should be good news for folk music in general, and some fans obviously feel it is, judging by comments I've read online. But I'm not so sure.

The rise and rise of Mumford & Sons has certainly been remarkable. In a little over three years they've gone from meeting and playing in London's acoustic club scene to making a debut album that's sold well over a million copies worldwide and performing with Bob Dylan at the Grammys - and I suspect that the Brit Award is really in recognition of that rapid, unlikely flowering rather than for the album itself. 

The record industry can smell a burgeoning phenomenon, a sensation, and it has used its biggest sparkler - The Brits - to light the next stage of the booster rockets on Starship Mumford, aiming to blast it out of mere orbit and on its way to profits of intergalactic scale.

I certainly hope that's why they won, because the award makes little sense otherwise. 

Let's leave to one side the fact that the "best British album of 2010" was released and charted in October 2009. Let's ignore the fact that musically it's repetitive and constrained, like one long song split up into a dozen near soundalike chunks. And let's not go on about the record's lack of ideas, or the buzz-saw drone of Marcus Mumford's lead vocals, or that the banjo player only knows one riff, or that the percussion lacks subtlety or range or that the production has been applied with a shovel (cue another Brit for the producer, Markus Davis). 

Sigh No More is probably not a landmark album (we won't really know for 20 years), but it does have its moments. The Shakespeare-inspired title track is by far the best, and scattered here and there through the forest of musical undergrowth are clearings of promise, little quiet segments of delight that hint at songwriting sensitivity and give a suggestion of the light and shade that's otherwise missing. But then the banjo comes clattering in again, the acoustic guitar is thrashed and the Mumford machines goes crashing off down the hill, gathering pace, fury and assorted unnecessary instruments - trumpets, trombones ... a flugelhorn! - until it smashes itself to pieces in a wreck of shouted lyrics, honking brass and manic keyboards.

All of that is utterly unimportant. The Brit Awards are not about music; they are about marketing, and today the Mumfords are in all the papers. Again. Job done! 

And what's so bad about that? That brings me back to The Mumford Paradox.

The Mumfords are British, they are a folk band and they are successful. That's got to be good for British folk music in general, right? Erm, not necessarily.

While the Mumfords are certainly British, and play music labeled as "folk", they are not a British folk band. They don't play British folk. Their music is far more influenced by American folk, by pop singer-songwriters, by country and bluegrass. 

They aren't the first British band to take sounds from across the Atlantic, repackage them and sell them back to the States. The Beatles did it, The Rolling Stones did it, Led Zeppelin did it and so have many, many more. American blues and rock 'n' roll have inspired lots of wonderful British pop and rock down the decades. So why can't Mumford & Sons do the same thing for country and the midwest acoustic sound that's also produced American bands such as Midlake or Fleet Foxes?

Well, they can, but it has very little to do with British folk.

The Beatles, Stones and Zeppelin were inspired by blues but were never labeled as "blues bands" because they weren't blues bands. Blues is a simple style to categorise because it's easy to explain exactly what it is. Folk is a far tougher subject. Folk music means different things to different people in different places, and the term can be used so generally, be so all-inclusive, as to be an utterly useless. Indeed, blues itself is a kind of folk music, and shows that we need to sub-divide "folk" if the term is to serve any real purpose.

There are lots of different kinds of folk music and on Sigh No More the Mumfords play one variety - I'll call it American folk-rock. It's very different from British folk or British folk-rock.

And there's the paradox: while Mumford & Sons are a folk band, and they are British, they aren't a British folk band.

But does any of that matter? There are those who say that labels, pigeon-holes and genres are restrictive, unhelpful and uncreative. Musicians tend to hate labels because they don't want to tailor their music to fit any box they've been stuffed into, and that's understandable - but audiences do like labels because they want to be able to find more of the artists that appeal to them.

Therefore, labeling Mumford & Sons as a British folk band is not only inaccurate it's unhelpful, not only to their fans hoping to find more of the same but also to genuine makers of British folk music.

Mumford fans looking to find a rich seam of Mumfordesque music within British folk are instead going to be presented with a far headier brew. If they can take it they are in for a treat, but I fear that many will stagger away in shock and - possibly - anger and resentment.

Some may get to "acquire the taste", as some rock fans did when in previous generations bands such as Jethro Tull introduced them to folk, or when the original followers of Fairport Convention saw the band make a remarkable transformation from jingle-jangle imitators of US artists such as The Byrds and
Dylan into something that dug deep down into their native, British traditions and reinvigorated the British folk music scene.

But that was 40 years ago. Music fans then had ears that were accustomed to hearing a far wider range of sounds than are the lugholes pinned to the teens of today, who are trapped in the programmed, confined, ghettoised world of pop radio where anything that's more than six months old is a "golden oldie". How would today's typical Mumford fan react if suddenly confronted by Coupe, Boyes & Simpson, June Tabor or Dick Gaughan? Nurse, the screens!

That's not to say that there's no more "Mumford" style music to be found in Britain. They are not alone in reinterpreting the folk sound of America, with the likes of The Travelling Band and ahab doing a similar job and, in my opinion, with more interesting results. 

We must beware of being a musical snob and I'm not knocking this style of music. In fact, I like the best of it - but much more in the way that I also like the best of Scissor Sisters and Take That than in the way I love The Demon Barbers or Lau

I can recognise good songwriting and performance in any genre. I can enjoy the skill that goes into making a quality pop record. I can get a buzz from a beat or a groove. But it doesn't touch me deep in my core; it doesn't connect with something right inside me the way that, say, Show Of Hands does.

So, where does that leave us? If things go badly, the Mumfords will become more transatlantic, more bland and more disconnected. But if things take a different turn, there could be real cause for celebration.

If the Mumfords can "do a Fairport" and reach out to their own roots, rather than picking out the processed echoes of a cousin culture, that will be a marvellous thing to see and hear. If they can immerse themselves in British folk's heritage and create something new from what they find then they'll have achieved something truly worthy of an award.

Mumford & Sons - barbery course hairs...
Their greatest achievement so far is to generate a remarkable amount of publicity and a pop following. What they do gets noticed. They've laid a foundation, and hopefully they'll build on that in interesting and bold ways, creating something that will last a lifetime.

I do congratulate them on building that solid foundation, but I'm not taken in by them winning just another daft award in yet another ludicrous event, and they shouldn't be taken in by it, either. At least they were unexpected winners, the outsiders beating the industry giants. But best album of 2010? Give me a break!

Meanwhile, we continue to welcome anyone who does find folk, via the Mumford route or otherwise. Welcome to all who want (or thinks they want) to listen to British folk music. That's why FolkCast exists - to help anyone anywhere experience some truly magical sounds.

Turn on, dig in, folk out! I hope it blows your mind.


Red Chocolate said...


This is an interesting set of thoughts. You hit the nail on the head; the real question boils down to the definition of 'folk music', and I think especially in the case of English music. Two things recently fired off thought for me

1 - conversations with my Irish flatmate, who's a real Irish traditional music fan (or 'trad' as he calls it)
2 - Rob Young's good read, 'Electric Eden'

Young's book is smashing in that it gives all this historical context to the folk scene of the 50's, 60's and 70's. He points out certain specific examples which trounce on ideas of 'traditional music', such as an acoustic guitar, which like the accordion, is now a staple of all session singers and folk musicians, only really coming to England and America in the 40's. It's a really good read.

My flatmate asserted that England doesn't have the heritage of music that Ireland (and Scotland) do. To a certain extent he's right - the whole suppression of Scotland and Ireland by England has all that nationalism involved, which for better or worse, I think, is a big part of why the tradition is so strong there. But just because England has lost a lot of the records for certain songs, dances and customs, doesn't necessarily mean it's culturally weaker. I think a big part of English folk music is the huge extent to which English music has absorbed other influences consistently throughout history - court music, European dance, classical, American (particularly!), and of course, Scottish and Irish.

I'm quite proud that despite being part of a nation with a particularly awful history of domination and oppression, we seem to have always had an open-thinking culture. Despite being such a relatively unimportant country in the last 100 years, England has still been a relative heavyweight consistently in all forms of music development.

I read that Ewan MacColl eventually put restrictions on singers only being able to sing songs from their country of origin at his folk club - his motives were ingenuous enough, being that he wanted to preserve tradition - but if I remember correctly, that was the last nail in the coffin for his club.

I'm sure that there was loads of controversy round about the time that chaps like Fairport and the Incredible String Band came along and started popularizing elements of what was a type of music fiercely loved by a relative minority, in the same way that this is happening. I guess my point is that I believe that folk music isn't some set-in-stone library, but constantly changing. I'm not against preserving tradition, but my favourite singers, musicians, Morris sides and Mummers all put forward relatively un-traditional elements, like Monty Python jokes or Bellowhead's disco-shanties.

So if Mumford and Sons are another stepping stone on the changing path of traditional music in this country, so be it!

Barnaby Griffin said...

I totally agree with this post. I, myself, have often wondered why Mumford & Sons are so popular and I can only put it down to mass marketing. I have met a lot of young people who rave about M&S yet have no desire to explore the genre of 'folk'.

I also saw M&S at Summer Sundae festival last year and found them to be rather dull. All four members were seated for the entire gig which diluted what little energy and passion they had.

I've recently started a blog on bad reviews, of both music and film, and scoured the internet for negative critiques of M&S. Some of these are quite funny, in my opinion, but it is clear that the dissenters are in the minority and that PR has done its job successfully.

FolkCast said...

As no-one else has commented on Red Chocolate's comment, I'll just add that it's amazing how many "traditional Irish" songs are neither traditional or Irish, or are traditional but are actually English. A prime example is Fiddler's Green, often billed as a trad. Irish number but actually written - not that long ago - by the marvellous John Connolly from Lincolnshire. Maybe it's the word "green" in the title that gets people confused?

But beyond that, there seems to be a common assumption (outside the folk world) that any folk instrumental must be "Celtic". Quite often they aren't - they are English. English folk is full of great dance tunes, but then the thing about folk music is that the best music tends to spread far and wide and be adapted and adopted by other cultures and soon they become part of that culture once people forget (or don't care) where they've actually originated.

alasdair said...

Thank f§%k for your article!!!

After hearing of this bands grammy win (mumford who?) i spent half an hour on the net listening to them and clicking away video after video whilst trying to find the *spark* or the song that made me go *wow*.

Eventually, i gave up and attributed it as shite marketed extremely well or mutton dressed as lamb etc.

A wealthy backer, and 2 million CD's purchased in bulk, throw in a grammy win, extensive marketing and you have a mushrooming record company and an an exellent return on investment.

At the end of the day mediocrity prevails. Sad but true.

@folkcast, have a listen to this and delete from the comment if you wish

Adam Nobodaddy said...

We have recently been struggling with the question of whether to cite Mumford & Sons as being a reference point when people ask what sort of music we play. It is a double-edged sword – whilst they clearly display folk-ish instrumentation and signifiers (tweed anyone?), they have grafted on a lot of the energy, light and shade that has more in common with bands like Coldplay (I’m not even going to risk a label like ‘indie’ there!). Their sheer popularity means that if we say we’re like them, lots of people will get a general understanding that we play acoustic instruments and sing in harmonies and might take the time to have a listen or come to a gig. But for many of the reasons you’ve articulated I feel slightly dirty doing so, because I don’t think that what we do is the same as them. And if the person I’m speaking to knows their folk onions, they’ll probably run a mile!

We do however call ourselves folk music as it is a useful ‘sighter’ on the broad type of music that we play. Within that we play songs that cover a range of different sub-genres, mostly our own originals but also some from British, Irish, American old-time, blues and country traditions, as well as modern singer-songwriters (so the same sort of mix you’d find in any folk club). And the thing that yokes it all together for us is the strength of the song and how well it conveys a tale or an emotion. We happen to like the structures of American songwriters like Willie Nelson, drawing on a Tin Pan Alley (i.e. American and overtly populist) tradition, so when we write it is often more akin to that than to British ballad traditions. But the fact that I have been playing British Folk music since the age of 8 and listening to it even longer informs my writing. I would not claim to be a British Folk act but I hope that those audiences recognise something in our music that shares genetic material and is not simply wearing the right clothes. So for the moment, we’ll call carry on calling ourselves folk (lower-case ‘f’), but we won’t claim to be British Folk, or add the bit about Mumford & Sons. Unless I’m speaking to someone is clearly a fan of theirs…I mean, there’s integrity and then there’s marketing!