What the Folk?
As a nice follow on from my rock and metal post a couple of days ago I thought I’d follow the other route and offer an insight into my journey through folk music.
Now this isn’t a write up of folk music – for that have a look at the wonderful book Electric Eden. No this is just my personal journey, and some of the artists that have influenced me over the course of my life.
My Dad is still a great country music fan who, when I was a child, played a lot of Hank Williams, Don Williams, Johnny Cash and The Springfields, to name just a few, and although I love some of Johnny Cash’s music, none of the others really stayed with me. I would say that of the American folk music my Dad played only one has been of any significant influence on my music and that was John Denver.
I remember my Dad setting up a recorder to tape me playing along with one of his John Denver songs (and I’m pretty sure he’s still got the recording somewhere), and my first songbook was the John Denver’s Greatest Hits songbook. I took it to school almost every day (along with my guitar) and played most lunchtimes. To me John Denver wrote some of the greatest and most beautiful songs, and I occasionally play Sunshine on my Shoulders in my set to this day.
I started learning how to play the guitar when I was 8 years old. My teacher was an Irish folk multi-instrumentalist called Tim O’Leary and I was his first student. When we started he couldn’t read music so he taught me how to play by ear, with chord shapes written in my notebook. I started slowly, but soon found my way around the guitar so Tim began to teach me fingerstyle guitar.
One of the first songs he taught me how to play in this manner was by a band called Fariport Convention. The song, to me, has one of the best opening lines of any song ever written.
Within the fire and out upon the sea, Crazy Man Michael was walking.
This song, and the rest of the album Liege and Lief, introduced me to a folk music that was laid back, rock influenced, mystical, and ever so slightly hippy, all at once. I must have been around 9 years old when I heard it for the first time. The album is ageless. A classic. Richard Thompson’s music still inspires me, one of the greatest songwriters of our age.
Again, I still play this song around campfires, and occasionally at gigs, and I’m quite sure I’ll do a cover of it on one of my albums someday.
Now if you’ve watched these two videos, and you know my music, I’m pretty sure you’ll already hear how John Denver and and Fairport Convetion have influenced my music, but the Celtic and earth-centred aspects came from other sources.
I had always been interested in the Supernatural and the Occult. Whilst my friends might have been trading football cards in the playground I was in the library scanning the pages of books that told of hauntings and the Faerie. Then one Sunday evening all of this came together as I sat down with my parents to eat our evening dinner in front of the TV and the opening sequence of a new TV series began. I was enchanted.
I think Richard Carpenter’s Robin of Sherwood might have planted the seed in the heart of many a Pagan back then, and the opening title credits by Clannad just pulled me in deeper.
Clannad led me to explore more Irish folk music and I found Altan, Christie Moore, Moving Hearts, Planxty and many others. At this time I also got into Steeleye Span and other folk rocks bands but in truth for these years rock and metal took over for me. It wasn’t until I found Druidry and attended my first couple of Pagan camps that I felt the pull to listen to more folk again.
Sitting around those Pagan campfires I also heard a lot of chants. They sounded wonderful, but I couldn’t help but think that we needed some songs too. Some people I know wish that there was more electronic Pagan music and I can appreciate that, but for me Pagan music comes alive under the stars and moon, outside beside a flickering fire, and for that you need an acoustic instrument. So I began to write songs, and I was amazed to be offered a gig supporting the amazing Robin Williamson, modern day Bard and founder of the Incredible String Band. I formed a band with some mates to play my songs, we played the gig, and many more during 1998-2000.
During this time I threw myself back into folk music exploring many avenues and artists that had passed me by during my teens and early twenties. I spent the time reconnecting with that energy I had first felt listening to John Denver with my Dad, and Fairport Convention with Tim. It was an incredibly creative and mind-opening time of my life. Then me and Cerri decided to take a holiday around the Hebridean Islands. It was whilst eating breakfast in one the B & Bs on Skye that I first heard this amazing music being played in the restaurant, and it quickly caught my attention.
“Who is this?’ I asked.
“Dougie Maclean,” the waitress replied.
I listened and I felt like I was listening to a kindred spirit. I heard music like my own. So Dougie wasn’t so much an influence at that time, more a confirmation of my own music. When I explored him further I also learned that he had his own recording label, that he wasn’t signed to anyone, he’d done it all by himself. I’ve done the same. Kept it all independent. Hearing Dougie completed the circle for me. He is like the John Denver of this island, singing of the land and nature.
Folk music has been an amazing gift to me, and I tried to honour that when I recorded my album Tales from the Crow Man. That album was me trying to give something back to a tradition that had given me so much. I know that, in the future, the Crow Man will return with another traditional folk album, but until then I offer my version of the classic Hal an Tow.