By Liam Barnes, Features Writer
Some things never go out of fashion, while some things swing in and out of favour. Folk music is definitely in the latter camp.
Some might say it’s never been fashionable, despite being revived every generation or so, but it never goes away, as Lancashire’s most enduring folk group can testify.
The Houghton Weavers – whose current line-up features founder members Tony Berry and Dave Littler on vocals and guitar, with multi-instrumentalist Steve Millington having joined in 1996 – have been touring nationally to a loyal fanbase ever since getting together over 35 years ago in Westhoughton, Bolton, with audiences lapping up their quirky mix of classics folk songs, self-penned hits and comic story-telling.
Showcasing their Lancastrian links with their extensive use of the native dialect, many of their songs, such as ‘Blackpool Belle’, ‘Uncle Joe’s Mint Balls’ and ‘The Martians Have Landed in Wigan’ refer to items and locations specific to the North-West, while songs like ‘Mon Like Thee’ and ‘Sit Thi Deawn’ extensively use Lancashire dialect, but this didn’t mean their success was limited to their native county.
From 1978 they had their own BBC TV show, Sit Thi Deawn, which ran for six series until 1985, and appeared on national institutions such as Jim’ll Fix It and This is Your Life, as well as hosting six series of their own show on Radio 2 and performing with legendary acts like Billy Connolly, Ken Dodd and Rick Wakeman. And despite the Lancastrian lingo forming a large part of their repertoire, the songs have translated internationally, with ‘Blackpool Belle’ hitting the charts in New Zealand and Australia.
Reflecting on their career before their gig in Chadderton last Friday, Tony and the gang were proud of their successful past, especially after a difficult start in which they struggled to break in to the local folk circuit.
“There were thousands of folk clubs in the North West and we couldn’t get a break, so we started our own folk clubs,” said Tony. “Then with our first album the guy who recorded it said if we sold 500 copies we could get a new deal – and we sold it in less than a week.”
“It’s as if it’s all gone by in a flash of the eye – three marriages later we’re still here!” said guitarist Dave.
“I enjoy it as much, if not more now than when we started,” said Tony. “I’m more relaxed on stage and I know what I’m doing better.”
Discussing the TV show and their early national exposure, Tony claimed: “We were very, very lucky – don’t forget that in the 70s there were only three channels to watch, so through the show we became a household name. One series coincided with a Granada strike, so there were only two choices then!”
Their brand of comedic folk has faded from view since their heyday in the late 70s and 80s, falling foul of musical trends – to such an extent that Radio 6 DJ and world music aficionado Andy Kershaw said: "With 'folk' you either think of something like the Houghton Weavers, or proper folk."
This scornful dismissal of comedic folk, even by enthusiasts like Kershaw, is typical of a brand of snobbishness among some music critics, especially jarring considering Billy Connolly’s humourous ditties from his early career are revered by many, and Max Boyce’s brand of comedic folk is almost sacrosanct in Welsh culture.
“Perhaps our only gripe is that we’ve done this for 36 years but folk people have never recognised us,” said Tony. “We’ve got the credit from the fans, as we’re still filling theatres 36 years down the line, but we’ve never played a folk festival. We’ve sent stuff to Cambridge [the largest folk festival in the country] and they told us they weren’t interested – there doesn’t seem to be any logical explanation.”
In a wider pop audience, folk music as a whole has largely been unfashionable in the modern era, especially British folk. American imports such as Bob Dylan and The Byrds are still widely celebrated by baby-boomers and students alike, while Irish and Celtic folk retains respect and even country and western – essentially American folk music – has gained credibility over the years.
However, native acts such as Pentangle, Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span have fallen into relative obscurity, and despite the best efforts of heavyweight bands such as Traffic and even Led Zeppelin, who adapted traditional songs into their own style and actively sought inspiration from folk music, public perception has stubbornly refused to budge.
More recently, acts such as the sea shanty-singing Fisherman’s Friends have had brief moments in the limelight, but unless it’s an ironic appreciation of ‘scrumpy and western’ parodists The Wurzels you won’t see any fashion-conscious teen admit to liking anything remotely near folk.
That is, however, until the recent ‘nu-folk’ movement, headed by Mumford & Sons and Laura Marling, revived a long-dormant interest in a neglected musical genre. With a touch more pop sensibility than older folk bands, Marling, Mumford and company have stormed to stratospheric popularity in recent years, successes warmly praised by Tony and the gang.
“I’m a big fan of Mumford and Sons and PJ Harvey,” said Steve. “Their music is excellent, it’s really different."
“Folk is popular again, even if it’s not the type of folk that we do,” said Tony. “It’s great that it’s getting young people into the music.”
The band will release a new album, their 28th, next year, made up entirely of new compositions, while a version of Celtic classic ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’ recorded by the group will feature in upcoming film ‘Between Weathers’.
“Maybe we’ll get our time in the spotlight, maybe it’ll come back along off the back of this,” said Steve.
With the likes of Marling and Mumford riding the charts on the back of critical adulation, folk is having one of its days in the sun. At least if it should once again be musical taboo and the bright young things should become victims to the whims of capricious musical fashion, The Houghton Weavers have proven that a loyal audience will always remain.
All Around My Hat: An Introduction to British Folk
Come All Ye – Fairport Convention
Taken from Liege and Lief, ‘the most important folk album of all time’, according to Radio 2 listeners, this song was written for folk rock’s premier act by founding member Ashley Hutchings (later of Steeleye Span) and Sandy Denny, whose vocals on ‘The Battle of Evermore’ were the only collaboration on any Led Zeppelin record. Understated and under-rated, a perfect example of the subtle complexities of top-quality folk.
Part of the Union – The Strawbs
Consider it an English protests song, as if Bob Dylan wrote ‘The Hurricane’ in Birmingham. From seminal album Bursting at the Seams, it hit number two in 1973 and has been adopted by various unions since – including, somewhat oddly, MLS side Philadelphia Union.
John Barleycorn (Must Die) – Traffic
Steve Winwood, former blue-eyed soul star and future 80s chart-botherer, led these pioneers of ‘progressive folk’, a mixture a jazz and traditional British music never bettered than in their adaptation of a centuries-old harvest song. Other artists to revive traditional English folk songs include Simon & Garfunkel, who recorded a much-loved version of ‘Scarborough Fair’, and Led Zeppelin, who alongside reworking many blues standards and writing countless acoustic classics of their own also adapted ‘Gallows Pole’ from a variation of a Child Ballad.
Sophia – Laura Marling
The darling of the ‘nu-folk’ groups – and ex-girlfriend of fellow ‘nu-folkies’ Marcus Mumford and Charlie Fink of Noah & The Whale – Marling’s three critically-acclaimed albums have helped to rehabilitate folk music in the eyes of a young, cool audience. This song, from recent release ‘A Creature I Don’t Know’, should feature on her imminent tour of British cathedrals, including Manchester on October 24.
Hymns and Arias – Max Boyce
‘Max Boyce: Live at Treorchy’ is virtually a rite of passage in Wales, and Boyce is arguably the master of funny folk, combining story-telling songs and anecdotes with rousing choruses to quieten even the rowdiest of rough rugby clubs. Adopted by Welsh rugby fans – listen out for it at the Rugby World Cup – there’s no better example of how a folk song can unite a people in celebration of its culture.