Jon Boden's big singalong
A few weeks ago Jon Boden, the current BBC Folk Singer of the Year, went to a friend's home studio in Sheffield and recorded an unaccompanied version of the famous old folk song The Larks They Sang Melodious (alternatively known as Pleasant and Delightful). On Midsummer Day (24 June) he posted it on a new website he'd created and embarked on the first step of a strange and demanding odyssey, in which he vows to record and post a different folk song every day for a year.
A far cry from his more familiar role as extrovert frontman with the 11-piece folk big band Bellowhead, the Folk Song a Day concept has already attracted accusations that Boden has either lost his marbles or become a shameless self-publicist. Yet behind this novel initiative lies a serious intent, which poses profound questions about the changing role of song in society. Namely, have we lost the joy of singing for its own sake, and the social benefits of community, self-expression and identity that go with it? And, if so, can they be recovered?
Time was when locals would get together in pubs, private houses or at public gatherings, joining in song as a matter of course. Stimulated in part by many inviting anecdotes of these occasions from England's most revered traditional singers, the Copper Family, several of the early British folk revivalists of the 1960s were driven by the dream of breathing life into old folk songs and restore them to community life. These revivalists achieved much, notably a nationwide circuit of clubs, which attracted devoted enthusiasts and supported a network of professional musicians as folk music blossomed into a thriving art form. But in a fast-moving world, their original ideals were strangled by the march of television, communication and globalisation – with the inevitable decline in pub culture and community spirit itself – and some of those early performers such as Norma Waterson consequently now regard the revival as a failure.
Yet a vibrant new generation of folk musicians have imaginatively reinvigorated the genre in recent years. The title of Jim Moray's award-winning 2008 album, Low Culture, was a deliberate expression of what he felt folk music should represent. "The tradition isn't something out of the ordinary, it's the very definition of ordinary," he says. "If folk is the music of the people then it's surely wrong to treat it as 'high art' that should be preserved unchanged. Folk music is low culture."
Similar thoughts occupy Boden. He says he regards himself primarily as an unaccompanied singer, despite his membership of Bellowhead, but insists that A Folk Song a Day is a serious effort to raise the profile of social singing. He has also launched a monthly Saturday night folk club encompassing an informal singaround at his own local, the Royal Hotel in Dungworth, which is already embedded in folk music lore as one of the South Yorkshire pubs maintaining a unique local carol-singing tradition of songs exclusive to the area.
"The Dungworth carol singing is extraordinary, but it shouldn't be extraordinary," says Boden. "People who wouldn't do it in any other context go to the pub at Christmas and sing those songs properly – really, really loud. But then you get to the end of the carol season and you think, 'Why the hell don't we do this all year?'"
So he decided he would do it all year – and the Dungworth experiment seems to be working as villagers with no interest in the formal folk song movement descend on the bar to exercise their lungs on a round of populist chorus songs, such as The Larks They Sang Melodious and others that have made early appearances on Boden's site.
"I'd love to see more singing sessions in pubs – ideally unaccompanied – without the pub getting freaked out," Boden says. "The biggest challenge is to get a pub to turn the TV or jukebox off, but the chance is there to find a common cause because pubs are under so much threat. Some people feel uncomfortable – they think their space is being invaded, and if you suddenly enter a random pub and burst into song you're more likely to be thrown out than be bought a drink. I've certainly been told to shut up on occasions. You have to get people used to the idea. It's not the fault of the song, it's the fault of lack of song. People get paranoid about singing in public and I think it stems from parents telling their children they can't sing. It happens a lot. You wouldn't tell someone they have an awful talking voice or they have bad breath, but there seems to be no problem in telling someone they can't sing."
There's no shortage of scientific research to support his theory that social singing is good for body and soul. Professor Graham Welch, the chair of music education at the Institute of Education in London, declares that everyone has the ability to sing and, irrespective of quality, it enhances our mood and reduces stress. "The health benefits of singing are both physiological and psychological," he says. "Music is very good for every aspect of you as a human."
One unlikely convert to the power of social singing is Brian Eno, who hosts regular a cappella singing sessions at his London studio with friends, who have included Paul McCartney. "It's all about the immersion of the self into the community and that's one of the greatest feelings," he says. "I stop being 'me' for a little while and become 'us', and that way lies empathy, the great social virtue."
Yet the only public places you can have a good sing without risking ridicule or abuse are either churches or football grounds. Boden is an atheist who doesn't like football so he's opted instead for the pub-singing option and A Folk Song a Day podcasts. There were 6,000 hits for his opening rendition of The Larks They Sang Melodious, and interest has grown rapidly since, sparking lively debate on the comment pages, especially over his recent inclusion of Mercedes Benz, a gospel pastiche written by Janis Joplin, Michael McClure and Bob Neuwirth. Joplin sang it unaccompanied, and although Boden paradoxically adds a mournful concertina, he's happy to classify it as a folk song. "I learned it as a folk song at Forest School camps before I'd ever heard the Janis Joplin version," he says, amused by the fuss its inclusion has caused. "People criticise me for doing that but don't bat an eyelid about the Kipling-Peter Bellamy songs I have done."
He's got a whole year of this and knows that tougher terrain lies ahead, especially as his repertoire extends to only 200 songs and he'll need to learn more by next spring. There are also the practical problems involved in making daily recordings during forthcoming extensive tours with both Bellowhead and his other band, the Remnant Kings. "I should have got an iPhone when I had the chance. I might have to borrow one to record stuff when we're on the road. But it's really interesting and it's nice not to have to worry about commercial pressures. Apparently I'm No 1 in the music podcast charts. I've no idea what that means but it sounds good."
Jon Boden can be heard daily on afolksongaday.com