Music Monday, September 5th Words by: Adam Knight, pictures by: Illustration by Adam Knight/Freepik

What happened to the Mumfords? The rise and fall of pop-folk ahead of Bromyard Folk Festival

Music Monday, September 5th

What happened to the Mumfords? The rise and fall of pop-folk ahead of Bromyard Folk Festival

Around four years ago Mumford and Sons conquered the world.

They wore flannel shirts, pulled their acoustic guitars high up on their chests and sold out America. 'Babel' debuted at Number One in the UK.

That summer, tambourines and the warm, earnest, infectious platitudes of the The Lumineers’ breakthrough ‘Ho Hey’ were slowdanced to at every wedding, both sides of the Atlantic.

The following year, the Cohen Brothers teamed up with sunglassed savant T Bone Burnett to reimagine life as a songwriter in Dylan-era Greenwich Village, before Burnett - himself a one-time touring guitarist with the Last Great Folk Star - dug out an album’s worth of unused Dylan lyrics, presumably stuffed down the back of some old, oak writing desk, and produced the celebrated folk-rock record The New Basement Tapes, along with the likes of Elvis Costello and one of the aforementioned Mumfords.

Folk music, or at least a version of folk, was for a while the hottest ticket in town.

Not since Dylan or Billy Bragg had the genre been shuffled into the spotlight of mainstream music.

At its root form it is about remembering, about history and heritage and about the kind of songwriting that willfully resists the two-and-a-half minute handcuffs of a a Radio One pop song.

So what happened to the ‘folkies’? How did this moment in the sun affect a musical subculture as strong and as enduring as there is?

Long after people forget that the Mumfords headlined Glastonbury, fans continue to attend dedicated folk festivals up and down the country – including the wonderful and intimate Bromyard Folk Festival this weekend.

Ahead of Bromyard, we've spoken to two young stars on the scene; local concertina player and Radio 2 Young Folk Award-nominated musician Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne, and the assertive, sometimes-bearded guitarist and song-writer from East London,Russell Joslin – to get their take on the most recent rise, fall and aftermath off pop-folk, and its longer impact on true folk music.

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Russell Joslin perfoming in Portugal last year

How did you get in to folk music yourself? Do you remember the first few records/artists that got you hooked?

Russell JoslinI had a non-traditional route to folk music. It wasn’t in my childhood, I grew up listening to my older brother’s rock and heavy metal, whilst playing classical music in orchestras. I started to write songs at the age of 19 or so and quickly realised that cream of true singer-songwriters, the poets and trouble makers, had their roots in folk, and it was far from an airy-fairy genre.

It was like a Tardis that opened up. The neo-folkies in London when I first arrived, like Lupen Crook and Kid Harpoon, who had a really English sound whilst being terrifyingly new, they shocked me. I still don’t hear enough of that, it was only around for a while. After that I started to explore the true meaning of the genre and the older masters of it, I’m still learning that and trying to clarify it now.

When I was still doing open mic nights I saw Bruce Molsky play. I felt inspired, but also a tad ashamed. Here was a guy who had dedicated his life to keeping truly amazing and well-put-together music from the mountains alive. That’s a folk musician; the antithesis of the self-indulgent modern singer-songwriter.

Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne: I first got into folk music when I was about 10. As a violinist at primary school I started to learn traditional tunes and that got me hooked.

Shortly after I started to explore the folk sessions around Worcestershire and Herefordshire and just became immersed in the scene and started to discover this amazing music. So from my perspective it was getting involved with the folk scene as a musician that got me hooked initially rather than hearing other artists. Though there are countless artists that I’ve seen or heard over the years that have inspired me to take my music in various other directions.

I remember hearing a man at a folk club (whose name I can’t remember) in around 2007 singing with a concertina and it was one of the most incredible things I’d ever heard and that inspired me to get a concertina the following year.

Hearing John Spiers play in 2009 inspired me to pick up a melodeon later that year and it was seeing groups like Spiers and Boden and Faustus that made me want to get a group together. Eventually in 2009 I did that with two friends from high school and that group, Granny’s Attic, is still going and gigging regularly.

The solo performing is a much more recent development. I’ve only really been starting to take solo gigs for the past year or so. It was inspired in part by the fact I found myself listening to more solo performers, like John Kirkpatrick, Peter Bellamy, Tony Rose and Pete Coe and thought it would be nice to perform something in the same vein as them as well as keeping the band going.

Between 2012-14, the likes of Mumford and Sons, Laura Marling, Inside Llewyn Davis, the New Basement Tapes and even Jake Bugg brought folk stylings right into the middle of pop culture. Why do you think that populist revival happened, and what was the reception among traditional folk musicians and fans?

RJ: Your term ‘folk stylings’ is right there, because the only element of real folk in those artists is Jake Bugg’s socially aware lyrics. I never heard the New Basement Tapes. Inside Llewlyn Davis, whilst being an interesting production, represented the worst and most pathetic elements of the modern singer-songwriter… again, nothing necessarily to do with folk music.

The problem and the strength of folk music is in people’s understanding of it. At worst people see an acoustic guitar or banjo and think ‘folk’ but that’s not right. Folk is more than a sound. It’s a way to tell stories about people and history, a way to talk about society and to empower people and keep tradition alive.

It’s as powerful an idea as punk for me. A folk song can be played by an orchestra or a 3 piece rock band setup. By the same token a punk song can be played on a harp. They are both genres that have nothing to do with the sound, they are to do with what the song is saying and what the direction and message of the music are.

Folk music will always carry weight and come round again to the centre of society periodically because it has a core strength and message, just like punk has. Using the ‘sound’ of folk music to sell pop music or love songs is another thing entirely.

CBK: I suppose these sorts of artists have been successful because people like hearing something slightly different that still fits within the parameters of popular music.

What the likes of Mumford and Sons seem to have done is incorporate elements of American folk and country music into popular music. It seems to me that most people on the English folk scene aren’t really fans of theirs; their fusing of pop music and Americana doesn’t really seem to offer much for English folkies.

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The Mumfords were pop-folk-rock posterboys on both sides of the Atlantic but their 2015 follow-up fell flat. Pop culture already seemed to have moved on as quickly as it had adopted pop-folk. Why do you think that happened, and why do you think it happened so quickly?

RJ: Pop music will always move quicker and quicker, people’s attention spans shorten over time I reckon. That’s why to try and jump on any of their bandwagons is truly pointless.

CBK: Not sure really. It seems to me that Mumfords were sort of a flavour of the month for a while and people have moved onto the next thing. Though I do still hear people talking about Mumfords so they must still be doing well. I know very little about popular music so I’m not really the best person to answer this question.

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Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne

Do you like, for example, the Mumfords or the Lumineers?

CBK: I haven’t listened to much of this sort of music (I haven’t even heard of the Lumineers!) but I have to say that what I have listened to hasn’t really done much for me.

Folk music seems has the capacity to endure and sustain a culture – arguably for longer than any other form. What, if any, lasting impact has that window of popularity had on the folk music scene?

RJ: It’s grown it massively and also diluted it.

CBK: I don’t think that the emergence of pop-folk artist had any impact on the folk scene really, certainly not the part of the folk scene I’m involved in.

For whatever reason folk music seems to have a lot of endurance. If you look at the history of folk in this country over the past 150 years or so it seems to be full of people fearing or lamenting the demise of folk music and traditional songs and we are yet to see this music disappear, so that can only be a good thing.

When you play live have you noticed a change in your audience over the last five years in terms of size or demographic?

RJ: Ha, I’m normally just happy if people come to my gigs. Personally I think I’ve grown closer in age to the small amount of people who are interested in what I write, I’m still trying to find my people to be honest.

CBK: I have certainly noticed growing audiences with my group over the years but I think that is down more to us becoming better known on the folk scene than new people being brought into the scene and coming to our gigs. Certainly it seems that the people who come to our gigs have been on the scene for many years, though there are a healthy number of young people new to the scene.

What’s next for folk music?

RJ: I want to see it walk hand in hand with the punk aesthetic. It’s already happening; there is a deep frustration in the heart of all creative and sensitive people and this needs to be addressed and shared. Folk music needs to ditch the love song and start fighting. I’d rather hear less of the softly spoken folk we hear so much and see some shouting – ‘to rally the rest into revolution’ as Lupen Crook said.

CBK: It may be that the music and folk scene as a whole needs to adapt and change to survive, but for me the folk scene is so brilliant at the moment that I don’t really want much to change.

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Bromyard Folk Festival runs from September 9 - 11. Tickets, including day tickets, are still available and there is a 20% discount for residents of the HR7 area.

Top Picks for Bromyard Folk Festival 2016 by Mark Bowen

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