How did the 'close to home ' show go?
‘Close to Home’ was a fantastic show. It was moving, powerful and informative, but also made you want to go out and challenge the injustices documented rather than curl up. It was great to have been personally involved, but also for the theatre company, Ice and Fire, to use folk music to help the narratives along.
Songwriters can have a significant role in highlighting social injustice. In fact it’s likely that since humans first began to sing, to write songs, these topics have been an important strand. In Britain alone we have considerable written records of ‘protest’ songs from as far back as the 14th C right up to the present day. Songs have been one of the key mediums for social commentary. It seems to me that any music purporting to be folk music, music of the people, must surely include the events and observations of the day that have shaped people’s lives so significantly.
I came to guitar quite late, about seventeen years old. But by that point I’d been playing music for twelve years; mostly the piano, and a mixture of classical, jazz and the beginnings of my own songwriting. I would have to include in the influences on my guitar playing Martin Simpson, who I learnt from for some years and have more recently had the chance to work with and perform alongside – an immense guitarist and one of my favourite. Other folk guitarists too, like John Renbourn and Tony McManus. But I’d also have to mention the classical guitar repertoire I worked on for years as an influence. A lot of the ‘early music’ pieces aren’t too far from folk at all, particularly the work of people like Turlough O’ Carolan. Musically and in terms of technique I think classical has been a good grounding.
I tend to write and sing about issues that move me in a human way, and rather than find those songs difficult I tend to find they fire-up my songwriting most of all. Of course, sometimes I feel I might not know enough about an emotive topic to plough right straight in there – the troubles in Ireland being one example I can think of – but I think that’s where the investigative part of songwriting kicks in – you read and you speak to the people you’re writing about.
I think that it is too broad a generalisation to say that the current generation of singer/songwriters are apolitical – I can definitely think of some who aren’t. Nonetheless, I do think there is certainly some truth in what he writes. There’s no doubt that as music has become more commercialised the space for controversial music, particularly any that seeks to undermine the very basis of commerce, has narrowed. I think there’s been a move towards safe, inoffensive, sellable music.
Folk music has always deservedly had the reputation of being able to express and comment on politics, to tell the stories of ordinary people and their struggles in a highly political world. The 1960s revival in folk music was full of political songs, overt and more subtle, and full of political songwriters and performers. There’s a lot around folk music at the moment to celebrate and be very excited about. But it would be a great shame if folk music were to lose this historic mantle, and I think ultimately it could do its relevance and purpose a lot of harm.
First of all, I’d have to say I’m no expert and can only go on what I’ve seen. But it seems to be changing times for the music industry. I think there are also broader changes in the way people listen to music and the way it’s consumed. Some of these are encouraging for the artist, some more daunting. People are increasingly switching to downloading, many to illegal downloading, and I think the music industry and astists have to recognise these shifts. There are exciting initiatives, such as ‘copyleft’ and ‘creative commons’, but I think there needs to be ways found to safeguarding artists’ professions (one interesting proposal: http://huff.to/xxipFC ).
Ah, guitars. I could (and do!) go on about these for a long, long time. I guess my own guitar – a beautiful Brazilian rosewood/spruce small-bodied guitar made by Martin Cole – would be one of my favourites. It has superb clarity and a lovely rounded sound to it, well-suited to the finger-picking music I play. A while back I also came across, and was blown away by, the work of the luthier Ralph Bown and I’m soon collecting the first of two guitars he’s making me. It’ll be a standard OM (but with a few twists) from Amazon Rosewood and European Spruce. Looks like Christmas will come early for me. Fellow guitar nerds, keep an eye trained on my website (www.ewanmclennan.co.uk ) for a blog and lots of photos as soon as I get hold of it.