WORDS: Gary Budden
“Delving into traditional folk is on the one hand like hearing the voices of people whose names are long forgotten, their stories, their creativity, dreams, hopes and struggles, and on the other is just a natural expression of rainy island roots and culture – North Atlantic style”
The tail end of 2014 saw the release of the debut studio album from Firepit Collective, the folk band formed by Jay Terrestrial, lead singer of legendary UK punk/dub/ska band the Inner Terrestrials who have been a firm fixture at squat parties, free festivals, and sweaty pubs across the UK for two decades now. They are very good and you should go and listen to them.
In the ‘Bumf’ section of To the Lost’s liner notes they answer the question as to how ‘a crew from a background of punk rock, free festivals, raves, urban sound systems, squats and travellers’ sites come to be playing this kind of music? The simple answer is it was inevitable.’
What kind of music are we talking about then? Folk music, sure, but that’s a nebulous term at best. We’re talking mainly British folk music, but the record includes Appalachian songs from North America, Spain, Italy as well as many British traditionals and original songs that, unsurprisingly, don’t sound at all out of place – the only difference being they are slightly more contemporary in their concerns and political in a way fitting people with links to the anarcho-punk scene.
Why is it inevitable that people from the assorted tribes of Britain’s alternative cultures – hammered down by hostile legislation and perhaps not as strong as it once was, but still very much there – start playing folk music? It’s not much of a mental stretch to reach the conclusion that be it rave, reggae, gypsy, folk, country, punk, oi, ska or hip-hop, it’s all music from the bottom up; people’s music that often exists and persists, is (or was) performed and danced to in in-between places.
Of course, every single one of these genres has been packaged, commodified and sold to a wider audience in various watered-down forms for a long time now. Every single one of these genres has its fair share of commercial crap and artists you could define as a ‘sell-out’. This, I would argue, doesn’t matter that much. The core remains intact.
The term folk, in a British sense at least, is just as likely to conjure up visions of groups such as nu-folkies like Mumford & Sons (who I have nothing against really, but it doesn’t do much for me) as it would Ewan MacColl, The Levellers or Fairport Convention (all of whom I like very much). I’ll concede that the term should be open to interpretation; it’s just that my version of folk doesn’t include faux-rural strumming used on adverts to sell smartphones.
I spoke to Jay from Firepit Collective over email:
I’ll give you my opinion- punk and reggae are folk music, grass roots music by the people for the people. As for radical? It’s not necessarily so, I enjoy a good ballad and we’ve all seen babies dance to it haven’t we? It would be true to say a lot of folk music has been radical. For example in the 20th century, a lot of artists were outspoken in their fight against militarism, racism, sexism and other forms of oppression. There have also been themes of resistance, revolution, paganism and cultural taboos throughout the ages when meanings often had to be hidden to avoid the wrath of the church and state. That said that there’s some very nationalistic trouser swinging stuff out there as well as the leftfield and revolutionary.
. . . it’s not for me, or anyone else really, to define what a folk song is. Firepit Collective is a project that likes to explore trad folk style among other things, but as I said earlier I had a lot of influences. many of them contemporary folk players from the 60’s and 70’s not to mention all the rock, punk, psychedelia, blues, reggae, ska, dub, and countless other musical styles from all over the world. Personally I’m not a fan of the band you mention [Mumford and Sons] in your question, it’s not my cup of tea mainly because I find that kind of sound a bit contrived and lacking in integrity, not because it doesn’t fit into a genre
The links to the world of the hippies, crusties and travellers were there in the British punk scene from fairly early on. Perhaps, as the liner notes say, it was inevitable. As soon as the first, largely apolitical wave of punk had passed and their slogans had been taken seriously by the anarcho-punks of the early 80s, who put them into some sort of action, the links between this new branch of people’s music with older folk traditions of the British Isles soon began to make themselves clear. An obvious example that most would be able to recognise are The Pogues, mixing trad. Irish folk with the energy and attitude of London punk. Post-punk bands like New Model Army started to mix in folk elements of albums like Thunder and Consolation. Billy Bragg sang songs about the Diggers (‘World Turned Upside Down’) making attempts to link the politicised bands of the 80s with the radical currents of the English Civil War (Levellers, Diggers, Ranters and so on).
Further underground, the early 80s saw the formation of a number of key bands (following in the wake of Crass) who started cementing links between the punk movement and animal rights issues, folk culture, the New Age traveller movement, squatting, neo-paganism and what I’ll call ‘landscape politics’.
Jay explains, ‘My parents were into festivals, I used to go to them as a toddler. I remember a squat in Kirkdale my dad’s band used to rehearse in and I used to go with him, I can remember my baby brother in the rehearsal room in his pram. The alternative scene has always been a part of my life because of the culture around me growing up. I started squatting going to festivals, parties and gigs as a young teenager, travellers were always part of it, especially the free festivals. There has always been a crossover of squatters/travellers particularly among those who are looking for alternatives to the given hierarchy. All around Europe there are still squatted buildings with sites attached to them, the distinction isn’t massive though there are sometimes differences.
The main difference is that many travellers make a living on the road. For me it’s with music and occasionally other bits of work when need arises, for others it’s with seasonal work – daffodils in early spring, crewing and performing at festivals in summer, apples in the autumn etc. A lot of us spend a good six months of the year on the road then find other bits of work and site up somewhere quiet for the winter.
One of the best (and most notorious) anarcho-punk bands, Conflict, were the first band to really address the issue of animal rights (and the knock-on issues of the class and privilege of those engaged in destructive hunting and food production practises). Bands like The Mob, more anarcho-post-punk than anything, were strongly involved in the squat scene of London (especially Hackney) in the early 80s along with groups like Zounds and Blythe Power, before drifting into the world of the New Age Travellers. Chumbawamba, who are correctly regarded as being pretty rubbish, started life as an anarcho-band (who actually had one or two good songs) and even recorded an a capella LP of English rebel songs from across the centuries, on the aptly titled English Rebel Songs 1381 – 1984, featuring versions of songs dating from the Peasants’ Revolt like ‘The Cutty Wren’, ‘The Diggers’ Song’ and ‘World Turned Upside Down’ from the English Civil War period, all the way up to ‘Coal Not Dole’ from the, then recent, miners’ strike.
The most important band to come from this period in regards to landscape punk (a genre that I’m making up right now) is the Scottish band Oi Polloi, who started life as big fans of the street punk sound popularised by the Cockney Rejects and Blitz, before taking that sound and approach and melding it with Earth First! style-politics and eco-issues, eventually ending up giving up English altogether and singing primarily in Scots Gaelic. They are also, to my knowledge, the only progressive anarcho-hippy-oi band to sing a punk song in Gaelic about the LINUX operating system.
The list of Oi Polloi songs dealing with British landscape politics and a kind of crusty psychogeography is a long one; ‘Take Back the Land’, ‘Terra-ist’, ‘The Earth is Our Mother’, ‘No More Roads’, ‘Thin Green Line’, ‘Free the Henge’ and many more, ranging from the excellent to the mildly embarrassing. Their LPs are adorned with the kind of Celtic-hippy imagery that you’d expect to find at a Rainbow Gathering, not on the t-shirts and jackets of punks and skinheads. I myself have an Oi Polloi ‘In Defence of Our Earth’ tattoo on my left shoulder, complete with lithe earth-spirits holding a banner. It embarrasses my girlfriend terribly. It was through listening to them I first learned about the Highland Clearances in Scotland in the nineteenth century and about minority-language issues the world over.
The nineties saw the formation of the aforementioned Inner Terrestrials, along with other key groups such as Cress, P.A.I.N, and on the more mainstream-friendly end of things, the Levellers. Alongside Oi Polloi, the Inner Terrestrials are the band that most strongly bridge the gaps between the various underground cultures I’ve been discussing. With songs like ‘The Movin’ On Song’ (a Ewan MacColl cover, concerning the plight of gypsies), ‘Enter the Dragon’, ‘Earth Must’ and ‘Barry Horne’, their mix of raging punk, dub and folk elements neatly ties up most of the strands of the British underground. The concept of the spirit of the British landscape being ‘the dragon’ is something I find very appealing; and reflected in various sources such as early Hellblazer comics where John Constantine shacks up with the travellers to fight Tories hell-bent on destroying Britain’s ley lines. (The early comics were a great melding of occult and alternative Britain – Constantine was an ex-punk, after all.)
So back to the new Firepit Collective record. It’s clear that a bunch of punks, ravers and hippies playing traditional folk music is not really unusual at all; the links are obvious – it’s inevitable.
To the Lost is a fantastic record, and a must for anyone interested in punk, folk and Britain’s radical cultures. The traditional songs on the record include ‘Georgie’, about a gypsy lad on Shooters Hill in Kent, the sea shanty ‘Hanging Johnny’, ‘Durhamericana Set’ (an excellent pun) which mixes reels from the north of England with American bluegrass, and a reworking of ‘Johnny Has Gone For a Soldier’, with added verses about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and topped off with a poem from Chris Bowsher of anarcho-dub legends Radical Dance Faction (in case the links between sub-genres needed one further hammering home).
I asked Jay about the selection process – what traditional songs to use and why?
The traditional songs on the album are ones I have been singing for a good while, many years in some cases… there is a huge amount of material out there and I have always been selective about the ones I choose to play, I avoid singing songs that i feel are nationalist, sycophantic towards royalty and the aristocracy or that glorify war for example (there are far too many that fit into those categories!) It’s an impossible task to re-live the process that led to this point through all the decades, but I’ll try and explain something about it . . . Artists that had trad folk in their sound like Led Zeppelin and Dylan were an influence from early days but I remember really taking notice when I heard Traffic’s version of ‘John Barleycorn Must Die’ at around 14 or 15 years old, I realised there were depths to it that spoke to me, pre-Christian origins even. It started me wondering about the bardic path, the oral tradition, the stories passed along until the names of the authors are long forgotten. Occasionally I go through periods of researching songs and tunes, sometimes inspired by a version I’ve heard, sometimes discovered in books and manuscripts or in rare cases stumbled upon on the internet. Basically as I said in the sleeve notes of the new album it’s partly an expression of roots and culture North Atlantic style but mainly it’s about playing music we like to play.
And why the Spanish, Italian and Appalachian songs?
They’re great songs! The Italian song ‘Bella Ciao’ is an anti-fascist anthem of the partisan fighters and is a subject close to my heart, ‘Ay Carmela’ is a song of the Spanish anarchists again a subject I find politically relevant in these dark days of creeping right-wing hysteria. The Appalachian tunes have got a real charm to them, European folk with blues and Creole influences. I first heard ‘Deep Sea’ on a folk radio station called WUMB and loved it straight away. ‘Poor Liza Jayne’ was something the fiddler David Garner played me and I locked myself away and learned how to pick it in my newly discovered DADGAD tuning, an achievement I was very proud of!
There are a number of originals on the album. ‘Winter Mist’ is a tribute to the road protesters of the 90s, and to Old Mick, a Claremont Road M11 activist who was burned on a funeral pyre in Lyminge Forest in Kent. Elsewhere we get almost mythologised visions of the English landscape in ‘I Choose the Road’ with its talk of ‘green hills in the distance / calling me home’ and ‘Ridgeway Downs’ describing gatherings ‘under the Solstice sun’. Thematically it’s very much in line with earlier generations of back-to-land idealists, the folk revivals of the 60s and 70s, the hippies and the punks. Nothing new, but a strong link in the chain.
The importance, to me, of this music is to show that an engagement with the land, with the British landscape can be – is – felt as deeply by ‘the people’ as much as the more academic, rarefied (and just a wee bit bourgeois) approaches popularised by writers such as Robert MacFarlane and the brand of mainstream folk-influenced music that is currently popular. I asked Jay about the class issues attached to the land in Britain:
It has been challenged throughout time (see below for an example) and as long as there are free thinkers and people who refuse to be dictated to it will continue to be questioned and resisted. It’s a preposterous notion that people whose ancestors were thieves and murderers and are often thieves and murderers themselves have earned some kind of historical right to lord it over the rest of us. Anyone with half a brain cell can see that.
The music is essentially just music, Firepit Collective doesn’t exist a political vehicle although it can work as one. I just write lyrics that reflect my passions
I’ll finish on a quote from a reasonable man –
“…the Earth was not made to be the successive inheritance of children of murderers that had the strongest arm of flesh and the best sword, that can tread others under foot with a bold brazen forehead under colour of law and justice as the Norman power does…”
Gerrard Winstanley 1649
Nothing radical about that, just plain sense.
PS As an extra I asked Jay for his favourite bits of the UK to appeal to all you landscape enthusiasts. Here they are:
Well there are lots of untouched and quiet places I know that are very hard to find and also too many others to name five as my definitive best but I’ll give you five real beauties
Deer Leap and Ebbor Gorge – Mendip , Somerset
Just up the road from Priddy village (which incidentally hosts my favourite folk festival) lies Deer leap with its awe inspiring views. West is the Severn Sea, South Wales and the Devon border, east the Somerset levels as far as the Salisbury plain and south lies Dorset. Ebbor Gorge, just across from Deer Leap has tall limestone outcrops towering through ancient ash forest, it’s like a land that time forgot
– May Hill – Longhope, Gloucestershire
An ancient meeting place May Hill can be seen from all over this part of the country. It has views over The Forest of Dean, Severn Valley, Cotswolds and Brecon Beacons
– The Isle of Purbeck, Dorset
The coastal paths around the Isle of Purbeck are a beauty. It’s avery primal place, there are no beaches here and the cliff paths are not that kid friendly so consequently not so many tourists. If you want a swim you can climb down the path to Dancing Ledge and its rock pool (caution the sea has strong currents)
– The White Horse of Uffington, Dragon Hill and Waylands Smithy – Oxfordshire
The Ridgeway is our oldest road and is littered with ancient monuments. Supposed to have once run from the Norfolk coast to the Dorset coast (it still does if you want to navigate a route). It’s a short walk between Waylands Smithy and the White Horse (dragon..) of Uffington, you’ll see views far across Oxfordshire and Wiltshire
– Maidencombe – Torbay, Devon
A tiny little cove that’s never that busy, only catches the sun in the morning. If you walk from there along the South West coastal path towards Teignmouth you’ll have views east all the way to the Jurassic Coast.
Some punk/folk/whatever songs
- Inner Terrestrials – Enter the Dragon
‘Our life is the dragon, a being immortal, invincible, infinite rebirth.’
- Firepit Collective – Winter Mist
- Cress – Monuments
‘I just want to touch the stones / And watch the sun rise’
- Oi Polloi – Take Back the Land
- The Levellers – Men an Tol
‘I rest among what still remains of lives that passed before.’
- Chumbawamba – The Diggers’ Song
- P.A.I.N – Beltane
‘There’s still a few sad bastards who like country and clean air.’
- New Model Army – Song to the Men of England
- Jay Terrestrial – Ridgeway Downs
1. For an excellent analysis of some of this stuff, up to 90s, I’d recommend reading George Mckay’s Senseless Acts of Beauty (Verso, 1996)
2. The Hellblazer book most worth tracking down in regards to this piece is ‘The Fear Machine’ by Jamie Delano and much of Paul Jenkins’ run too.
3. You can buy the Firepit Collective record here: http://innerterrestrials.bigcartel.com/product/firepit-collective-debut-studio-album-to-the-lost-pre-order
4. The full interview with Jay Terrestrial is on my blog here:http://newlexicons.blogspot.co.uk/2015/01/interview-with-jay-from-firepit.html