Britain is the home of a (long-faded) Empire, the Beatles, fish and chips and any number of popular cultural icons. It's been swinging and cool, a dowager duchess and a catwalk pinup. But scrape away the surface and it's three countries (England, Scotland and Wales), all rich in folk traditions and history.
Until the very end of the 19th century, few people in England paid attention to folk music. It was associated with rural labouring classes, the songs and tunes played for pleasure and dancing in the pub or 'round the hearth, passed on and embellished. Many of the songs originated as popular broadside ballads (printed on broad paper and sold for a penny), then altered and burnished by years of singing. A lot of the old repertoire can be found in the songs of the Copper Family, who have family songbooks dating back beyond the 1850s. There were maypole celebrations around the country, Morris dancing and its variants, and the black smoke of the Industrial Revolution spawned its own songs. The tradition was oral, and all of this simply existed as part of the fabric of England, and few gave it real thought. Perhaps the first to delve deeply was an American professor, Francis Child, who published five volumes of English and Scottish Ballads in the 1890s, and he was followed by Cecil Sharp, who began touring the country collecting songs and dances. Others followed, perhaps little realizing they were helping to preserve something that would die in the radical social upheavals that followed the First World War, as rural life changed completely. But for much of the first half of the 20th century, folk music lay fallow.
It wasn't until the 1950s that an actor, political activist and singer named Ewan MacColl (ironically, a Scot) single-handedly kick-started what was termed the English folk revival. It was a seminal period for the music, as young singers learned the old songs and investigated the traditions. Folk clubs boomed, and everyone wanted to play the guitar. In the wake of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, however, it suddenly seemed flat and old, and it wasn't until 1969, when Fairport Convention released Liege and Liefelectrifying the old, big songsthat folk began to appeal to ears weaned on Rickenbackers, Fenders and amplifiers. English folk-rock had been born, and Fairport were followed by Steeleye Span, Trees, and several other bands plowing the same furrow. While folk-rock passed out of fashion with the advent of punk and new wave. The old acoustic guard kept the folk flag flying through the 1980s, but with very little innovation to push it forward. Only during the 1990s did a new generation appear to add sizzle. They had daunting technical ability and confidence, and a deep knowledge of tradition. Kate Rubsy, Eliza Carthy (daughter of Martin Carthy and Norma Waterson, two of the great luminaries of the folk revival) and a host of others have revitalized English folk music. In the wake of this, regional traditions, like the Northumbrian pipes of Kathryn Tickell, have powered through, making English folk music stronger than it's ever been.
Immigration from what was once the British Empire has also enriched English music. The children of those who came from the West Indies started their own reggae bands in the 1970s, with Matumbi and Misty in Roots being standouts, creating a sound with roots in Jamaica but its consciousness firmly in the U.K. Others followed the trail they blazed, and in Mad Professor (Neil Fraser), Britain has a world-class reggae producer and dub master. Indians, too, found their own hybrid music, taking the traditional bhangra form, originally played at Punjabi harvest festivals, and modernizing it with guitars and synthesizers, to make a sizzling new type of bhangra that still fills dance floors. An offshoot of that was the Asian Underground movement, fashionable for a short while, as a young generation of Anglo-Indians mixed their music with electronica.
The traditions of Wales reach back to bardic times and the great epics of storytelling like the Mabinogion, and certainly the bards and eisteddfods (Welsh-language literature festivals) have given continuity to song and music in the country. With its own language, which has stayed in constant currency, Wales is allied to the other Celtic countries, especially Cornwall, which lies just across the Bristol Channel. Wales is forever associated with the harp, especially the unique triple harp, played to great effect these days by Robin Huw Bowen. But there's a great deal more to Welsh music, like the eclectic quartet Fernhill, the traditional Carreg Lafar and singer-harpist Siân James.
Scotland has a deep past, too, though the country was decimated by the clearances of the 1700s, where so many of the poor were forced off their land, moving to the cities or emigrating to Canada. The pipesScotland's great symbolwere banned, and the language forced underground. But music and song remained, not only in the "mouth music"wordless, rhythmic singingof females spinning and weaving, which can still be heard in the Shetland and Orkney isles, but also in the songs and tunes that were collected. Those became the linchpins of a tradition that largely remained fallow until the 1960s, when Scotland was swept along on the coattails of the English folk revival.
Traditional singing had been healthy all along, and people like Catherine-Ann McPhee and Jeannie Robertson suddenly found themselves Scots stars as interest in folk grew. Young bands like Boys of the Lough formed, and singers like Dick Gaughan received their start in the newly minted folk clubs that became a crucible for fledgling talent. Runrig and Wolfstone added electricity, but it's largely been the acoustic players, from fiddler Aly Bain to Silly Wizard, who've had the greatest impact. Piping, of course, has made a comeback, with the Highlands' pibroch form lovingly renewed, and the pipes play an important role in outfits like the Battlefield Band. The house-dance tradition of the céilidh hasn't been forgotten either; you can still find it in the village halls, and younger bands like Shooglenifty have been reinventing it with their "acid croft" style that takes the rush of dance music and transfers it to Scots music (and all on acoustic instruments). Meanwhile, the late Martyn Bennett, a virtuoso piper and fiddler, mixed Scots music with loops, beats and electronica. Chris Nickson