Folk taps into shared heritage

Wales' Jack Harris cites Irish folk as an influence.

By Colleen Taylor

Summer is the season of folkies. As a self-professed folkie fetishist, I always enjoying revamping my music collection with new folk songs when the weather turns warm. This summer, I find myself looking to some of Irish folk’s favorite cousins across the Irish Sea in Scotland, England, and Wales. On this side of the pond, those musical cultures are sometimes overshadowed by the impressive, thriving presence of Irish folk music, but many English folk artists share a common interest in Irish folk music and enjoy collaborating with Ireland’s best musical innovators. One of the most extraordinary things about modern-day folk music is global collaboration and shared heritage. Ireland, England, and Scotland share a common musical proclivity when it comes to folk music, and they are happy to exchange and produce new interpretations of that common history. Lately, I’ve been listening to Bellowhead and Newton Faulkner and becoming gradually more enchanted by Jack Harris and Karine Polwart.

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Bellowhead is a contemporary folk band based in England but its 11 members come from all over England, Ireland, and even the States. Unlike the typical folk solo artist, this band has an impressive presence onstage. With 11 members and many more instruments as ammunition, Bellowhead is able to make folk music loud and dramatic. In particular, the band is known for mixing some jazz flare into the traditional folk chords—they have trumpets, tambourines, and saxophones to match their concertinas and melodeons. The band has released five original studio albums, the latest of which is “Revival” (2014). Their third album, “Hedonism,” was the highest selling independently-released folk album of all time. Sadly, however, it looks like the Bellowhead legacy will be coming to a premature end. The band just announced two farewell tours, the first in November of this year, and the second in April and May of 2016. With lead singer Jon Boeden taking a break, the band collectively decided to call it a day and go out with a bang. Still, plenty of time remains to enjoy what Bellowhead has to offer. Their song “London Town” is one of my favorites. They also recorded a stunning choir piece, “Pslam 143,” with Dublin’s Christ Church choir.

Bellowhead's members come from all over.

Newton Faulkner has played a large part in keeping folk music contemporary and cool in England. Known for his percussionist style of guitar playing and his signature dreadlocks, this Surrey singer blends pop and folk into a fun acoustic fusion of acoustic. “Gone in the Morning,” for instance, is an energetic, playful song: you’ll hear how Faulkner is keeping folk music fresh for young ears. His first studio album, “Hand Built by Robots” was number 1 in 2007, and now he is working on his fifth studio album.

Welshman Jack Harris cites Irish folk as a main influence in his songwriting. His performances display him as a modern-day seanchaí, crafting songs and stories alike. His interests are primarily folk music, but he also incorporates blues, country, and even gospel, as well as has a talent for poetry. As a young teenager, he was the first international musician to win the songwriting competition at Texas’s Kerryville Folk Festival. He joined the likes of Steve Earle, a previous winner, in that honor. As of 2015, Harris has released three studio albums and his latest, “The Flame and the Pelican” reached number six in the EuroAmericana Charts. My favorite on this album, “Donegal,” found its romantic inspiration in the Irish countryside. It’s a gorgeous love song and proves Harris’s skill as a ballad writer.

Karine Polwart has won a number of BBC Radio awards.

Karine Polwart can be classified as Scotland’s Cara Dillon. She started out as a member of the Battlefield Band, but has had great success as a solo singer-songwriter. Polwart has won a number of BBC Radio Folk Awards and Scottish album awards. With six studio albums under her belt already, there’s certainly more great folk music to come from the singer. I’ve been listening regularly to her most recent release, “Threshold,” released in 2013. It’s soft, acoustic, and moving music. Her vocals are sweet and poignant—they are effective, despite their tranquility. Try listening to “Rivers Run” or “Daisy.” If Kate Rusby is the Queen of English Folkies, Polwart is certainly in the running for Scotland’s crown.

Newton Faulkner is keeping folk fresh for young ears.

The folk music scene across the Atlantic is arguably as rich and innovative as it was two centuries ago. Today, the best folk artists welcome global influences with big, open arms, but they never lost sight of the honored cultural heritage to which we all belong.

Colleen Taylor writes the “Music Notes” column in the Irish Echo.