by Jo Freya, singer, multi-instrumentalist and composer.
This is a look at how we decide whether certain instruments are seen as ‘folk’ or not and how we might come to that conclusion.
This has arisen partly because of some of the instruments I am known for playing e.g. saxophones and partly from discussions with workshop participants at various times and in various places. As part of my life as a musician I have become adept at running mixed instrument ensembles. These have involved instruments as diverse as tenor horn, saxophones, trombones, double basses, cellos, modern transverse flutes and more including those more normally associated with folk music.
It has been recent discussions with a tenor horn player that has brought this subject to the fore for me again. The individual in question has fallen in love with folk music and yet isn’t convinced that he is accepted as a player in the folk world. His chosen instrument was as a result of having a brass band background.
I chose saxophone because I loved the instrument. I learnt penny whistle and wanted to play folk music on the saxophone.
My philosophy has always been ‘it’s not what you play but the way the you play it’ that makes something folk of not.
It’s obvious that fiddles, accordions, bagpipes etc. are all viewed as folk instruments without question and yet even within those instruments themselves they do not always sound ‘folky’. If a fiddle player comes from a classically trained background their learned technique often sets them apart from fiddle players who have learnt from other fiddle players in the folk tradition or from source recordings. It doesn’t mean that a classical violin player can’t play folk, but it does mean they will almost certainly be instantly recognisable as not coming from that background, much like a trained singer and traditional song. Purists in folk music won’t like their classical style but they are unlikely to be ostracised in a session context because of the instrument they play.
I am a folk saxophonist. Everything I play is played in a folk style. I did not learn saxophone from a jazz or classical player. In fact I am completely self-taught. My style, ornamentation, tone and technique are completely informed by whistle and fiddle playing techniques as well as vocal decorations and styles. This means my tone is different and many people, whilst saying my soprano saxophone sounds beautiful, would not say it sounds like a typical sax does because they have an idea from other musical genres of music of what the saxophone should sound like.
However over my lifetime I have at times been frowned upon and have had people walk out of sessions because they believe a sax does not belong in folk. This is despite the fact I am able to play quieter than almost any saxophone player I know, and so, cannot be accused of dominating although I could if I wanted to. I also understand implicitly the feel, and style of the music often better than those around me who are playing the more stereotypical folk instruments. I am not alone here but have known oboe players, bassoonists and others in the same predicament.
My background is folk. I have been living and breathing it since the age of 12. I know no other genre as well and it informs everything that I do. But the same people who might frown on the sax and the tenor horn would easily without question accept the guitar.
The modern six stringed guitar did not really take shape until the early 19th Century. You can trace it’s routes right back to early stringed instruments that are ancient but they were not guitars as we know them. I think it’s important to make a comparison here, because in terms of the sax and brass instruments the same arguments apply but no-one views them as having as long a pedigree. If we accept the guitar because of it’s links to lutes etc then why do we not accept saxophones and brass in relation to their predecessors. The first single reed blown instruments date back to ancient Egypt, the Roman Empire, etc The earliest trombones relate to sackbutts and their development. If the history is there for all of these sets of instruments, why are some more acceptable to the folk world than others?
Is this about a balance of sound in an acoustic setting? Possibly, but how would we feel that applies to bagpipes, particularly the highland pipes, huge piano accordions or dominant tenor banjos. I have certainly been drowned out by most of them at times.
For me it comes down to the way they are played and what they are most commonly used for. If you are like me and understand the genre, you play your instrument to compliment the sounds around you, and learn from their styles to add to the overall effect in a sympathetic way. You study your particular section of folk music and learn it well before you decide to deviate or embellish what previously existed and exists now. If you are a jazz player who just fancies having a go at folk you are playing fusion and not folk music. If you add into this the ability to play in an acoustic environment then it is harder for some instruments than others but it does not mean they can’t play in a folk style. It does mean you have to find different ways to make a balance.
We have a folk world that currently embraces brass and reed players whose role is to punctuate the folk sound but not necessarily playing in a folk style. This is where we have standard folk instruments like fiddles and melodeons but arranged ‘brass’ sections. Often those ‘brass’ players would not describe themselves as folk musicians.
However dotted around we have oboists, bassoonist, saxophonist and brass players who play the tune. This is where they start to become distinctive as ‘folk’ players or not.
Will they ever be accepted? Who knows? Perhaps only where they become as prevalent as guitarists will that be the case. Maybe if such a player were ever to be nominated as folk musician of the year we may see that those of us who play those instruments have been finally accepted. Until then players like my self, the tenor horn player and many others will only feel tolerated by some and not truly accepted by many.
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of EFDSS.