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At the heart of English folk

Instrumentation and Folk Music

by Jo Freya, singer, multi-instrumentalist and composer.

Jo Freya

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.


#17 trevor john wilkinso 2016-05-18 14:14
Come on folkies ! The recent BBC Young Musican 2016 finals included 2 Transposing instruments out of the 3 musicians playing. There are hardly any amateur folk musicians playing these instruments yet the professional bands have them in abundance ! There is a big disconnect occurring here and I hope this will be rectified going forward. I hope you can support this and share with any interested musicians. Folk will be all the more interesting for it :o)
#16 Trevor Wilkinson 2015-12-06 12:07
Hi again Jo,
Some excellent comments here and as a fully paid up member of the folk transposing world with my Eb Tenor Horn, and coming from a background of only using sheet music, with no learning by ear, I am very interested in this Folk Digital project currently ongoing :-

I personally use digital resources extensively to ease my folk development and would suggest that many other orchestral/brass band musicians would enter the world of folk if it was made easier for transposing instruments to jump the initial high hurdles with many musical benefits to the whole
folk movement.
#15 Peter Crowther 2015-11-08 14:48
Oh, how I recognise that as a bass guitarist! Amusingly, I think the most accepting "trad" session I ever attended was at an Irish pub in Galway. From memory, the first three instruments through the door were pipes, sax, and didgeridoo, and it got better from there. A lovely session with a very strong Irish feel to the music.

It would certainly be interesting to run a two-question survey in the folk world:

1) How old does a type of instrument have to be before it is considered appropriate for "traditional" music?

2) Why?
#14 Alley York 2015-11-08 13:58
I have experienced the same as a saxophonist in certain sessions. While it is sometimes gratifying at the end when someone who started out by glaring at the sax before I made a noise has come up to me at the end and expressed their surprise and pleasure that it can work in a session, (as with Jo, I try to keep the sax to be of a level so that I am playing WITH others rather than at or over others) it can be rather daunting to be faced with a glare from the off!
#13 Johnny Adams 2015-11-08 11:09
Nice article Jo, and some food for thought.

The Village Music Project has been studying musicians manuscripts for over 15 years now (see my article in the next issue of EDS). Much of the dance music that we all like to play (and describe as folk) originated in the 18thC and although the predominant instruments seem to be fiddle and flute, lots of other instruments are represented including bassoons, cornets, clarinets, etc. Cecil Sharp collected from the Winder band in Wyresdale and they had fiddles, cornets, woodwind and a full sized concert harp. Back in the 70s, I interviewed a 90 year old lady who had played hammer dulcimer in a local country dance band alongside a fiddle and two cornets. Any discrimination these days is misplaced, accepting the previous comments about appropriate use.

You only have to look at Bellowhead (love 'em or hate 'em) to see that a whole range of 'classical' instruments can be effectively brought into play.

#12 Jacki Page 2015-11-08 11:04
If we look back to past centuries, any instrument or no instrument was accepted. People just made and enjoyed music. It is only since the Revival that we have become precious about it! When I began singing at the Yetties club in Yeovil all those years ago, there were some real folk snobs around. But people like Joan Baez and Bob Dylan brought many people through the door, who came to love and sing other, earlier songs. And, in turn, these people began to write their own songs, and incorporate other instruments. Does anyone really think that Show of Hands is not a Folk group? That John Connolly's Fidders Green, or Ralph Mactell's Galway Farmer are not Folk Songs? My first experience of Brass instruments in folk was a group called Brass Monkey. Martin Carthy and John Kirkpatrick not folk musicians? Hmmmm.......Keep blowing, Jo, and we'll keep enjoying!
#11 Adrian McNally 2015-11-07 13:02
Lots of very good points Jo, made from lots of different angles. I quite agree with every word. While folk music is many things, the issue with sessions is perhaps that the session sound has to some extent become a vernacular in itself, and so when people hear a different timbre in it, emanating from an instrument they more commonly associate with a different vernacular, it rubs their ears up the wrong way. That might be because the last guy that turned up with a sax was a buffoon and so they're tarnishing you with the same brush. It is better to listen, than judge, but some of people listen with their eyes! Ultimately, the central principle of playing folk music is one of inclusivity, much as in reality, you often wouldn't know it!
#10 Hans Fried 2015-11-05 00:39
I wholeheartedly support the whole of this project. Sadly I'm not able to contribute to the EFDSS and this fund in particular together with some support for Douglas Kennedy hall but I am intending to my will as an additional appendage.
#9 Ian Fraser 2015-11-04 17:39
Hi, Jo.
I have had the pleasure of singing folk songs with Trevor's accompaniment, and found the resulting effect quite beautiful.
The horn can give a very haunting feel to not only sensitive songs, but also to slow airs. Folk purists who decry this innovation should first experience the sound.
#8 Alan_Morley 2015-11-04 16:40
Having played with Jo in French music sessions many years ago in Nottingham, I can confirm how well her selection of instruments blend with gurdies, melodeons and more.
As she points out it's not what you play - it's how you play it. As in any session it's important to listen to everyone else and play sympatheticaly.

Alan Morley
National Youth Folk Ensemble

National Youth Folk Ensemble


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