I was interested to see news of a major new project (with what I would call ‘proper research funding’) on the theme of access, participation and diversity in English folk music. As this came around the same time as the English Folk Dance and Song Society was consulting about a change of name, I got the sense of a head of steam building up about a group of related issues. There may, of course, be lessons for Scotland, Wales and Ireland in such work, even though the contexts are different. The research project is headed by Sheffield singer and academic, Fay Hield, so I caught up with her to investigate the details.
Can you tell me about the aims of this new project – and also where the funding has come from, as I imagine it’s not easy to get funding in England for folk-related projects?
“The funding comes from UKRI, the public body which oversees research and innovation in the UK. It’s all about the framing - if I applied for funding to rescue folk clubs, no, that wouldn’t be successful, but I asked for money to understand how people want to connect with Englishness, in a post-Brexit, anti-colonialist kind of narrative. So this project is looking at how we understand our cultural traditions, right back to the basics of what we think they are, and then exploring how they can be positively used in contemporary society. The overall aim of the project is to increase access and diversity in English folk singing participation - I basically want more people to get out of singing what I do!”
How would you say the project relates to the issues and concerns that have been circulating around the folk scene in the last few years?
“Trying to get new people into folk music is hardly an original idea. Organisers and singers alike have tried various approaches to draw new, often younger, people in, and there have been comments made about the whiteness of the scene for decades. A lot of effort has gone into trying to address these issues, with some localised successes, but so far little seems to be making a huge impact at national level.”
“Through this project I want to draw all that activity and knowledge together to pinpoint what we don’t know and try to find some answers that work. I’d love to see a shift in the general awareness and understanding of English folk. I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel or be the know-it-all at the top; the project is co-produced, which means people directly involved in the field will have equal power to the academics in deciding what questions are followed, how the funds are spent and how we interpret and share the findings.”
I reckon folk music is often discussed as if the only places you’ll find it are in folk clubs or at festivals. Are there any ways in which the work will go beyond that?
“This is the nub of it for me. Rather than starting in the existing scene and working outwards, I am keen to go directly to people who have an interest in exploring their cultural heritage but don’t have access to it for various reasons. I want to see in what kind of events, activities, or other ways that I can’t yet imagine, they would like to engage with this music.”
“This might be very close to what already exists, or it might be completely different. We need to be open to the need for huge changes. We need to make sure new people are genuinely able to feel comfortable and participate, but also that we don’t change what exists so much that the current singers who get a lot out of it lose the magic they already have.”
What sorts of methods will the project use, and do you have any particular picture of what might emerge from the work?
“As it is co-produced, I can’t dictate what methods will be used, but the framework I am proposing includes a year of research following the protected characteristics framework, so looking at race, sexuality, disability, gender etc., to identify what is an issue for these areas, and to develop some tentative understandings of what people want.”
“This will be followed by two to three years of action research, where events are put on, building from those findings, to test out what works, tweak them and test again. By the end of the project we should have some emerging new communities and a body of understanding about how different kinds of people want to, and can, engage in English cultural traditions.”
How can people contribute to the project?
“I am looking for people to get involved in all levels of the project from answering surveys, feeding into advisory groups to sitting on the Steering Committee. Calls will be shared widely on social media over the duration of the project, and I’d welcome anyone with an interest, or ideas for people or groups to work with to get in touch with me directly at email@example.com.”
Thanks, Fay – a really interesting and important few years lie ahead!