When I started off playing music professionally I still laboured under the misapprehension that the listener responded to the music I made in the same way I felt it. Put that down, firstly, to an inherited tendency to think the world revolves around me (thanks, Ma!) but also to a strong dose of naivety.
Gradually over time and with much disillusionment I came to realize that only a very small proportion of listeners actually hear music ‘for its own sake’ by which I mean independent of the myriad of contexts in which it sits….the age, style, image, attitude, politics of the artists who make and perform it ..for a start. So many people wear their music like a tribal badge of identity, a common bond of inclusivity. ‘I’m into Florence and the Machine…are you?’ kinda thing, with the ‘music’ being actually peripheral to the whole package…which in the case of Florence is perhaps somewhat understandable (ouch!).. but you know what I mean.
Later, when I started to play traditional music and worked mainly within the UK ‘folk scene’ as it was known, I found these tendencies to be even more exaggerated. More often than not politics (left wing) became the central context in which music was experienced and an artist’s music was often judged by the political stance he or she adopted. Worst of all was not to have any. How often, too, did ‘musical artists’ come to the fore who really were political agitators in disguise, artists whose musical ‘arsenal’ was basic, unimaginative and wholly derivative but whose agility with the ‘bon mot’, instinct for exploiting and capitalizing on the mood of the moment was finely honed. Pre internet and mobile phones, the need for social cohesion that, in my view, gave the folk scene one of its main raisons d’être gave a platform to a host of ‘entertainers’, comedians and commentators whose communication skills often enabled them to present themselves as leading lights in folk music. Nothing wrong with them tasting success. It was often great entertainment. But did it have much to do with music? Not a lot, really.
In the Irish context, traditional music and song has always nestled in an overall political context, that of rebellion, rejection of the old enemy Britain and, to an extent, of modernity in general, a regret for things past and gone forever. Particularly in the 80s, when the political tension was ratcheted up to a degree between Ireland and Britain to the extent that some were regrettably convinced, on their own or by others, that hunger strike was the only option, it was so often assumed within the traditional music camp that a love of ‘The Music’ went hand in hand with support for violence. Again, failure to toe the party line was frowned upon. The lone wolf in me got tired of all that appropriation of music for ulterior motives and I have plowed a terminally non aligned furrow ever since I broke away in the 80s.
I find that people too, depending on whether they feel liberated or threatened by the prospect of the future, tend to mirror those traits in the music they embrace. Folk music old, substantial, good…pop music young, lightweight, bad, for instance. Me, I feel there’s some really bad pop music but equally some ghastly folk music. Personally I feel that new music, pop or otherwise, is the future and while I fiercely love the best in my native music and hugely enjoy playing it, it no longer interests me as a vehicle for progress. more one of comfort, security and nostalgia…and, yes, joy.
But perhaps this appropriation of music for ulterior motives is just a factor of youth, that period where we will grab at anything to bolster up our sense of ourselves as belonging, having validity, being relevant…a time when we delude ourselves till the cows come home that this or that music is the only one worth admitting to our imaginary inner circle, based on whatever contextual baggage is flavour of the month.
As my own audience ages with me I find that more and more they simply relate and respond to what is in the music I make rather than claim it as a badge of identity. I set off on this tour slightly concerned that the variety on my new record Hooba Dooba would be more than they could deal with. How wrong I was. A woman I met after the Edinburgh gig who had first seen me 20 odd years ago and who had brought along her 19 yr old metal head son, now a fan, asked me was the song ‘The Winners Ball’ influenced by watching the tv series ‘The Wire’. Hooba Dooba! She’d got it in one. There’s a lot to be said for maturity. You tend to finally really hear stuff…