A Core Collection: 21st Century Folk

Post by Peter Viney - Around and Around

The English folk scene is inextricably linked together. Most of them have played on each other’s records. The acts are often sold out at concerts, and Bellowhead, The Unthanks, Eliza Carthy, Seth Lakeman and Laura Marling have had records in the mainstream charts. Laura Marling went in, out, in again and finally out of the list. I decided she was more ‘acoustic songwriter’ than folk.

Folk acts do interesting things, such as The Unthanks touring in cinemas with film. Then The Demon Barbers present in theatres as a kind of musical play.  Then there’s Jon Boden’s decision to do a folk song a day … 365 in a year, all as downloads. They come in monthly segments, and mix deep tradition with things like Janis Joplin’s Mercedes Benz because you can argue whether folk is a style, or a state of mind, or all traditional material or whether it admits new original songs.

If you have an image of a girl looking like Joan Baez strumming an acoustic guitar quietly, singing in a Mummerset accent as folk, think again. Spiers and Boden could get up as a duo, just violin, accordion and an amplified stamp board for the foot and make a place REALLY rock and get everyone on their feet moving too. 21st century folk acts often intersperse songs with what they call “tunes” but which most of us might describe as instrumentals or jigs and reels.

As this is the idea of “a core collection” I’m choosing just ten albums to represent a massive and vibrant genre. It’s not enough. Then there’s a ‘senior’ section, still working in recent years, Martin Carthy, Norma Waterson, Shirley Collins. There are years that stand out in music history … 1965, 1967, 1971, 1982 … for modern folk it’s 2010 / 2011.

Some of it is CD only, which is practicality of pressing, but I’d expect to see vinyl versions appear. These acts sold a lot of CDs at gigs, and I had a conversation with The Unthanks at one gig. They had ordered vinyl discs to sell on tour, they were delayed and turned up on the last day of the tour. Vinyl is a far greater investment if you’re running your own label.

1  Bellowhead: Hedonism, Navigator, 2010

Bellowhead - Hedonism

This is remarkably difficult. I saw them live several times, and they’re an eleven piece band (which is why touring became uneconomic) and there are so many good songs. Jon Boden was the lead singer and also played fiddle and percussion. A singer of rare charisma. They were active from 2004 to 2016, but are doing a streamed revival gig in 2020. They were a major outdoor festival attraction. They grew from Spiers and Boden and were all multi-instrumentalists (20 instruments between them) with most singing. John Spiers plays every kind of concertina / melodeon. Benji Kirkpatrick was guitar and banjo, Rachael McShane – cello, Sam Sweeney fiddle, Paul Sartin was fiddle and oboe. They had a four piece horn section with Sousaphone instead of bass, and Pete Flood on drums and percussion stood up to play. Much as I really want Fakenham Fair from Matachin, Roll Alabama from Revival and Byker Hill from Broadside, I’ll go for Hedonism, because Wikipedia tells me it’s the highest selling independent album of all time, though Broadside (UK #16) and Revival (UK #12) charted higher. Hedonism has their live encore song, New York Girls. It’s so strong that they could just play the album right through and put the result on DVD.

AVAILABLE: LP, CD, Live DVD. I suggest the DVD to get the full visual impact of this band (then get any of their albums).
SAMPLE TRACKS: New York Girls, Broomfield Hill

2  Spiers and Boden: The Works, Navigator 2011

Spiers and Boden: The Works, Navigator 2011

The founders of Bellowhead, John Spiers and Jon Boden. They continued to tour as a duo between Bellowhead tours, so a parallel existence. Several albums are just the two of them, with tracks divided into ‘Songs’ and ‘Tunes.’ I’m tempted by the simplicity of the two piece. The Works has studio assistance from friends, with Eliza Carthy, Fay Hield, Ian Giles, Peter Coe and Maddy Prior providing backing vocals, and appearances by Martin Carthy on guitar, Sam Sweeney, Nancy Kerr and Hannah James adding extra fiddle. So it’s more elaborate, but let’s go for it. Jon Boden has two albums here, so I’ll drop the third, his solo, Songs From the Floodplain on which he plays all instruments. But if you see it, get it! Dancing In The Factory is one of my favourite songs of the last decade … but we are drifting away from “folk.”

SAMPLE TRACKS: The Birth of Robin Hood, Prickle Eye Bush

3  Eliza Carthy: Neptune Hem Hem, 2011

Eliza Carthy: Neptune Hem Hem, 2011

The connections continue. Messrs Spiers and Boden used to be in her band as Eliza Carthy & The Ratcatchers and play on her award winning Anglicana. Eliza Carthy is renowned for folk with attitude and is another who will belie that traditional image of singing quietly in a corner. Her band is loud and dynamic, led by her on viola for a stronger sound than violin. She has made albums with both her parents, Martin Carthy and Norma Waterson. While Anglicana is more obviously folk. I’m going for the more raucous Neptune to shake it up. It’s also varied Blood On My Boots has a 1920s Berlin feel. Monkey has a Caribbean lilt (Remember that Harry Belafonte and Cy Grant’s calypsos were called ‘folk’ in their day.)

AVAILABLE: LP (‘Not on Label’), CD (Hem Hem)

SAMPLE TRACKS: Britain Is A Car Park, War

4  The Imagined Village: The Imagined Village 2007, Real World,

The Imagined Village: The Imagined Village 2007, Real World,

And continue. The Imagined Village is a loose affiliation, a changing group of musicians, based around Eliza Carthy, Martin Carthy, Billy Bragg, Paul Weller, Simon Emmerson, Chris Wood, The Copper Family, Sheila Chandra, Benjamin Zephaniah … yes, folk with sitar and drummers. The night I saw them live, the memorable sight was seeing Billy Bragg and Martin Carthy donning red Stratocasters and doing a Shadows walk. Their second album Empire & Love is worth getting too with Martin Carthy reclaiming his arrangement of Scarborough Fair.

AVAILABLE: CD, Real World/ Virgin
SAMPLE TRACKS: Hard Times of Old England, Acres of Ground

5  Fay Hield: Looking Glass, 2010, Topic

Fay Hield: Looking Glass, 2010, Topic

Fay Hield was in the Witches of Elswick quartet (Hell’s Belles and Out of Bed albums) with Bryony Griffith of The Demon Barbers (see below). She also teaches ethnomusicology at the University of Sheffield. Her touring band, Fay Hield & The Hurricane Party,  included Sam Sweeney of Bellowhead, Rob Harbron and Andy Cutting. Her partner, Jon Boden, appears on studio tracks. I could choose any of the albums and opted for the first, Looking Glass, simply because it has my favourite track, Kemp Owen on it. The latest Wrackline (2020) very nearly got it.


SAMPLE TRACKS: Looking Glass, Kemp Owen

6  The Full English: The Full English, 2013 Topic 

The Full English: The Full English, 2013 Topic

Curated and led by Fay Hield, this celebrated the work and history of The English Folk Dance and Song Society at Cecil Sharp House. A folk “super group” convened with Martin Simpson, Sam Sweeney, Seth Lakeman, Nancy Kerr, Ben Nicholls and Rob Harbron. You have seven vocalists, all potential lead vocalists too. Awake Awake is a lovely all vocal opener. Seth Lakeman sings Portrait of My Wife, Fay Hield leads on Man in The Moon, Nancy Kerr and Fay Hield on the Servant Man. Stand By Your Guns is the sea shanty that rocks. This is the most ‘academic’ folk album here, but none the worse for it.

SAMPLE TRCKS: Portrait of My Wife, Man In The Moon

7  The Unthanks: Last, 2011, Rabble Rouser

The Unthanks: Last, 2011, Rabble Rouser

The Unthanks evolved from Rachel Unthank and Winterset (The Bairns, Cruel Sister), and centre on the two sisters, Rachel and Becky, with Rachel’s husband Adrian McNally as musical arranger and piano, and Niopha Keegan on violins and Chris Price on bass. As well as the standard Unthanks albums, they have a fascinating series of “Diversions” albums which range from the songs of Robert Wyatt and Antony & The Johnsons, to Songs and Poems of Molly Drake (Nick Drake’s mother),  Lines with Emily Bronte’s poems, Songs From The Shipyards (they toured with the film), The Unthanks with the Brighouse and Rastrick Brass band, and recently an album with just the three female voices and no instruments Live and Unaccompanied. Some question piano as a folk instrument, but by the 19th century every pub had one. I’m choosing Last for sheer eclecticism … traditional folk, Tom Waits and King Crimson’s Starless transformed seamlessly into Northumbrian-accented folk. It also segues together perfectly as an album. Get into the “basic” albums (Here’s The Tender Coming, Last, Mount The Air before the Diversions, is my advice.

AVAILABLE: CD, vinyl only fans might choose Mount The Air instead, equally recommended

SAMPLE SONGS: Queen of Hearts, Starless

8  The Demon Barbers: The Adventurers of Captain Ward  2010, The Demon Barbers

The Demon Barbers: The Adventurers of Captain Ward  2010, The Demon Barbers

They tour theatres with their shows The Lock In and The Lock In Christmas Carol. The Lock In DVD, 2012, is the best way of experiencing them of all. Their songs are set in a storyline about a pub lock in, and clog dancing, hip hop dancing are all part of the act … which is still “folk”. Led by Damon Barber. Bryony Griffith on violin and vocals connects to The Witches of Elswick. Unusually, bass guitar from Lee Sykes is a major part of their sound … try Rise Up. The Magpie is one that The Unthanks have also done, here sung by Bryony Griffith. The setting of Friend of The Devil is highly unexpected. Yes, it is The Grateful Dead song. And it fits like a well-worn sea shanty … like Captain Ward.

SAMPLE TRACKS: The Magpie, Rise Up

9  Seth Lakeman: Word of Mouth 2014 Honour Oak (Cooking Vinyl)

Seth Lakeman: Word of Mouth 2014 Honour Oak (Cooking Vinyl)

Like Jon Boden solo, you have to ask if it’s folk because he writes far more than he adapts. His band has bass and drums, and his violin and viola were heavily amplified on stage with long solos. They’re very dynamic, very loud. Much of it is far from traditional, and closer to (say) The Waterboys than The Unthanks! This album includes Portrait of My Wife which he did with The Full English. Each Man is about The Tolpuddle Martyrs and thematically it’s definitely folk. The album was a main chart hit, entering at #20. His audience profile is younger too.


SAMPLE TRACKS: Labour She Calls Home, Each Man

10  The Transports: The Transports 2018, Hudson

The Transports: The Transports 2018, Hudson

Moving on from The Tolpuddle Martyrs, The Transports was Peter Bellamy’s 1978 masterpiece, a folk opera on transportation to Australia. Bellamy was born in Bournemouth and lived mainly in Norfolk, leading The Young Tradition folk trio in the 1960s. In The Transports each musician takes a role and its original music in a strictly traditional style.  It was redone for its 25th Anniversary with a new cast. The 40th Anniversary in 2018 led to this album … a shorter version. It was directed and arranged by Paul Sartin of Bellowhead with fellow members Rachael McShane and Benji Fitzpatrick, together with Nancy Kerr. All three ex-Bellowhead singers prove their worth as lead singers. They did two tours with this.

SAMPLE TRACKS:  The Black and Bitter Night, The Green Fields of England


I’ve just been told I cannot ignore two of my favourite albums of 2020, so here they are:

11  Shirley Collins: Heart’s Ease 2020 Domi

Shirley Collins: Heart’s Ease 2020 Domi

A beautifully mature voice with exquisite guitarists around her, just as in the 60s she sang with Davey Graham. She is the female equivalent of late period Leonard Cohen.


SAMPLE TRACKS: Sweet Greens and Blues, Canadee-i-o

12 Laura Marling: Song For Our Daughter, 2020 Chrysalis

Laura Marling: Song For Our Daughter, 2020 Chrysalis

I still think her material is simply great singer-songwriter rather than folk. But as so many think of her as folk, I’ll add it.


SAMPLE TRACKS: Alexandra, Only The Strong