Folk music and the far right

Submitted by Matthew on 10 June, 2010 - 3:25 Author: Rosie Huzzard

One strength of the far right in Britain today is in their ability to capitalise on the concerns of working-class and poor people and exploit and twist those interests for their own racist aims.

In the last couple of years, the BNP leadership has recommended to its activists that they start to spread their influence and try to insinuate themselves into the folk and traditional customs of Britain, in an attempt to retain what they call the “pure” culture of the white working classes.

Fortunately, this kind of elite preservationism has not gone down well in British folk/trad circles, which have a history of links to civil rights movements, liberation, and the labour movement — through not only the more obvious protest songs, but also the widening popularity of musical traditions that began in the factories and workhouses and have extended beyond. Clog dancing, for example, originated in the cotton mills of the 18th century industrial north west when workers who wore wooden-soled shoes due to the conditions in the workplace, would have competitions in their lunch breaks for entertainment.

The Folk Against Fascism organisation was started in 2008 as a reaction to the BNP’s attempt to appropriate these traditions for its own means.

Various high-profile folk musicians and performers such as Eliza Carthy, Jon Boden, and Chris Wood spoke out publicly about their distaste for the fascist views of the BNP and that British folk music and dance has no room for racism. Folk Against Fascism, a loose grouping of supporters of the idea that folk music can be inclusive and multicultural whilst still retaining respect for working-class tradition, has now sponsored large scale events at venues such as the South Bank Centre and Sidmouth Folk Week.

The Folk Against Fascism website states, “Folk Against Fascism isn’t a political party or a bureaucratic, top-heavy organisation. It is any and all of us who want to make ourselves aware of the BNP’s bigoted view of our history and culture, and who want to do something about it.

“The BNP want to take our music, want to twist it into something it isn’t; something exclusive, not inclusive. We must not let them.

“Folk Against Fascism is a way to demonstrate our anger at the way the BNP wants to remodel folk music in its own narrow minded image.”

This assertion that folk culture should be in the hands of the working class and all of the working class is powerful and makes it clear that it believes that the far right does not represent, nor have any claim to, the history of the working classes.

The BNP activist handbook specifically states that the traditionalism within folk communities is a perfect recruitment ground for nationalists. But what we as anti-fascists must remember is that the folk scene celebrates and promotes a musical history that is the product of rank-and-file workers, the pre-industrial peasantry, the war widows and the miners.

Folk songs passed down and (controversially for some Marxist cultural theorists) canonised by people such as Cecil Sharp are the cultural expression of the social experience of working people.

Blackleg Miner, a 19th century folk song used to intimidate miners who crossed picket lines, was revived in the 1980s miners’ strike and used once again to show solidarity. Many folk songs tell the working class history that our education system shows us from the ruling class perspective, such as the numerous versions of songs about conscription into foreign wars that serve no purpose for the masses, and the destruction of family life and communities that it caused.

Traditional folk encompasses the good, the bad, and the ugly of working class history — songs from the point of view of everyone from sex workers to mill workers to slave traders and the slaves themselves.

But it is an international tradition too and has always for instance reflected the struggles of different migrant groups. British folk festivals today host a range of international acts as well as the more obvious, and folk artists draw from Klezmer, Balkan, Indian, African and endless other traditional and contemporary sources in their work.

The folk community has now woken up to the political threat posed to it and as such a number of difficult debates have started to occur in previously apolitical organisations. In my own city of Sheffield, local Morris Dance and other traditional groups debated whether to perform at a St George’s Day event hosted by the council, and if they did, whether they should make a political statement.

The threat from the far right has had a positive effect in that it has made many who previously took their alliance of music and politics for granted, and made them think about the difficult relationship between celebration of tradition and history, and the link to nationalism.

For many (including myself) this was never a coalition that needed to be explained, it simply existed as quiet understanding. But being under the spotlight has led many to sign up to the FaF campaign and declare themselves. It has also led to a sharp awakening for many about the real influence of the BNP in local communities — a recent Folk Against Fascism concert around St George’s Day was pulled by the venue due to threats from the BNP.

Nevertheless, many folk performers and fans are wary of the politicisation of their pastimes, and many more feel that it is enough to promote themselves as anti-fascist without considering the public perception of the scene and why the BNP was attracted to it in the first place. On the other hand it is no longer cceptable for the traditional scene to ignore the threat, or claim that their hobbies are politically neutral. This is positive even though it is still mainly a publicity campaign with a deliberately broad opposition to the far right. The organised left should relate positively to these developments, but also consider how best to influence them as the threat from the far right grows.

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