Perhaps in some circles, being exclusive is still a prized virtue. Exclusive special offers on a ‘plane recently included the chance to pay £10 for a plastic model of the aeroplane in which we were travelling – not available on the High Street. Funny that. I’m sure there are still some clubs which would be far too exclusive to want to let me in, but to be honest, I don’t think they would appeal to me that much anyway. I’m generally rather more interested in being inclusive, and see links with much of the work I have done over the years including with people seeking sanctuary and ‘troubled’ young people. Key courses where I work stress the primacy of anti-discriminatory practice and the importance of including all sorts of groups of people who might be considered minorities or excluded from society.
I’ve just spent a week in Germany accompanying a group of students who were on a 12 day intensive programme sponsored by Erasmus. They had joined with students from other universities across Europe and learned a lot about areas of ‘difference’ including disability, ageing, ethnicity, mental health, sexuality and religion. Field visits had included the chance to visit a cross-generation residential house and an exhibition of art created by adults experiencing mental illness. One of the days I chaired included an amazing talk from a student who had fled D. R. Congo to escape becoming a child soldier and a panel with three wheelchair-using students who shared some of their experiences regarding access and inclusion. The final day featured a visit from The Brenz Band – a group of musicians including some adults with learning disabilities.
At the start of the second half of the concert they invited a few students and me to join them. I’d been volunteered by a colleague as someone who liked singing but the others were simply selected as people who didn’t play any instruments. One student got a quick introduction to the autoharp, another to the dulcimer and two more to kazoos. We all joined in singing and playing ‘Lord of the dance’ and at the end of the song the band leader commented; “Now that’s inclusion!”
In contrast with the similar trip to Finland three years ago, this time there was rather more separation between staff and students and less socialising all together which I found a shame. I’m not sure if they were more excluded from our quiet meals together or we were more excluded from their fun! More serious chats with colleagues from Norway included a conversation about Scottish independence, and I shared my view that while I can see the appeal of losing the current coalition government, in the long term I think it would be better to stay together. Selfishly perhaps, but also out of a real affection for Scottish people, culture and landscape, I want Scotland to stay part of my country of Great Britain.
I said how I definitely identify as being British, and not particularly English. Thinking more about this it struck me how there are census categories for being Black British, Asian British, Chinese British etc., but that these are somehow less seen as part of Englishness. Perhaps people who have never spent much time in Scotland or Wales see themselves as more English, and perhaps people in Scotland definitely saw me as being English, but that’s not how I see myself. I love English folk music, but I love Scottish and Welsh and Irish folk music as well, and songs from all round the world.
I’ve got into a few discussions lately about ‘The Full English’ project and band, following their well-deserved success at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards. I love the album and have sung a couple of the songs at my local folk club already, and I have enjoyed visiting the vast online archive and plan to explore some more. On balance, while I enjoy the breakfast reference, I’m not sure ‘The Full English’ is the best name for the archive. It is the largest searchable digital archive of early 20th century English folk arts manuscripts and it represents a massive achievement on behalf of the early collectors and librarians and archivists over many years. But it can’t possibly capture the breadth and range of English folk music from before or since the Edwardian era and so the term ‘full’ seems something of a misnomer. I wouldn’t claim that an e-book collection of the works of Austen, the Brontës, Dickens, Eliot, Forster and Gaskell comprised a Full collection of classic English Literature, although I suppose a Full English breakfast doesn’t include every possible element either.
I’m not sure if it’s the implicit claim to ‘Full Englishness’ which got me asking questions about whether the English folk world is too white, too middle class and linked to a kind of nationalism which may not embrace diversity. This is obviously a generalisation, and there are some much more positive examples of festivals and projects which actively welcome world music and choose to collaborate with musicians from other cultures. I loved Dan Walsh’s tour with Suhail Yusuf Khan where Dan’s fantastic banjo was juxtaposed with Suhail playing sarangi. I suppose some lovers of English folk music consider themselves a minority, and I don’t want to be denying anyone the right to express and celebrate their own culture. But looking for a sustainable future of folk I think one way forward might be a more culturally inclusive approach to folk. Nancy Kerr made a great point tweeting:
“I think as artists it helps to view music in terms of function and relationships instead of place and genre, thus avoiding a nationalistic tone and looking at vernacular music from everywhere.”
I replied saying that I thought this was helpful, although it perhaps was less easy when your project is so England labelled. I can’t blame the band for the choice of name or album since they followed the archive and the associated workshops, projects and community events which probably did promote a wider access to folk music around the country. I guess I see them in a privileged role with a wide audience and some recognition for their great album which surely gives them a platform for influencing folk in the future. Their choices to partner with other groups or invite support artists or promote other work could be really powerful, and I’d love to see them encouraging diverse folk acts as well as developing young musicians and raising the profile of folk in general. Maybe they could invite the Brenz Band or a similar UK project to join them, but maybe I’m asking a lot of busy musicians who have many other projects and responsibilities. Maybe we’re supposed to be the change we want to see in the world. Maybe inclusion starts with you and me and the people we meet.