Chapter 64: Where have all the women gone?


How much of the 47 minute running-time of Channel 4’s recent folk music documentary would you expect to be devoted to female artists? A little more than 5 minutes 26 seconds, right?



Yes, that’s right – I actually counted it.



Get Folked: Great Folk Revival



Which is not to suggest I don’t have anything better to do than sit in front of 4OD on the computer noting down timings on a spreadsheet. Because I really really do. Christmas is less than a fortnight away and I haven’t bought anyone presents yet. But this was a documentary that took me from curiosity and cheerful anticipation to bafflement to shock and eventually to cool fury.



But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Start at the beginning.





I think there are broadly two kinds of folkies: inclusive ones, and exclusive ones. Those that want to make strangers (and particularly newbies) feel welcome, and the ‘folkier than thou’ brigade. And despite the fact that I’m now fussy enough to say “I don’t do folk music, I do traditional music” (more on that semantic sulk in a future blog) I would like to think I’m in the former camp.



So I watched Channel 4’s ‘Get Folked: The Great Folk Revival’ with a determination not to fall into all the old folk snobbery potholes, however much I may disagree with what it says. And hey, in the month where Nelson Mandela dies and all the old horror of apartheid South Africa is back in the media it’s perhaps a good time to appreciate the folly of wasting energy noisily hating Mumford & Sons.



And although yes, I did disagree with every other statement that every other person made, that’s fine. That’s ‘the tradition’ after all. No one can fucking agree on anything. And I love that. It would be boring otherwise.



But airbrushing women out of the history of British and American folk music is different.
That’s not part of the debate about ‘tradition’.

That’s part of the debate about you being a massive arsehole.



But did it? Did it really? Was this documentary really so outrageous, or is this just another angry armchair troll with an itchy mouse-finger?



Hence the need for science.



Okay, science is stretching it a little. Hence the need for me noting down, approximately, what happened when, in a vaguely structured way.



So, before I stun you with my dataset, I’m just going to offer a little disclaimer that I accept I might be a bit conspiracy-theory on this, because the more I watched the programme the more subtle misogyny I seemed to find, and perhaps if you get in that frame of mind you can see it anywhere and in anything. But I stand by the basic point: the huge disproportion of airtime given.



Anyway…



Key events in ‘Get Folked’ : MEN

Clock start Duration Person Event
4:48 59secs Netwon Faulkner FEATURE
5:57 2mins 39secs Jake Bugg FEATURE
9:05 1min 11secs Martin Carthy FEATURE
10:58 1min 14secs Johnny Flynn FEATURE
12:36 2mins 10secs Frank Turner FEATURE
14:46 1min 49secs Woody Guthrie FEATURE
17:47 1min 41secs Bob Dylan FEATURE
19:28 1min 29secs Public Enemy / Akala FEATURE
21:16 11secs Joe Boyd Joe Boyd talks about evils of pop music over Lady Gaga clips
21:27 1min 52secs Seth Lakeman FEATURE
30:26 3mins 32secs John Martyn FEATURE
36:04 1min 27secs Fairport Convention FEATURE
37:31 1min 8secs Incredible String Band FEATURE
38:39 1min 40secs Pentangle FEATURE
40:43 2mins 2secs Billy Bragg FEATURE
42:36 1min 20secs Alt-J FEATURE
43:56 1min 44secs Tunng FEATURE
45:40 1min 20secs Billy Bragg, Martin Carthy, Ade Edmonson, Frank Turner, Dave Swarbrick, Bob Geldof Closing feature



Now, I haven’t done these two tables equally, because to record every reference to a male folk artist or commentator would have taken forever. (This list, incidentally, doesn’t include Donovan or Rob Young, writer or Lenny Kay, veteran of the New York folk scene and perhaps one or two others.)



Whereas in the table below I have recorded every single time a female folk artist appears. Although not female commentators. Because, excluding 3 featured artists (both Unthank sisters and Vashti Bunyan) there are no female commentators in this documentary.


Key events in ‘Get Folked’ : WOMEN

Clock start Duration Person Event
0:43 5secs Laura Marling Shown winning an award as her name is called out
2:44 18secs Rachel Unthank Talking about authenticity in music
9:24 58secs Eliza Carthy View from behind of her (uncredited) playing fiddle
17:51 13secs Joan Baez Appears (uncredited) in archive footage singing with Dylan
21:16 9secs Lady Gaga Appears in various shots from her video (uncredited)
24:09 2mins 37secs Vashti Bunyan FEATURE
26:53 2mins 42secs The Unthanks FEATURE
29:36 47secs Joni Mitchell FEATURE
36:04 1min 27secs Fairport Convention Shown in feature (Judy Dyble uncredited, Sandy Denny mentioned)
38:39 1min 40secs Pentangle Shown in feature (John Renbourn, Bert Jansch, Danny Thompson mentioned – Jacqui McShee not mentioned)
43:56 1min 44secs Tunng Becky Jacobs shown performing in feature



And just to make it easy to follow, why don’t we have…



Key events in ‘Get Folked’ : OVERVIEW

Clock start Duration Person Event
0:43 5secs Laura Marling Shown winning an award as her name is called out
2:44 18secs Rachel Unthank Talking about authenticity in music
4:48 59secs Netwon Faulkner FEATURE
5:57 2mins 39secs Jake Bugg FEATURE
9:05 1min 11secs Martin Carthy FEATURE
9:24 58secs Eliza Carthy View from behind of her (uncredited) playing fiddle
10:58 1min 14secs Johnny Flynn FEATURE
12:36 2mins 10secs Frank Turner FEATURE
14:46 1min 49secs Woody Guthrie FEATURE
17:47 1min 41secs Bob Dylan FEATURE
17:51 13secs Joan Baez Appears (uncredited) in archive footage singing with Dylan
19:28 1min 29secs Public Enemy / Akala FEATURE
21:16 11secs Joe Boyd Joe Boyd talks about evils of pop music over Lady Gaga clips
21:16 9secs Lady Gaga Appears in various shots from her video (uncredited)
21:27 1min 52secs Seth Lakeman FEATURE
24:09 2mins 37secs Vashti Bunyan FEATURE
26:53 2mins 42secs The Unthanks FEATURE
29:36 47secs Joni Mitchell FEATURE
30:26 3mins 32secs John Martyn FEATURE
36:04 1min 27secs Fairport Convention FEATURE
37:31 1min 8secs Incredible String Band FEATURE
38:39 1min 40secs Pentangle FEATURE
40:43 2mins 2secs Billy Bragg FEATURE
42:36 1min 20secs Alt-J FEATURE
43:56 1min 44secs Tunng FEATURE
45:40 1min 20secs Billy Bragg, Martin Carthy, Ade Edmonson, Frank Turner, Dave Swarbrick, Bob Geldof Closing feature





So, let’s start with some numbers.



Numbers are not my strong suit, I’ll be honest with you. But by my slightly dodgy primary school calculations…



Features on exclusively male artists total at 24m 26s.

Features on bands with male and female artists total at 7m 55s.

Features on exclusively female artists total at 3m 24s.



There are 11 features that focus exclusively on male artists, 4 that focus on bands with male and female artists, and 2 that focus on exclusively female artists.



The average appearance duration of male artists is 1m 38s.

The average appearance duration of bands with male and female artists is 53s.

The average appearance duration of female artists is 44s.



And I arrived at the 5m 26s of time devoted to female artists by adding up the time of the three features in which female artists are discussed (rather than just mentioned): Vashti Bunyan, The Unthanks and Joni Mitchell. There are other features that have women in them (e.g. Fairport, Pentangle etc.) but they’re not central to the feature.





Now, let’s ask the obvious question: what if there are just fewer (or fewer decent) female folk artists?



Well, this is not a question any regulars on the English trad folk scene (the only folk scene that I know about) even need to ask. I can’t name you 5 types of cocktail off the top of my head, but I can name you 10 great female folk artists without pausing for breath.



Channel 4, for extra points – or actually any points at all – you could have had: Kathryn Tickell, Norma and Lal Waterson, Jackie Oates, Fay Hield, Nancy Kerr, Lisa Knapp, Linda Thompson, Shirley Collins, June Tabor, Annie Briggs, Maddy Prior…



To name but a very few.



You could even have credited the most charismatic English folk musician of the day, Eliza Carthy, when you showed her playing with her father (with her back to the camera).



And that’s just the English ones I can think of, and so not including, say, Karine Polwart, Heidi Talbot or the heavenly Julie Fowlis.

And that’s not including bands like Crucible and Clannad (look, I still love Clannad, and I’ll fight anyone who says otherwise).



Okay, perhaps these people aren’t big names in the mainstream. But (a) they’re all very popular on the trad folk scene, and you could mention them just for a bit of balance, and (b) um, Laura Marling, perhaps? (And not just a 5 second clip of her winning an award at the beginning – she’s a bigger name than pretty much all the male artists in the programme.)





The trad folk scene, I believe, is not all about men, or even all about women, but about relationships. It’s a particularly collaborative world, where everybody makes music with everybody else. And couples are right at the heart of this world (perhaps because it appeals to an older audience). Most folk clubs are run by husband and wife teams, for example. And for every male figure on the scene at any one point you can find a female figure of equal stature.



The men tend to be more famous outside the folk world (perhaps because music critics have tended to be male) so it’s perhaps not so surprising that the ‘Get Folked’ documentary focused on Cecil Sharp but not Maud Karpeles, Ewan MacColl but not Peggy Seeger, Bob Dylan but not Joan Baez, Martin Carthy but not Norma Waterson, Seth Lakeman but not Kate Rusby, and so on…



But when not one of them gets mentioned, you start to see a pattern forming.



And when they do get mentioned (and here’s the conspiracy part) it’s such damnation with faint praise.



The Vashti Bunyan feature I just found out-and-out patronising. With comments like “when she wasn’t apologising to vegetables…” and “the modern world raged on…”, it didn’t really concentrate on her music and its influence much at all. Instead it emphasised how she was a victim, crushed by that old gender-stereotype: the desperation for approval. Until the mobile phone advert came along and made her famous. So what they seem to be saying in her feature is (a) they think she’s a bit silly, (b) she’s a victim and (c) she had almost no influence on the folk scene.



The Unthanks are just great in their feature, I will grant the programme-makers that: they didn’t bollocks that up. And the Unthank sisters are both really articulate, and clearly know exactly what this sort of documentary is looking for, and how to deliver it. Which, in this case, is industrial working class culture in the North East of England. (Although the cynic in me wonders whether ‘flat cap chic’ was the only thing the programme-makers were interested in. And perhaps they just found Vin Garbutt a bit too hairy?)



With Joni Mitchell the voiceover seemed to reflect the same sense of embarrassment I thought I heard in the Vashti Bunyan piece. When introducing the feature, the programme’s narrator exclaims that suddenly with a new generation of singer-songwriters “It all got a bit personal!” Which is kind of what songwriters and poets have been doing for centuries; it is actually part of the job description. But here it’s suggested, in a very English way, to all be just a bit embarrassing. (The voice-over is done by Green Wing alumnus Stephen Mangan, incidentally, who is normally very unslappable.) (And please note for the record that I could easily have made a ‘Mangan-style’ joke at this point, but choice not to.)



It’s music journalist Peter Paphides doing most of the commentary on Joni Mitchell, and having read a fair amount of his writing over the years I think he’s almost certainly making the point that Joni Mitchell heralded a new personal style of folk-influenced songwriting, and that was a good thing. But is it me, or is what he says edited to slightly undercut that?



“There was a greater desire amongst music fans to listen to singer-songwriters who tended to write about their own feelings, about their own relationships and not really look outwards at the world and report on what was going on.”




Is it me, or does that imply that Joni Mitchell wasn’t really doing what folk singers should be doing, which is reporting on the world?



Anyway, after Joni Mitchell it’s John Martyn, and suddenly they’re comfortable again. And we get the longest of all the features, mainly devoted to Danny Thompson’s anecdotes of Martyn’s hellraising.



And it was only when I started anally writing down what happened when that I realised that the features for Vashti Bunyan, the Unthanks and Joni Mitchell all happen one after the other. And it was like I heard a voice saying: “Okay, that’s the women done with for the programme”. Then it moves on to the bands, like Fairport Convention, the Incredible String Band and Pentangle. It just does make me wonder whether the people making the programme did say something like: “Well, we better do a section in the middle of the programme on female artists – at least three. And then we can do a section on the ’60s and ’70s bands…”



Okay, I’ve started on a bit of an uber-rant here, clearly, so I might as well put it all down.



I thought it was interesting how pretty much the only times we saw female artists performing, other than the featured ones, were as an illustration of the evils of pop music. The programme starts with a clip of a female pop singer on telly in someone’s living room (I’m afraid my advancing age means I don’t know who), while the voice-over talks of people being tired of plastic pop music.



A more stark example is after an advert break, when the programme restarts with glamorous shots of Jake Bugg and Frank Turner, followed by Joy Boyd talking about how shit pop music is. And, presumably to illustrate this shit pop music, we then see a few clips of Lady Gaga.



Frankly, it reminds me of those medieval clerics and Victorian academics who would write long treatise on how everything that’s wrong with the world fundamentally comes from Woman. So in that sense I suppose it’s tradition.



Actually, while I’m off on one…



Richard Thompson, I think you’re an extraordinarily talented songwriter and gifted guitar player. But you seriously SERIOUSLY suggest that hip hop might not have happened if it wasn’t for folk music? Because people suffering from institutional discrimination just wouldn’t have had enough ideas to write about?



Picture the scene:



FLAVA FLAV: Hey Chuck, how are you doing?



CHUCK D: Hey Flav! Good to see you. Well, I have to be honest, I’m feeling rather down at the moment.



FLAVA FLAV: Oh no! Why’s that, Chuck?



CHUCK D: Well, I’ve just been thinking about the number of times that I, or people that I know, have dialled the emergency 911 number, only to have a very late response, or sometimes no response at all! I know it sounds paranoid, but I’m really starting to wonder whether paramedics just don’t make as much effort in predominantly African-American neighborhoods. I mean, it really is a farce now. In fact… I think I’d even go so far as to say that 911 is a joke!



FLAVA FLAV: Well, Chuck, I know what you mean. I tell you what I do when I get those institutional racism blues: I listen to Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ In The WInd’. How many roads must a man walk down, I say to myself, before you can call him a man…



CHUCK D: Holy Moly, Flav – you’ve given me an idea! I could write a song about it!


Richard, sir, shame on you. You’re better than that.



Anyway, don’t get me started on that one, or there’ll be another 10 page blog article in the offing. Let’s pick one banner-wave at a time, shall we?



I also think it’s worth noting how seldom this ‘Get Folked’ documentary shows a woman holding an instrument. Eliza Carthy playing fiddle (uncredited, and shot from behind). Joni Mitchell playing acoustic guitar and singing. And then blink-and-you-miss-it shots of Vashti Bunyan with a guitar, and I think Becky Jacobs from Tunng was playing something. Oh, and a literally split-second shot of Julia Ruzicka from Million Dead playing bass behind Frank Turner.



I think that’s it. 47 minute documentary on folk music – I think that’s a bit weird.



And it’s annoying for me as a viewer because, frankly, I tend to find the female artists more interesting. More interested in the power of the music itself, and less interested in showing off their (frequently dazzling) instrumental prowess. (They also tend to be completely uninterested in bragging about their hell-raising exploits, mercifully. If I want to hell-raise, I shall hell-raise. I don’t need some beardy wanker to do it for me by proxy.)



But maybe sex is a part of that. I generally find women more interesting than men, and female artists more interesting than male ones; maybe that’s my bias here. Perhaps that’s why these documentaries can get made and no one kicks up a fuss. Perhaps trad folk generally has a larger female audience than male audience, and perhaps they tend to be more interested in the male performers. After all, chatting with the Half Moon All Stars about the programme has already revealed some extremely favourable reviews of Frank Turner and particularly Johnny Flynn from some of the female members. (Almost deliriously favourable in some cases.) (i.e. Laura.)



But even if that were an explanation, it wouldn’t be an excuse.



The overall message that the programme gives to me is that folk music is a man’s world: a place for serious men singing about serious, authentic, political, rebellious issues.

And it’s no place for silly frivolous women with their emotions and their love of Lady Gaga and One Direction.



Which is just bollocks.



Okay, this is a programme that’s almost certainly targeted at people much younger than me (37 years of age as of 2013).



But that’s even less of an excuse! Because it’s likely to discourage girls from getting involved in what looks like a closed boys club. And it’s probably going to make boys think that girls, rightly or wrongly, haven’t contributed much to this music.



Which is why, at the end of all that, I’m going to do something I haven’t done before, and send this round to anyone who I think might be interested in it. Starting with the people that responsible for the documentary.



And I suppose my question – well, questions – to Ten Alps Television (who made this programme) and Channel 4 (who aired it) would be:



1. Would you agree that this programme shockingly underrepresents the importance of women in British / American folk music?



2. If not, why not? And if so, why did this underrepresentation happen?


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