A Culture of Possibility Podcast #16: Folk is a Feminist Issue and Other Fresh Thoughts about Culture, Participation, and Tradition
NOTE: This post is to introduce you to the 16th episode of François Matarasso’s and my monthly podcast, “A Culture of Possibility.” It will be available starting 15 April 2022. You can find it and all episodes at Stitcher, iTunes, and wherever you get your podcasts, along with miaaw.net’s other podcasts by Owen Kelly, Sophie Hope, and many guests, focusing on cultural democracy and related topics. You can also listen on Soundcloud and find links to accompany the podcasts.
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I first heard of Lucy Wright‘s work when François introduced me to her “Folk is a Feminist Issue Manifesta,” a forthright assertion of the meaning of folk as inclusive, egalitarian, non-elitist, collaborative, and much more.
I’m always really interested in the project of reclaiming — renewing, reframing — language and concepts that may have become firmly attached to meanings that deny cultural democracy. The people who study such things sometimes tell us that just mentioning a word with a meaning firmly embedded in common parlance tends to reinforce that meaning, regardless of what you say about it. When they hear “folk,” some people may think of longhairs with acoustic guitars on a coffeehouse stage, or of a table of corn dolls at a craft fair. But Lucy Wright thinks that…
Folk is political. In a world that values only what can be bought and sold, folk is resistance. It means rejecting the old ideas, systems and cultures of power, and our roles as [consumers / subjects]. It means recognising EVERYONE.
(…because there exists within each of us this drive to make and collaborate and whoever dared to tell us that some creative expressions were worthier than others? And who dared to tame and institutionalise the things that (some of us) made? That power belongs to us. We need it to create new traditions for our broken planet.
And I hope that her reclamation project works!
Lucy is based near Leeds in West Yorkshire, England, She is one of many people engaged in community-based art who started in another profession and came to the work for its depth and power. “These days I identify primarily as an artist,” she told us, but “for the last 10 years or so I was more of an academic, a researcher for hire on various projects. Before that I was a folk musician. This idea of folk informs so much of the work that I do. I have a kind of social practice and community arts type practice, but it’s very much a social practice which is aimed at researching…. And then I also have a studio practice as a painter.”
She grew up “in a family of folk musicians. My dad was a Morris dancer. (A form of ceremonial dance that’s been in the British Isles for 600 years. Here’s a piece Lucy wrote that adds girls to the conventionally male idea of Morris dancing. More on that below.) Traditional music was some of the most regularly heard music that I encountered when I was growing up, and in my teens and 20s, I started going to folk clubs and folk festivals, I fell into being in a band, and I thought for a little while that I wanted to be a performer. But I’m a bit of a homebody. Wanting to interrogate folk as a concept was something that I wanted to stick with, so I found myself gravitating towards researching and making art about it. I also trained in ethnomusicology, which is sort of a sister discipline to anthropology. I always describe it as the kind of field that sits at the intersection between people performance and place…. I grew up in quite a working class family and although I’d loved art in school, my family didn’t really want me to pursue it as a degree, as a career. They were worried I wouldn’t make any money, which was true. But ethnomusicology was somehow more acceptable to them. It struck me that maybe I didn’t have to give up the art altogether, maybe there was some way to integrate art-making and researching in this kind of institutional context. And so that was very much the path that I went down. ”
We asked Lucy to describe a project or two for listeners.
“One of the projects that I started out with, which I’m still proud of, and it’s still kind of an ongoing project, but English folk arts has has something of a gender problem. If you look at the kind of practices that are widely recognized as English traditional art, the vast majority of them centralize male practitioners, either by tacitly sidelining women, or by actively prohibiting them. My dad was a Morris dancer. When I was growing up, he was very clear on the fact that women should never do Morris dancing. During some archival research I happened upon a lot of images of troupes of young women performing something called Morris dancing about 100 years before. The narrative that you hear most often is that women started doing Morris dancing n about the 1970s. The images I was finding were from the 1880s and 1890s, and it was something called ‘carnival Morris dancing’ that I’d never heard of. It turned out that it still exists in the northwest of England. It’s incredibly popular. It’s very much a grassroots working-class practice. It looks very different from the Morris dancing that we’re more familiar with these days. It’s much more contemporary, very loud, pop music, they do these incredible kind of synchronized routines in sports halls and community centers. It’s become kind of a sport; people sometimes liken it to competitive cheerleading. The folk scene which has a kind of control over this idea of what folk is has always denigrated it, felt it was just not authentic, not an acceptable kind of aspect of English folk arts. So I made it my mission to go and find out more about it.” You can read more about this on Lucy’s website.
François asked what Lucy’s work offers the carnival Morris dancers. “What value is created by the relationship that you have with them?”
As a researcher, Lucy said, she “had the belief, that research was inherently valuable, that by documenting and making more visible a practice which is lesser-known that I was already doing something of value.” Now she is more inclined to say that “the value and the benefits that I see in the artistic research is not so much for them, although I hope it’s been a positive experience and the work we do together is in some way beneficial and enjoyable. But for me it’s what this dancing represents and what it brings to the scholarship around folk, which sees itself as a kind of arbiter, the gatekeeper of what this thing is. I’m saying there’s so much more to it. I believe there’s so much more to folk than we actually give it credit for being and carnival Morris dancing is a fantastic example of a living performance community that doesn’t need intervention from an artist like me to help them be creative, they have that covered and far better than I could ever offer to them. Groups are based in areas that historically and today receive very little investment in the arts. I would love to see this kind of visibility, if I’m able to raise anybody’s visibility for this performance that they actually get recognized as legitimate artists who deserve support and infrastructure just as much as any other performance group.”
There ensued an interesting conversation about support, investment, recognition, and self-sufficiency that reminded François of a project he did decades ago with the West Bromwich Operatic Society (he blogged about it recently, and the story is well worth reading). We talked about the connections between folk and punk as DIY practices; about a quite remarkable set of standing “stones” Lucy and her father created, meant to evoke ancient monoliths but painted in Easter-egg pastels instead of the the bright colors in which such objects were covered before time wore them to gray stone; and about where a sense of validation and legitimation comes from in such work.
This was a really rich conversation that can’t be conveyed in a few paragraphs. Please listen!
And now for something completely different: here’s a video of the Mansfield Woodhouse Byronnaires, one of the “jazz kazoo marching bands from former pit communities in the UK midlands and northeast” whose female leaders Lucy celebrated in a series of watercolors.