Contemporary English Folk Music

edited May 2011 in Country & Folk
An on-going musical interest of mine is contemporary English Folk Music. I first became interested over 40 years ago in the late 1960s when I was a student. My college had a Folk Club with another weekly in a local pub. It was when he was on his way to play for us that Paul Simon wrote Homeward Bound when he was sitting on Widnes station platform. The late 1960s was a period of renaissance for folk music in the UK. There has been another renaissance in recent years led by a number of bands and solo artists playing in a more contemporary approach bringing in music from other genre. I know that several people here also listen to this music, including Bad Thoughts, but I thought it worth introducing it to a wider audience. So over the next few days I'll be adding to this thread, but please feel free to contribute too.
Probably the leading folk band at the moment is Bellowhead. Their most recent release is


My favourite track from this album is New York Girls - to hear this go to

As Wikipedia notes
Bellowhead are an English contemporary folk band originally brought together by John Spiers and Jon Boden. The eleven-piece band plays traditional dance tunes, folk songs and shanties, with arrangements drawing inspiration from a wide diversity of musical styles and influences. The band includes percussion and a four-piece brass section, and is particularly renowned for its energetic live performances. Bellowhead's musicians play more than 20 instruments between them; with six members

Their other albums are


Many of the members of Bellowhead are leading artists in their own right, particularly Jon Boden and John Spiers. I'll follow up later with some of their solo and joint recordings.

Another band I like are Imagined Village
The Imagined Village is a folk musical project founded by Simon Emmerson of the Afro Celt Sound System. It is intended to produce modern folk music that represents modern multiculturalism in the United Kingdom and as such, features musicians from a wide variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds. The name of the project comes from the 1993 book The Imagined Village by Georgina Boyes.
Source Wikipaedia
Their most recent album is
Go to and to see them playing

I'll be adding more favourites over the next few days


  • Cool idea for a thread, Greg. Jon Boden and John Spiers are making a new renascence of English folk, different from what you probably grew up with, I would think. It's quite danceable. Moreover, they've spread their influence, working with Carthy family members and Fay Hield. Just to whet the appetite, here are a few live performance videos:

    New York Girls
    Prickly Bush/Prickle-Eye Bush (same source as Hangman's Tree/Gallows Pole)
    Innocent When You Dream
  • Much different - I saw them a couple of years ago - brilliant. None of the sea shanty, shell in the ear stuff! Certainly contemporary English folk desreves all its plaudits.,..
  • edited November 2011
    A couple more contemporary English folk bands I like a lot


    Despite their name this is an English band, based in Oxford. They are very much at the folk - indie crossover point
    Stornoway is a British alternative indie folk band from the Cowley area of Oxford. It consists of singer and guitarist Brian Briggs; multi-instrumentalists Jon Ouin and Oli Steadman, and the latter's brother Rob on drums. The band is usually joined by trumpeter Adam Briggs and violinist Rahul Satija. Named after the Scottish town of Stornoway on the Hebridean Isle of Lewis, which appears on all UK televised weather reports and shipping forecasts, the group incorporates string instruments and keyboards, supported by a typical pop backline of guitar, drums, and bass guitar. The band is signed to the British independent record label, 4AD.
    Source Wikipaedia

    Hear them play at and

    More folk orientated are Spiro

    The folk scene - or rather, the experimental acoustic folk-influenced scene - is becoming increasingly sophisticated and adventurous, and Spiro are leading exponents of this new genre. They are an instrumental quartet, playing guitar, accordion, violin and mandolin, who rework traditional folk melodies into stirring, rhythmic and often complex pieces that make use of the repeated phrases and patterns of systems music. In some ways, they are like a British folk answer to the Penguin Cafe Orchestra - though with a less exotic musical lineup - while echoing the tight interplay of that brilliant acoustic folk trio Lau. The quartet have developed a style in which there are no improvised solos, just tight arrangements in which the various instruments all provide the melodies and rhythmic settings. The mood is always changing, from the drifting and lyrical I Fear You Just As I Fear Ghosts (they specialise in memorable titles) to the slinky and jaunty Antrobus. This would be great film soundtrack music - and I mean that as a compliment.
    Source Guardian Review

    You can hear them at
  • Thanks for starting this great thread! Much of "English folk music" is lumped into the celtic music category, but a lot of it doesn't belong there at all. One English folk group I really like is Bert Jansch and John Renbourn's group, Pentangle, who blend traditional folk with a little bit of jazz elements here and there. I particularly like their jazzy version of "No More, My Lord" and "Will the Circle be Unbroken" on this album:
    Amazon link
  • Thanks for starting this great thread! Much of "English folk music" is lumped into the celtic music category, but a lot of it doesn't belong there at all.

    I've had many issues with the tags "Celtic" and "Irish Traditional" applied to a broad range of styles, including Quebecois and Breton. But there are a number of music traditions--English, Morris, Border, Scottish, Irish, Shetland, Quebecois, Maratime (Canada), Appalachian, New England (Contradance), Cape Breton, Prince Edward Island, Breton, Auvergnate, Old Time (American)--that have been cross-pollinating, and some umbrella term would be useful. The one I like best came from a friend: Mostly Melodic Music (MMM). It reflects how the music has been passed down, largely through the memory of the tune or loosely transcribed melodies. Much of the music needs to be filled out, subjecting it to various interpretations, from hybridizations with rock and jazz and with other traditions to attempts to recapture ancient performance practices. Much of the Bellowhead/Spiers and Boden recordings draw heavily from Morris rhythms: a 2/4 with a strong quarter note followed by two light eighth notes. However, they play the same tunes and songs that folkies mulled over for decades.
  • I suppose being in UK I have a different perspective on the range of folk music styles from these islands, but I agree it does annoy me when I see them 'lumped' together. I deliberately called this thread Contemporary English Folk, which is a different tradition from the Celtic nations, although there are inevitably overlaps, and there are, for example, some great Welsh and Scottish born musicians playing English folk music. As BT says a lot of folk music from all over the World comes down to us through oral traditions - just look at West African girots for example. What I really like are the ways that this is interpreted and developed by contemporary musicians. Many of the tracks on Imagined Village's album are based upon modern day interpretations of a traditional approach. Bellowhead are touring the UK in November and a couple of the dates are each about a 90 minute drive from me, so I really will have to try to get tickets.
  • edited May 2011
    Well, I don't know how contemporary these geezers are, but this was in the new releases at eMusic today, 2 discs at $5.84 and this is about the most relevant thread - Dave Pegg - 60th Birthday Bash.

    Also all 5 releases on this Matty Grooves/IODA label have been added within the last month.
  • OK, Greg, I downloaded Imagined Village and am listening to it on your rec. I works very well when it builds upon Martin Carthy's work, or at least that's the material I'm most immediately drawn to. I'll have to give the whole things a few more listens.

    I'm actually a little puzzled why they would borrow the title of Boyes' book for their project. By now these interpretations of the modernization of traditional and local culture are old hat, yet they still can infuriate practitioners of tradition. Although I haven't read Boyes, I have read a number of similar works that place 19th century traditionalism in the context of bourgeois and nationalist culture. What puzzles me is that the music on the album actually seems to argue that the elements of culture are adaptable to many contexts, and cultural artifacts are at our disposal to push in many directions. Indeed, isn't their "imagined" village more or less global?

    (Needless to say, I don't find the hybridization of traditional or modern to be random or haphazard in this case.)
  • Say, has anyone taken a listen to the latest Unthanks album? (I think they stole my idea for a folk cover of Starless, but thousands of miles and differences in public profile make my case weak.)
  • BT - I didn't even realise there was a new Unthanks album, so thanks. I'm sure that Imagined Village is a play on the idea that this village is global. Their first album,not on emusic in the UK, is more of a collection of individual tracks by the various people involved although the 'backing group' on some tracks at least pulls from the wider group of artists. I'd like to know more about them myself, so I'll try to follow that up soon
  • 61fqh1fMArL._SL500_AA280_.jpg

    Well, greg, I couldn't wait. I pulled the trigger on Unthanks last night. The music is quite beautiful, pulling back the vocals from the front in order to allow a more orchestral sound to dominate. It's also quite slow, with gently stabbing piano tending to drive most songs. I've read some comparisons to Low, which is appropriate, but there is more of an attempt to create much more tension. If I have a major complaint, it's that I don't think the length of some of the tracks is justified. I didn't find their version of Starless particularly innovative. They stick to playing the first part, not answering the more complicated instrumental sections of the original. Nonetheless, it sounds good, deepening the sense of despair with tempo and the solo trumpet.

    From the Guardian:
    The Unthanks experiment continues, with an album of gentle melancholia that matches their most elaborate instrumental arrangements to date with a reworking of a startling variety of songs. As ever, their music centres around the delicate, haunting vocals of the Unthank sisters, Rachel and Becky, but Rachel's husband Adrian McNally is playing an increasingly important role as producer, pianist, co-arranger and composer of the gently epic title track. Based around a sturdy, drifting piano theme, it's a thoughtful, sad and lyrical meditation on "why the future doesn't look so great". Elsewhere, there's more epic gloom with an unlikely revival of King Crimson's Starless, now based around trumpet and strings, while other cover versions include a breathy treatment of Tom Waits's No One Knows I'm Gone, and Jon Redfern's slow, sad reflection on the Iraq war, Give Away Your Heart. The traditional songs do little to change the mood, but include some fine harmony singing and violin work on Canny Hobbie Elliot, a quietly eerie Gan to the Kye, and impressive piano work on The Galloway Lad. There's not the emotional range of the last Unthanks album, Here's the Tender Coming, but it's a bold and highly original set.
  • edited May 2011
    @BT - I feel my credit card trying to get out of my wallet! I'm sure I'll download soon.... You and your wife too might appreciate Eliza Carthy's new album - it is on emusic in the UK. Whist her folk roots are still there, etched into her DNA, it is the most commercial of her albums. One or two tracks sound like some of Bellowhead could be backing her. The problem with downloading from emuisc is that you get no artist information - I'll need to look at her website soon to get that.

    Also BT this quote might give you more information about The Imagined Village
    Uncategorisable collective The Imagined Village return on January 11 with their second album Empire & Love. Having settled into a regular membership of ten talented musicians and singers, down from a revolving cast of sixteen, the BBC Radio 2 Folk Award winners are a more focused bunch this time around. Rather than focusing on having guest singers like Billy Bragg and Sheila Chandra, almost everything you hear is by the band’s core members, or ‘The Parish Council’ as they like to be known.

    This includes Eliza Carthy, Martin Carthy, Sheema Mukerjhee and Chris Wood on vocals and various instruments; a rhythm section comprising Andy Gangadeen on drums, Ali Friend on bass and Simon Richmond on live electronica; plus guitarist Simon Emmerson, percussionist Johnny Kalsi and cellist Barney Morse Brown. Visiting councillor Jackie Oates pops in for a duet with Eliza on ‘Lark In The Morning’.

    Conceived as a more ‘live’ sounding record than their 2007 self-titled debut, the album was wrapped up within six months, including the time spent converting Simon Emmerson’s garage into a studio. Among the tunes are traditional numbers like ‘Scarborough Fair’, ‘Byker Hill’ and ‘Lark In The Morning’ and a clutch of covers, all well rehearsed and road tested over the past year. Chris Wood’s ‘Sweet Jayne’ gets a sitar-led makeover and loses its ‘y’, while Ewan MacColl’s ‘Space Girl’ is utterly transformed. Most audacious, however, is the reinvention of Slade’s ‘Cum On Feel The Noize’ as a folk singalong led by Martin Carthy.
  • edited May 2011
    @greg--Eliza Carthy has seemed uneven to me. I loved Red/Rice and Rough Music, but that album she did in 2008 puzzled me. I'm not sure that her attempts at integrating popular music into her work are always successful. Moreover, her defense of the Mumford-like acts actually makes me wonder about her taste. I'm sure I'll get around to listening to the new album--when she's good, she is definitely good.
  • Bad Thoughts - are you talking about "Dreams of Breathing Underwater"? I know it got a lot of good reviews. I anxiously downloaded it when it came out, but was surprised to find that I didn't like it at all. Not even a little bit.
  • I like the new album Neptune, but I must admit that her last album "Dreams of Breathing Underwater" is not my favourite of hers. Neptune really is an attempt at popular muisc, documenting in chronological order her life over the last ten years, There is a free track from Neptune on her website - I've put the url somewhere else here earlier today
  • edited September 2011

    Recently released this fascinating album sums up the best of traditional English Folk Music with some new somgs
    Shrewsbury Folk Festival and EFDSS combine for a unique joint commission to bring 8 artists together for a residential project. Their brief is to create new works based around the life and legacy of English Folk Collector Cecil Sharp, paying special attention to his Appalachian Diaries.

    See for more details

    The following is a review of the first concert published in the Guardian in May this year
    This was a tough brief. Eight folk musicians spent a week in the countryside writing a concept work about the folk-song collector Cecil Sharp. He may have played a crucial role in the revival of the genre in the early 20th century, but he's hardly a likable figure ("a bit of an anorak," said Steve Knightley), and little is known about his personal life. A performance at the headquarters of the English Folk Dance and Song Society added pressure. But it worked because the songs were unexpectedly varied and the mood bravely and cheerfully non-reverential.

    It was a Who's Who of the new British folk scene, with Knightley joined by Kathryn Roberts, Jim Moray and his sister Jackie Oates, Patsy Reid from the Scottish band Breabach, and the squeeze-box star Andy Cutting, along with the funny and furious Canadian banjo player Leonard Podolak and the fine American singer Caroline Herring, the discovery of the evening. Amazingly, they sounded like a band rather than a collection of talented individuals, with singers and instrumentalists interacting and swapping solos.

    Part of the set consisted of songs that Sharp collected, with Oates and Roberts providing exquisite harmonies on Barbara Allen, and Oates swapping vocals with Herring on different versions of Lover's Lament.

    The new songs ranged from the poignant to the critical. Ghost of Songs was a moving tribute to those who gave Sharp their songs, the jaunty Dear Kimber dealt with morris dancing but also his patronising approach to women, while Maud and Cecil was a comic sexual fantasy about his relationship with his loyal assistant Maud Karpeles. And this in Cecil Sharp House? He'd have been furious.
  • @Greg - thanks for posting the info on the Cecil Sharp Project. Very impressive soundclips!
  • Yes Kez - I only downloaded it this morning so have only played it once but sounds good to me, with some good artists. An intriguing project writing new songs with a traditional feel to them
  • Thanks BT and.or Greg for the Unthanks, excellent stuff. Starless and Bible Black was a treat. In the "well I'll be damned" category, I bought their first album and completely forgot about it until I search for more albums from the band.

    eMusic has Oak Ash Thorn, a collection of British folk, Including the Unthanks doing the title track (not on the 2011 release). Anyone own this comp? Is this worth getting?
  • @greg,

    I've listened to the samples a few times, and I wish I could say that they grab me as they did you. Referencing the practice of early folklorists can be tricky business, and not being aware of Sharp's work might diminish my appreciation for what these musicians have accomplished. As I am reading Alan Lomax's biography, I feel that I am myself conditioned to respond to the sound of life on the margins (if you would). My appreciation of Carthy falls along similar lines. This sounds much more like Vaughan Williams in its pastoralism that I would normally appreciate in folk music. Not that I dislike this. Actually, they are well written songs. They don't have the fire I would like. On the other hand, my wife tends to like this stuff. I might have to listen back to it in a few weeks.
  • Thanks for the Oak, Ash, Thorn comp, Plong42 - I'd missed it. I've added it to my SFL. If I download it I'll let you know how I get on with it.
  • edited September 2011
    @BT - Cecil Sharp was one of the early compilers of traditional English folk music. I must admit that is all I knew about him until a few minutes ago until I read the Wiki article about him - see I know all the health warnings about Wikipedia, but this is an interesting article giving some intriguing points about the work of Cecil Sharp
  • From the wikipedia article:
    Sharp's work coincided with a period of nationalism in classical music, the idea being to reinvigorate and give distinctiveness to English classical composition by grounding it in the characteristic melodic patterns and recognisable tone intervals and ornaments of its national folk music. Among the composers who took up this goal was Ralph Vaughan Williams, who carried out his own field work in folk song in Norfolk. The use of folk songs and dance melodies and motifs in classical music to inject vitality and excitement, is of course as old as "La Folia" and Marin Marais' "Bells of St. Genevieve" ("Sonnerie de Ste-Genevi
  • Sharp's One Hundred English Folksongs is luckily available online. I am admittedly impressed with the number of canonical songs he collected. Sight-reading the transcriptions, I can see how he indeed regularized the songs and how subsequent English folk artists have had to reintroduce traditional practices back into them. Indeed, I'm not sure how I would react to this version of "Growing" had it been presented to me as folk music. I'll have to try it out later on the mando.
  • Ff-front-cover-for-web.gif
    Ivor & Kevan Bundell

    I have not heard of this pair before, but I came across an article which described their music as "contemporary, original and English Folk/Roots." I think they have a very nice sound. Couldn't find them on Amazon or emusic. But you can hear some songs in full from their albums here.
  • 617cviyQJxL._SL500_AA300_.jpg Ragged Kingdom by June Tabor/Oysterband

    I just happened to notice this new release. Very promising, indeed. I can see a purchase in the future for me.
    "Twenty-one years ago, June Tabor and Oysterband got together to record what is now recognised as an English folk-rock classic. It wasn't exclusively a folk album, though there were some traditional tracks, but rather an eclectic, powerful reworking of anything from Lou Reed to Shane McGowan. Now, at long last, comes the followup that so many of us have been asking for, and it's no disappointment. The energy is still there, along with the desire to startle and experiment, but so is a new maturity and emotional depth, and even greater variety. The traditional songs include Bonnie Bunch of Roses, in which the stomping backing is never allowed to overshadow Tabor's no-nonsense storytelling; then there's a glorious melodeon and fiddle-backed treatment of Fountains Flowing, that song of parting and grief, and there's delicate, unaccompanied vocal harmony singing on the Scottish lament (When I Was No But) Sweet Sixteen. The contemporary songs range from a fiddle-backed stomp through Dylan's Seven Curses, through to a thoughtful, gutsy reworking of PJ Harvey's That Was My Veil, and a pained, acoustic version of Joy Division's Love Will Tear Us Apart, which features a powerful duet between Tabor and John Jones, who come together again for a very English treatment of the bittersweet Dark End of the Street. This was worth waiting for." - from album review by Robin Denselow for
  • I really like it Kez - well worth getting
  • Greg - glad to hear that. Thanks for letting me know. I'm thinking I'll get it.
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