Folk Songs for Today

from Les Ray

When I wrote my last column, I was eagerly looking forward to one of my highlights of the summer: Cambridge Folk Festival. Well, summer and its festivals have come and gone, so now we’re battening down the hatches in preparation for autumn (and the B-word) and becoming more contemplative.

One highlight of this year’s CFF for me was getting to interview the great Ralph McTell on my radio show broadcast live from the festival site.  In the interview, Ralph - first name terms now of course! - told me about the amazing reaction when he performed ‘Streets of London’ at CFF for the first time back in 1969, 50 years ago this year. As he described it: “I’m often asked about which are the memorable days in your career and I have to say the first Cambridge was for me because, before mobile phones and social media and all that stuff, you didn’t know that people had picked up on your songs or anything, but when I announced ‘Streets of London’, which had just come out on my second album, called ‘Spiral Staircase’, the entire audience sang it all the way through with me and it was a bit emotional for me, I nearly didn’t get through it, and I was quite overwhelmed by the fact, so that’s a landmark for me”.

Fifty years on, it comes as no surprise that the whole audience sang along back then - as they did this year too - because ‘Streets of London’ was a folk song for its time, in other words, a song that connected with and carried forward the folk tradition, telling of events and circumstances affecting ordinary people’s lives.

I’m in the process of putting together a list of songs written in recent years that in my view are - or will become - folk songs for their time. A couple that immediately spring to mind are ‘Hollow Point’ by Chris Wood, which tells of the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes in July 2005, and ‘On Morecambe Bay’ by Kevin Littlewood, about the tragic deaths of the Chinese cockle pickers there in February 2004.

If Mardles readers can you think of other songs that would fit the bill, send email to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Les Ray

Music for the Soul

Sometimes there is a piece of music that really lifts the spirits. This is one such piece. I realise most of you have heard this many times but there is something magical about this particular clip. I particularly like the slow and gentle lead in before the waltz time takes over and then there is nothing to stop you waltzing round wherever you are with whatever or whoever you have in your hand. 


I'll add more clips to this as the mood takes me but if anyone has a particular clip that has something special about it, please send to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.  Probably better to keep it folk related 


New Youth - how oldie musicians are doing it for themselves

Article by Les Ray

My colleague at Cambridge 105 Radio Julian Clover and I were chatting to Neil King of Fatea at Cambridge Folk Festival back in the summer. Neil was Marina Florancesaying that Fatea aims to promote up-and-coming folk artists, particularly those who are not at the young end of the scale but are now at the age when they have the time and opportunity to pursue their music, plus they have a wealth of experience to bring to the songs they write; he mentioned Marina Florance in particular.

The truth is, Marina is just one very fine example of older performers from our region making headway on the local and national folk scene. Marina is slightly different in that she didn’t start performing in public until she was in her late forties. A more common phenomenon is that of musicians who played in bands in their youth but gave it all up to focus on family and career. Now that the children have flown the nest and they are close to retirement age, if indeed that exists, they have the time and maybe a bit more disposable income to devote to that passion that has never left them - music. I’m thinking perhaps of the Boxwood Chessmen, Thursday’s Band, Kelly & Woolley, Cambridge Walker, Two Coats Colder, or even my own band, Red Velvet. And that’s just the start of a very long list of performers that I’m calling the “New Youth” movement, since these are musicians enjoying a new youth in music.

Read more: New Youth - how oldie musicians are doing it for themselves

How best to learn a traditional tune

General Tips on how Best to Learn Traditional Irish Music
By Caitlín Nic Gabhann

These tips are designed to help people learning to play traditional Irish music, but I'd argue they can be applied to any music  (Mardles editor)

Listen to Irish traditional music
Listen as much as you can to Irish traditional music; in the car, while you’re walking, at home … I can’t stress this enough. This is a vital part of learning and understanding traditional Irish music. You need to be able to feel it; the swing, the phrasing, the flow, the style. None of these can be notated properly. So listen as much as you can. Listen to Irish trad music CDs, vinyls, downloads, online archives, whatever you enjoy listening to. Listen to a variety of instruments and styles and from different eras of traditional Irish music if you can. Listen to Irish trad & folk music from 50 years ago. Who did your musical idols learn from? Who did they listen to growing up? Find recordings of these people and listen to them. Go back to the source. Listen to a variety of traditional Irish instruments. Growing up, I listened to Irish concertina recordings, but I probably listened more to accordion, flute and fiddle CDs. The more the music gets into your head, the better the music will be that comes out through your fingers. This music is for feeling, not for reading from a page. The more you have this music in your head and your heart, the more it will naturally flow out.

Read more: How best to learn a traditional tune

The lady in the third row…

The lady in the third row had noticed something on the wall, just above her head. It must have been quite interesting because she gazed at it for the best part of a song. Then she shifted her attention to the ceiling. Soon afterwards, something on the floor seemed to have attracted her attention.
Only very rarely did her restless eyes settle on the stage where I was playing a set, and those fleeting moments were probably the worst. The expression on her face as I sang was too intense to be described as bored, too filled with feeling to be merely resentful.

She really, really hated me. The way I looked. The way I sounded. My words. My pathetic jokes. My absurd attempts at melody. There was nothing that was happening on stage that she didn't absolutely loathe. If I had stopped mid-song and toppled over with a massive heart attack, I swear she would have stood up and punched the air with relief.

The professional, grown-up response to an undelighted listener is to ignore her, and play to the rest of the audience.

I am not that grown-up professional.

I played for the lady in the third row. I courted her with the eagerness of a young troubadour trying to win the heart of a beautiful maiden with his songs. And the harder I tried, the more infuriated the lady in the third row looked.
She won, of course. To sing words and music which you have written to a person who is unable to disguise her revulsion is a sort of personal torture. It is not just your songs that, with every note and syllable, are making her wish she was somewhere else; it is you. She has seen into your soul, and is recoiling.

Read more: The lady in the third row…

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