There are, as most of you will know, at least two Ian Andersons connected with music from the late 60s onwards. The one we are concerned with for the purposes of today’s interview is not known for his legs (as far as I’m aware), but has been known to give the occasional leg up (my sincere apologies – I’ll stop now) to upcoming musicians on the folk scene.
To folkies of a younger hue, this particular Ian Anderson (he has an extra ‘A’ as a distinguishing feature) is known as the man at the helm of one of the longest and most influential magazines on the scene: fRoots. However, those with memories well-serving enough to stretch back to the Bristol and Soho folk gatherings that curled around the tail end of the 60s and the beginning of the 70s will remember him as a fingerpicking troubadour in his own right. Many of you will have followed him on his journey from the stage at Les Cousins, onwards via Hot Vultures, a spell as the founder and producer of The Village Thing record label (and then Rogue Records), an early champion of what has come to be known as World Music, manager of the band Tarika, and all the while working as an editor, publisher and broadcaster. He’s one of those characters, along with the likes of Steve Roud, that form a kind of infrastructure around which the folk scene – through the ages – has been able to evolve.
In recent times he has returned to the stage as a solo performer, and with a new album of old classics due for release in early October, we thought we’d grab him for a typically lengthy Grizzly Folk chat about a life lived in service to folk music, driven by a passion that borders on an unhealthy obsession for the stuff. If that sounds like a lot of people you know, then read on, for here’s a man who took the plunge and turned an obsession into a career.
How does it feel to be on the other side of the interviewer’s microphone, Ian?
Er, I haven’t done it for a long time [laughs].
Did you used to do it a lot?
Well yes, back when I was a full-time musician and not doing anything else. But that was a long time ago.
Not as nervous as I was doing my first solo gig for 43 years, because I’d completely forgotten what it was like to be onstage without anyone else.
So it was genuinely the first time that you were up there on your own again?
Yeah, because ever since the early 70s I’ve been in all of those duos, trios, bands and what have you. I suddenly realised, when I got up in January, that it was 40-something years since I’d stood on a stage on my own without another person to bounce repartee off. There was no feeling of security. It was very odd.
Was that the hardest thing, the repartee?
I still haven’t figured it out. It still feels a bit strange. I’ll get used to it. I used to do it a lot in the early days, but this is a new learning curve – which is always good. It’s good to have those.
So the kind of stuff you do is not so much traditional English folk, but more from what they call the psych folk side of things.
Well, it’s in there. Everything’s in there. Obviously my foundation was playing country blues, but I veered completely away from that, and then back towards it again. I’m never very happy listening to recordings of myself, but one thing that does make me happy is that when I do listen, I’m aware that I sound like myself. I remember having a conversation with a young musician who was doing support for someone here in Bristol, and his dad was in the audience. We started chatting and it turned out his dad also played guitar and he asked me, “So, who do you copy?” And I said, “Well, I don’t really copy anybody. I did 50 years ago, but…” He said, “I’ve just absolutely perfected Mississippi John Hurt’s version of such-and-such. It’s exactly like he used to play it.” And I’m thinking, hmmmmmmm. Why would anyone want to do that after their first year of playing?
I suppose it’s kind of like a badge isn’t it? It’s like you’re collecting stickers along the way.
Yeah, but this guy must’ve been in his late 50s! Why would you want to do that? [Laughs] But, yeah – there’s a kind of magpie element [to what I do]. I deliberately set out to re-learn some things that I hadn’t played for 40 or 50 years, but without referring to either my old recordings of them or whatever I learnt them from in the first place.
Presumably you had the lyrics?
Occasionally I did have to play the old record once to write the words down, it’s true, but I prefer to mis-remember things. There’s a song that I still haven’t figured out how I did it. I recorded it in 1972 – a song that I wrote – and I keep coming back to it, and I cannot for the life of me figure out how I played it! And it has only just dawned on me that, (a) it’s on a twelve-string, and (b) I never ever played it live anyway, the reason being that it was in the equivalent of open G-tuning, on a twelve-string, but tuned down. [Laughs] You know… “Ah, right… that’s why.” So I had to start from first principles and figure out another way of doing it. But that’s a bit like when I was 16, listening to old country blues records and trying to figure out what they were doing through all the murk and getting it completely wrong. That’s what The Rolling Stones did when they were trying to do Jimmy Reed, Chuck Berry and Bo Didley – getting it spectacularly wrong but hopefully, in the process, creating something that has its own life.
I’ve often wondered, and maybe you’re the man to answer this: how do you define psych folk?
I’ve absolutely no idea! When we were making and releasing all of those Village Thing albums, the term didn’t exist. I don’t think it was even created until about the turn of this century. There’s a very good book by Jeanette Leech called Seasons They Change, which is all about “psych folk”. I’m still not entirely sure what people mean by that, but if they want to give a label and it’s useful, what the hell? I’ll take the money [laughs].
If you were going to call anything psych folk, I’d have expected it to be something like The Incredible String Band.
I’d have thought so too, although listening to your new recordings, a lot of your fingerpicking style is very reminiscent of people like the Incredible String band.
I think that’s because, back in the 1960s, you didn’t have a vast array of sources. There weren’t many records around, there was no Youtube, and there were certainly no tutor books or Stefan Grossman Guitar Workshop websites or any of that bollocks. So everybody just kinda worked things out for themselves. So I know that the guys in the Incredible String Band were certainly listening to old-time records and country blues, in amongst everything else, just the same as Martin Carthy was listening to Big Bill Broonzy. It all kind of sinks in there. You come to a point via another point, taking in several destinations along the way, which might be the same points that I went to or Martin Carthy went to, or whatever. Martin Simpson and I probably grew up listening to the same kind of music, but we don’t sound anything like each other.
It’s that first seed, I suppose, and the branches that grow out of it.
Yeah. The only thing I can say for sure that I consciously did was sing in English. When I stared out I sang fake American, just like everyone did who was doing country blues. And then I had a kind of lightbulb moment one day, hearing a recording, thinking, “What on earth are you singing in that stupid accent for?” It took me about a year to get out of it. I was actually conscious of it, and it was actually quite hard!
Quite a long while later I remember talking to Martin Carthy about this, and he was in the studio recording something and he went into the control room to listen to the playback and suddenly heard, from outside himself, the kind of vocal mannerisms that he’d acquired. And he went, “What the fuck is that?! Why are you doing that?!” The lyrics had become almost indecipherable because of the folkie mannerisms that everybody had got into in those days – ‘The Folk Voice’. And he also said that he had to really, really concentrate for a long time to rid himself of that, without losing his own style.
Listening to his first album, I was certainly surprised to learn that he grew up in Hampstead.
Yeah, well I think on his first album you can hear that he grew up as a choir boy.
Although I think you can hear elements of a kind of faux West Country accent going on.
Yes, somewhere between there and the late 70s he developed ‘The Folk Voice’. The only distressing thing I find these days about listening to all the brilliant young folk performers is that ‘The Folk Voice’ seems to be coming back! [Laughs] Arrrgh! That 1970s folk club voice – those weird mannerisms. Nobody ever spoke or sang like that until folk clubs came along!
The thing about folk clubs, especially back then, is that people didn’t get out much [laughs]. They only heard other folk club performers – they never listened to traditional singers. It’s always been a massive thing that people like Shirley Collins and Peter Bellamy used to say – and Martin Carthy, too: “Don’t listen to me. Go and listen to the people that we learnt from.” Jim Moray gets very angry about that and says, “But you’re my source singers!” And that’s an equally valid point of view.
You learnt the guitar in a pub in Weston-Super-Mare, watching a chap called Beetle.
Yes, although nobody would’ve heard of him outside of Weston-Super-Mare.
Were there many Big Bill Broonzy fans around Weston-Super-Mare at the time?
Well, he was kind of like our guru because he could really play and nobody else could. I’ve told this story a lot, but when I was about 14 or 15, when I was into the early pop music of the day which was beginning to phase into what was called R&B – The Rolling Stones and what have you – there was a school record club held in the chemistry lab on Friday lunchtimes. People would bring in records and play them, and I walked in just at the moment when somebody put a Muddy Waters EP on. It completely stopped me in my tracks. “Holy shit!” I had to know what that was, right there and then. I pestered this boy who was a couple of years older than me: “What is this music? Where can I find out about more of it?” And he pointed me towards the local art-school coffee bar, a place called The Swahili. I went home from school, jumped on my bicycle, cycled furiously to the other end of town and went to this coffee bar and virtually never left for the next three years.
It didn’t have a jukebox; it had a record player and a big pile of LPs that people had just left there. It had folk and blues – modern blues, old blues; modern jazz, old jazz. It had a Miriam Makeba record, so that would’ve been the first African music that I ever heard. In the space of a week I heard so many different things: King Oliver, Charlie Parker, the first Baez and Dylan stuff because someone had a sister in the States who sent it over. I didn’t know any of this stuff existed. I was used to hearing what was on the radio, which wasn’t a lot. It literally changed my life.
After a bit I discovered that where everybody disappeared to on Friday and Saturday nights was the pub across the road, where you could go in the back door and there were these amazing jam sessions every weekend. In the midst of this, like a kind of guru figure, sat this bloke, Beetle. I just watched him and went home and figured things out.
Where would Beetle have been getting his inspiration, then?
All I really know about him was that he was a technician in the dental part of the university, but he had been in a skiffle group in the 50s. I can’t remember their name, but his great claim to fame was that they’d appeared on this television programme called Six-Five Special, which was the only pop music programme on TV at that time. I vaguely remember seeing it as a kid. He’d been on that so he was famous in Weston-Super-Mare [laughs]. As I understand it, in the late 50s the only blues music people heard was Big Bill Broonzy and possibly Sonny Terry or Brownie McGhee, and that was about it.
The other thing about this Muddy Water EP, though, was that the sleeve notes were written by Alexis Korner, and so that was a name I then started looking out for. By 1968 I’d met him, and he sort of became my mentor. He was a brilliant man.
You must’ve strayed somewhat from Somerset to have been mentored by Alexis Korner.
Well yes, I left home when I was 17. I didn’t go to university. I moved to Bristol and was there until about 1972/73. We’d started making little records and playing a lot locally, and we started this blues club in Bristol. In the course of that, there was a locally based label, and when all the artists came to play at the club they got them in to record them. In 1968 a compilation album came out called Blues Like Showers of Rain, which was a whole bunch of those people playing country blues – Mike Cooper, Dave Kelly, Jo Ann Kelly, Panama Limited Jug Band – people like that. And when that came out everything went completely bonkers. John Peel fell on it with great delight. He’d play tracks from it every night and he got us all in to play sessions, and I thought, “Shit, if I’m going to take advantage of this I have to be in London.” So I moved to London for about nine months. I lived in Notting Hill in the winter of 68/69, and I was just around the corner from Alexis’s place. Whenever he wanted company driving to gigs he’d say, “Do you want to come and do a floor spot?”
So he was a very welcoming chap?
Yeah! He was incredibly supportive. So many bands were started because Alexis had introduced the members to each other. I remember that winter when I was around there a lot, his daughter’s boyfriend was a teenage bass player, so Alexis started using him on gigs, and then he introduced him to other people, and that was the band that became Free.
He’s one of those names that turns up in almost any history of British blues and rock music that you pick up. He seems to have influenced everybody at some point.
Yeah. Looking back now, he had this thing of, “If you can help people, why wouldn’t you? It doesn’t cost you anything.” There’s a song that Dick Gaughan sings, and I’m corrupting the line, but it’s something about doing what you can with what you’ve got. Later on, I always thought that was a good thing. Alexis wasn’t a top-class musician, but he was alright, and he could put fabulous bands together and gave great fun playing in them. And that’s kind of what I’ve done over the years. The more I look back, the more I realise how much of his thing I’ve taken on in many different directions. He wrote stuff because he was an enthusiast. He broadcast, back when it was the Third Programme – when there was just the Light Programme, the Home Service and the Third Programme – and he’d do these learned blues things. Obviously he got paid for it, but his first and foremost reason for doing it was because he was an enthusiast and wanted other people to know about it. The more I look back, the more I realise what an incredible role model he was.
I guess I started this blog from very similar instincts. You just have this enthusiasm that you want to share.
Yeah, absolutely. And you realise, “I can do this, so why not do it?” It’s the thing to do.
Another thing that really jumps out from your biog is that you played at Les Cousins, the legendary Soho club.
[Laughs] Yeah, we all used to call it Les Cousins [Les, as in Lesley; Cousins, said with heavy non-French accent] because we thought there was some bloke called Les Cousins [laughs]. We didn’t know that it had been a French movie.
Haha! I do envy that, though. When people ask that question – “If you could’ve been born at any other time and been anywhere, where would you like to have gone?” – that’s one of my places: Les Cousins, Soho, 1968. There’s nowhere like that now.
Well, the Cousins and the Bristol Troubadour, which was on at the same time, were like opposite ends of an axis. It was an incredible time.
Was there a big difference between somewhere like Les Cousins and the Troubadour [in Earl’s Court]? Reading old articles, it always seems to me as though your more traditional folkies – your Martin Carthys – went to the Troubadour, while your Bert Janschs went to the Cousins.
I only used to go to the London Troubadour occasionally, but over at the Cousins, anything went. Anything worked in there. Peter Bellamy and The Young Tradition were residents there at the same time as Al Stewart. Pete and Al were really good mates who used to host nights together. Most people played at the Troubadour too, but perhaps the more innovative people didn’t play there quite as much as they played the Cousins, I’d say. It might have been to do with the people running the nights. At the Troubadour it was Redd Sullivan and Martin Winsor – great guys, but it wasn’t quite where their interest lay compared to what was happening in the Cousins.
So what was happening in the Cousins?
Pretty much fucking everything, actually! Once you’d finished a gig in London, if you didn’t want to go back home you could go down to the Cousin’s legendary all-nighters on Friday and Saturday nights. For people outside London – like when I started hitchhiking up from Bristol – it was the cheapest hotel in town. You could pay your five bob, or whatever it was, and you could stay all night. And if you started becoming a regular performer you didn’t have to pay anything. It was a really good place to be. You never knew who you were going to see. And as that reputation spread, quite famous people would just wander down there to see what was going on.
Yes, I’ve heard it said that Paul McCartney went down there once and left with the idea for ‘Blackbird’.
It wouldn’t surprise me. Hendrix was supposed to have gone down there, although I wasn’t there that night. But certainly the more obvious people – Paul Simon, for example – would turn up at 3am and try out a new song. Cat Stevens used to go down there and get up as this bloke called Steve [laughs]. He was pretty good. And then there were people like Nick Drake who nobody took any notice of because they were fucking awful!
Can you remember seeing Nick Drake?
Yeah. It didn’t help that he was the world’s worst live performer. He had no confidence at all. They’d stick him on at 4 o’clock in the morning when everybody was asleep [laughs]. Back then you had to be a really good songwriter, a really good guitar player and be able to do the chat. And if you couldn’t do the chat, unless you were fantastically good at the other things, you weren’t going to make it. There were a few exceptions – John Renbourn was never very good at the chat, but his guitar playing was so monstrously good that it was alright. Everybody else, though – Al Stewart, Ralph Mctell, John Martyn – they had all three.
These days you’ll go to open mic and it amazes me. They strum their guitars and their introduction is, “Here’s a song off my new album.” And I wonder, how does that work?
It’s the talking bit at folk clubs that always really strikes me. If you’re going to sing a song that was collected in 1906, and we know fragments about Marina Russell or the other source singers, why would you not include bits and pieces about them?
Yeah, but the mistake that some singers would often make there was that they’d tell the story told in the song and then sing it [laughs] – absolutely pointless! But the background to the song is something else, and if you can present it in a conversational way then it just draws the audience in.
Do you have a favourite period, looking back, as a performer? You seem to have taken most of the 80s and 90s off…
I stopped in the late 80s. In the 90s I was still playing occasionally for fun and no money in public, and I didn’t start again until 2004. I kind of thought I’d stopped – that performing actual gigs wasn’t something I was going to be doing anymore.
Was there any reason? Was it the magazine getting in the way?
I was just busy. I was managing a band during the 90s. I was married to a woman from Madagascar who led a band that we worked together on called Tarika. They became one of the massive bands on the World Music scene in the 90s. Their albums were always number one on the World Music charts, and they were very time consuming. We had a daughter, and I tended to be at home while my wife was out on the road. It was kind of impossible, us both doing stuff.
I also thought I’d had enough of it. I love playing, but I don’t really like the endless hours of travelling and then sitting doing nothing for three hours after the soundcheck, and sleeping in crap places and what have you. That said, I’ve discovered in more recent times – [laughs] sorry, this is ‘An Old Man Speaks’ – performers now don’t know they’re born! Back then, even well-known performers on the folk scene would sleep in a sleeping bag on the club organiser’s floor. It’s possible that still happens, but nowadays people expect somewhere nice to stay. It might only be a BnB, but they expect a proper bed for the night that isn’t wet and doesn’t have the same sheets that the previous six folk club guests have slept in.
Oh, the glamour!
Ha! In the 60s and early 70s, virtually nowhere had PAs. In the 70s, my group, Hot Vultures, were one of the first groups to start carrying our own little PA. Initially we had to go through all the subterfuge of getting into the club an hour before the club organiser [laughs] and setting it up before they got there and panicked when they saw microphones. You know, we were like, “Try it. It’ll be alright.” And at the end of the night they’d come up and say, “That was alright! It wasn’t too loud but we could hear everything.” Yessssss…
We’d still be sleeping in our VW bus, which we’d kitted out so that all the gear went under the bed. I remember sleeping in that bus in snow drifts in German autobarns and God knows where. Nowadays performers usually have somewhere to stay, they usually have a decent PA with monitors ferfecksakes! If you look at pictures from when I played at the first ever Glastonbury, there were no monitors.
I’m not saying everybody has a cushy life – they don’t. What I’m getting at is that it enables you to play better. The circumstances to allow people to play better are brilliant these days compared to what they were. And also, compared with when we started out in the mid-60s, good instruments are affordable now. Back then, a lot of instruments simply weren’t very good, and those that were good were unaffordable – American imports of Martin guitars that nobody could afford. These days decent instruments, thank heavens, are within the reach of most people.
All this has been noted quite often by old git performers – those of us standing at the back of the Folk Awards going, “Lucky bastards!” [Laughs] But it’s good, you know? It benefits everybody. It benefits the standard of the music, which is good for the musicians and the audience, and it’s good for it being taken seriously.
And yet Deathfolk Blues Revisited – the album you’ve just recorded – was done with just you hunched over a single microphone.
Yeah, but I wanted to do that. Every single record I’ve made since 1969 has had other musicians on it and was made in the studio. I thought I’d give it a go. Actually, I wasn’t intending to make a record. I was actually thinking about documenting my repertoire, and I thought while I’m at it I might as well have a go at recording it as decently as possible. Then it occurred to me that if I was doing solo gigs again I’d need a calling card. There isn’t actually anything out there!
It’s the Jack White method of modern recording, isn’t it.
Is that what it is?
Yeah, he does that thing of recording his stuff on original studio equipment with original, vintage microphones. There’s a studio – Toe Rag – in Hackney that specialises in it.
Yeah, well there were some great records made in that way. I’m not saying that it’s the best way to record, because I don’t believe that it is.
No, of course. It just gives it a certain character.
Yes. Basically, people learned how to use the technology.
And it meant that they actually had to learn the song.
Yes, there’s something natural about it, although ‘natural’ is not the right word because there’s nothing natural about singing into a microphone. But it removes a lot of unnecessary, daunting stuff.
One of the albums that we did on Village Thing, back in the early 70s, was a guitarist and songwriter called Dave Evans. He was utterly brilliant. Made his own guitars, wrote his own songs, invented his own tunings – utterly amazing. He was a mate of Steve Tilston’s when we first discovered him. He came to Bristol to play on Steve Tilston’s first album and then stayed. His albums are about to be reissued on that label called Earth Recordings, the people who are doing all those luxury Bert Jansch reissues. His first album on Village Thing was recorded in my flat in Bristol, about three doors from where I am now [laughs], using two good quality AKG condenser mics straight into a Revox tape recorder, which is what Bill Leader and everyone used in those days. It was a good state-of-the-art tape machine. The room had a nice acoustic and we took care to place all the mics correctly. Dave’s guitar sounded amazing and so we recorded it.
Now, we used to master Village Thing recordings at Apple in Savile Row – the studios that The Beatles had set up for their company. They had a mastering suite in there that a lot of people used, and a particularly good mastering engineer called George Peckham. If you’re a vinyl nerd you’ll know that you can find scribbles in the run-out grooves of a lot of records. Anything with “A Porky Prime Cut” was George Peckham!
Anyway, we took him the Dave Evans record and he stuck it on and went, “Fucking hell! Where’d you get that acoustic guitar sound!?” So I explained, and he went, “Right!” and he stuck his finger on the button to the speakers in the main studio and said, “Come in here and listen to this!” So the recording engineer comes in and George presses the play button and the engineer goes, “Fucking hell! Where’d you get that acoustic guitar sound!?” And George says, “You tell him, Ian! You tell him!” And he’s prodding him in the ribs going, “See? I told you all that crap just gets in the way!”
So you recorded the new album in your flat again?
With a couple of AKG condenser microphones?
No, no, no! I’ve got one of those very nice Yeti USB mics. They’re brilliant, actually. They sound much better than mics that cost three times the price, and nobody can really explain why [laughs]. So I just found a sweet spot for that and recorded it all on Garageband, which – had we had that in 1968 – we would’ve done then, too.
Was it a single session? A couple of sessions? How did you pick out the songs, given that you were faced with your whole repertoire?
I spent a day, and in that day I recorded 15 songs. I just got into it. There were a couple of second takes, but I thought that actually – if it’s just a calling card – 15 songs is too long. So I thought the ones that ended up on the album made a nice collection. You know, there seemed to be a lot of death in them so I gave it that title [laughs]. I forget the bodycount but it’s reasonably high.
The one thing that seems to be a glaring omission from your press release is the magazine. You know – fRoots, I think it’s called…
Well, I don’t consider it relevant. You know, if someone works their day job as an electrician, you don’t introduce them onstage saying, “Tonight’s guest is a great electrician!” I’m always asked what I want said in my introduction, and I always say, “There’s one thing I don’t want you to say.” It has nothing to do with playing music.
So am I allowed to ask about it now?
Oh yeah, of course. It’s just that, to me, they are two separate compartments. Obviously, I have a lot of knowledge from playing music that informs what we cover in the magazine and the way we cover it. It will inform stuff, but only in the same way that it did when I was working as a broadcaster. I produced a lot of albums and ran a record label, and I’ve run festivals and stuff like that, and they’re all separate things.
I guess I always thought that I could do a lot of things but I wasn’t particularly good at any of them, but it was pointed out to me that I’m probably the only person who has that range of experiences – that it’s a unique thing. I can see so many different sides to so many different fences. When artists are whinging on about festivals or record companies, or when festivals and record companies are whinging about artists, I can say, “yeah, but…”. I can see everybody’s point of view.
Did fRoots come about as an extension of that Alexis Korner template that we spoke about earlier?
OK, well the exact story is this. In the 70s there was a magazine called Folk Review which ran for about a decade and was edited by a guy called Fred Woods, and partly by Eric Winter. Towards the end of the 70s, Fred had kind of lost interest in it and he decided that he wanted to sell it. I’d written for it, never got paid for it, but thought there were a few people that would be great to write about and maybe review a few records. So he approached me and asked if I’d be interested in taking it over. So I got together a little team of people that included a graphic designer and someone who worked in a print shop. We thought this would be a good thing to do until we looked at the accounts and realised it was a complete stiff! We realised it would be cheaper and less risky to start a new one, and by that point we’d got fired up with the idea of doing it.
At that time, all over Britain, were very healthy little folk magazines, some with listings, some with reviews and what have you. But there wasn’t one for the South, for central southern England. So we thought, OK, let’s start one for Surrey, Sussex, Hampshire, Berkshire and around there. That’s why it was called Southern Rag. Not many people twigged that it was also an old Blind Blake country blues tune, but anyway… we started that and then Folk Review fell over, so there wasn’t a national magazine. We probably did Southern Rag too well, because I’d brought together a team that could produce something like Folk Review. And so suddenly, in a very short space of time, we had international subscribers, it was read all over the country and it had – without any intention – become sort of Top Dog among the regional magazines. In the end, so many people suggested that we make it national and put it on the news stands that we ended up doing it.
To this day I can’t decide whether that was a good idea or not. I haven’t had any time off since 1985 [laughs]. There have been periods where I’ve done endless 16-hour days, seven days a week. Not so much now. I’ve figured out ways of not doing that [laughs]. But that’s how that evolved.
How about the World Music side of it?
It was around that time that music from other cultures was becoming more readily available. Musicians would know about these records and they’d tell each other, but it was only around that time that, for some reason, more records started coming out. Artists started coming on tour and organisations started getting set up to tour people. And because all of this was suddenly there we started writing about it. Before that, we wanted to write about it but there was no possibility of anyone seeing or hearing it. Our second issue had a review of a Chinese concert in it which basically said, “Fantastic concert. Don’t know where all the folkies were. They’d have loved it to death.” So it grew into a much wider based magazine than we had imagined at the start.
I was talking to David Suff earlier this year and he was saying that he’d lost track of the amount of times that seems to have been a folk boom or revival, or what have you. Do you see anything like that happening again? Do you notice it anymore? Does that kind of thing still interest you?
Erm, it comes and goes. Right now it’s very interesting because there was a period around about the turn of the century – 15 or so years ago – when there were a lot of people like Eliza Carthy coming up. A new generation making better quality records and performing in a less folky way. Do you know what I mean? Performing in a way that was more normal [laughs]. Less ghetto-ized! As I said before, there were so many people before who only knew how to play in folk clubs, which is a nice thing but it’s a different thing and not a normal thing. When people like Eliza turned up, they could take a mainstream audience by the scruff of the neck and shake them and people would go, “Fuck me! That’s great!” And then they started getting Mercury Award nominations and it reached the point that, for the first time in as long as I could remember, people didn’t take the piss out of folk music anymore. And that hasn’t changed ever since.
We used to run a column in the 80s called ‘The Press Gang’, which was basically full of quotes from the mainstream media taking the piss out of folk music. You know, all that stuff about Aran sweaters and pewter tankards and hey nonny no and sandals. All that stuff was endless, but you don’t get that now, and that’s great.
What happens now is that the tide comes in and it goes out again, in terms of what the mainstream media covers. At the moment it’s not covering a lot. There was a lovely period around 2004 – whenever it was that BBC4 started up – when the blessed Mark Cooper was in charge of what was on. There were loads and loads of documentaries and festivals. WOMAD, Cambridge, and Sidmouth one year – each were televised. But that has sort of petered out again. So you don’t get artists interviewed in the same way. The Guardian has its music section on a Friday, but you don’t get folk artists interviewed in there anymore. Jude Rodgers is now allowed to do one folk review a week and Robin Denslow is allowed to do one World Music review a week. If you think that we get 40 or 50 in here at fRoots every week, quite often we’re the only place that’s going to cover them. To me that means, for whatever reason, we’re still important.
There’s a whole load of music there that, if we don’t write about it or play it on the podcast, nobody is ever going to find out about it, in spite of what everyone says about how the internet has taken over. If you don’t know about it, you’re not going to find it. So our biggest role now is being a kind of filter. We get so much stuff in and it’s up to our writers – the 50 or so people who contribute the reviews and the features – to do the work that most people don’t have the time to do.
How do you see it going forward?
I don’t know.
How are you going to combine it with the revived gigging career?
Oh, well that’s alright. The only way I’ve kept myself sane over the last 40-odd years is by doing something else. It might be doing radio or it might be managing a band from Madagascar. It might be running festivals. I’m always doing something else.
To find out more about Ian Anderson and what he might be doing next, head to the Ian Anderson website. To order his latest album, Deathfolk Blues Revisited, head to his bandcamp page. To find out more about fRoots, head to the fRoots website. All photography, unless otherwise stated (or of Nick Drake or Alexis Korner), courtesy of Ian Anderson. Deathfolk Blues Revisited cover photo by Judith Burrows.