Angel or Antichrist? Jim Moray and the UK folk Scene

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Jim Moray: angel or anti-Christ? Both celebrated as the harbinger of ‘Nu-Folk’ and dismissed as a heretic, Moray came to English folk music as a child: his father was a Morris dancer and his parents met at a folk club. His teenage rebellion consisted of playing drums in a punk band. After having studied classical composition at the Birmingham Conservatoire he started combining all these elements. The result is his own particular brand of ‘folk fusion’, which has since crystallised into two albums: Sweet William and Jim Moray.

Reviewers have depicted Moray as a determined rebel, attributing to Moray “a carefully considered wilfulness, a deliberate attempt to shock or startle, by dint of a phaser-on-stun-setting overload of ideas” (http://www.folkmusic.net/htmfiles/webrevs/nibl005.htm) and a “brutal, almost Ripper like hacking at certain established favourites with a fusion of sheer hostility and pent up frustration” (http://www.folking.com/reviews/reviews/702.shtml). These reviewers were by no means totally against Morays music. Nevertheless, his motives are implied to be the deliberate destruction of traditional music, due to a rebellious creative fury or an attempt to shock.

But if not to rebel, then why has Moray entered into such controversy? The fact is Moray holds fundamentally different views from others in the folk scene concerning the practice of traditional music. These conflicting opinions compete in two arenas: The song (or music), and the singer (or musician).

Arena one: the song. Moray’s creative arrangements and alterations present new concepts from old material. He takes phrases from traditional songs and combines them to create new ones. He also writes his own verses and adds them to existing traditional songs. Using digital techniques, he often changes the sound and feel of traditional music. In sum, Moray freely deconstructs and reformulates traditional music. This approach sharply conflicts with a more traditional attitude: that the integrity of the song can only be kept by ‘singing it the way it should be sung’. Moray’s experiments may be seen as selfish, damaging acts of heresy by purists.

Arena two: the singer. Among the folk community there is a strong concern for the singer to ‘match’ the song. The singer should be ‘authentic’. They should have experience of the content of the song and ideally be brought up in the tradition of which the song is part. A good example of this is the accusation laid on another significant force in progressive ‘Nu-Folk’: Rachel Unthank and the Winterset. This band was accused by critics of being too young and inexperienced to sing about coal mining because as young women they have not suffered such hard labour. Jim himself has been accused of delivering tasteless ‘pop-style’ vocals ill-befitting his traditional material. But according to Jim, an ‘authentic’ traditional style would conversely make him ridiculously ‘inauthentic’:  “it would be completely living a lie for me to sing these songs acoustically in the vocal style of a 16th-century peasant, because I can’t pretend I don’t like listening to rock and avant-garde electronica” (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/rockandjazzmusic/3603270/The-reinvention-of-folk-music.html). Jim has been influenced by punk, rock, electronic and classical music as well as music from the English tradition. The music he is currently playing is the result of his colourful background, not a wilful demonstration against traditional values. It is music that comes naturally from his experiences and preferences: “I don’t think what I’m doing is particularly revolutionary, it’s just playing the songs in the way I want to play them. There’s a lot of things that are present in traditional music that really get me going, but there’s a lot of things that annoy me, and there’s a lot of things that I miss from other music that I like, so it’s trying to make a big pot of all the things that I like” (http://www.soundonsound.com/sos/aug06/articles/jimmoray.htm).

No trace of ‘Moray the rebel’ here. Sounds more like a down-to-earth musician to me. Ultimately, Moray’s cool confidence in his music stems from a belief that ‘reconfiguration’ is inherent to the nature of traditional music: “That’s what traditional music is, it’s not rigid or set in stone. The idea is to put your own spin on whatever’s there. English folk music is my cultural heritage, it’s like a gift that’s been passed down, and it’s as much my right to decide what I do with it as it is anyone else’s to not like it, or to do their own thing” (http://www.soundonsound.com/sos/aug06/articles/jimmoray.htm). According to this definition, we should not leave folk music as an untouched museum piece, trying to keep it as it always was, perfectly intact. Instead we should mould it, shape it with our current influences, ideas and concerns. Folk music has become nostalgic and is used as an escape from the life of today, but once it was an expression of the people, an expression of the times. The reason why folk music is seen as boring ‘old man’s music’ by the multitude is due to an anachronistic outlook, an overemphasis on preservation. Of course tradition needs to be preserved. But it also needs to live, as a mode of expression and creativity and protest, and that can only happen by rooting some part of the music in today, in the here and now. This is what Jim Moray is trying to do with his songs, to tell his own story, to weave his own narrative into the cloth of tradition. Long live the Morays of folk music, for without them the tapestry of tradition would be decidedly more dull.

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