Make America Good Again

This article first appeared here on Medium on Jan 20th, 2017.

Great. Is. Not. Good. It’s not. “Great” is just a lazy word for “big.” Think the Great War, Depression or Plague: great all, big certainly, but good…? Nah. If you view them not as remote, world-shaping things that have happened and instead as looming, world-shaping things that could happen again (tomorrow, to you, to your family), then it’s black and white. These big things are actually rather bad things, and it’s only because they’re so big and so bad that they deserve that specially grafted-on prefix of greatness.

Say it in a sarcastic voice: “Greeeeeeat…”

The word has no value in and of itself. It can mean anything. It’s just an appendage, a half-arsed, asinine, revisionary way of lumping together wildly dissimilar things and whacking a value judgement on them. It just doesn’t work like that, for the reality is all about nuance. A good act does not wash out the bad, nor a bad act the good, but we don’t like nuance any more. We like simple and comforting, no matter how anaesthetising.

Pick any of the people we call “Great” and you’ll find two irreconcilable sides to the lot. Alexander: blended foreign customs and beliefs into his empire to make it more cohesive. Tick. Also speared his mate Cleitus to death in a drunken brawl. Not so tick. Mahatma (trans: “great soul”) Ghandi: booted the British out of India, also called for his grandniece to sleep naked beside him and instigated all sorts of weird sex “experiments”. Gatsby: threw awesome parties, ran shady bootlegging deals to pay for them…

People make the mistake of assuming that greatness is a state of being. We idolise greatness, venerate it, but we don’t understand it. You are great at things, not just great in general. To paraphrase Oppenheimer (well, Anthony Hopkins in ‘Westworld,’ but I won’t tell if you don’t) “any man whose errors take ten years to correct is a great man.” This makes me angry, as you can just feel the masturbatory self-adoration oozing from his words. It says that it doesn’t matter if the world is now nuclear slag: you were a great man, man. Everyone’s blind, pissing blood and covered in radioactive lesions, but don’t worry Bob, you were great. The idea that greatness is desirable, regardless of its flavour, regardless of its impact, is insanity.

Which brings me to The Donald, because great really is beginning to grate.

Before the election, Trump was a symptom: of a disaffected underclass, of an electorate sick of aloof technocrats, of the Left’s failure to engage, of sexism, of racism, of a great myriad clusterfuck of things, but as of today he ceases to be a sign of the illness and becomes the illness himself. As he assumes the presidency, the greatest office a man (yup) can hold, his actions now impact the affairs of the entire planet. As he slides into the swamp, I fear his preference for greatness over goodness will cause untold damage. We’ll see.

To end, here’s a link to the (in)famous Sorkin “Newsroom” scene on U.S. greatness. It’s an almost hilariously liberal cliche, but it makes the point more eloquently than I ever could. America (or any other country) doesn’t need to be great, it needs to be good. Really good. I’m not holding my breath, but along with my nose, for the next four years, I’ll try. I’ll really try.


On Manchester, and The Whiskey Jar

The wits refer to the Northern Quarter by comparison: ‘Manchester’s Williamsburg,’ ‘Camden of the North,’ etc. It’s better. Fewer twits and more redbrick. A hive of bars, restaurants, gig venues, vinyl stores and converted mills, it’s currently enjoying its Goldilocks era. The area’s not outrageously pricey (yet), but is a far cry from the rundown stab-happy Ancoats of two decades ago. It also has plenty of ‘character,’ and despite the bespectacled hipstery hordes it hasn’t disappeared entirely up its own arse.

This is 50 feet from my flat. Happy Christmas stalkers.

This is 50 feet from my flat. Merry Christmas, stalkers.

Tucked away on a Northern Quarter side street is the Whiskey Jar. It’s a bar, my favourite bar, occupying the ground floor of an old textile mill between Piccadilly and Stevenson Square. Outside, you often find film crews bustling about on period shoots. The first ‘Captain America’ was shot here as, apparently, nothing looks more like 1940’s New York than 2010’s Manchester. Fun fact: the streets are only a quarter-mile long, meaning a car chase scene had to loop background footage for length. Chris Evans chases a baddie past the same buildings, over and over, like the monsters in an old Scooby Doo cartoon.

A band is blowing Dixie

To get the proper Northern Quarter experience, walk this way on Tuesday evening. Head out at double-four time, dodge the boom operators on Dale, scoot up Tariff, and you’ll suddenly hear the familiar clang of acoustic guitars. As the music rings and you step inside, you’ll come in out of the rain to a sea of rapt faces. In winter, your glasses steam up and in summer, the aircon makes you shiver (in the dark), but as your eyes adjust you’ll suddenly find yourself in a room so packed you can barely move. Even so, it’s so quiet you can actually hear the bar staff, apologetically, stirring drinks. All eyes are on the performer, up under the lights doing their thing, and that’s when you start to realise the Tuesday open-mic at the Whiskey Jar is something really rather special.

Piano's-eye-view of the Whiskey Jar

Piano’s-eye-view of a non-open-mic day. We play by the fairy lights.

Whiskey Jar open-mics are not like other open-mics. Most open-mics aren’t worthy of licking WJ’s bootlaces. Most open-mics are one of four things:

  1. The Rehearsal: it’s just you. And the bar staff. You play your heart out to an empty room and die a little inside.
  2. The Jukebox: someone’s yelling “Wonderwall,” the bartender is demanding Guns N’ Roses and the girls up front are squawking for Taylor Swift.
  3. The Double Booking: it’s the United/City derby. The organisers saw no problem with this clash. The pub’s full of fans, no-one’s listening; someone chucks a glass at you when you play during a penalty shoot-out.
  4. The Collective: the average age is 63, Arran sweaters abound, you’re allocated time for one song each (preferably from 1874) and old Deirdre will accompany you on recorder. You contract arthritis by proxy.

Ring dum a doo dum a da…

I was a battle-scarred veteran of these tortuous, tumbleweed-infested dives when I first heard the words ‘Whiskey Jar’ mentioned in hushed, reverent tones. ‘Microphone stands that stay up,’ they muttered. ‘PA speakers built after 1983,’ they whispered. ‘Audiences (cross thyselves) that listen,’ they hissed, all agog. When I found out there was a 3-week waiting list of musicians wanting to play, I knew I was onto a really good thing.

Whack for my daddy-o…

The video above is probably the neatest way to sum the night up. This song used to be the host’s solo opener, but as the weeks went by, one by one, the regulars (I’m one of the shadowy figures looming tall in the background) started jumping up to add backing vocals. The chorus ended up as a huge Crosby/Stills/Nash/Young-esque ensemble. There’s a lot of that. The night attracts everyone: singer-songwriters, hip-hop groups, poets, bands, a capella folk, loop-pedallers. The lot. The ethos is fairly independent and DIY, but to give you a meaningless benchmark for the quality passing through our creaky doors, try this. We have people currently supporting Ed Sheeran’s arena tour mixing indistinguishably with Glastonbury festival regulars, RNCM savants, X-Factor contestants (who, I take great satisfaction in adding, are always hopelessly outclassed) and idiots like me.

Puppet-stringed by compère-without-compare Joe ‘Shut the Fuck Up’ McAdam, the open-mic has over the last 18 months taken on a life of its own. The schtick is surprisingly simple: Joe sets it all up, plays a couple of songs to start, lets the bar chat during changeovers then quietens everyone down (with trademark profanity, which is part of the fun) before introducing each act, of which there’s maybe eight per night. Newbies get two songs; returnees get three. And it is amazing. Seriously amazing. Unlike anything I’ve ever seen. The atmosphere crackles, and the one-two combo of an incredible host and a respectful audience pulls in the highest calibre of musicians I’ve ever played with.

“Ah, music,” he said, wiping his eyes. “A magic beyond all we do here!” 

It’s just a joy. An utter, magical, life-affirming, soul-replenishing joy. Because of it, I’ve had the huge privilege of consorting with the most unbelievably talented bunch of people I’ve ever met. People like Sobi, Lee Parry, Jamie Lawson, The Travelling Band, Rachel Ferguson, Seamus McCloughlin, Josh Goddard, Lennie HammersleyHannah Ashcroft, Jonny Woodhead, Andy Adams, Claire Northey, Grim Fawkner, Robbie Cavanagh, Alina Ly, Tim Leo Gallagher, Lizzie Brankin and countless, countless others whose names I have temporarily forgotten. A crime for which I am surely destined for a specially-created tenth circle of hell.

I have no idea how long such a thing can last. It’ll probably, almost certainly, sputter out like all brilliantly finite things do, but while whatever confluence of talent, willpower and magic sustaining the night persists, I’ll be there. Every Tuesday night at 8pm. If you’re ever in Manchester round about this witching hour: come join the sorcery. We go ’til 12.

On Living with your Parents in your Mid-20’s…

I’m Al, I am 26 years old, and today I move out of my parents’ house. Fanfare please.


Mine is a riff on your usual millennial story arc. I grew up in the 90’s and 00’s, and was shepherded down the well-worn path from education to the professions like every other good little middle-class scion. As we all bobbed merrily along, we were all coddled in the collective certainty we’d be plonked into good jobs (graduate, London, circa £25k) at the other end. Anything but was inconceivable. Life was there on a golden platter, all teed up.

Presumptuous bellends.

Enter stage-right global financial crisis: fire actors, nationalise theatre, bail out producers. The world moved on, for the worst, and things got tough for everyone involved. That said however, for me it almost didn’t matter. Almost. I nearly got away scot-free, escaping the employment wreckage of 2008/09 for work abroad. I got pretty far too (5,975 miles to be precise, not a bad first effort), but the universe – as it is want – cared not one jot. Early 2013 hit me with both barrels, skewering me with a slew of personal, professional and financial crotch-hits, and as a result I wound up back in the house I’d called home since 1992. I had a princely £15.61 banked, 3 friends within 30 miles and was on the dole.


I’d wager my life savings (£15.61) no circle of hell is as harrowing as the Warrington Job Centre dole queue on a dreich January morning, but it was there, sat with one of their rheumy-eyed job harpies that I truly realised my predicament: “You may very well want a ‘creative’ job, but there are none going. Your work history shows manual labour and I need you off my books to meet my quota, so I’ll just go ahead and amend your profile…”


Ten points to Gryffindor if you spotted Robert Baratheon in the above. If only my Job Centre experience had been as rhythmic… Mine was a wake-up call. A slap across the face stating: “You cannot handle this world. Not in the way you want.” I decided to admit defeat. Retreat. Tap out. I strangled my pride and moved straight home. Being a tall, white, Western male (avec corresponding bred-in entitlement complex), I cannot understate how psychologically reassuring having that fallback was. And yes, I appreciate the irony… Still, the fact of the matter was, that after three full-blown years of (quasi) adulthood in China, I moved back in with my parents. In one fell infantilising swoop, I became a re-adolescent.


Living at home in your mid-20’s means standing still. Stepping outside of life’s forward flow. Chilling out. Cooling your fucking heels. Slowing. Stopping.


A side product of that initially unwelcome stillness is that you’re given time to reassess. I used the word ‘shepherded’ before as that’s how I now feel about many past choices: as if, looking back, they were made only half-consciously. Like I was swept, oblivious, past life’s crossroads down the road most-travelled. As if they weren’t even my choices – “This is not my beautiful house! This is not my beautiful wife!” – and it’s only now I’ve managed to schlep back to that fork and pick a road of my choosing. Me. Mine. My own. (My precious).


I’m beginning to sound like a pretentious wanker, so try this: living at home in your mid-20’s is about money. Our generation is the first in a while to be less well-off than the previous, and those of it “not really worrying about money” are usually nobjockeys with far too much. Let’s all agree it’s quite important. You don’t need braying posho wealth (Dave, Gideon, Boris), but you do need ‘enough’ and, when circumstances frogmarch you into the financial gulags, there are worse places to save ‘enough’ than at your parents’.

Living at home in your mid-20’s helps you save either for a foundation for life, or at least for the tools to build one. And tools, good ones, cost. Be it a functioning laptop, healthy food (so expensive) or a car that doesn’t sputter to death on the work commute, there is always something – tools, whatever – you need to get on a level footing. If you are lucky enough to be able to, living at home gets you on that footing more quickly. That might draw accusations of materialism, but the simple brutal fact is that on its lowest rung the world is a world of things. If you haven’t got the right things, you are at a huge disadvantage compared to those who do. They may be a luxury, but savings are smart. Savings = things.


Something I’ve noticed, and detest, since coming back to the UK is the ‘you-should-be-doing-it-like-this’ attitude some people have towards those struggling with money. The attitude of ‘well, if you’re poor then you’re obviously doing it wrong.’ It’s “minimum-wage workers should be grateful they even have jobs” on one hand, and “I deserve this £250k bonus” on the other. It proclaims: “we’re all in this together” in public, then retires to a multi-acre mansion in Chipping Norton in private. It proselytises “pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps,” then sneers at someone on national TV for having the barefaced cheek to do exactly that. At its root, it’s the deluded thinking that believes Rich can truly comprehend Poor, and therefore pass judgement. And then laws.

It’s bollocks. People thinking that way, people usually from cushty backgrounds, have had far too neat a safety net knitted for them. For us. I could quite easily fit that bill, but all I can personally can say is that one tiny, microscopic, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it taste of misfortune sent me scurrying back to my parents’. For 16 months. And thank God I had the option, an option many do not. I owe my folks much, much, more than I can ever give back…


Attitudes are shifting though, I think. I’d assumed I’d get ribbed this year for living at home, mocked even, but to my surprise the most common response has been: “How much of your monthly salary are you saving?” followed by: “Bastard.” Of course there have been some snidey little asides, usually from middle-aged English people who really don’t know what they’re talking about, but overall it hasn’t been quite the taboo I expected.

Finally though, I’m moving on. I bagged a good job and today am off to the hippest part of (arguably) England’s hippest city. Unfortunately, parts of it are overpopulated with kale-eating beardy musiciany types who always (when did this become a thing?) do their top buttons up, but I’m sure I’ll make do. It’s a four minute walking commute. And yet…:

Besides, I know that if everything goes tits-up again I can always move back home.

KIDDING mum, kidding. Geez…

On Carcassonne (Part 2)…

This is a continuation of a slightly longer blog post about a recent trip of mine to Carcassonne in France. You can find part 1 here.

I left off gushing about jousting. It was awesome. That was the Wednesday. On Thursday, I generally just pottered about. I sent postcards, bought trinkets and went on a boat tour of the Canal du Midi. It’s the Panama Canal of Europe, connecting the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. It was rather dull. The Bridgewater Canal is more scenic, and if a body of ‘water’ that oozes through Warrington bests southern France, you’ve got some problems… That afternoon though, I happily discovered my old job had paid me exactly twice what I was expecting as a final salary, so I immediately booked an extravagantly priced guided tour of the Aude countryside. The nice tourist office lady wrote down four different spellings of my name before giving up: “Trop compliqué. In this, you are Alex. D’accord?”

In the evening, I wandered up to the Spanish Feria festival. All the local businesses were running little food stalls, so I ended up gorging myself on tapas from one run by a gymnasium that seemed to have based its costumes on those of the Power Rangers. I didn’t care. They had sangria. I’d only planned on staying an hour or so, but then the band started up. Full brass, strings, funk rhythm section, five rotating lead singers (one, if my rusty French understood correctly, from the French version of The Voice) and even a gigantic bald French conductor. Brilliant. They started out with French songs, then moved into Spanish, then English. Three sangrias in, they played a Stevie Wonder five-song medley that segued into Earth, Wind and Fire. Unreal.

All the fun of the Feria

All the fun of the Feria

I swayed off at midnight on a gentle tide of sangria. I meant to go home, but Carcassonne had other plans. I was sidling past a pub where two musicians were setting up when I saw they were having technical difficulties. Normally, regular Al causes anything electrical to spontaneously ignite by sheer proximity, but apparently Sangria Al is a technical wizard. I fixed it, and as they swayed back into focus, I realised they were the buskers from the day before: an impossibly Dutch-looking couple who looked so alike I assumed they were siblings. But no, Michiel Schotanus and Lisanne de Jong, duo extraordinaire. Insane harmonies. They’d gotten one of only ten busking licenses dished out a year by la Cite, and had come over for seven weeks to camp and to play. They were brilliant, and the fools even let me play a few songs between their sets. When I finished, two things happened. First, the even more foolish bar owner invited me back to play a more fleshed-out set with Mike and Lisanne the next day, and second, a French lady sauntered over and immediately introduced herself rather knowingly as a ‘Desperate Housewife.’ I did my best impossibly possibly Hugh Grant impression until she buggered off. Terrifying.

The final day was the all-day tour. We went first to a village called Villerouge-Termenès to see a castle where the last ever Cathar was burnt at the stake (go Catholic church), and then to a  town called Lagrasse with a 10th century abbey. As we wandered, my guide bemoaned all the tourists, quoting a friend: “the only French people in Lagrasse are in the cemetery.” My tour guide. Irony gods. But then she took me wine tasting, so I forgave her.

King of my castle

King of my castle

The winery was called the Château Villemagne – in Latin ‘the big villa,’ after the Roman house which previously stood there – and I thought we’d get one red, one white, one rosé then be booted unceremoniously out the door. Oh no. I actually lost track of how many we got: before dinner wines, after dinner wines, a specialty called ‘Blood from the Stone’ (tastes like wine mixed with whisky gasoline), identical wines from consecutive years to highlight the subtly different tastes (by this point: not a chance), award-winning vintages: we drank it all. And it was goooooood.

I was tenderly deposited back in Carcassonne in the evening, after which I toddled off to get some food before heading back to the pub. What a way to finish the holiday. By night’s end I was on guitar, Michiel was singing, and a huge ragtag crowd were shouting requests at us in six different languages. I played ‘em, Mike sang ‘em: we were there all night. There was even a pint glass for tips, and Mike & Lisanne kindly (moronically) split it with me. I went to bed forty euros better off than when I’d walked in. I also got an offer of free room above the pub any time from the owner, so long as I play. Yes, yes, yes.

You've never experienced surreal until you're a 19-year old six foot six Frenchman on his last night out before joining the Marine Nationale yells "Rape Me" at you repeatedly. Ohhhh, the Nirvana song.

You’ve never experienced surreal until a 19-year old six foot six Frenchman on his last night out before joining the Marine Nationale yells “Rape Me” at you repeatedly.
Ohhhh, the Nirvana song. Maybe I’ll play that now.

Then I went to bed. Then I went home. Best holiday of my life.

On Carcassonne (Part 1)…

Two weeks ago, I made myself an offer I couldn’t refuse.

If I got the stratospherically-out-of-my-league job I’d applied for, I’d go holiday. Offer comes in? Scour Ryanair website for a place you can pronounce and book it. Same day. No hesitation. Allons-y.

That’s how I found myself at Liverpool’s John Lennon airport last week, skulking past the carryon-weighing fascists with every one of my pockets crammed as full as physically possible. Fuck you Ryanair. Upon boarding, I was immediately (inevitably) seated next the only infant on the plane. It sized me up with its big baby blues – your wellbeing is in my hands, oversized pink man thing – then burped, threw up voluminously all over its mother and promptly passed out. For the entire flight. Had its mother not been covered in milky upchuck, I’d have kissed her for raising such an amenable little human.

I decided it was going to be a goooooooood trip.

La Cite, from the Old Bridge in Carcassonne

La Cite de Carcassonne at night, from the Old Bridge

By the time I arrived I was right proper knackered, so after I checked into my hotel – the Hôtel du Pont Vieux by the old medieval bridge, I recommend it – and some cursory wandering, I took the rest of the day off. I found a brasserie, sat outside in the afternoon sun, ate a crêpe, had a beer, read about a thousand pages of a Stephen King heptalogy, people-watched, had another beer, ordered something desperately French-sounding, eyed it suspiciously, poked at it, tried some, tried some more, devoured it, had another beer, washed it down with a glass of red, then turned in for the night. Joy.

The next morning I damn near levitated out of bed. Exploring time.

Carcassonne itself is ancient. Dominated by a huge medieval walled city that is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the place has seen over 2,500 years of history – Gauls, Romans, Visigoths, Saracens, Crusaders, Aragonese, French, Spaniards, cranky middle-aged American tourists – and it is simply unbelievable. Walls within walls, spires on towers on balustrades on keeps on citadels on taverns on moats on chapels on gates on barbicans. Picture a ‘castle’ in your mind’s eye: this looks like that. Unbelievable.

You beautiful thing

This was just one tiny section of the outer walls.

I started my tour with a circuit of the outer walls, which took a full thirty minutes, before heading inside and doing the same along the ramparts of the inner wall. The city is free to enter – and it is a city, it never closes and is full of real, functioning (extortionately priced) hotels and restaurants – but the citadel, the castle-within-a-castle, cost euros. So, when I came to this section I went all out and paid for a fancy-schmancy audioguide.

I spent the next two hours with the walkie-talkie jammed happily to my ear learning history. As I said, the place has seen lots of it, but at some point the city fell into disrepair. Or it did, until a 19th century architect called Eugène Viollet-le-Duc decided to restore it. His approach was…unorthodox. He did a tad of digging, a smattering of forensic archaeology, a wee bit of looking at old pictures and then – according to scientific consensus – Made It All Up. To be fair, with so much history he could have rebuilt ten castles (the 11th century one, the 14th, the 17th), but he opted for a messy hodgepodge of each. I liked that. History is messy. Aptly, this Viollet-le-Duc chap was the voice narrating via my audioguide. Less aptly, this particular manifestation spoke in an Irish accent (à la Ardal O’Hanlan) which I found delightfully surreal. I spent the rest of the day wandering round the city with Monsieur Eugène O’McLeDucahan whispering into my ear. You don’t need a history lesson about the Cathars from me, but rest assured, it was utterly fascinating. Go Wikipedia that.

After that, I wandered about the city a bit more, silently judging all the buskers I found (more on these later), then started to head back to the exit. This is when I stumbled upon the best thing in the entire city: jousting.

None of the pictures I have do it even a bit of justice, but I believe the above video clip more than accurately conveys what it was like. Jousting! Kick-ass knights, on horses, with swords, and shields, and lances! Jousting! Obviously, it was gimmicky and completely played out for the tourists, but they went at it with such vim and vigour I totally fell for it. Shields splintered on lance impact, there were full-on melee battles, show tricks, stunts, all worked into a mock-dramatic play. At one point, an actor who looked suspiciously like Medieval Bane led a leashed goat out to torture a racked ‘prisoner’ by having it nibble at his bare feet. As the most ticklish man currently alive, I can tell you it looked excruciating.

Cue fanfare

None of these bastards crowned me Queen of Love and Beauty after. Pissed me right off.

I left with the biggest, dumbest, most touristy grin on my face.

Part two of the blog post is here.

On Deansgate Detritus…

For the last six months, I’ve worked at a little place just off Deansgate Locks in Manchester. Deansgate is the main thoroughfare through the city, and is just down from the old Roman fort of Mancuniam, where the city a) was founded and b) takes it’s current name. These Locks serve but one glorious function (and probably have since Roman times): boozery. Deansgate Locks exist only to get we Northern Monkeys utterly, eye-wateringly, leg-shakingly, bowel-looseningly, punch-throwingly, police-arrestingly mortal.

There are lots of bars built into the old railway (now tramway) arches, and they are all pretty terrible. We like them. We would. Between the hours of about 5pm and 9pm they are brilliant – fun, relaxed, marginally decent – but at around 10pm all the BEST people turn up and the classiness level plummets hell-wards. Ferried in from all over the North West on the train, Deansgate is the first port of call for each and every scumbag with a (amphetamine-enhanced) pulse before they head into town, and it gets delightfully awful. Working as I did but a stone’s throw away, I got to see the morning after. Particularly on Fridays, I was going in as some were going home. Or trying to. Mostly people just leave their detritus as evidence of earlier shenanigans. I am a big jessie, so I ended up finding these discarded remnants of a likely-forgotten night really rather depressing.

These were all taken in the space of a week in early July:

1) Lonely soldier

1) “Taxiiiiiiii…”


2) Empty booze bottles in a doorway = final resting place for many a discarded fag-end. If you are American, you miiiiight have to Google that phrase a few times. Safe-search recommended.


3) Gathering. The water cementing its reputation as the lightweight.


4) My guess? Laid down when someone was caught short, then forgotten as they staggered off struggling with their flies


5) One bottle of vodka, three empty cans of Red Bull. Oh what larks.


6) The loneliest of them all. Right by the train station.


7) Green means go (home)! That it is Sainsbury’s own-brand Ginger Wine means it could only have been a truly CLASS NIGHT.

On Blues and Folk Music…

The following article appeared on the Shenzhen Local Music site on June 5th. I’m reblogging it here as I haven’t written anything in five months. Because I am useless.

Blues and Folk: Music of the People

In one word, folk and blues music is history.

In their own way, each of the two genres is the history of a race of people. That history has been challenged, corrupted and co-opted by others over the centuries, but ultimately it is the story of a group of people set to music.

Blues for example has its roots in slavery. One theory goes that the ancient African tradition of dying clothes indigo during mourning was uprooted to fledgling America, and when slaves had to dye cotton in the fields the idea crystallised. “The blues” is more of a feeling than a musical style – the profound world-weariness of the perpetually downtrodden – and this is where the genre’s sentiment comes from. It’s why ‘feeling blue’ means what it means.

Folk music is similar. The word ‘folk’ comes from the German “volk” which literally means ‘people.’ In the past, so much music was in the hands of the few – the composers, the aristocrats, the monarchy; the tiny minority that could afford it basically – that folk was the only music ‘the people’ had. Folk and blues are the musical genres of the non-privileged: while imperial nations enslaved blues-singing African-Americans overseas, they sent their own folk-singing natives into the workhouses of home. Either way, it’s the music of the oppressed, and the music tells their stories.

And what stories.

You cannot mention blues music without a discussion of Robert Johnson. Destitute, dismissed and ignored during his lifetime, he only became successful after death. The story goes that he sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads in order to learn the blues, and nowadays every guitarist worth the tiniest speck of salt credits Johnson as one of the most important musicians of all time. Eric Clapton called him “the most important musician that ever lived.”


The Devil’s in the Delta…

Blues formed in the early 1900’s in the Deep South, and has gone on to be one of the world’s most enduring musical genres. Artists like Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker helped popularise it in the 1950, before the genre started to seep into rock n’roll. History came full circle when musicians from the country that had done so much to create the blues in the first place (carting half a continent of people halfway across the world has never been Britain’s finest moment) took a weird fusion of blues, rock n’roll and folk and churned out the Beatles. The Fab Four almost single-handedly created modern music, and there would be no Beatles without the blues. Simple as that.

Folk music is a little different. Folk formed out of an amorphous mass of anonymous musicians handing down songs by word-of-mouth. Over centuries. “Trad” is a word you hear a lot in British folk circles (meaning literally “traditional”) and in many recording credits you’ll see this little abbreviation. Basically, no-one remembers who wrote it because the singer is irrelevant, which is lovely as it’s the direct opposite of the celebrity-driven current raft of pop music. The song and story is what matters.

Many folk songs are brutal, telling the stories of common people as they try and eke out a life under the cosh of their psychotic overlords. One “trad” favourite of mine is the ‘Bonnie House of Airlie’ a song about war, rape, pillage and murder in Scotland. Another is “Bruton Town (the Bramble Briar)” which is about two noblemen who murder their sister’s lowborn lover. Death crops up a lot, as death happened to be the defining point of life. Imagine Game of Thrones, only with more acoustic guitars.


I got me the Hipster Blues…

Both blues and folk music have changed a lot in the last few decades. Blues went electric, and the styles and techniques the genre spawned are now found in everything from dubstep (no, seriously) to thrash metal. Folk music too has morphed, but somewhat awkwardly, with the term now meaning almost any music played with an acoustic guitar. Mumford and Sons are folk, the Lumineers are folk, Gotye is folk; it’s a bit messy.

Ultimately though, I think it’s the people hammering away at acoustic guitars, whether in the West or in the warrens of Shenzhen, that keeps folk and blues so relevant. At its heart, both genres are music played by people, about people, for people, and therein lies the genres’ most enduring feature.