How to survive a Folk Music Festival

folk festival


Diddley diddley diddely do. If you don’t mind that phrase being repeated over and over by fiddles, accordions, flutes, guitars and banjos, you might enjoy a good ol’ traditional folk festival.

Folk music is what it says on the label: Music for folks, by folks. Usually by ye olde folks – but thanks to the new folks, traditional music is being kept alive and is even making a revival in recent years. (All hail Laura Marling.)

Folk music is our heritage. It was written by the average Joe and Jolene, relating to how they felt then and there. They sang about all kinds of things; from bonny lasses to cursed cattle and even a “Prickle-eye Bush” – whatever that may be.

So what better way to enjoy the music that takes us to our roots, than by attending a folk festival? They take place all over Britain, all through the year and it’s just a matter of finding them. Here’s a rough guide to making the most of the folk festival experience.

At a folk festival? Good. Join in.

I’ve never experienced a more social event than a folk festival, mainly because folk music comes hand in hand with folk dancing. The dances are usually a group thing and the more people involved the better!

Group dances are called “Ceilidhs” in Irish and “Twmpaths” in Welsh (which actually translates into “pile on” which basically sums up what it’s all about, everybody piling onto the dance floor).

You don’t even have to be a good dancer to enjoy yourself. Steps are usually simple; the most footwork you have to do is a skip. Rest assured, you are never thrown in at the deep end. Someone is usually there to go through the dance first and if you keep your eyes peeled you can grab a partner who looks like they know what they’re doing.

You’ll notice as the night goes on, the people get merrier and the dancing gets faster, crazier and very, very, amusing.

During the day, there are usually workshops where you can learn the proper steps to a dance from the Isle of Man for example, or bring along your own instrument and learn an Irish tune.

Kick back with a cider and soak up the atmosphere.

If you don’t fancy partaking in a double-time Strip the Willow, you can find somewhere to sit and people-watch. (Unsurprisingly, the best place is the bar/beer tent.) If you wait around, you might notice an old man take out a battered fiddle and begin to scratch out a tune. Then moments later, a guitarist might emerge, followed by a flautist and they will join in. As if the music is magnetic, more and more instrumentalists will be pulled towards the small group.

Before you’ve finished your second cider, you’re surrounded by harps, accordions, banjos, bodhrans and mandolins; all playing together as if they’ve rehearsed. And like the dancing, as the night progresses, the songs get faster and more passionate. It’s a wonder no-one’s eye has been poked out by the bow of an over-enthusiastic violinist.

Embrace the eccentricity.

A quick look around the room and you’ll see you’re amongst some odd people. Yes, that man has a live ferret on his head. Your cider does not deceive you, his beard is pink. You can spot a true “Folky” easily. Some have funny felt hats in wonderful shapes, some have so many layers of mis-matched clothing you’d think they’d ran head first into a railing in Oxfam. Just look out for very busy knitted jumpers.

Amongst these people, you are free to dress up. Put a costume on and you are more likely to receive compliments than funny looks. Everyone is so friendly they’ll just smile as you gallivant around in your favourite pair of fairy wings or all in one giant baby romper.

Get your good self and your accomplices to indulge in a game of Folky Bingo.

Simple rules – be the first one to spot what’s on the list:

  • A tiny child playing an instrument with more mastery than you could ever dream of achieving.
  • An item of Tie-Dye.
  • An Irish person dancing over a broom (a surprisingly common occurrence).
  • An instrument you never knew existed.
  • An older man or woman, who looks like they shouldn’t be able to stand up, let alone jig, hop and reel around the dance floor.
  • A man suddenly standing up and serenading the crowded room with a mournful, heart wrenching and haunting song about lost love and tragedy for no apparent reason.
  • People finding inventive uses for beer mats.
  • The person being avoided in a dance on account of their personal hygiene. Or lack thereof.
  • Someone sitting in a traditional costume looking embarrassed (This is probably me. That bonnet is the bane of my existence!)

And lastly…

Don’t expect an early night.

If there are stalls, go and have a look-see. There are usually some funky bits and pieces you can take home to remind you of your festival encounter.

If a man with a white beard offers you a Tupperware box filled with homemade fudge – take some. It is the best fudge you will taste, and this mysterious bringer of sugary goodness is at every festival I’ve yet been to.