Mumford & Sons’ 2009 debut album, Sign No More, didn’t so much explode onto the scene as it did wander in announced clutching a four-litre bottle of scrumpy. There was no media frenzy, no bidding war between major labels, no smash-hit number one single. And yet, within months, they were being labelled as the “sound of the summer”. In the interviews the UK nu-folk four-piece gave at this time, they quickly disassociated themselves from the contemporary pop world: “We’re not a pop band,” frontman Marcus Mumford told The Guardian in 2010, “We couldn’t have gone out on a conveyor belt.” This stance against manufactured music saw Mumford and Sons and their nu-folk contemporaries usher in a new folk revival, one which reached into the past to bring an age-old genre back into the mainstream. It lasted some time, but over ten years after the reign of Laura Marling, Mumford & Sons, Ben Howard, and Benjamin Francis Leftwich, it’s hard to imagine such a brazenly quaint group of musicians rising to the top of the charts. This begs the question: how did the nu-folk boom get underway, and what killed it?
One of the things that made the nu-folk so unique in its day was that, unlike a lot of the music dominating the charts, the artists who came to define the movement had roots in the same small music scene. Mumford & Sons, Laura Marling, Noah And The Whale, King Charles, and Johnny Flynn all made their name on the West London pub circuit, performing intimate sets and developing hordes of devoted fans in the process. This was totally free-range organic music made by a family business. Many of these artists became internationally successful, leaving in their wake the blueprint for the next five years of UK indie music-making. Those of us who were there remember: over the next couple of years, the aesthetics laid out by the UK nu-folkers found their way into the world of film (Inside Llewyn Davis), clothing (braces, so many braces), and advertising – with those insufferable John Lewis adverts being the worst offenders.
A key factor in the success of the late 2000s folk revival was that it didn’t hold back its disdain for dominant trends and popular music. The arrival of Laura Marling and the like coincided with a period in which the charts was positively groaning with electronically produced floor fillers and the singles of various X Factor winners: Olly Murs, Alexandra Burke, Shane Ward – OK, maybe not Shane Ward. Anyway, nu-folk offered an antidote to all that by emphasising the importance of acoustic instruments played by real people with real noses. “People are reacting to the way things have been going over the past ten or 15 years,” Marcus Mumford said of his group’s rise to fame. “People are responding to the idea you can come to a gig and engage with a band. They want to downsize”.
Because it is often regarded as the nation’s essential musical form, Britain has been having folk revivals for a very long time. The ’60s folk boom is the obvious example, but it goes back much further than that. Towards the end of the 19th century, Britain’s aristocracy started viewing folk traditions as a window into a purer, imagined version of their nation’s past. Fearing a potential uprising from the working classes below them and corruption from above, a generation of artists, composers, and authors sold the idea that the modern world was impure and that its only salvation lay in the past. This resulted in everything from the formulation of neo-pagan cults to the work of Cecil Sharpe, who went around Britain collecting folk songs.
At the heart of these trends was the idea that it was the duty of artists to counteract what they saw as the corrosive effects of modern technology, modern politics, and mass culture. That same idea formed the heart of the nu-folk movement of the 2000s and 2010s, which seemed to regard reality TV shows such as the X factor – in which ordinary people were given the chance to ascend the class ladder through talent alone – as the product of a society that had been corrupted by the allure of mass media. At the same time, nu-folk artists characterised themselves as defenders of the non-digital world, with the likes of Mumford & Sons placing emphasis on the intimacy and community-minded nature of their concerts, establishing themselves as protectors of all those things that they believed mass media wanted to destroy. “It’s a unique thing to stand in front of a crowd and sing your songs,” Marcus Mumford once said of his craft. “There’s a certain magic to it. Everyone in the room is focused on the moment and we’re a community. With our music, I don’t think people are trying to look cool or get drugged up or drunk. They’re just having a nice time, dropping the pretence and having fun”.
But like the biggest names of the 1960s folk boom, this puritanical stance couldn’t stand up against the weight of commercial success. Bob Dylan, who, in his Greenwich village days, had been regarded as the people’s poet, eventually became one of the biggest names in music, meaning that he was forced to throw down the folk banner or risk being too much of a walking paradox to be taken seriously. Similarly, the nu-folk boom, which had once been the foil of the pop charts, came to dominate mainstream tastes. The scale and influence of the movement no longer seemed at one with the message it espoused. Suddenly, nu-folk became a byword for inauthenticity, for a particular kind of coffee-house bourgeoisie culture that was no longer compatible with a society finally coming to terms with its dark past and complicated future.