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39 f Femininstrumental

Many of the UK’s very best folk musicians are women. So why aren’t they celebrated with more recognition, headline billing and awards? Elizabeth Kinder reckons it’s all down to the lobster hierarchy…

ly we’re not together, and I’m not playing just yet, he is.” Without naming names, it’s another folk festival gig and the ‘boyfriend’ is on early as usual, but I know he feels lucky to have a slot at all as there’s already one other solo male act on the bill. However, crowds are gather- ing as he’s an award-winning musician, popular on the circuit and critically acclaimed. We wait in the wings as the MC strides out and, giving the mic a good tap, bellows “Ladies and Gentlemen… I give you, looking especially lovely today in his blue jeans… let’s face it ladeez, the man has the finest lunch-box in the busi- ness… And not bad with a banjo either, I’m sure you’ll agree! Put your hands together for…!”


He’s used to this kind of thing and so to starting from the back foot. Besides, he knows everyone has to establish their right to the spotlight and what’s wrong with working a little harder? After a blis- tering set the stage manager, clearly sur- prised, says, “Brilliant, mate. You play like a woman.”

Outlining this fantasy to Kathryn

Tickell, she says, “Actually, I remember doing a solo set at Cambridge, and in a national newspaper review it mentioned loads of people’s playing and when it got to me, it was, ‘Kathryn Tickell kept the beer-swilling boys happy wearing a black leather miniskirt.’ I’ve never even owned one. I thought I was playing some tunes on the pipes…”

Tickell picked up the gong for Musi-

cian Of The Year at the BBC Folk Awards in 2005. Like Martin Simpson, Andy Cutting and Michael McGoldrick she’s won it twice. Unlike those others, she is (aside from Rachel Newton, who romped home with the title in 2017), the only one of her sex to have won it at all.

This year, in its nineteenth outing, the nominees for best musician category were a typically all-male line up; those in the category for best singer were all female. In

he stage manager assumes the man I’m with is my boyfriend, and makes a move to take my case with my saxophone in it. It’s a bit embarrassing. “Actual-

other areas women are alongside men, playing in bands, writing songs and putting out albums, so why do the nomi- nees for those two awards fall along such clichéd lines, ‘men play and women sing’?

Are Tickell and Newton really the only two females in the UK who can play, as this suggests, as well as men can? Haven’t we got any other decent, award-standard female folk musicians? If not, why not? If so, where are they and why can’t we see them? (Is it what they’re wearing…?) fRoots think it’s time to celebrate them all.

So, armed with a list of names of women primarily known as instrumental- ists, I set off on a path that winds through folk’s green fields to the centre of the labyrinth, where the carnage from a Toronto pavement lies.

First up, Tickell’s fellow award winner, harpist Rachel Newton, signposts the way with her experience of attempting to get a festival booking for this issue’s cover stars The Shee. She was told, “No, we’ve already got an all-girl band.” The novelty act slot was apparently taken.

vals, “It’s male band after male band; there are great male bands, but I really notice it, where are the women? Why are the women mostly singers?”


Because it wasn’t just on the degree course that Newton was surrounded by women instrumentalists but in Edinburgh, growing up. The child of native Gaelic speakers, traditional music was a huge part of her cultural identity. Aged eight when she began, she says, “I was lucky to learn classical and folk violin, I reached grade 8 on the harp, grade 7 on the viola… and I went to the Feis in Ullapool. A festival like a summer school for kids of a young age, it was sociable music making; my cousin [the award-winning piper and accordeonist] Mairearad Green would go too.”

Here she met Lauren MacColl (now of RANT and Salt House) when they were both “nine or ten,” and all three remember

achel, an alumna of the New- castle University folk degree course on which female instru- mentalists are neither a novel- ty nor token, saw that at festi-

there being more girl instrumentalists than boys at the Feis. MacColl, like Newton and a lot of young musicians, picked their instru- ment “because it was available and lessons were free.” Green remembers in her part of the highlands, you “learned the bagpipes or you didn’t learn anything – and you could take the instruments home.”

Even without the Feis, in the high- lands and islands a strong community music tradition supported both girls and boys playing instruments, with excellent teachers famous and active in the tradi- tion. When Catriona Macdonald (now a lecturer on the Newcastle course, and a member of the String Sisters) and RANT’s Jenna Reid were brought up in the Shet- lands, both learnt to play fiddle, with other girls as well as boys. Macdonald was taught by the legendary Tom Anderson; Reid too, though younger, was taught by him and another of his pupils, and Green by Pipe Major Norman Grillis, father of world champion piper Alasdair Grillis.

Elsewhere, multi-instrumentalist Rowan Rheingans (Rheingans Sisters, Lady Maisery), who attended summer school in Cambridge every year from the age of seven, was aware of fellow girl musicians. “I didn’t think it was strange,” she says, and a teacher there, Catriona Macdonald, “was very important to me.”

Whether they were taught by them or not, everyone tells me gratefully about role models, inspirational musicians, both men and women, although in some cases the relative rarity of female role models was not necessarily something they ques- tioned at the time.

For everyone I spoke to for this piece, from the Shetlands to Dorset and across the Irish Sea, there was no sense that they couldn’t play an instrument because they were girls. Joining the line-up above were Sandra Kerr, who learnt from Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl; Jo Freya (Blowzabella/Old Swan Band), who learnt from Rod and Danny Stradling; Jenn But- terworth (now of fast-rising new all- women band Kinnaris Quintet), who taught herself guitar; Mary MacMaster (the Poozies), who taught herself on the harp, as did Delyth Jenkins and Máire Ní

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