Skim the cream off

For the last year I’ve been recording a folk song a week and uploading them to a site called 52 Folk Songs. As the name implies, my plan when I started it up was to keep going for a year. I’ve now reached week 52; over the last year I’ve uploaded something like 130 songs and taken up four different instruments* as well as the ones I played at the start**. Time for a bit of a breather, I think.

And there’s a beer connection. Well, sort of. As well as the 52 main weekly songs, I’ve been recording one or two extra songs a week, not all of them folk songs. This week the ‘non-folk’ selection was Ewan MacColl’s song Ballad of Accounting – a slightly unfortunate title, calling to mind somebody trying to be hearty and come-all-ye about double-entry book-keeping. Actually it’s not that kind of accounting. Not at all.

What did you learn in the morning?
How much did you know in the afternoon?
Were you content in the evening?

The song’s a challenge thrown down to everyone who was ever born without a silver spoon in their mouth. As if to say: This life of yours, what did you make of it? And, most importantly: People wanted to keep you down – did you let them?

What’s it got to do with beer? This. Verse four:

Did you ever demand any answers,
The who and the what and the reason why?
Did you ever question the setup?
Did you stand aside and let them choose while you took second best?
Did you let them skim the cream off and then give to you the rest?
Did you settle for the shoddy? Did you think it right
To let them rob you right and left and never make a fight?

Did you settle for the shoddy? That, for me, is exactly what CAMRA came to combat – shoddy beer; more precisely, shoddy substitutes for decent beer. Decent beer is what I believed in when I first heard of CAMRA, and what I still believe in now – decent beer for everyone. Which is also why I try to avoid getting drawn into the world of the £12 bottle and the £5 half; I don’t think there’s a future for beer in letting them skim the cream off, even if I can sometimes be one of the ones doing the skimming. With Tim Martin a Kipper and Right-Libertarians making themselves heard on the smoking ban, it’s easy to forget how left-leaning the real ale scene was in the early days of CAMRA. But I think the founding ideas of CAMRA had a real affinity with the Left: it was all about the drinkers (not the brewers) and it was all about all the drinkers, not just the tickers and cognoscenti. There was a campaign for real ale, because real ale needed to be fought for – and it needed to be fought for because big business wasn’t on our side: there was too much money to be made out of not selling it and not brewing it in the first place. I read this evening (in comments at B&B) that the CAMRGB (look it up) holds that “it is important that a brewer makes their beer how they choose” – after all, “if the consumer doesn’t like it they won’t drink it”. The capitulation to the business point of view is total. Presumably, if a brewer wants to reduce the quality of their beer and spend the money on advertising, that’s OK too – people wouldn’t drink it if they didn’t like it.

This has come out a bit more Mr Angry than I intended – I guess that’s what comes of doing Ewan MacColl songs.

So, anyway: 52 Folk Songs. Featuring 52 traditional songs, 42 other traditional… shall I start this again? Featuring 94 traditional songs, 34 non-traditional songs, and some others that I haven’t kept tabs on. Also featuring me singing and playing a bunch of different instruments. Lots of multi-tracking. Lots of songs you probably don’t know. All good stuff, apart from this one Dylan song which didn’t come out quite… er, never mind. Basically, all good stuff. Check it out.

*Melodica, zither, concertina, ukulele.
**Flute, recorder, whistle(s), drums.



  1. Posted 11 September, 2012 at 8:50 am | Permalink | Reply

    And how would you feel, as a musician, if someone told you that if you didn’t use certain instruments, or write the music in a certain way, then your music wasn’t real?

    • Posted 11 September, 2012 at 9:05 am | Permalink | Reply

      I’d be intrigued. I wouldn’t be offended (unless they were offensive about it!).

      I like things to be ‘real’, as a general thing, and that is something that carries through into music. My personal rule is that I only use unamplified (‘acoustic’) instruments. On the other hand, I multi-track everything and generally do a lot of messing around with recording technology. A friend of mine sings folk songs backed by programmable synthesisers, but recorded live and without editing. Depends what matters to you.

      The thing about ‘real ale’, when the phrase was first coined, was that it meant something specific and tangible – you could taste cask & taste keg, and (unless you were very lucky with the keg or unlucky with the cask) you would taste the difference. I still think there’s plenty of shoddy keg (and smooth) beer out there, and real ale is the answer. I don’t care about ‘real ale in bottle’, mind you – there’s lots of non-BC bottled beer which is perfectly fine. As I say, it depends what matters to you.

      • Posted 11 September, 2012 at 9:29 am | Permalink

        ‘Depends what matters to you.’

        Exactly, and that’s as it should be. But surely the same thing should apply to how brewers make beer, it’s what is important to them that matters. Anyone setting down rules about the brewing equivalent of programmable synthesisers, and ostracising breweries on the basis of those rules, is running counter to the art of brewing, surely?

      • Posted 11 September, 2012 at 11:40 am | Permalink

        Firstly, I don’t mind if people say that using synthesisers isn’t Real Folk Music, or for that matter if they say that multi-tracking using digital recorders isn’t Real Folk Music. I don’t believe either of those things and I’d argue with anyone who said them, but I’d argue on the basis that there is such a thing as Real Folk Music and it’s worth defending against shoddy imitations. I don’t think saying “this is the right way to brew, that’s the wrong way” is counter to the art of brewing – on the contrary, I think it’s part of an argument among people who care about the art of brewing. In my experience, people who care about any art tend to be opinionated blighters with strong views on the right way to do it.

        Secondly, you’re writing as if the choice of brewing (and beer storage and serving) technology was a purely technical choice with no political or economic aspect to it. In other words, you’re writing essentially from the standpoint of a contemporary ‘craft brewer’. When Magic Rock say they put Cannonball in kegs because they think the style works better that way, I believe them – I think kegging genuinely is a neutral technical choice from their point of view. But it certainly wasn’t a neutral choice when CAMRA was founded – it was a choice between decent beers that were awkward to keep and didn’t make the brewers much money and poor-quality imitations that were easy to keep and highly profitable. And when a craft brewer stops making some superb cask ales, goes keg-only and jacks up its prices, that doesn’t strike me as a neutral choice either.

      • Posted 11 September, 2012 at 11:41 am | Permalink

        Last sentence doesn’t refer to Magic Rock!

  2. Simon
    Posted 12 September, 2012 at 12:09 pm | Permalink | Reply

    A friend of mine sent me a link to your blog.
    It’s very interesting, however you miss a fundamental point about CAMRGB and it’s members.
    Many of us are or we’re CAMRA members who were unhappy that CAMRA refuses to support some of our new brewers (Magic Rock being a good example) who are making exceptional beer but dispensing it (god forbid!) in keg and filtered bottles.
    It’s not big business at all.
    Further many if the breweries CAMRA supports are massive businesses (Greene King, Marston’s, etc.) even though they do filtered bottles, as with GK showing at this tear’s GBBF.
    Also, the reason many beers are £5 a half is more to do with the government’s tax on ABV OF 7.5% and over.
    You can still get a half of brilliant micro brewed beer at “usual” prices.
    Some people decide to buy imported beers and I myself enjoy them, and so have to be willing to stump up the costs.
    All I’m saying is don’t damn without knowing the details.

    • Simon
      Posted 12 September, 2012 at 4:16 pm | Permalink | Reply

      Please excuse the terrible spelling.
      Sent from my iPhone.

    • Posted 12 September, 2012 at 8:37 pm | Permalink | Reply

      But Magic Rock do lots of very good cask – their keg doesn’t get the CAMRA seal of approval, but neither does Greene King’s.

      The only ‘craft’ brewers who are losing out are those who refuse to do cask, which is, what – Camden, Lovibond’s, BrewDog… anyone else? How big a deal can it be? And, while the other two may be entirely on the level, I’m thoroughly suspicious of BrewDog’s motives, having seen them kill off some absolutely superb cask beers and charge 33% more for inferior versions of the same beers on keg.

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