Mumford & Sons inauthentic?

How have four polite Englishmen made their hoedown folk such a hit?, asks The Guardian today. Although Mumford & Sons seems to be a “thoughtful, friendly, uncommonly levelheaded band”, in the UK they get lots of criticism for being inauthentic.

“They went to fee-paying London schools and now they’re all about heels and waistcoats and hoedowns”, describes Tom Lamont criticism of Mumford and Sons in the UK (read more). Having lived in the UK for only four years I’m far from understanding the culture, but I have a strong feeling that this comes from deeply rooted class divisions that are still prevalent today.

Just yesterday there was an article in the Guardian about why the all-boys Elite school Eton still rules Britain. In the parliament, the media, businesses – the Etonians are everywhere. The education system in Britain fosters this elitism and class consciousness, but they seem to hate it at the same time.

When their new album Babel sold 600,000 copies in its first week in the US, that huge success was again paired with cynicism and criticism at home. It probably didn’t help that they played for US President Obama’s meeting with UK Prime Minister David Cameron (an Old Etonian!) at the White House. The Telegraph immediately reported those news about the “middle-class folk band who play the banjo and dress like gentleman farmers despite hailing from west London.”

Can middle-class folk be authentic?

There is a great article about authenticity in folk music called “Forgetting the Roots“. It discusses the question “why some fans are uneasy about anyone but a good ol’ country boy being a folk musician while other fans are perfectly happy admitting that their favorite folkie got her start in a stable, middle-class home”. According to the article, there have been many artists (in the US) who are seen as authentic, even though them stem from a middle-class Jewish household in Minnesota (Bob Dylan), or never worked a day in their life (Bruce Springsteen). Could it be that Americans are more forgiving of such splits between family history and self-constructed identity? What other reason could there be for Mumford & Sons being so successful in the US? America has great inequality problems, but not such deeply rooted class consciousness as in the UK.

In Germany there are Irish folk-rock bands like Paddy Goes to Holyhead or Subway to Sally (very German guys play in those bands) with a huge fan base. They don’t take fake-Irish-Scottish-folksy authenticity issues so seriously, and it works, because it’s fun.

Critics of new album Babel opposite in US vs. UK

The new album, which I’m yet to review myself, has split US and UK critics. Kitty Empire writes in the Observer, “Folk is a malleable resource, and here it is stripped of all politics or witness-bearing, becoming an exercise in romantic exegesis for nice men with mandolins.” It goes on: “[I]t’s the musical equivalent of shouting at foreigners and simpletons. With every crescendo of catgut and steel, their lack of nuance becomes wearing.”

The Uncut writes “the focus on matters of the heart is limiting, reducing the genre to the level of rusticised boy-band pop.” Only the BBC disagrees in their review of Babel: “Despite what the haters might say, this is impressive stuff. (…) Mumford & Sons are a fine modern folk band who have found ways to breathe new life into an ancient form of music.”

In the US, reviews were more positive. “The band has mastered the emotional gut-punch of quiet/loud dynamics, exploding from low-murmured harmonies into full Appalachian freak-outs,” finds Entertainment Weekly. The Rolling Stone sees truth in the new album: “The power of the arrangements and Marcus Mumford’s tortured-vicar vocals is undeniable. And if his conflation of love, lust and Christian spirituality sounds more like pre-dawn confusion than neat Bible lessons, it feels all the truer for it.”

So what do Mumford & Sons think about all this?

“England’s just very cynical. Like I am. Like we all are,” says Marshall. “I think we’re all guilty of it as British citizens,” says Mumford, “if something gets big we go … ugh.”

and charm are luckily the big two traits of the Brits, and I really love that answer from the band (Source: Guardian)! Their easiness and earnest love for music is what saw from them in the folk music film “The Big Easy Express“.

Songs from new album Babel



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3 thoughts on “Mumford & Sons inauthentic?

  1. James on said:

    A good article with much truth in it, I feel.

  2. Pingback: Ed Sharpe, Mumfords, Ben Howard, Bear’s Den – all in one day | notnicolajames

  3. Just stumbled across this. I think the point may have been missed. Popular music and football are by and the large the last places where (at least on the stage or on the pitch) the public school elite never really got a look in. In recent years this elite – the same which runs the country (the newly minted political class across the three main centre right parties) which constantly limits access to this world for the less fortunate, has by and large dominated since they are the only ones who can afford years of working on the road with little or no pay. The early years for a band are like a long internship. Only the wealthy and well connected need apply – especially now that the record industry is far less likely to take risks on those who (like the banks) now see as ‘risky’ (surely the very essence of rock n roll, folk and youth culture in general). Add to that, unlike Laura Marling for instance who applies a fierce intelligence and depth to her music – Mumfords who are essentially The Wurzels without the wit or sex appeal, play very safe and strum furiously in the lowest common denominator duldrums of Stadium friendly cack whilst occasionally bunging in a literary crib. Music for people who don’t really like music, but enjoy the occasional whistle along. No problem there but this will always get knocked in the UK and rightly so. It is one of the reasons we have until recently had a very vibrant music scene in this country with a fast churn at the centre. The Dylan comparisons are fatuous at best. Dylan was a pretty poor young man from a rural part of America who indeed ‘inauthentically’ chased his dream of ‘being’ Woody Guthrie. This is not the same as coming from a very weatlthy and privileged background and making a living dressing like a poor farmer and strumming frantically hoping that someone will think you’re Arcade Fire. I don’t recall Mumfords being at the forefront of any civil rights style action either…? It’s what is unsaid but which permeates their every move that upsets. I’m sure they are all perfectly nice young men, as those who have always had the world at their feet surely should be? Ultimately though its the music that counts…which is probably a good place to leave this.

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