Black Singers and Folk Ballads – Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Folk Music

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At Pearson we are committed to equity and opportunity for all learners. We strive to create educational content and learning environments that reflect the diversity of the modern world, are accessible and help all learners achieve without limits. As part of our work in Music qualifications, we are talking to musicians and industry partners to understand the implications of diversity, equity, and inclusion across different genres and practices within this creative subject to inform future development across these qualifications. To learn more about the importance of DE&I in Folk Music, Pearson interviewed professional folk musician and author of the teaching resource Black Singers and Folk Ballads, Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne and the Education Director at the English Folk Dance and Song Society, Rachel Elliott.

Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne is an English folk musician who burst onto the folk scene in his teens with the energetic trio Granny’s Attic, and in recent years has embarked on a solo career alongside this. His passion for the English folk tradition has also led to work in research, publishing, and teaching. So far Cohen has been involved in publishing two books of English folk songs, has given several talks on the subject, and has worked with hundreds of students across the globe.

The English Folk Dance and Song Society champion the folk arts at the heart of England’s rich and diverse cultural landscape, delivering programmes of learning and participation, artist development and networking for educators. They have around 3000 members worldwide – most of whom are active participants in music, song, dance, storytelling, customs, and traditions.

What inspired you to produce the resource Black Singers and Folk Ballads, and how did you decide on the format?

Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne (CBK): ‘It was the English Folk Dance and Song Society that approached me and commissioned me to write the resource. The thought process behind it was the idea that there's a little explored body of songs that exists in the musical traditions of Black America and the Caribbean, where folk songs that started their life in England and in Britain travelled across the Atlantic and entered those black musical traditions in the Americas. In the way that folk songs are, they were shaped through the musical language of the singers that embody them and exploring this body of songs in the form of an educational resource was the idea behind it.’

Rachel Elliott (RE): ‘It's a Black History resource, which we hope people will use all year round. It's very much part of our work around decolonizing folk music and about reframing it. We are really trying to extend the borders of what is and should be considered part of the folk cannon. I very much see folk as a continuum, as an international body of work that travels with people. It's about trying to move away from this idea of national boundaries as far as folk goes and see it as a shared resource for peoples across the world and trying to find commonality. We really wanted to commission somebody to write this resource who we thought was an interesting artist and a great educator. There were lots of conversations along the way, including conversations about collaborators on the resource; I wanted to make sure that all the artists involved were global majority artists based in this country. This was important to me because I think artists of colour involved in folk are low on the radar; we want to give them more profile and celebrate their work.’

Black Singers and Folk Ballads is in part about subverting stereotypes and addressing misconceptions regarding the use and origins of different folk songs. What more can be done to address these misconceptions within music education?

RE: ‘I want to contribute to creating a more diverse folk scene – I think it's so important. Folk comes in many different names, such as heritage music and traditional music. You will find it in all cultures and it's a very permeable form. I don’t want folk to be seen as white music for old people – I want people to see that it's a living tradition that belongs to everybody; everybody can shape it, everybody can contribute to it and there are so many forms of it. Looking at the demographic of this country, looking at young people, it needs to be relevant. It needs to be presented in a way that is relevant and exciting.’

CBK: ‘I agree very much with what Rachel is saying. There is important work to be done in documenting and publicising those traditions that are present in communities outside of the white British homogeny. One that springs to mind for me is people from the Windrush generation. We're talking about people that have been in this country for 70 plus years and have very much formed their own musical traditions in this country, drawing on Caribbean forms, but which have very much been shaped in this country. There has been some important work done in that sphere that potentially needs more attention.’

How important are the ‘Voices from the past’ in this resource and how might educators integrate this content into practical tasks?

CBK: ‘One of the main drivers when we were putting this resource together was the idea that it is first and foremost a Music resource, but that it might also have applications in other subjects. It touches on Drama because one of the songs also existed as a drama, and potentially English with the elements of poetry, as well as History. Getting some of those voices from the past was an important part of the potential for cross-curriculum application. I think it's also important to contextualize the material and get some of the voices from the people that were developing these musical traditions, who were involved in either singing or documenting the songs.’

RE: ‘I think all of us can get inspired by individuals. When we think about African Americans or people in the Caribbean more broadly, that's a very large group, but when you narrow it down to individuals who were trail blazers on the front line and who faced these struggles, it really personalizes the experience. Asking questions about what contemporaries were thinking and doing adds another layer of meaning, brings the work to life, and stops it becoming an abstract exercise.’

CBK: ‘Alongside the historical black voices that we included in the resource I did make a point of including some British colonial voices. I think there's something quite important in giving those people a voice because I think it emphasises the fact that the people that were committing these horrific colonial and slave trading acts were also people, and that people are capable of all sorts of horrific things. That's one of the reasons why I wanted to include their voices as well.’

Where would be the best place for music educators to start when selecting authentic, diverse, and inclusive examples of folk music for their students and the curriculum

RE: ‘This is one of the reasons we started our Resource Bank. I was tired of going into key stage 3 classrooms and just seeing everybody working on ‘What shall we do with a drunken sailor’!

Our Resource Bank is huge, and we’ve been really careful with quality and what we've commissioned. We have resources for every key stage and a lot of our work has been commissioned by music hubs. In terms of diverse forms of folk music, there are organisations like Musiko Musika and others producing online resources. As far as broadly English or British folk goes, I would encourage people to use our Resource Bank. You're going get fantastic lesson plans and high-quality audio files.’

What would a truly diverse and inclusive representation of folk music in the curriculum look like?

CBK: ‘I think that one of the most important things to emphasise is that every culture has a folk music and a body of traditional music, and that there is also a great amount of cross-cultural exchange in various bodies of folk and traditional music. I think if there's a single thing that I would want to emphasize it would be that.’

How does your [CBK] experience of modern society influence your interpretation of traditional folk songs? 

CBK: ‘Do you know, I'm not sure it does! My main focus when I'm performing, is making sure the music is as good as I can make it and making sure there's a strong sense of things like storytelling and narrative, but I'm not sure that I think too much about the relevance of that with modern society. I know that some people will think a lot more about it, but I don't think I do.’

RE: ‘I would say it's also how you present the songs and the lens that you're looking at things through. In folk music the verbal framing of the songs by performers is incredibly important – that is where the personal voice comes in. It's the framing around the music that makes it relatable and contemporary and brings all those different nuances into it.’

To what extent has your cultural background influenced the development of your music? 

CBK: ‘My musical background started not on the concertina or the melodeon (diatonic button accordion) which is what I play professionally now, but on the violin. I suppose I had a fairly conventional musical education up to a certain point, studying music through GCSE, A level and to degree level. Studying music through to degree level has influenced my performing approach, insofar as I'm generally more interested in the traditional music than more contemporary music. My specialism was English music of the Renaissance and Baroque periods, so my main interest really is musicology and the history of music. I'm really interested in the historical performance practice and the historical presentation of music, and that has certainly influenced my professional music making.’

What would be your most important piece of advice to young musicians considering a career in the music industry?

CBK: ‘If you're passionate about it, then do it! My advice for anyone considering a career in Music is the importance of having a portfolio career. I'm a performer but I also do a lot of work in education as well as musical editing, recording and composition. Being a professional musician is very much multifaceted – you've got to be spinning several plates in the air at any time and making sure you've got a broad skill set to manage this challenge is very important.’


The English Folk Dance and Song Society have an extensive bank of diverse and inclusive resources to support teachers engaging students in folk music. You can find links to a selection of these resources below and at