Folk Music Is OK Again


Some really good news is coming out of the Low Countries this week. Sleep quietly tonight, ye burghers, for a devilish menace has been exorcized. Or rather, has been debunked. For one, the Lonsdale brand name is OK again. On 12 and 13 July 2005, the papers happily announced that according to the findings of the Dutch state security service the vast majority of “Lonsdale youngsters” are not far-right fanatics. The media had created a negative hype about Lonsdale clothes being the secret uniform of xenophobic and even neo-Nazi youngsters. This helped to create a climate of apprehension about an imminent threat from “renascent fascism”. One would think that it is but a step from Lonsdale to committing genocide. As a result, some importers and distributors of Lonsdale gear went out of business.

Police departments in Western Europe have invested very heavily in monitoring and infiltrating the juvenile rightist scene, to the extent of starving their sections monitoring Islamism of funds and manpower. Indeed, after 9/11 German security officers complained that they had wanted to pay closer attention to the circle frequented by hijacker Mohammed Atta in Hamburg, but the necessary resources had been preferentially diverted to anti-rightist work. One may wonder whether this policy has saved more lives from rightist suicide bombers than have actually been lost in Islamist violence. History does not repeat itself, and if someone poses a threat to democracy today, it is not Hitler. Refighting the wars of the past has often caused defeat in the real wars of the present. Clearly someone had an interest in evoking the bogey of “renascent fascism”, but in the long run the truth tends to win out.

This pin-pricking of a morbid hype was followed by yet another reassuring news item. On 14 July, the Flemish leftist tabloid De Morgen wrote that folk music is OK again. An insider was interviewed and allowed to get this message across: “Folk is no longer tainted by connotations of being obsolete and far-right.”

From what I recall, folk actually used to be hip and leftist in the 1960s and 70s, a medium for anti-authoritarian ideas. It was often associated with Flemish nationalism, but this too often counted as leftist and anti-authoritarian back then. Liberalism and the Flemish movement found each other in the student agitation of 1966-68 against the Belgian government and the Church hierarchy to split the bilingual Catholic University of Leuven/Louvain and move its French section to a new campus in Wallonia. However, in the 1980s and especially in the 1990s, the Flemish movement became strongly identified with the far right, mainly owing to the breakthrough of the Vlaams Blok (now Vlaams Belang) party which combined Flemish nationalism with an anti-immigrant agenda. The Flemish national anthem De Vlaamse Leeuw (The Flemish Lion) and the official Flemish flag, the black lion rampant on a golden field, became uncool and things to be absolutely shunned. Even at official events organized by the Flemish government, artists have refused to perform if the lion flag was not removed.

In the concomitant anti-nativist hate wave folk music, folk dancing and anything that reeked of a love for autochthonous culture was demonized as neo-Nazi and what not. I remember attending the folk music festival in Gooik and overhearing a journalist asking one of the organizers: “Is this a racist event or something? I can see only white people here.” Yes, only a few miles from the Moroccan-dominated western suburbs of Brussels, the festival did not seem to attract any of these “new Belgians.” The reason is that the Moroccan Muslims do not give a damn for Flemish infidel culture (and even if they integrate, they do so mostly into the French-speaking part of “Belgian” culture), yet the Flemish were given the blame for this cultural apartheid and found themselves classified as racists. One can compare this with what happened last year in the English Lake District, where the managers were denounced as racist because only native Britons show up to explore the natural scenery there while the numerous Pakistanis, concentrated in the nearby cities, simply are not interested.

Soetkin Collier

Matters came to a head with the ludicrous but ultimately cathartic incident involving the Belgian selection for the Eurovision Song Contest in Riga in 2003. The Walloon Minister for Culture revealed a report of the Belgian secret service to the effect that Soetkin Collier, the lead singer of the folk group Urban Trad (who ended up second with their song Sanomi, in a made-up language), had been a member of Flemish nationalist scouting and activist groups. That much was true, though it was a past phase in her personal development and at any rate perfectly legal. But the Minister added the far grimmer allegation that she had attended a commemoration of Nazi leader Rudolf Hess, and this, though certified by the Belgian secret service, turned out to be false. All the same, the commotion precluded her participating in the song contest.

The incident led to another media hatefest against Flemish folk musicians, particularly Soetkin and the bands where she had been a member. But they fought back, received the support of many other artists, and scored a decisive victory in the court of Flemish public opinion. Most unusual, the anti-Flemish media actually ended their shrill campaign of libel and a few even tendered apologies to the aggrieved musicians.

And now it is official: folk is in again. Folk dance parties are all the rage among the new generation. Reliable informers assure us that they are much more fun than the noisy and stinking underworld events of the disco/techno/metal type.