How folk culture made a comeback in 2023

This year, as we searched for a new identity, English culture went forward into the past, from folk horror Enys Men to Morris dancers at the Brit Awards, via Green Man-themed Coronation invites and ritualistic raves. What's going on?

When artist Corbin Shaw was growing up in the village of Harthill, South Yorkshire, there was nothing more cringe than watching his GCSE languages teacher Morris dance at the local well-flowering celebration. It’s an old English tradition that’s as arcane, if not as pagan, as it sounds: rural communities gathering to prettify their local well or spring.

Bless him, he was such a quiet guy,” says the 24-year-old, who graduated from Central Saint Martins in 2020 and is best known for creating large-scale, text-laden flags that explore masculinity. He’d go out in his full yellow outfit with flowers around his pork pie hat.” A pause. When I look back on it, it was quite an amazing thing to do.”

The Derbyshire and South Yorkshire custom of well-flowering, also known as well-dressing, takes place annually. Large clay murals, decorated in pressed flowers, are constructed around water sources and blessed by Morris dancers. There’s skipping, flower ceremonies, a bit of sheep dipping.

You give thanks for the water that comes into the village, so some of it dates back to the Plague,” Shaw says. But like a lot of England’s folk traditions, nobody can really vouch for its origin story. Once a tradition he saw as so uncool”, Shaw’s now began attending Morris workshops, sessions where grown men, and some women, strap on bells, straw hats and sashes, wave hankies or sticks and skip around to accordion music.

It’s influencing his art, too. In fact, all of this culminated in his 2022 exhibition Nowt as Queer as Folk at East London’s Guts Gallery, where Corbin’s signature printed slogans hung on medieval-looking hessian scrolls, saying things like SAD LADS IN THE STICKS” and VILLAGE IDIOT TURNED VILLAGE CELEB”.

During the exhibition – in which Shaw explore[d] the enchanted, the political, the ordinary and the often mythical traditions of English village life” – he also introduced the trendy art crowd to well-dressing celebrations. I made a recreation of the well from my village and had some Morris men come in and bless it,” he says. It was quite funny, this group of a hundred odd people who looked like they’d just come out of Berghain watching 10 Morris men dancing.”


Everywhere you look in 2023, English culture has gone forward into the past. The scariest horror film of last year was Mark Jenkin’s Cornish folk chiller Enys Men. The Isle of Wight’s Wet Leg had all-female Morris troupe Boss Morris join them on stage for the Brits in February.

Meanwhile, Shane Meadows, who made four instalments of his 80s-set skinhead drama This is England, went back much further – to the eighteenth-century, actually – with BBC period drama The Gallows Pole this summer. A recent compilation, The Endless Coloured Ways, saw a host of contemporary artists, including Fontaines D.C., Self Esteem and Let’s Eat Grandma, cover the songs of early 70s acoustic folkie Nick Drake. All that and we haven’t even mentioned the pagan-inspired raves taking place at Salford’s White Hotel.

This year, England’s folk traditions and neolithic past became suddenly resonant, surging in unexpected places across visual arts, film and music. The icons of English folk tradition – burning wicker men, standing stone circles, Maypoles, Morris dancing, the myth of the Green Man – are more present than they have been for half a century. What is happening? Why, in a ruthlessly rational, follow-the-science contemporary world, are people digging in these historical crates?

People who had lived in cities had lost that connection to folk and saw it as linked to the countryside, which was a place they weren’t at ease in”


A little history: before Christianity arrived on the island around the 7th century, England’s religions were made up of disparate pagan faiths built around seasons and the natural world. The neolithic stone circles at Stonehenge and Avebury, both in Wiltshire, are clues as to the nature of this faith. When Christianity arrived, those practices went underground but continued through superstitions and rural practices. Much of what we understand about our folk culture today, particularly its songs and dances, was collected and curated during the accelerating change of the Victorian era. Cecil Sharp followed on from the Empire really, nicking traditions from further afield,” says Shaw of that era’s defining folk music collector.

In an age of rapid and unstoppable change, nostalgia and revivalism often flourish: they offer the solace of permanence and stability in a world whose certainties seem to be slipping away,” wrote folk historian Rob Young in his 2010 book Electric Eden, about British folk music in the 1960s and 70s.

After World War II, almost every town in Britain had folk clubs where young people would gather, drink beer and sing from the floor. These places were often explicitly linked to ecological concerns through anti-nuclear groups. But things got really interesting in the 60s, when new social attitudes, the end of Empire and fears of human extinction caused by the threat of nuclear war came to the fore. The kids who grew up in those clubs got into pop culture, psychedelia and the emerging counterculture, producing the often cosmic and visionary music of Fairport Convention (and their stars Richard Thompson and Sandy Denny), Shirley Collins, Pentangle or Nick Drake, pioneering cult films such as The Wicker Man and Witchfinder General, and BBC play Penda’s Fen.

By the 80s, the shock of the new – post-punk! Celebrity! Thatcherism! – had diminished the standing of folk culture and the dreams of its revivalists. We didn’t know what to do with it, how to talk about it, and it was maybe linked to an embarrassment around the countryside,” says Jeremy Deller, the Turner Prize-winning British artist who has helped to reappraise folk as an outsider art movement. People who had lived in cities and worked in cities had lost that connection and saw it as linked to the countryside, which was a place they weren’t at ease in.”

But then something strange happened. First, rave culture opened up new battlegrounds between dance music, political protest and the English landscape in the 90s, with the Tory government famously clamping down on unlicensed countryside raves with the 1994 Criminal Justice Act. You would never expect that from Chicago and Detroit, this music from underground clubs that were for Black gay men, ends up being taken over by the Traveller movement and neolithic culture in Britain,” says Deller. That’s quite a journey, isn’t it?”

Around the same time, queer underground artists in the UK began messing around with the signs and signifiers of folk culture. After filmmaker Derek Jarman died of Aids in 1994, queer electronic act Coil recorded a soundtrack to his 1971 short A Journey to Avebury as a tribute. Jarman’s grainy Super 8 footage of the standing stones is saturated in a strange orange hue, with Coil’s malevolent and gurgling electronica suggesting menace and latent horror beneath the stones. In 1998, the highly influential post-punk musician Julian Cope published The Modern Antiquarian, a travel guide to Britain’s neolithic remains. In the 00s, Deller’s work helped bring folk in from the cold to a wider audience, from his bouncy castle recreation of Stonehenge to his 2005 book Folk Archive (with artist Alan Kane) and Wiltshire B4 Christ (2019) – the book, exhibition and capsule collection made in collaboration with streetwear brand Aries.

That 1960s counterculture moment feels really far away. Maybe there’s a yearning for that era or sensibility”


In 2023, dance music has renewed its links with England’s folk mythology. When underground cellist and composer HforSpirit began curating Thee Birth – a series of multimedia club nights blending pagan ritual and rave at Salford’s famed White Hotel – the first thing she did was commission a film, UnTyMe, directed by Nick Hadfield, which shows a group of clubbers piling into a van. Destination? The English countryside.

When they arrive, staccato electronic music pounds as the friends head deeper into nature, clambering through a forest and vaulting over streams. The English landscape suddenly transforms into lurid, psychedelic colours and flashing in the darkness, a sensory overload as the natural world gives way to a highly stylised rave underneath, before climaxing with a ritual at a stone circle. The film draws links between English folk horror and the dancefloor. And HforSpirit isn’t the only one making that connection.

Zakia Sewell is one of the most interesting figures in the current folk revival. On her NTS breakfast show, she plays traditional English folk music – songs by 60s luminaries such as Bert Jansch, Norma Waterson, Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett and The Incredible String Band – and the celestial sounds” of psychedelia by Aphrodite’s Child (that’s Blade Runner composer Vangelis’ band), alongside genres such as jazz, soul, reggae, disco and broken beat. On her BBC Radio 4 series My Albion, she examines how folk culture relates to English colonialism and national identity post-Windrush. There’s little wonder, then, that HforSpirit enlisted Sewell to DJ at a 2021 Thee Birth party in Hackney to ritually mark the passing of lockdown.

The experience I had growing up in Wales and the atmosphere in the village that my grandparents lived in, there were a lot of folk traditions,” Sewell says. It was a very mystical landscape.” Going with her dad to see folk-rock outfit Pentangle in her teens was a lightbulb moment. Fast forward to now, and she’s interviewed Shirley Collins, the 88-year-old queen of English folk, at length on her NTS podcast. That 1960s counterculture moment feels really far away,” she says of all the folkiness that’s in the air right now. Maybe there’s a yearning for that era or sensibility.”

On the most mainstream stage in England this year, the links between pop and folk culture burst into view for 3.9 million viewers at the 2023 Brit Awards. For the most part it was business as usual. But when Wet Leg took to the stage to perform Chaise Longue, audiences were confronted with a very different type of dance than is usually part of the proceedings. Boss Morris, an all-female Morris dance troupe from Stroud, Gloucestershire, performed on stage in front of the band, complete with giant owl mascots and surrounded by a verdant landscape of trees and ferns.

How? In a meeting ahead of the show, singer Rhian Teasdale and guitarist Hester Chambers had wondered aloud to musician-slash-creative director Lava La Rue about doing something pagan” and apocalyptic” for the show. Boss Morris had performed with their Domino labelmate Shirley Collins in 2017 in Bristol and, well, how did their diaries look?

It was an amazing experience but I struggled immensely with whether it was something we should be doing,” admits Rhia Davenport of the Morris dancing collective. My fear was that it was going to be made to feel a bit gimmicky.” She was concerned, too, that a primetime telly audience would shine a bright light on a negative element of Morris tradition and folk traditions in general. I was worried that we’re a group of white women – we don’t display the diversity that we would love to see in Morris dancing and work hard to improve.”

Folk culture can be a way of escaping, but by escaping, actually connecting. It’s a real push-and-pull thing”


Questioning and dismantling the legacies of colonialism and sexism within England’s folk culture unifies many of its new revivalists. Some time around the 1800s, performers began using blackface in the Morris – a clearly racist and, now, mostly eradicated practice. But the overwhelming majority of Morris troupes in the UK remain all-male and all-white.

When we started doing it we did not have any target or mission to be popular or booked by bands or anything,” emphasises Davenport, who was invited to form the group by visual artist Alex Merry in 2015. We were all really at level pegging, starting out as beginners. That meant there was no competitiveness, which was a really beautiful thing.”

For Davenport, Morris dancing is an an outsider art”, one that’s up for grabs and there to be shaped by amateur practitioners. It’s got so much scope and that’s a unique thing.”

Boss Morris has helped things evolve,” adds Shaw. They kind of revolutionised [Morris dancing].” Unsurprisingly – we’re talking tradition here, and some traditionalists, by definition, don’t like change – press coverage has occasionally tried to play into the idea of generational divides within Morris enthusiasts. The artist firmly rejects that. These older people are so keen!” he says. Subcultures, like mod or northern soul, are so regulated. But here, when you’re dancing, if you’re getting it wrong, there’s no shame in it. It’s very open and freeing.”

But why now? Davenport argues that this mixture of music, literature, folk dance and art has always been happening,” but she understands why the last half decade has seen a renewed interest from young entrants in folk practice. Life can feel quite scary or lacking right now,” she says. Folk culture can be a way of escaping, but by escaping, actually connecting. It’s a real push-and-pull thing.”


That sense of connection – to something both ancient and timeless, and thereby freeing from the stresses and strains of the present – is a crucial factor in the resurgent appeal of all things folk. In the 60s and 70s, England’s folk counterculture pursued the then fashionable idea of going back to the land”, uprooting to rural communities with utopian visions of a new life. In the 2020s, it’s less of an ideology and more of an escape route, as young people are purged from cities by rising rents.

On top of this, the pandemic changed many people’s relationship with nature: they either wanted more of it after being told to stay in tiny flats for months on end, or were unexpectedly immersed in it when locked down in rural areas with nothing to do but go on walks. Around the same time, Brexit and Black Lives Matter forced many into a reckoning with Britain’s colonial horrors. The search for a national identity beyond that had to go further into the past.

When I’m going to see sites now it’s a lot busier now than it was four years ago,” says artist Lally MacBeth. In 2021, she co-founded Stone Club, a group of standing stone enthusiasts” that recreates prehistory” and hosts film screenings and events with artists, DJs and historians at The Social in central London, as well as the British Museum and the Tate. In an age of climate anxiety there’s a feeling of wanting to really understand the past. Standing stones themselves offer this really neutral space. They’re pre- any political system. There’s a neutrality to them which offers a safe space to discuss things.”

This idea of a supposed neutrality in England’s folk heritage is important. When Prince Harry and Katy Perry received their official invitations to the Coronation of King Charles III and Camilla, they may have been surprised to note the symbol of the Green Man on the invite. Official correspondence pointed to the Green Man’s ancient status and its symbolism of spring and rebirth, to celebrate the new reign”, which though it has appeared in churches for centuries is claimed by some to be a pagan symbol, too. At a time when there are almost no unifying national symbols, it’s not surprising that a monarch might want to co-opt England’s folk heritage.

And he isn’t the only one. This year, the British far-right have had their sights on England’s folk past. On 8th September 2023, James Saunders – a far-right British organiser for the American extremist group Asatru Folk Assembly (AFA) – announced that the AFA would begin hosting Winter Nights events at Stonehenge from the beginning of October. The backlash was prompt and united. The Police Pagan Association, which works alongside police and the Home Office to represent and support British Pagan communities, and inclusive Heathen community group Asatru UK, were able notify English Heritage, local police and counter-extremist groups. The response was swift enough that the event was promptly cancelled.

In an age of uncertainty, there are unorthodox coalitions between what Naomi Klein has termed the far-right and the far-out”. This can mean England’s national symbols are viewed as up for grabs by racist groups.

Folk allows people, or has allowed people, to say things that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to say. You join a great chain of people who have gone before”


If you don’t actively try to tease out the radical potential [of folk music],” says Daniel Evans of London’s nine-piece folk band Shovel Dance Collective, you end up coming to this weird ethno-nationalism that’s a very ancient Albion, a weird romanticised view of Britain that’s the same thing neo-fascists use.”

Across 2023, Shovel Dance Collective have been praised as one of British folk’s most exciting new prospects, using drone, metal and free improvisation to re-introduce grit into the genre.

We’re a band of raging communists basically,” says Evans of a group whose members come from London’s experimental and noise scenes. And there’s a strong queer contingent, too. It became part of the way we chose songs.”

For Evans, folk culture is little people history”, a way to talk – as the band do on stage – about the working-class, exploited lives behind the songs and the labouring communities that passed them down.

Folk allows people, or has allowed people, to say things that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to say. You join a great chain of people who have gone before,” says Evans. It’s like linking you into this great long rope. What we’re attempting to do is latch ourselves onto that rope very distinctively.”

Distinctiveness certainly provides the basis for one of 2023’s most reliably what-the-fuck-have-I-just-seen films. Enys Men, the follow-up to Mark Jenkin’s critically acclaimed 2019 breakout Bait, was praised for its reinvention of English folk horror when it was released in January. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was filmed during 2021’s third lockdown.

At the time I didn’t really think [the pandemic] had much influence on the film. Looking back at it now, I don’t think anyone can do anything without it being shaped by the experience of going through lockdown,” says Jenkin. The film’s main character is a wildlife volunteer who reads the 1972 proto-environmentalist text A Blueprint For Survival. There’s parallels to be drawn with the pandemic: a woman isolated and alone on an island where everyone who was there is now dead and gone. She’s relying on routine and when the routine breaks down she’s in a lot of trouble.”

Set in 1973 – the same year The Wicker Man was released – the film uses the inherent eeriness of standing stones and the Cornish landscape to tap into ecological concerns that underpin the film. But although Jenkin points to Jarman’s A Journey to Avebury and Penda’s Fen as films that shaped the cinematic DNA of Enys Men, he was at first very wary of the tag folk horror,” he says. I found it very English, a very dangerous portrayal of merry old England. Harking back to the village green and pastoral stuff, which I don’t really like as a myth. It’s a dangerous myth, especially in recent times. But I think that was quite a narrow view of it.”

Distinct from the first wave of English folk horror in popular culture, led by Wicker Man et al., the genre is now being used to make wider points. Meadows’ series The Gallows Pole used folk horror tropes to obliquely comment on the ongoing cost-of-living crisis. Bridget Christie’s Channel 4 comedy The Change used folk culture – including Boss Morris, Shirley Collins and an extended May Day ritual – to talk about the menopause and women’s visibility. A Year in A Field, Christopher Morris’ surprise film festival hit about a 4000 year old stone, served as a quiet protest” against the climate crisis.

People are looking for things that are not digital, that are analogue, something that talks about national identity that people are comfortable with”


All of this speaks to artists using ideas from folk to say something about the state of England. People are looking for things that are not digital, that are analogue, something that talks about national identity that people are comfortable with,” argues Jeremy Deller. “[Something] that looks at national identity in a different way, something that goes against hyper capitalist culture. In times of national stress, people want symbols of national identity that are ancient and not about the present.”

It might be that 2023 is remembered as a high-water mark of renewed interest in Britain’s culture. Fuelled by Brexit, the climate crisis, technology-driven alienation, the psychological effects of lockdowns and even just the cyclical nature of fashion, British artists are reclaiming national myths to say something urgent about where we are.

Folk has all this power to rally people up,” reflects Corbin Shaw. Maybe it is something that could speak to the climate consciousness in the UK? There’s so many different movements of folk up and down the country.”

Like many in 2023, Shaw has found unexpected meaning and belonging in England’s distant traditions and myths. There’s so much space for people to use it,” he says. It’s for anyone.”

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