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Good Folk Music (1985-90): Folky Rhymes in Changing Times

Sunday Simmons ItcherThe eighties brought with it some new trends in music, and the old staples began to take a back seat. New wave and hair metal took centre stage, with disco and folk left by the wayside. But despite this drop in popularity, folk still managed to hang in there and produce some stellar artists. I’m talking about Tanita Tikaram, Patty Larkin and more good folk music from the years 1985 to 1990. ~ Sunday Simmons

Good Traditions

With a drop in popularity, folk had to pull out all the stops to compete in an ever-changing musical climate. The days of Irish jigs and traditional reels entering the charts were all but over, but with that loss came a wave of more commercially accessible folk music.

The Pogues, Kirsty MacColl and The Waterboys brought us folk-influenced punk and alternative tracks, incorporating traditional fiddle, accordion and mandolin into their music, and often obscure or quirky lyrics sung with a stripped back vocal. These artists went a long way to keep the essence of folk music in the charts, but they weren’t the only ones…


Aesthetically Exciting Folk Music Recommendations

Tanita Tikaram

Essential Track: ‘Valentine Heart’ (1988)

“If I could have held you once more with that light // It’s nothing to you, but it keeps me alive // Like a Valentine’s Day, it’s a Valentine’s heart, anyway…”

German-born UK folk artist Tanita Tikaram hit the scene in 1988 when her debut album ‘Ancient Heart’ thrust her into the spotlight. It was an interesting first offering featuring a wealth of highly commercial folk tracks, all performed beautifully by Tanita.

Probably best known for the hit singles, ‘Twist in My Sobriety’ and ‘Good Tradition’, Tanita brought her folky melodies and deep, introspective lyrics to a mainstream audience. Today, though, I’ve chosen one of my favourite album tracks from ‘Ancient Heart’, the gentle piano ballad, ‘Valentine Heart’.

Tanita’s stunning vocal on this track is smoky, earthy, and emotive. A gorgeous song from a lady who helped keep folk music relevant during a turbulent musical climate. Sheer poetry.

John Gorka

Essential Album: ‘I Know’ (1987)

“I know when the radio’s wrong // And when the weather man is jive // I’ve seen the news // Still it’s good to be alive // I know, I know…”

US folk artist John Gorka began his career performing as an opening act in coffee houses before releasing his debut album, ‘I Know’, in 1987. With his toned down, traditional style and a distinctly urban feel to his music, John is one of the finest New Folk singer/songwriters to emerge at the back end of the eighties.

In a time of hair metal and the ever-burgeoning popularity of electronic music, John’s stripped back acoustic style and rich, unctuous vocal provided a glorious breath of fresh air.

‘I Know’ never received the acclaim it should have, it would be another couple of years before John’s immense talent for storytelling in musical form was recognised, but for me, it’s one of his finest offerings. I’ve chosen the title track today; it’s mellow, laid back folk with a conversational tone and a pretty melody. What’s not to love?

Patty Larkin

Essential Track: ‘I’m Fine’ (1987)

“It’s not often that time turns itself around // And you watch your shadow pass you by // Every minute, every move, every single sound // Takes on meaning to your eye.”

This track from Patty Larkin’s second studio album of the same name is my absolute must-hear, and let me tell you why. ‘I’m Fine’ harks back to the kind of style you’d expect from sixties folk brought into the world of contemporary eighties folk by a criminally overlooked talent.

Patty Larkin’s ‘I’m Fine’ is the epitome of eighties folk hidden gem, a beautifully written hybrid incorporating the passion of a Joan Armatrading style ‘Love and Affection’ vocal, and Joni Mitchell’s incredibly emotive songwriting style.

And if that’s not enough to pique your curiosity, then I don’t know what is! Check out this stunning track and get some Patty Larkin on your eighties folk playlist, you know it makes sense!

Show of Hands

Essential Track: ‘Exile’ (1987)

“I can dream before the break of day // That I’m back with you again // Then the morning blows it all away // And leaves an echo of your name.”

British roots folk duo, Show of Hands, comprised of The Albion Band’s Phil Beer and folk musician Steve Knightley. Bringing together two phenomenal talents of folk music could only result in one thing – incredible music.

Show of Hands released their eponymously titled debut album in 1987, and at the time it was only sold to fans attending gigs! Today, I’ve chosen ‘Exile’ as my song choice, easily one of the most captivating tracks from the album.

Atmospheric, soaring yet simplistic, ‘Exile’ has the sweetest melody and an ethereal vibe to it somewhere between traditional and progressive in style. The vocal is stunning, and I guarantee this version featuring Polly Bolton will give you goosebumps. A stunning folk track from a band that stayed largely under the radar, get ‘Exile’ on your playlist today!

Indigo Girls

Essential Album: ‘Strange Fire’ (1987)

“This is a message, a message of love // Love that moves from the inside out // Love that never grows tired // I come to you with strange fire, fire…”

Amy Ray and Emily Saliers, otherwise known as the Indigo Girls, did a lot to keep folk music from going under during the late eighties. Indigo Girls released their debut album, ‘Strange Fire’ in 1987, creeping onto the music scene without much of a fanfare.

Despite the huge lack of enthusiasm for this debut offering, it featured some interesting tracks, and showcased a duo that would go on to become a driving force in folk music. Indeed, their next album would win them a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album.

I’ve chosen the title track from ‘Strange Fire’ today, simply because it’s a perfect portrait of the Indigo Girls’ sound. From the glorious acoustic guitar intro to the strong, almost countrified vocal performance from Amy and Emily, this song just oozes energy and the rustic, rootsy feel is just sublime.

Check out this early offering from these first ladies of US contemporary folk today!


Essential Track: ‘Many Roads’ (1987)

“When many roads lead to nowhere // And all the faces look the same // Everywhere // You just call me // You just call ’cause I’ll be there.”

I love this track from Irish folk band, Clannad – it’s by far one of my favourites from the band’s 1987 album ‘Sirius’, for it’s simplicity, it’s gorgeous melody, and for the pictures painted by some truly inspired lyrics.

Clannad is, of course, one of the biggest exponents of Irish folk, and the often haunting vocal style of the Brennan family is nothing short of breathtaking. Incorporating elements of traditional Celtic folk with new age overtones and contemporary pop sensibilities, Clannad’s unique formula has gained them a loyal following during a career spanning over forty years.

It was during the eighties, though, that Clannad found themselves riding a wave of commercial success when their eerie theme for BBC TV series ‘Harry’s Game’ caught the ear and the imagination of the world.

If you’re just dipping your toes into folk music of the eighties, Clannad is an absolute must-hear, and ‘Many Roads’ will only leave you wanting more.


The Long Road Home

Personally, I loved the twists and turns folk music took during the late eighties. It didn’t have quite the same appeal as the traditional British folk revival, or indeed the plaintive edge of US freedom songs and protest anthems, but eighties folk still had a lot to offer.

My final salute today goes to an artist I mentioned earlier in my article – Kirsty MacColl. With her lilting, folksy vocal style, Kirsty produced some stunning tracks before her untimely death in 2000. From the quirky ‘There’s a Guy Works Down the Chip Shop Swears He’s Elvis’ to her cover of The Kinks’ ‘Days’, Kirsty effortlessly blended folk and pop to create a brand of music entirely impossible to dislike. Sheer brilliance and one of my favourite almost-folk artists!

These are just a few of the artists I feel added something great to folk music during the eighties, but who would you add to this list?

Get commenting and let us know!

Oi Oi, I’m Sunday Simmons, professional freelance writer and indie author. Born into a family of entertainers, musicians and artists, I chose the pen as my instrument at a young age and I’ve been scribbling stuff ever since. Hopefully some of it makes sense! Writing is my passion, and with three kids and plenty of pets, life is chaos and I love it.
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