Culture of underachievement

This is something I’ve been musing on for some time now and I’ve been struggling to put it into words (so bear with me). But it has been in my mind in recent months, having watched a number of top-notch folk artists at a variety of venues and thought, “Why can’t I do what they’re doing?”

Why are they so good? And why are numerous people coming out to watch them? Well, it’s because of their talent, surely. That much is obvious. But the reason such artists are able to show off their talents to a wider audience has, I think, a lot to do with their upbringing. By this I mean support and encouragement from family members and being steeped in the folk tradition from a young age (for example, Eliza Carthy, born of folk royalty, was always going to make records, wasn’t she?). Being moderately well-off also helps greatly, especially if you’re a musician who plays expensive gear such as accordions or violins. I’ve alluded previously to the frustration of trying to hold down a day job while trying to find the time to source and learn new material, and wondered: just how did many of these artists get to where they are now, playing folk music professionally? When they started out, did they have the luxury of not having to work 9-5 while they performed in their spare time? Were they living with their parents? Did their parents/family support them financially as they were getting themselves off the ground? How on earth have they ended up making a living out of playing folk music?

As I said, good folk artists don’t get where they are by not being supremely talented, but I think there are loads of people out there who are equally as good but who never make it for one reason or another. Perhaps they don’t have enough money, perhaps they weren’t in the right place at the right time, perhaps they didn’t know the right people. Or perhaps, like me, they went to a relatively rough comprehensive school where underachievement was practically celebrated. Outstanding scholars or performers were likely to get their head kicked in by jealous thugs. Me, I kept my head down and used what talents I had to my advantage by helping the bullies with their homework, giving them all the test answers and writing their PE excuse notes, which saved me from being thought of as “too clever” and therefore a prime target for abuse.

What I’m getting at here amidst all this rambling is that because of this I still find it difficult to say “I am good at that” and accept praise where it’s due. I know I am good at what I do, but I find it difficult believing in myself and being fully confident in my performances because I think that someone in the audience will be sneering, “She thinks she’s right good, her.” Even now, though I know this is ridiculous, this is holding me back. I know that 99% of any audience will be appreciative and positive, and the other 1% isn’t worth giving the time of day to, but still this feeling lingers no matter how hard I try to get over it.

I imagine it’s still like this in Hull schools nowadays; probably even worse, judging by the continued appalling performance in the league tables. To kids today I’d say: keep your head down, pretend you haven’t done your homework, when you really have (you don’t want a beating, after all) – but carry on developing your skills in every bit of spare time you have, try to find some like-minded people, and believe in yourself. You really will have the last laugh when your peers have seven kids/work at Tesco/are in jail (delete as appropriate).

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not especially bitter, not any more anyway. All of this only spurs me on all the more to find a way, somehow, of keeping on playing music, getting better and better, and maybe, just maybe, getting paid a bit more for it…

Author: Sam

I'm Sam Martyn, a folk singer, musician and artist from Hull. I'm a member of Hull folk band Beggar's Bridge, and I'm also in the White Horse Ceilidh Band. I've been a regular at the The White Horse Folk Club in Beverley for a good few years now, too. I play piano, low and high whistle, and harmonium. Influences include June Tabor (quite simply a heroine of mine) and Eliza Carthy. In September 2012 I released my first album, Drifting on Out, while Land and Sea followed in February 2016 - both are available to buy on CD via PayPal in my website shop, or from iTunes.

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