Amy Winehouse’s surprise appearance with The Specials at this year’s V Festival may prove to be a landmark moment in the history of British folk music.

Winehouse was lured away from whatever backstage comforts might have been on hand to duet with The Specials’ lead singer Terry Hall on 'Ghost Town', a number one hit from 1981 that describes the bleakness of urban decay brilliantly.

Winehouse’s own 'Rehab', meanwhile, captured the mood of the nation back in 2006. Both songs are destined to become folk classics for a simple reason: they are snapshots on the realities of British life.

Folk music has a dowdy, unstylish image, a bit like Britain itself. It makes you think of dysfunctional men with bladder issues who smell faintly of warm beer and wee.

I subscribed to this belief until embarking on a journey through Britain in 2008 during which, armed with a portable recording device called a Zoom, I made a series of field recordings in an attempt to capture the spirit of the place and its people.

The main discovery, along with the fact that hard men in Sheffield call each other luv, is that folk music is not a style but a purpose. If it expresses the reality of our lives, whether that means a gypsy singing an ancient ballad around a campfire or an ecstatic festival crowd chanting along to 'Fake Tales Of San Francisco', it’s folk music.

"I think of what I write as folk songs," Richard Hawley told me in a run-down area of Sheffield called Neepsend. "I used to be in a band with people that wanted a Ferrari and a swimming pool in LA. I wanted a Mini and a birdbath at best."

Jarvis Cocker, who in Pulp’s 'Common People' has at least one folk standard under his belt, added: "We don’t get ideas about our station in Sheffield. If you do become famous you have to look like it just happened."

A bit like what happened with Arctic Monkeys, in other words. That is folk music’s purpose: to describe everyday experience rather than to become divorced from it in the pursuit of fame and riches.

Many of the people I recorded, such as the Glasgow band Trembling Bells and the latter day Medway crooner Pete Molinari (we almost got beaten up trying to make a field recording on Chatham High Street) make music that subscribes to the traditional view of folk.

Others, such as a gang of teenage girls rapping into a mobile phone on a 171 bus in Peckham, couldn’t be further from it. The journey is documented in 'The Ballad Of Britain', and the message of the book is that everyone has a story to tell; everyone has a song worth singing. And that wearing cut-off jeans in Chatham can seriously damage your health.

'The Ballad Of Britain' is published by Portico. An accompanying CD is released on Heron Recordings on September 8.

There's also a 'Ballad Of Britain' concert at Cecil Sharp House on October 22, featuring Gruff Rhys

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