Royal Festival Hall, London
"I've lost Saint George in the Union Jack / It's my flag, Nick, and I want it back..."
Steve Knightley's on-the-spot rewriting of his anthemic folk manifesto provided the high point in an afternoon that was entirely made up of high points.
The conceit behind the Folk Against Fascism Mayday event was that it should be an English village fete. So, sure enough, the sky clouded over, a persistent
drivel drizzle descended, and the stalls and dancing were moved into the foyer of the Festival Hall. There was a cake stall and a stall selling Imagined Village bath-bombs and Jim Causley providing possibly a new definition of "good sport" by spending the afternoon in the persona of a gypsy fortune teller. When I arrived, the Oyster Band's celidah was coming to end with loud song about having been up since the break of day-o because it was May-o and winter had gone away-o. This led very naturally into an outbreak of morris dancing.
This was the only part of the afternoon that was really dampened by the English weather. It isn't really as festive to watch morris in the bar of a concert hall as it would have been on the banks of the Thames, and it was perhaps harder to hear the accordions and fiddles than it should have been. I don't know if the groups were chosen specifically to counteract the myth that morris dancing is only done by elderly, beery males: there were all female groups and plenty of young'uns and two ladies dressed up as a horse. The crowd was most pleased by the rappa dancing (that's a sort of sword dance where you get skilfully entangled in strips of leather) but regional pride requires that my favourites were the young men from Brizzle who waved their hankies and leapt in the air with what is technically known as "gusto".
I know not the first thing about morris, but like very much the fact that people take so much trouble to do something which is pretty obviously very difficult and very silly. Village green preservation society, and all that.
Pausing only for a slice of lemon cake, we got to the the meat of the afternoon: a mini-concert of traditional music played by people the Daily Express would consider to be insufficiently indigenous. First up was the remarkable Boka Halut, fronted by Roger Watson (traditional English songs on the accordion) and Musa Mboob (Ghanan-speaking and playing some kind of African drum arrangement.) As Roger Watson told the story, Mboob had remarked that English folk music made him want to dance; Roger replied that African drums made him want to dance. "So let's put them together and make the whole world dance." I don't always go for "fusion" stuff but this works, spot on, simply because both ends of the music were just so damn good. Watson sings a more or less straight John Barleycorn to which Mboob adds a refrain about the evils of beer; then there's a rewritten Haul Away Johnny-Oh which points up the connections between English sea shanties and African work songs. The sax player is German, and notes that he wanted to play the gig because he's only too aware of what happens when the far right appropriates traditional music. Apparently, it only now becoming possible to sing traditional German folk songs in Germany again.
This was followed by an all-to-brief set by Tom Paley and Thomas McCarthy. Tom Paley does bluegrass banjo stuff. He's eighty two, Jewish, lives in England, grew up in New York and once played in a duo with Woody Guthrie, I will say again, once played in a duo with Woody Guthrie. Thomas McCarthy is from an Irish traveller background: apparently he turned up at Cecil Sharp folk club one evening and asked if they'd like to hear his family songs. He sings genuine, uncollected, source-singery songs about getting drunk and waking up with a pig, witnessing the end of the old travelling days and accidentally marrying a lady of 90. It doesn't get more authentic than this.
I may be in a minority of one here, but I was less convinced by Dogan Mehmet. He's clearly a very accomplished violinist, and I have no objection at all to listening to that Turkish Cypriot starts-slow-and-gets-faster-and-faster fiddle music. But this kind of fusion didn't really say anything to me about folk music. It felt like Turkish music which just happened to have lyrics about raggle taggle gypsies. Everyone else in the room obviously thought he was sensational.
By which point, it was time for us lucky ticket holders to proceed into the main hall for the main event.
As everyone knows, I don't think that Chumbawamba can do a single thing wrong. They opened their set with the unaccompanied traditional "arise ye men of freedom the world seems upside down" and followed it with the modern anti-facebook anthem "Add Me". (Once again, I loved it that there were people in the audience who didn't know the song, and were hearing the silly pun in the refrain for the first time and laughing out loud.) It was an absolute revelation to hear them in a concert hall with a classical music acoustic: the detail and skill of their akapella close harmonies just shine through. There was no particular sense that this was a specifically anti-fascist concert – everyone was just doing a set of their songs – but, of course, Chumbawamba are always political and it was inevitable that there would be thunderous, thunderous applause for the mighty "Day The Nazis Died" (with all the verses, this time.) Heidi and Belinda provide the rattles for "Wagner at the Opera", and come on to the stage to help them "Torture James Hetfield." They wind up with "El Fusilado", the song about the man who survived the firing squad, with the audience clicking and clapping as appropriate. Utterly perfect set. If anyone asks me to explain my political beliefs at the moment, I tell them to listen to Chumbawamba albums. Not that anyone ever does. (Ask me, I mean.)
Show of Hands came on next. It could probably be argued that, more than anyone else, Show of Hands is responsible for Folk Against Fascism's coming into being. Chumbawamba are, as we know, anarchists: Mr Beer and Mr Knightley's songs often seem small-c conservative, although Steve might say that he is articulating characters' points of views, not necessarily his own. The opening number, "Country Life", is clearly looking back towards a better rural past: not a pastoral utopia, but a time when the small holder could scrape a living, before Tescos and foot and mouth finished him. "Cousin Jack" is a thumping anthem for the Cornish diaspora, which ends with miner in South Africa seeing a future in which the English buy up his cottages as holiday homes, and the Spanish fish in their waters. [*]
And then there is "Roots", the great, heartfelt, three-songs-in-one crie-de-couer for the English to stop despising their own folk-culture. With Indian, Asian, Afro Celts, it's in their blood, below the belt / they're singing and dancing all night long / so what have they got right that we've got wrong. Steve is quite clear: of course it wasn't intended to be taken up as a theme song for the extreme right (I believe he took legal action to get the song removed from the BNPs website). The target of the song is, if anyone, Kim "bullshit" Howells, the culture-hating junior culture minister who (defending Nulabour's bonkers plan to make pub landlords buy a performing rights licence if anyone sung a song their pub) opined that "listening to three Somerset folk singers sounds like hell". The song is demanding the return of the flag from the far right, not from the immigrants. I chickened out of wearing my Union Jack tie to the event, which I rather regret.[**]
I don't like everything Show of Hands do: I can't really get my head round the easy ranting of "Arrogance, Ignorance and Greed" (A.I.G, geddit?). Mr Tilston and Mr Wood have both written much more reasoned songs about the Global Credit Crisis. But their treatment of the traditional "Keys of Canterbury" is quite wonderful. When they get into their groove, hardly anyone provides a better stage experience: "Cousin Jack", "Santiago" and "Roots" are all handed over to the audience with Steve getting into "caller" mode -- " 'where there's a mine'....'copper and lead'....little bit louder.... raise the roof....one last time."
After the interval, we find that someone has placed song sheets on our chairs. Jackie (Jim Moray's Sister) Oates comes onto the stage unannounced, and sings the unaccompanied tale of the sweet nightingale that sings in the valley below, below, which sings in the valley below, whereupon the lights go out, and then red spotlights shine into the audience, and an uncharactersitcally smartly dressed Jon Boden launches into the Prickle Eye Bush. I don't think I've heard Bellowhead do this before, although it's a regular part of Spiers and Boden's act when they're being a duo. Over-the-top even by Bellowhead's high standards, the brass section go into a Morcambe and Wise skip-dance routine at one point; there's a silent-movie style tension-fanfare in the middle of the final verse ("Oh my love have you brought me gold...and silver to set me free?" da-da-da-da "oh yes, I have brought you gold...") and many audience participatory repeats of the last chorus. Sensational. I rather think that 20 years from now, old folkies will still be saying "Aye, lad, I were there when Bellowhead sung Oh The Prickley Bush at the festival hall."
They rattle their way through a good mixture of old and new material: we get Fakenham Fare (which passes for a "slow" track where B'head are concerned) and Haul Away Johnny Oh and finish with the New York Girls, off their forthcoming album. It can be Portsmouth girls or London girls, depending on where you are but you'll always wake up stark naked on the bed thinking that "you have to get up early to be smarter than a whore."
It is possible to have too much of a good thing, and I can sometimes think that by the end of a Bellowhead set I've been repeatedly beaten over the head with a mellodian. In between the songs, there were more unaccompanied acoustic numbers, by Jo Freya and Tim Van Eyken which mitigated the overwhelmingness of it all.
I had wondered what the climax of the event would be – I mean, having had "Roots" and the "Day the Nazi Died" and Bellowhead starting with an earthquake and building up to a climax , how do you end the evening? (When I saw Spiers and Boden in Bristol, they'd suggested that the three groups would be trying to sing each other's songs, which would have been interesting... I still haven't quite got over the fact that I missed Bellowhead covering "Fairy Tale of New York" at their New Year gig.) But in the event, and very sensibly, they kept the conceit of the village fete going and brought everyone onto the stage, including the Voice Lab choir, and sung unaccompanied again, three traddy songs, with the audience joining in off the song sheet for "The Larks They Sung Melodious" and "Farewell Lovely Nancy."
In a way, I was surprised how apolitical the event was. But this was really as perfect an end to the evening as you could possibly have had. It's Mayday. It's pissing down. An English (and, let's be honest here,
entirely mainly white) audience are singing English songs. And what's brought us together is a pressing need to say "Bollocks to Nick Griffin."
Bollocks to Nick Griffin. It's our flag too, and we want it back.
[*] When I heard Chris Wood a couple of months back, he noted that his own song, the Cottagers Reply, contained the line "I need the earth that bred my race" and admitted that it would be possible to misinterprate it.
[**] I've only just understood the line "I've lost St George in the Union Jack": I think he means that Englishness (warm beer, morris dancing, folk songs, ye diggers all stand up) has been subsumed him Britishness (land of hope and glory, rule Brittania).
While it is literally true that I have never heard Bellowhead play The Prickle Eye Bush before, if I had a copy of their Eponymous mini-album, I would have done....