Thursday, May 19, 2011


"Roots" annotated

OK. Let's knock this thing on the head once and for all.

Here is a clip of a song by Mr Steve Knightley and Mr Phil Beer, collectively "Show of Hands".

Here are my comments on what I think the lyrics mean.

If anyone says that the lyrics are entirely transparent, and that any annotation is quite unnecessary, then it is quite likely that I will whole-heartedly agree with them.

Now it's been 25 years or more
I've roamed this land from shore to shore
From Tyne to Tamar, Severn to Thames
From moor to vale, from peak to fen
Played in cafes, pubs and bars
I've stood in the street with my own guitar....

This is literally true, in the sense that Steve Knightley and Phil Beer served an "apprenticeship" in pubs like the Albert, and still play small venues from time to time. But it's also appealing to the romantic image of the folk-singer as wandering minstrel. Steve's songs often mythologise a relatively mundane "life on the road": fights he almost got into; road accidents he narrowly avoided. Criss-crossing the UK in a touring van is the modern English equivalent to being a "ramblin' boy". The video which goes with the song shows the singer walking into the sunset with an acoustic guitar slung across his back, which isn't something professional musicians do very often in the real world.  

Any first-year English student can tell you that the "I" who speaks in a poem is not necessarily identical with that strange but uninteresting person "the author". [*] We should not assume that every line in the song is a simple statement of the writer's private opinion, any more than we should assume that he really has a younger brother who injured his hand in a farming accident: he's giving voice to an everyman English folksinger. (On the other hand, in performance, Steve sometimes changes the line to "stood on the street with my first guitar", which is quite specific.)

But I'd be richer than all the rest
If I had a pound for each request
For 'Duelling Banjos', 'American Pie'
It's enough to make you cry

The Singer complains that audiences would rather listen to artificial, inauthentic music than the English folk-songs which he loves. (This is a fairly clear example of the Singer being a persona, rather than Knightley himself: it is hard to imagine a request for American Pie at a Show of Hands concert.)

It is perhaps not quite fair to use American Pie as a by-word for plastic artificiality. Don McLean intended the song to be a cry for musical authenticity: he felt that John Lennon and Bob Dylan had ruined popular music by pretentiously pretending that it could be Art. But rock n roll isn't meant to be art: rock n roll is meant to be something you dance to.

But perhaps the Singer doesn't object to 'American Pie' as a song, but merely wishes that the the English would sing English songs and leave American songs to the Americans? Ewan MacColl famously set a rule that singers in his folk club could only sing songs in their own accents and from their own backgrounds. However, the song can hardly be a cry for purity in this sense: Show of Hands themselves are perfectly happy doing excellent covers of songs by Springsteen, Dylan or Earle. Eliza Carthy, in reaction to the Guardian's appalling remark about folk music being "arthritically white", said that she regarded English folk as part of "world" music (England arguably being part of the world) in which people from different backgrounds said "You show me yours and I'll show you mine".  

Rule Britannia, Swing Low
Are these the only songs the English know?

The Singer complains that the only time you hear English people singing together is at football matches ("Swing Low, Sweet Chariot") and Last Night of the Proms. ("Rule, Britannia!"). This is pretty uncontroversial. (He might have added "church services" to the list. Cynics have suggested that old-time revivalists like Billy Graham met with such success in England because people just kinda enjoyed belting out Blessed Assurance with five thousand other people)

Rule Britannia worked its way into Last Night of the Proms because it formed part of Henry Wood's Fantasia on British Sea Songs. It could therefore be said to be part of the late 19th century notion that Home Sweet Home and the Sailor's Hornpipe weren't quite respectable unless they were dressed up as "classical" music.

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot is a church song (I looked over Jordan and what did I see?), but rugger players used to sing it in the changing rooms for reasons we probably don't need to discuss while there are ladies present.

For the last 300 days, Mr Jon Boden has been engaged in the "A Folk Song A Day" project, so called because each day, he sings a folk song and releases it for free on the interwebs. Some of the performances are very good indeed ("The Mistletoe Bough", "A Chat With Your Mother") some are frankly rather poor (his version of "The King of Rome" was a particular disappointment). Part of the purpose of the project is to encourage social singing. Boden thinks that everyone can, and should, sing, even if they can't do it in tune; and wants to offer a body of songs suitable for singing together. Mr Cecil Sharp, the inventor of folk music,  entertained a hope that the Olde Englishe songs which he was "collecting" would one day be taught to school children.  

After the speeches, when the cake's been cut
The disco's over and the bar is shut
At christening, birthday, wedding or wake
What can we sing 'til the morning breaks?

The Singer thinks it is a shame that the tradition of social singing has died out in England, and asks rhetorically what songs could fill the hole. The answer, obviously, is going to to be English folk music because he is an English folk singer. This appears to be the  primary point behind the song. Knightley has introduced "Roots" as being a plea for the English to rediscover a vast repertoire of songs that they could sing together.

With the Indian, Asian, Afro Celts
It's in their blood, below the belt
They're playing and dancing all night long
So what have they got right that we've got wrong?

This appears to be the offending verse, which has caused some people to question the Singer's credentials as a card carrying muesli quaffing Guardian-reading liberal. The plain meaning of the verse is that some cultures seem to have a greater tradition of communal singing than we do; and a greater sense of connection to their heritage. The Singer doesn't resent, hate or feel superior to these other communities: he specifically says that he thinks they are better than us in this regard and wishes that we could learn from them. This is a rather small peg on which to hang an accusation of racism.

It seems quite unexceptionable to say that you are more likely to hear singing in an Irish pub than an English one. And it certainly looks to me as if, over the festival weekend, the black British population of St Pauls, Bristol get into a spirit of carnival which I've never seen in Barnet or Coventry or York. They also hang out an awful lot Jamaican flags.

What is the white British equivalent of St Pauls or Notting Hill? A church fete? Last Night of the Proms? Morris dancing? Or having a riot after a football match?

Assumptions, as a very great man once wrote, are things that you don't know you are making. During the World Cup, British football commentators were inclined to describe South Africa as a "vibrant" country. This could (if you really wanted to be touchy) to be seen as betraying unexamined beliefs that Black Chaps aren't very clever but do have a wonderful sense of rhythm. (This doesn't mean that the football commentators were themselves racists: only that racist assumptions swim in the lower reaches of many a liberal subconscious. If you'd pointed out the buried assumption, they'd have been embarrassed and corrected it.) The phrase "in their blood, below the belt" could (if you want to be very touchy indeed) be taken as betraying primitivist assumptions: a belief that minority communities know traditional music because they are in some sense "closer to nature" than the majority culture - and that their music comes from their testicles, rather than their little grey cells. The implication that Celtic people are somehow intrinsically different from Anglo-Saxon people would, if pressed, contradict the main thrust of the song: that the English chose to stop singing for historical and sociological reasons and could choose to start singing again if they wanted to.

It could also be seen as implying that Steve was having difficulties thinking of a rhyme for "Celt". We are drilling awfully deep into four lines of song-lyric in the hope of finding something to be offended by.

Now the minister said his vision of hell
Is three folk singers in a pub near Wells
Well I've got a vision of urban sprawl
Pub's where no-one ever sings at all...

In 2003 Nulab passed legislation which required all institutions to seek licences before music could be performed on their premises (along with with possibly nit-picky fire regulations and other rules about health and safety). When it was pointed out that this would apply just as much to informal folk sessions as to actual concerts, Blair's culture minister, Kim Howells, who had previously described modern art -- all modern art -- as "bullshit" remarked that informal folk sessions were his idea of hell. (Did you get that? The bastard thought that his taste in music and his taste in art were somehow relevant to arts policy; just as Michael Gove thinks that his memories of being a schoolboy have some kind of relevance to education policy. That's why democracy is such a flawed system. You end up with lunatics who think that their opinion counts for something just because people voted for them. Gut feeling is not a good basis for law making. Ever.)

In performance, Steve sometimes changes the line to "some minister said" or even "Kim Howells said". He often states that Kim Howells' remark was the trigger for the song. He seem to want to tie the lyric to the 2003 licencing act very directly.

....and everyone stares at a great big screen
overpaid soccer stars, prancing teens
Australian soap, American rap
Estuary English baseball caps...

The Singer contrasts the vibrancy of live music (even if it is only three folk-singers) with the passivity of going to a pub in order to watch TV. He also contrasts a "bottom up" participatory approach to folk-music with the "top down" world of billionaire footballers and daytime TV stars, who are presented to us as godlike "celebrities". The professional folk-singer very likely started out as a busker or performing open mic nights; and people in the audience can think, without too much absurdity "Maybe I could learn to do that".

Since Pop Idol, it has been clear that anyone with reasonably androgynous good looks can be packaged and presented to the public as a "singer", regardless of talent. Even good looks aren't strictly necessary: a fat lady who could sing a mediocre karaoke version of a song from Les Miserables was briefly the most famous human being on the planet. (Nothing against Les Miserables. Nothing against fat ladies, come to that.)

Boy-bands are therefore a by-word for artificial, inauthentic music. In the rather maudlin song Hard Shoulder, Knightley recalls finding an old school friend he'd lost touch with performing in a pub. "But hearing you play all that boy-band cover trash / Now that's what really hurts me the most." It will be remembered that the full title of Chumbawamba's first folk album was "The Boy Bands Have Won, and All the Copyists and the Tribute Bands and the TV Talent Show Producers Have Won, If We Allow Our Culture to Be Shaped by Mimicry, Whether from Lack of Ideas or From Exaggerated Respect. You Should Never Try to Freeze Culture. What You Can Do Is Recycle That Culture. Take Your Older Brother's Hand-Me-Down Jacket and Re-Style It, Re-Fashion It to the Point Where It Becomes Your Own. But Don't Just Regurgitate Creative History, or Hold Art and Music and Literature as Fixed, Untouchable and Kept Under Glass. The People Who Try to 'Guard' Any Particular Form of Music Are, Like the Copyists and Manufactured Bands, Doing It the Worst Disservice, Because the Only Thing That You Can Do to Music That Will Damage It Is Not Change It, Not Make It Your Own. Because Then It Dies, Then It's Over, Then It's Done, and the Boy Bands Have Won."

I don't think this is entirely fair. I myself have recently come to a place where I value "authenticity" in art above almost any other quality. Not only in music. I will happily work my way through 2,000 pages of 1950s Superman comics printed on blotting paper, but can't quite be doing with the modern graffix novels, with its cinematic construction and decomposed story telling and newfangled good artwork. Jolly clever, of course, but no substitute for the real thing. I have even caught myself using "artless" as a term of approval. But there can be different forms of authenticity. I once had to write a review of a local reggae / hip hop band called "Laid Blak". (The reggae bit was the songs about every little ting turning out to be all right; the hip-hop bit was the performance poetry about teenage pregnancy in Totterdown, I believe.) It was clearly done very well indeed, and I rather enjoyed it, but it didn't speak to me because I'm not a sweary black teenager, and probably never will be. I'm not sure I should dismiss it as artificial because it happens not to be addressed to my condition. Even watching "your" football team play a game in the company of a large group of fellow supporters could be a life-affirming experience.

and we ought to be ashamed before we walk
of the way we look and the way we talk

Up to this point. The Singer hasn't strayed very far from his stated theme. It's been a song about folk singing, and he's in favour of it. However, in the last stanza the theme broadens out: the English who have decided that mindlessly watching Neighbours is more fun than singing songs become a sort of metaphor for a more general national impoverishment.

This is the only line in the song that I wouldn't be prepared to defend. I agree that the X-Factor and Neighbours are inauthentic; I agree that it's curious to go to a pub in order to watch television; but I don't feel particularly ashamed if young people adopt American fashions or American slang. They always have done. I'm not ashamed that white kids from Brizzle end sentences with "innit", any more than I'm ashamed that a previous generation ended every third sentence with the word "man", or that people used to describe things as fab, groovy, cool, wicked, safe, sound, mint or lush. Introducing American and Asian words into English doesn't destroy the purity of the language, any more than putting a funky beat behind "Keys of Canterbury" destroys the purity of the folk music.

UPDATE: Apparently, I've been hearing this line incorrectly all these years: what Steve sings is not "we ought to be ashamed" but "we're taught to be ashamed...". The printed lyric says "we learn to be ashamed". I understand that the have also killed the Earl of Moray and laid him on the green.

without our stories and our songs
how will we know where we came from?

I began by asking who the "I" was who speaks in the song is? Steve Knightley himself? A fictionalized version of him? An entirely imaginary singer?

This verse raises a much harder question "Without our stories or our songs how will we know where we came from." 

Who is "we"? And who is not "we"?

If "we" are yearning for the heather and the bagpipes, and wishing "we" hadn't been cleared off the highlands, then it's pretty clear that "we" excludes everyone living south of Dumfries. But -- it's and old question, and much more interesting than the one about West Lothian -- does "we" also include the young dark skinned man whose grandfather came over from Pakistan in 1950, who goes to Mosque on Fridays, and who makes his living selling deep fried Mars bars in a chip shop in Glasgow? (And who will certainly sound indistinguishable from light skinned people of the same age in the same area. When I first came to Bristol, I swear I caught myself thinking "Freaky! An Indian guy with a West Country accent! I thought Indian guys all had south London accents!" Assumptions are things you don't know you're making, innit?) Is he Scottish, or a British Asian who happens to live in Scotland? Is he part of the "we" that defeated proud Edward's army at Bannockburn? Can he pretend that he is if he happens to like Rugby Union? If not then should White British people living in Scotland suppress any nostalgic or romantic feelings they may entertain towards any great chieftains of pudding races that they may come across in their day-to-day lives, because of the non-inclusiveness of that pesky "we"?

I think that this question of nomenclature has troubled the song since line 12, and is never satisfactorily resolved. If the Indians, Asian and Africans and Celts who celebrate their own traditional culture are people who live in India, Asia, Africa and Celtland as opposed to the people who live in England, then all well and good. If they are British Indians, British Asian, and British Africans as opposed to White British, then also all well and good: only the person most determined to take offence could take exception to "some of Britain's minority cultures sing better than the majority culture". The difficulty is that "Indians, Asians, Afro, Celts" are contrasted throughout the song with "the English" and "the English" are referred to as "we". This opens the Singer up to the accusation that he thinks that Indians and Asians living in England are not "English": that, indeed, English has been conflated with White People.

Actually, I could live with this: I'd be very happy to say that the black kids in St Pauls who fly Jamaican flags once a year are "Black British" or "Jamaican British"; the people north of the border who put salt on their cabers are "Scottish British" or "Celtic British" and I am "English British". But it's a tendentious terminology that shouldn't be allowed to slip under the radar without examination.

Some minister said that he doesn't mind Muslims living in this country, provided they think of themselves as British first and Muslim second. I immediately felt jerking sensations in my knee: "Well I regard myself as Christian first and British second..." And then, on slightly less pious reflection: "I actually regard myself as human first, Christian second, Doctor Who fan third, Wagnerian fourth, folkie fifth, Marvel comics fan sixth, half-Cornish on my father's side seventh (**), adopted Bristolian eighth, European ninth, English tenth and British eleventh."

I was brought up, implicitly, to think that I didn't have a national or regional identity. Middle-class English was just English, which poor people and yokels got told off for pronouncing incorrectly. English food was just food, to which crazy foreigners sometimes added garlic or spice. Foreign children had something called "national dress"; we just had "clothes". I was also brought up, pretty explicitly, to think that I didn't have a religion: the English Church was simply a baseline of acknowledging a deity and doing what was right, without all those annoying holy books, coming of age rites and extra days off that Jewish children insisted on adding. (Muslims had not yet been invented.) Culture is what Johnny Foreigner has: we don't need one.

I was about to type that Nick Griffin and David Cameron and Jack Straw and David Blunkett have succeeded in making nationality a toxic subject: so that if I say "I would quite like to have a nationality, if only to find out what it feels like" you will hear "I am going to march into Native villages, tear down their shrines and force them to wear clothes, go to church, watch Doctor Who and paint their maps pink."

Why pink, by the way?

But that would sound altogether too similar to the paranoid fantasy about "political correctness". "You aren't allowed to fly the Union Jack in case it offends queers. They've banned Christmas, you know." And that isn't what I mean at all. What I mean is really much weaker and less interesting. We've allowed nationality to become an embarrassment. Countries are like bottoms. Everyone's got one, but we don't like to talk about them in public. I am really, really, reluctant to type "I like the stories of King Arthur and Robin Hood (and Doctor Who, and Eric & Ernie, and Middle-earth -- especially Middle-earth) because I feel a kind of ownership in them: a kind of ownership I obviously can't feel about Woody Guthrie or the Ring Cycle." Not because people will think I'm a B.N.P supporter, but because they will think I'm a sentimental twat. They'll probably start whistling "There'll Always Be An England", ironically. 

I lost St George in the Union Jack
It's my flag too, and I want it back

The Singer wants the St George Cross back from the Conservative Party, who have declared that England, and Britain and the Monarchy are their personal property. And from the fascist Daily Mail and the hooligan white van soccer supporters. But also, I think, he wants the St George Cross back from the Union Jack: he feels that the country of England has been lost in the corporate branding of Britain.

I find this idea very attractive. I think that "Britain" means, at best, an admirably dull political system, constitutional monarchy, a flag representing a corporate merger, and the dullest national anthem ever devised by man. Nor woman niether. On important matters, we're all equally voters and citizens and consumers: there is no Muslim "they" to steal the Christian Christmas from the British "us". But if you are allowed your haggis and your leaks and your red stripe larger and your shamrocks is there really any harm in me having my fish and chips and my warm beer and my hey nonny no?

Seed, bud, flower, fruit: never going to grow without their roots
Branch, stem, shoot: they need roots

Football, I am told, is like marriage: you have to cleve only to one team, forsaking all others. You have to pretend that Bristol Rovers are always and in all respects better than Bristol City. In extreme cases, you might be expected to try to physically maim City fans.

I don't think that poems and songs and books are like that. I think that you make a contract to believe in a particular story-world while the singer is creating it, but that you are fully empowered to put it away an inhabit a different world when the next singer, or the next song, begins. I believe in Steve Knightley's angry, radicalized England while I'm in it; but I also believe in Martin Carthy's gentle old England and Bellowhead's radical subversion of it. In the right mood, I can lustily join in with both Land of Hope and Glory and Imagine. I find
Mr Chris Wood's Come Down Jehovah deeply moving, although I don't agree with it (or at least, I don't think it means what he thinks it means). 

But "agreeing" with a song seems like a category mistake, like trying to determine if the jelly in the trifle logically entails the choclate sprinklies. 

I also reject the theory that there are only two kinds of art: the perfect and the evil. People embark on Moby Dick expecting it to be a perfect book: when they discover it has ideological flaws (it's about KILLING WHALES for godsakes) or even artistic ones (it sometimes wanders off the main point, a bit like this essay) they thrust their harpoon through the chink in its ideological armour, and never look at it again. If I ever interview Steve Knightley, I may well say "So, what about your definition of English, then?"; but that won't stop me joining in with "haul away!" bit at Glastonbury next month; but then. (I also intend to sing along loudly to Remember Your a Womble.) By all means place Roots alongside, say Dick Guaghan's No Gods and Precious Few Heroes and note that one singer offers a definition of personal identity rooted in a collective past; while the other snarls that we should dump that past altogether -- that it's precisely our stories and our songs which are holding us back:

I ask you, will we never hear the last
Of Prince bloody Charlie at Coludden field again?
Though he ran like a rabbit through the glen
Leaving better folk than him to be slaughtered
Are you sitting in your council house, dreaming of your clan?
Waiting for the Jacobites to come and free the land?
Try going down the dole with your claymore in your hand
And count all the princes in the queue...

And by all means chuck John Lennon into the mix as well

Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too

I can romantically and sentimentally enter into all three world views (Lennon's nihilism takes a bigger leap of faith, I must admit). Songs are funny place to look for final truths.  

Haul away boys, let them go; out in the wind and the rain and show
We've lost more than we'll ever know round the rocky shores of England

It may very well be that our roots don't go quite as deeply as we think that they do: that the songs we fondly believe are "traditional" are actually fairly new. Is there really an English tradition which has been thrown overboard? Or is that a nostalgic fancy? And if The Tradition is only a story, is there any good reason why it shouldn't be one of the stories we choose to tell ourselves about ourselves, like the one about the knight who killed the old lady's spotted pig, which very likely isn't true either? 

John Lennon said "imagine there are no countries": that's realtively easy. The difficult thing is imagining that there are. That's why William Blake's poem works so will as an English national anthem: it takes it for granted that England is an imaginary place, and then wonder if we might not make it real. (I'm going to live as much like an Englishman as I can, even if there isn't really any England.)

"Only back United if / It's where your from, or where you live" says Steve Knightley in a different song. That makes some sense to me. I feel some sort of special affection for Bristol (particularly Stokes Croft) because it's where I live; I'm free to arbitrarily decide that Cornwall is where I'm "from" because that's where my father grew up, even though quite clearly I'm actually "from" London. 

One last thing is worth mentioning. I have liked the song "Roots" ever since Mick and Lester played it on their St George's Day special (along with King of Rome and Place Called England and a Morris-y thing about St George by someone like Ashley Hutchings) when I was first getting into folk music. The strangeness of the melody; the fact that it's three different songs; the fact that the second chorus is being sung communally; the romantic idea of a past that's been chucked away; the sense of fury and committment in the singer's voice, the absolute contrast to politician and other professional decievers who use language only to obscure their true meaning. I can't get behind an idea of Britian based on the Queen and the Conservative Party, or on Fair Play and Being a Good Drone or whatever it was that Gordon Brown thought we were about; I can't get behind an idea of England based on kicking balls into nets or putting three sticks in the ground and defending them with a fourth; but I could, I thought, feel comfortable with this idea of an England based on gentlemen offering ladies the keys of Cantebury and men hunting bonny black hares (fnarr, fnarr) on the fourteenth of May. But I don't really think that any of it actually matters very much.

An Ambivalently Patriotic Play List

[*] Maybe the person who says "When I consider how my light is spent..." is John Milton; maybe the person who exclaims "Bright star would I were steadfast as thou art..." is John Keats. Maybe they are imaginary people that the respective poets have invented. Maybe they are imaginary people who happen to be a lot like the authors who invented them. The titles "On His Blindness" and "His Last Sonnet" (it wasn't) were invented after the fact by English teachers who didn't really like poetry and thought that good writing had to be Factually Accurate.

[**] Whatever the hell "Cornish" means. Daddy could point out RIlstone gravestones in Perranporth parish church going back several hundred years, but the family name presumably has something to do with Rylestone in Yorkshire, now famous for middle aged ladies taking their clothes off on calendars. So presumably, at some point in sixteen or seventeen hundred some Yorkshire people must have upped and moved West and there is no more Celtic blood in me than in Barack Obama. It's remains true that my granny made saffron buns and pasties and called people "my handsome" and that "Cousin Jack" is a wonderful song.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Bristol Folk Festival (5)


I have done a bad thing.

Last night I drunked beer, and this morning I woke up feeling distinctly woozy, and found that I had nothing in the fridge for breakfast. What a shame there isn't some kind of, I don't know, supermarket at the bottom of my road. (OH! YOU CAD! YOU BOUNDER!) So I walked in via Cabots Circus and taken breakfast in, er, McDonalds. Not a very traditional way to greet the first day of May.

Apparently some of the Morris sides really did get up before the break of day-oh to great the May-oh at 4AM on the patch of grass behind the shopping mall-oh. (Fay Hield tells us later that the Newcastle's version involves washing you face in the May-dew, or, since the park in question is much frequented by pet-owners, the May-poo.) My enthusiasm doesn't extend quite that far, but when I get to Colston Hall, the seating has been removed from the main auditorium, and various groups are hey-nonny-no-ing away.

Some ladies are doing rapper dancing in doc martin boots, with a caller in a top hat. Another all-female group are doing something possibly connected to a May Pole dance, holding long flowery sticks in the air and making arches; followed by one of those ones where they bash sticks together. There is tiny girl of about eight, who seems to be as good a stick-basher as any of the others. A male group leaps around and waves hankies in the air.  "Before we go, can I draw your attention to this spot" says the old-timer who leads the group, pointing to one of the places from which seating has been removed. "That's where I was sitting when Bob Dylan played the Colston Hall in 1966."

Yeah. There can be nu-folk and folk-rock and punk-folk and people I wouldn't swear were folksingers at all but I deeply respect and approve the way the festival has tried to establish links with the old, the traditional, and, indeed, the silly.

Dyer Cummings, who I have never heard of, were a nice bouncy dancy band, who played a lot of infectious tunes with the usual fiddle-accordion-guitar combo, but topped out the set by leading the audience with an akapella John Ball (the aforementioned Sydney Carter carol about the preacher who was killed for supporting the Peasants Revolt). "Are all Protestant hymns like that?" asked Clarrie.

Only caught a little bit of today's Open Mic but I was glad I did. Tony O'Hare is a guitarist who haunts local folk clubs. He sang a silly ballad about the brouhaha that blew up a year or so back when a wartime bomb was discovered in the river (it turned out to be a supermarket trolley, of course). And a song about busking all day and earning "six quid and a banana". And splendid piece about MPs expenses, with increasingly preposterous Dylanesque rhymes for "sleaze". (The joke was compounded because the song used the harmonica riff from Lilly, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts, and I would totally have noticed that if Clarrie hadn't pointed it out.) He wasn't the best writer, singer or guitarist of the weekend. But he came the closest to embodying my idea of what a "folk-singer" ought to be like: a guy ploughing his furrow in the bar, playing to anyone who'll listen and trying to make them laugh. (He was also clearly a believer in Tom Lehrer's maxim that singing 50 verses is twice as enjoyable as singing 25). And he was the person during the weekend who most strongly made me think: "I want to learn to do that."

And thence to the main hall for the sellider (pronounced "barn dance) led by, get this Spiers and Boden. (That's like saying that you've waltzed to Yehudi Menuhin, isn't it?) There is in existence photographic evidence of me on my feet, wondering what a willow is and why one might want to split one, whether I am couple one or couple two, and precisely which is my left and which is my right. I may have initiated a couple of collisions. Tim, I hear, caused a major pile up. Clarrie claims to have taken a superb picture of Tim and I, but found no evidence of it on her camera when she got home, and has therefore supplied the above line drawing. Jon Boden sang the one about the spotty pig, but mostly, the two Jo(h)ns just played perfectly bounced tunes, with ebbing and flowing rhythms that you can't help dancing to. Well, or badly, as the case may be.

The Fay Hield Trio I almost overlooked, owing the fact that the programme decided helpfully to tell me which other artists her record label published, rather than the salient fact the other two members of the trio were Robert Harbron (as in "Kerr, Fagan and") and Sam Sweeny. That is to say: one of the best squeeze box men in the business and one of the best fiddlers in business. "Sam is in another group called...." explained Fay. "Bellowhead!" shouted the audience. "Kerfuffle!" I suggested. Actually, the trio could usefully have been billed as "a bit like Kerfuffle", in that you had virtuoso fiddling and melodian-ary behind exquisite female vocals, doing traddy material like King Henry and nearly traddy stuff like Oak, Ash and Thorn. (Mr Kiplings Poem, set to music by Peter Bellamy, who may have been mentioned before and may indeed be mentioned again.) Fay Hield is Jon Boden's partner. The last day of the festival was, as you might expect, Bellowhead-centric.

The small hall was a very nice space when it was half empty: you could sit on the floor or lean against walls -- but when there was nothing going on in the main hall, it got awfully crowded and became "standing room only". Balshazzar's Feast perform seated, so I only got a glimpse of the tops of their heads. This was a little frustrating, as it meant that one could hear frequent ripples of laughter from the front three rows who were (I assume) the only people who could see what were (I assume) hilarious on-stage antics. So I can 't say whether I would have found them terribly funny or (as I suspect) terribly irritating. I will certainly try to hear them again and see them for the first time at some point.

This was really the only logistical issue over the whole weekend. People formed neat, British queues without any rioting at all outside the main hall before the headline acts, but actually I think this was hardly necessary. For Bellowhead on Sunday night, frixample, everyone in the standing area mosh pit could see perfectly, and anyone who wanted to be there could be.

(Question: Why does Belshazzar's Feast use an image of two heads on platters on their album cover? Surely that was Herod? Belshazzar's was the fellow with the writing on the wall?)

Sheelanagig, preceded Bellowhead on the main stage. I could take them or leave them. They were clearly very good. I think it was slightly ill-judge to precede Bellowhead with a rhythmn based klezmer (didn't look it up, taking a shot in the dark) party band. However good they were (and Clarrie observed a small child, just in front of our party, who seemed likely to explode with excitement) they weren't going to be as good as Bellowhead. I suppose having gone to the trouble of clearing out all the chairs, it made sense to have another band people could dance to to. I'd maybe have preferred a total contrast. This was the only point where I felt I was watching a support act and waiting for the main group to come on.

Bellowhead are fantastic. Bellowhead are always fantastic. It is their job to be fantastic. There is plenty of space in the main hall, so people can stand if they want to. They can jump in the air to Frogs Legs and Dragons Teeth. They can indicate with their fingers whether Jack is up to the rigs or down to the jigs of London town. They can shake their heads in time with the Slo Gin set. There are rumours, in fact, that Bristol's Only Celebrity Folk Blogger (TM) may have attempted to few faltering polka steps with Bristol Leading Citizen Folk Journalist (TM) during Oh You New York Girls, Can You Dance The? Jon Boden eschews witty banter, and simply sings. When I first heard it in the Old Vic last year, I had my doubts about Port of Amsterdam, but I now think it's the best thing he does. A signature song. He seems to be in melancholic agony every time he sings it. He sings about the girl who will only marry the lord if he can answer six questions ("and that is three times two") as if no such song as ever been sung before, seeming to scratch his head and think for a moment before realizing that the cock was the first bird that did crow and the dew did first downfall. There is just the faintest trace of surprise in his face when he tells us that the finest month in all the year is the merry, merry month of May, as if he has only just noticed that he's singing the song on May Day. I still think that there are moments when the performance blots out the song: The Two Magicians ("wizard copulation") is too good a story to get lost amongst the ska style brass (I looked it up) -- and we only get to sing bide lady bide (there's nowhere you can hide a couple of times. But the Broomfield Wood utterly remains a folk song. You can hear the pique in the horse's voice when he's blamed for not waking up the sleeping lord. And Jon chews up the furniture for Cholera Camp, as always. ("Theeee chaplain's got a banjo....!") (Cholera Camp, Pilgrim's Way, Oak, Ash and Thorn: we have rather been followed around by Mr Bellamy's interpretations of Mr Kipling this weekend. You can't listen to Folk Song a Day and not realise what high regard Boden holds Peter Bellamy in.) The stage sprays the audience with confetti during the final number. With their songs about lusty blacksmiths seducing shape shifting wizards, and knights falling into magical sleeps in broomfield woods, and jolly sailors being ripped off by jolly prostitutes, and jolly prostitutes being ripped off by jolly sailors, and happy beggars, Bellowhead are, in their highly idiosyncratic way, painting a picture of yet another England. It is not clear with their piratical stylings are intended to impart a john barleycornish new life to Merrie Englande, or if they are actually taking the piss out of the whole thing. Probably both at once.

The bar stays open after the show finishes. It hasn't run out of beer. (When I first saw the revamped Colston Hall, I thought "Why have they attached an airport lounge to the theater." It has grown on me. How many theaters are there where you can get a drink after the show?) Someone starts playing the fiddle. Half-a-dozen ladies in civvies get out their rappas and start dancing; another lady, starts calling out the moves, just like she was doing, in her top hat, on the floor of Colston Hall this morning. The bar-staff turn off the lights as if they want us to leave, and then possibly think better of it and turn them on again. The rappa-ing finished, a guy and a girl start unselfconsciously doing leap-in-the-air scottish country dance steps. Someone produces an accordion to accompany them: it turns out to be Jim Moray. (Twenty minutes earlier, he'd been up on the main stage, giving Bellowhead the Froots prize for Best Album of 2010 in his capacity as winner of the best album of 2009. Hedonism was, incidentally, no way the best album of 2010. I think he regularly plays the squeeze box for Nonesuch Morris.)

In the end, Bellowhead is a party: a party going on on stage, to which the audience is invited. They aren't what this music is about. It's about ballads that make you think and make you cry and make you cross. It's about someone being up on stage one minute, and playing in the bar to an audience of none the next, presumably because he likes it. It's about amateurs who care about which work-song was sung on which ship when and strumming away to silly ballads about something they read in the newspapers.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Bristol Folk Festival (4)

Saturday Evening

The regular reader of this column (I know where he lives) may remember that Clarrie and I have a long standing friendly disagreement about Steve Knightley and Phil Beer.

I say "I am going to a Show of Hands concert", and she says "Don't you mean 'rally'?". I say "I'm going to another Show of Hands concert" and she says "Don't forget your jackboots". I say "I'm going to hear Phil Beer doing a solo gig" and she says or "I expect soon they'll let you join the Party."

This is because they once wrote an ambivalently patriotic song called "Roots" to which we may possibly be returning before too long. We tried to explain this friendly disagreement to a young person in a Watchmen tee shirt in the queue. (We decided it was prudent to form a queue before the headline acts started to be sure of a good position. I think that the main hall was big enough to hold everyone who was at the festival.)

"My friend sometimes calls me a fascist because I like Show of Hands"I remarked.

"You what?" he explained, in a tone of face which suggested "I hope they have found a cure for being crazy when I am a terrible old person of nearly 35."

I have myself in the past sometimes expressed an ambivalence about the group. While I thought that Steve's solo gig at the QEH earlier in the year was splendid, and very much enjoyed Phil fiddling in the Cabot's Circus jazz club the other week, I had to admit that I just didn't think their Cathedral gig was terribly good, and felt myself manipulated, albeit possibly in a good way, by their Colston Hall gig last year.

So I should probably come straight out and say it: this evening was simply the best live gig I've ever seen, by anyone, ever.

Steve comes on stage at 7.30 to introduce Fisherman's Friends. He (Steve) had apparently been asked to put the evening's programme together, and he's treating it as a sort of "Show of Hands revue" He is, after all, the Greatest Living Devonian: they are genuine Cornish fishermen who hit the big-time when they were given a multi-million dollar deal with Universal Music, and a dozen other folk bands all said "Hey! That was meant to be us!"

It's an unusual act by anyone's standards. Ten older men line up on the stage and bellow out shanties and other nautical themed songs, mostly unaccompanied, a few to a single accordion or guitar. There isn't much in the way of sophisticated harmony; and there doesn't seem to be a great deal of interest in the purity of the Tradition. This is, when it comes down to it, eight guys singing "What shall we do with the drunken sailor?" and "Sloop John B" and "Dance to your daddy, my little laddy." (I remember hearing Bob Fox singing a pure, full on geordie version of the song in a pub last year, full of history and his love for his new granddaughter. It almost broke my heart. This was just a catchy tune.) But the sense of fun, and boisterousness and catchiness and lets be honest the sheer volume of the group just carries you along with it. I enjoyed "I thought I heard the captain say / Come lay your money down" and "Bound for south Australia" and "A sailors not a sailor not a sailor any more". It's a mark of how mainstream and commercial they are that they didn't sing the Whale Catchers or Come All Ye Trawler Men (authentic songs about whalers) but did sing the decidedly modern and non-traditional Last Leviathan (about how the last whale has been killed by the horrid fishermen). But they sang it awfully well. And they have a nice line in banter. "I had a sore throat this morning. The doctor told me to such a fishermen's friend.'m not going to say it. Those sorts of joke leave a nasty taste in your mouth." (Apparently, the reason they have to be referred to as Port Isaac's Fishermen's Friends is to avoid infringing the cough sweets trademark.)

"Do you like Irish music?" says Cathy Jordan, front man Dervish, in her very broad Limerick accent. "Oh...that's grand, because that's really all we do." Initially I wondered about her diction (I like lyrics, as you know, and was having a problem making them out); but of course she was singing mostly in Gaelic, making strange dance movements, almost seeming to weave a story in the air with her hands. She sings and plays bodhran and sometimes gets out a penny whistle: there's also fiddles, mandolins, accordions and guitars, all contributing to what is technically know as the diddly-diddly-dee style of music. There's an English language ballad about a girl jilting her husband at the alter because she has a man who has more money, more houses, and a better donkey. (It's dedicated to Kate Middleton.) And there's a remarkable re-reading of Bob's Boots of Spanish Leather. If I had a penny for every time I'd heard that song, I'd have £2.53, and I'd never before noticed that there is nothing whatsoever to indicate which side of the dialogue is male and which side is female. When Bob sings it, I'd always thought it was about a girl leaving a boy. Cathy makes it quite clear that it's the girl whose demanding some nice footwear as a consolation prize.

And then, then, then on comes Show of Hands.

Up to this point, you would hardly have know you were in Bristol, or that Bristol had been front page news, all round the world, for all the wrong reasons. "Some of my songs go out of date" says Steve "And some don't". And he launches straight into a song, entirely new to me, called "Is there anything left in England...that's not for sale." It's about going back to his old school and finding the playing fields have been sold and built on. And about politicians taking bribes. And about high streets being taken over. "By Tescos?" he asks. And then straight into Santiago (Chilean exiles returning home), which is usually kept back for the end of the show, and then straight into Phil's fiddle led cover of Springsteen's Jamestown (steel town dies when the industry closes down) and then -- of course -- Country Life (supermarkets selling cheap food and destroying the rural way of life.) 

I wouldn't necessarily say this was a "political" set or that it was "about" the police invasion of Stokes Croft. Steve is always political, that's why (joking apart) people can get annoyed by his lyrics. And he believes that songs -- and I take it, folk songs especially -- can acquire new resonances when they are sung in new contexts. As he always says: he wrote Santiago about Chilean exiles returning home after the fall of Pinochet, but the references to miners, and people emerging from darkness, has linked it irrevocably with the Copiapo disaster. He has a vision of England, just as surely as Guthrie or Dylan had their visions of America. And tonight that vision -- that imaginary England, if you like -- caught, or expressed, the mood of the audience. Of me, anyway. He does all the angry, crowd-pleasing songs. "The coffin of our English dream / Lies out on the village green / While agri-barons CAP in hand / Strip this green and pleasant land"  "Toxic springs you tapped and sold / Poisoned every watering hole / Your probity, you exchanged for gold" Even the lighter songs have an angry edge to them tonight. "Stop Copying Me" is about silly children who think it's funny to repeat the last thing you said. Silly children who think its funny to repeat the last thing you said. But it also becomes a rant about people who computers have put an end to real communication. "You know I've got no space to hang around on Facebook or give my front page another tweak / With mindless wittering, another twat Twittering, when I communicate I SPEAK."

He started to wind up a relatively short set with "Now you're gone / Will you come back to me" a fairly straight and uncharacteristically sunny love song about begging a departed girlfriend to come home.

But Steve doesn't do "encores". Steve prepares a show. A set which had consisted entirely of showstoppers was but the hors d'oeuvre. He brought Fishermans Friends back onto the stage, to join them in Show of Hands answer to a sea-shanty. ("Now give to me a cornishman to eat a tasty pasty / And if inside it's most cold beef he'll never thing nasty"). And then, in what was clearly going to the climax to the entire weekend, the Greatest Living Devonian lead the Worlds Richest Cornishmen and the entire audience in his (yes, heavily romanticized) song of the Cornish Diaspora. Dammit, if the irish and scottish and yorkshire and geordies can get all maudlin from time to time, then I see no reason why the rest of us shouldn't.

The soil was to poor to make Eden,
Granite and sea left no choice
Though visions of heaven sustained us,
When John Wesley gave us a voice...

if we are gong to treat songs as arguments rather than artefact's then I admit I could do without the line in which the 19th century Cornish emigrant howls in horror about a future where the English will live in "our" houses and the Spanish will fish in "our" seas. But this a poem and a performance and Steve is playing the audience like Phil is playing his fiddle. I don't think I've ever been so caught up by a live performane, not even at the opera. I was sobbing by the end of it.

And then. Then. And you have to admire the audacity of the man, the sheer barefaced cheek, he says: "How can we follow that? Well, actually, we can...." And, of course, he does. He brings Dervish back onto the stage, and does a full dress performance of his cod-Irish ballad of the farmer who bets all his money on a horse that he's dreamt will win the big race. ("Lady Luck had come half-way/The horse's name was "Galway Bay"./20-1 the odds that day./I went to make my wager."). Cathy contributes to the vocals: the whole band backs up the climax with a massive, full-on minute of diddly-dee with the audience clapping along to signify the final lap of the big race.... (ten to go, and from the track the hooves were drumming thunder.) I said before that his unaccompanied version at QEH was "as nature intended" but this is as good as the song, or any song, could ever be. I can only hope someone was recording. I have no words. I have no words.

I've said it before, but whatever else he does, Steve Knightley is a folksinger to his core. He wound up the evening by lining up Dervish and Fishermen's Friends on the stage and singing the farewell shanty ("haul away your anchor / tis our sailing time.) Straight. Unaccompanied.

No Roots.

And then everyone piled back into the Fred Wedlock room where Jims Moray and Causley were still engaged in their "silent disco" (where you listen on headphones and choose which DJ you want to listen to). (Jim Causley seems to have done a set of his own, unless he was one of the surprise guests in the programme and I missed him.) Steve and Phil and the friendly fishermen came into the disco as well. The DJs stopped to sing "happy birthday" to Steve. Steve danced with his wife, even when Jim Moray put on "remember you're a womble".

And please note. Here is a man who has just done an awesome and presumably exhausting set, who then walks out into the body of the theatre, and who is not mobbed by fans and autograph hunters, but politely approached, one at a time, by people wanting to shake his hand or offer him a CD to sign.

Why, I may have asked before does, anyone ever listen to any other kind of music?

"Show of Hands are a very good live act" said Clairre.


Bristol Folk Festival (3)

Saturday Afternoon

Arrived about 12. Clarrie and Tim inform me that I have missed the first spontaneous full on standing ovation of the weekend, for Wildflowers, a trio consisting of three children around the age of thirteen (two fiddles and a guitar). They do a spontaneous set in the bar later in the evening, and they do indeed seem to be astonishing.

I start the day in the upstairs bar where the always reliable Hodmadoddery are applying their inventive guitar stylings to John Barleycorn -- and what better way is there of feeling that it is really spring and you are really at a folkfest then by listening to two men with guitars singing John Barleycorn in a bar? This is followed by an open night. The standard is extremely high, as you'd expect. She has a beautiful voice, but isn't at all confident on the the guitar (says me, who can't play a note). A young girl named Catherine Holt, accompanied by her father on the guitar, looks fantastically nervous, and then delivers a flawless, and quite emotive cover of the Soldier and the Princess.
Tim and Clarrie went off to see the Mummers Play about the life of Brunel. (If you don't know what a Mummers play is, it's part way between Morris Dancing and a pantomime. If you don't know who Brunel was, then, all you need to know is that he came from Bristol. They said it was great.) I stayed in the bar to hear a band called the Bristol Shantymen, because they come from Bristol and sing sea shanties. They were stunning. Not because they sang great tunes, were a decent choir, and had one man with a rather weak voice but who was brilliant at doing the funny lines and the silly long-drawn out yodels, but because they really, really, really, really, cared about the history of sea shanties. They could tell you about particular old sailors who used to sing these songs in pubs in the 60s. They cared about which songs were specific to Bristol and which came from elsewhere. They sang a shanty with the "call" lines in French but the "response" lines in English, because that's how French sailors sung it. They loved their material. It oozed authenticity and love for tradition. This is the kind of thing I'm here for.

Had to take a bet on whether I'd be more likely to enjoy Mabon ("interceltic funk folk") or Pilgrim's Way ("gimmick free folk at it's finest) in the smaller Fred Wedlock stage (named after Bristol's oldest swinger in town.) Naturally went for Pilgrim's Way. They ran though some very adequate versions of traditional songs (Weaver and the Factory Made, Tarry Trousers) before utterly blowing us all away with the songs which gave the band its name. They called it "a great humanist song" but I must admit that during the compulsory "all join in" bit, I sang "The people Lord, thy people are good enough to me" (as opposed to "the people, oh the people"). Because that's what Kipling wrote. What a great poem! It deserves to be far better known than the horrible "If..." And what a stonking tune Peter Bellamy made up for it. I have occasionally thought that a couplet from might stand very well at the top of this very blog:

And when they bore me over-much, I shall not shake my ear
Recalling many thousand such whom I have bored to tears
And if they labour to impress, I shall not laugh or scoff
Since I myself have done no less and sometimes pulled it off

Phil King has a big local following. Lots of people clapped him. I could really take him or leave him. He can play his guitar, no doubt about that, but his voice doesn't excite me, and his songs seem.... Artificial. Inauthentic. It reminds me of that review of Virginia Woolf, where the reviewer wanted to shout "No, she didn't!" after every line of the novel. Apparently, when the singer was stung by a scorpion, it reminded him that Orion, the only constellation he can recognise, died from scorpion wound, and that he feels as if that hunter has somehow watched over him through his life. "No, he doesn't!"

Other people seemed to like him a lot.

Caught the very end of Elfynn in the main hall. They appeared to be rather good.

Bristol Folk Festival (2)

Friday Afternoon and Evening

Officially, the Bristol Folk Festival started at noon on Friday, although there was no scheduled music until three. Until then you could hang around and buy kaftans and hammered dulcimers and having your feet nibbled by fish, though. There were two men dressed as Wallace and Grommit outside the theatre. Whatever anyone else may say Wallace and Grommit are from Bristol. And Banksy. And Blackbeard. And Cary Grant. There was also the biggest collection of Morris Dancers ever assembled in captivity. One of the best things about the festival was hearing the tinkling of tiny bells and noticing that the person behind you in the queue at the bar was in full Morris regalia.

Oh, what foreigners must think of us, and how little we care!

However, I think the festival really began at 8.15PM, when Three Daft Monkeys, (a sort of sub-Bellowhead gypsy influenced dance band) performed a song about the legend of the Strasburg dancing-plague -- when lots of people supposedly developed a mental illness which meant that they heard music in their heads and couldn't stopped dancing to it. "They danced, they danced, they danced, they danced..." went the refrain. "Can you guess what they did then?" asked vocalist Tim Ashton? "They danced...they danced...they danced". Now, this isn't precisely my kind of thing. I'm more in my comfort zone when it's a guy with a guitar telling me he wants to share a very old story, about a lady, probably one sitting in a tower, very probably sewing a silken seam. Never mind. Everyone was seated, in a very English decorum Westminster Abbey kind of way. We worked out that the closest we could get to dancing...and dancing...and dancing...was swaying...and swaying...and time with the music. We swayed. A couple in the front row got up and bopped vaguely. And then two people started dancing. It was perhaps more a tango than a waltz. Didn't matter. We were at a folk festival. And the folk were dancing. Dancing in the aisles....

Actually, I'd already had two personal highlights by that point. The first group on the main stage were Sean "Seth's Brother" Lakeman and Kathryn Roberts. Initially, I thought they were going to be a bit shouty and electric for my taste. But two numbers in, Kathryn announced that she was going to sing her favourite song "which I learned from the singing of June Tabor." (And there is no better place the world to learn you favourite song.) This was a lovely deep expressive cover of a Pete Bond's Joe Peel, the beautiful terrible ballad in praise of an ordinary life. "You'd never have believed it you'd known / How many people mourned your going / And how lucky folks still feel / To say they knew Joe Peel". Broke my heart all over again. Really. She also did her own, rather brilliant modern song in the persona of a coal-miner, explaining to his wife why its his duty to join the strike, even though their livlihood is going to fall apart.

I was indifferent to Phoenix River Band – local sub-American electrical country rock, although I did enjoy the mock dust bowl ballad about praying to God for rain.

But next up (we didn't stir from the main hall for much of Friday) was Jim Moray, one of my utter favourite performers. Rather surprised he wasn't a bigger draw, actually, although it was early in the festival and he was up against the reasonably large name Bella Hardy in the other hall.

To be honest, I am indifferent to some of his electrical jiggery pokery. He had an apple mac on the stage ("just need to check my e-mail") and was doing clever things like sampling his voice on the spot, so that he ended up singing multi-part harmonies with himself. All jolly clever, but I don't think his voice needs that kind of enhancement. (Not that the electrical stuff and weird traddy/ hip-hop mashups on the Low Culture album aren't brilliant, or course.) He's at his best sitting at the piano singing the cod-traditional Poverty Knock -- often done as light Morris style sing a long, (Poverty poverty knock / My loom it is singing all day-oh / Poverty poverty knock / The gaffers too stingy to pay-oh) but here a mournful lament to a life wasted in the factory; or standing with the guitar to draw out the melody of the Rufford Park Poachers or yet another version of the Cruel Sister. ("Here's a song about beating your sister to death with a stick and throwing her body in the river".) I find his voice impossible to describe: I keep resorting to words like "choirboy" "innocent" "cheeky" "ethereal" -- the album covers with him as a kind of nature spirit somehow seem appropriate. There's a perpetual catch in his voice, as if the story of Lord Bateman's love for the King of Turkey's daughter or the three poachers murder trial is bubbling up from inside him, or as if it's so sad he can hardly bare to sing it. He really is something extremely special and unusual. And he clearly loves the traditional song book enough to muck around with it.

I can't remember one thing about Ruarri Joseph, so I assume I didn't like him very much.

The headline act, Seth Lakeman, I hadn't ever heard him before. He's the patron of the festival, and very popular. I'm afraid he was the one low point of the weekend for me. I just didn't quite see the point of him. Certainly, he's a mean fiddle player, and the climax of his main set, doing that faster-and-faster -and-faster blazing fiddles thing, was quite exciting. Intellectually, I understand what this kind of music is meant to be doing: my heart is supposed to beat in time with the rhythm (horror movie makers try the same trick, I am told) and this is supposed to make me so excited that I want to dance to it. All as theoretical as some of that young people's electrical drum and guitar music I've occasionally heard. (Nick made me listen to someone called The Wedding Present last year. Very interesting they were, but I kept thinking "I wish he'd send this nasty band away and let me listen to the obviously quite clever lyrics.") Of anthropological interest only: the main lyrics were clarly based on traditional folksongs, but it was so overwhelmed by rhythm that he could have been singing anything at all. Do folkies like this kind of thing, or is he "the folk musician for people who don't really like folk music?" I quite like the Pogues and seem to remember enjoying Gogol Bordello a year or three back, so clearly electric noise and folk can be brought together in ways I like. He went down very well with the rest of the audience.

Bristol Folk Festival (1)

Friday - Morning

I walked out on a bright may morning, like a hero in a song
Looking for a place called England, trying to find where I belong...

It's the banality which gets to me. The father of the bride is "proud". The couple are "happy". The dress is "white, with lace". Some of the crowd has "waited for days to catch a glimpse of the happy couple". Someone had the good sense not to let Rowan Williams, Arch druid and Incredible String Band fan, into the pulpit. He would have said something incredibly incredibly inappropriate and controversial, although it would actually have made much difference, because no-one would have understood it. The curate who stood in for him gave the sort of sermon you could have heard in any parish church in the country: apparently, it's not just about being in love but also about the serious business of learning to live together. When the groom's Mum got married, there was a song by a proper popular opera singer. When she died, there was a song by a pop singer I'd actually heard of. This was all fourth rate classical music, with Perry promoted to the rank of "England's best loved composer" on the say-so of Dimbleby-lite. I, along with everyone else, I get, was astonished to learn that he (Perry, that is, not Dimbleby-lite) wrote anything apart from Jerusalem, and wouldn't Billy Blake have laughed to have heard his great revolutionary and mystical poem described as "a great patriotic hymn".

All said and done, I would still rather be a cynical monarchist than an enthusiastic republican. I like the way we all get together ever ten year or so to play dress-up and pretend that we're a fairy tale kingdom with palaces and glass coaches and princesses. This is, I think, a big part of the story that we've been telling ourselves about ourselves for the last thousand ears, and I haven't heard anyone suggest a better one. (When it all became too much for me, I just muttered "President Blair, President Blair" under my breath.) But this week, it's a story which feels hopelessly corrupted and appropriated -- a story which is meant to be about All of Us was one from which I felt pretty comprehensively excluded. It was clearly not a coincidence that Cameron (Tory) and Major (Tory) were invited to the big shindig, but Blair (Labour, alleg.) and Brown (Labour) were not. (Thatcher (Tory) was invited but asked that a very polite refusal be conveyed to King George on her behalf.) The message "The head of State is a Tory, the British State is a Tory only club, is you ain't Tory you ain't part of the story" was hard to avoid. It started to make you wonder if the President of the USA wasn't quite our sort of chap, either, and thanks to the Guardian for pointing out that the King of Yugoslavia got an invitation. (*) The State seemed to have spent the week before the wedding making pre-emptive strikes on anyone it thought might have voiced Dissent on the happy day. It may or not have been a coincidence that seven days before the happy day, my street became a riot zone. It almost certainly was a coincidence that, at the exact moment when the next head of state but one ws taking his marriage vows, the police finally closed down the building which absolutely no local person has ever referred to as Telepathic Heights. (The local name for it is "that building with the pretty mural that I've walked past a thousand times and never paid the slightest attention to." The night after the Riot, the building next door hosted a gig by the Wurzles.) It was undoubtedly a coincidence that when I set out to go to the folk festival, I found that I couldn't walk down my own street because the police, who swear an oath of loyalty to the Queen, had erected barricades. Again. But it all seemed awfully symbolic.

A big old wall there tried to stop me / a sign was painted, it said "No entry"
But on the other side, it didn't say nothing / that side was made for you and me

[*] No such country as Yugoslavia exists, and anyway, it isn't a monarchy.