Thursday, August 08, 2019


Nine days is quite a long time to spend listening to folk music, sleeping in a tent, and living on coffee and beer. Seasoned festival goers speak of the Wednesday Wall. So I decided to take it a little easy today, and started out at 930 with a lecture on Cecil Sharp followed by an 11.15 talk on Sydney Carter.

The first talk was called “Cecil Sharp - Saint or Sinner”. The conclusion, was (spoilers follow) “a bit of both”. There is a definite problem with English folk music being mediated through the mind of one Victorian gentleman’s idea of what folk music is supposed to be; but the specific accusations of cultural appropriation and exploitation of his sources are wide of the mark. He did record some songs from black people and some religious songs; he made friends with a a lot of his informants, stayed in contact with them and sent them generous presents. And “Aryan” didn’t means then what it does now.

Brian Peters knowledge and enthusiasm made what could have been a dry talk very engaging. He (Mr Peters) popped up again the Woodlands ballad session later in the day and sung all 100 verses of Child Ballad 56. Boy marries girl, other boy smuggles dead leper into girls bed, boy condemns girl to death, dwarf turns up and chops other boys legs off. Seriously. One of the absolute highlights of the week. Is there are technical word for that near chanting performance that traditional ballad singers do?

Sydney Carter once wrote a song about a lady folk singer who became an exotic dancer in Camden town. (“I used to play the fiddle / now I dance with a snake around my middle”). That one didn’t make it into the hymnbook. We start with John Ball and finish with Lord of the Dance and in the middle there is one I had entirely forgotten about a latter day innkeeper who will let baby Jesus in if he comes back “but we hope he isn’t black.” A lot of Carter’s songs were quite saucy; I knew he worked with Martin Carthy (who is the only person who can really make Lord of the Dance work) but was completely unaware he had had a long partnership with Donald (Flanders and) Swann. I didn’t think a lot of the early songs and poems stood up that well -- there was a sense of looking into a time capsule. I didn’t know he’d had the idea of the man who lives backwards before either Martin Amis or Alan Moore. The speakers are keen to play down Carter as an “official” Christian: he didn’t mind his songs being sung in church but was adamant they weren’t hymns; he thought the Church’s Christ was one more idol and that Jesus had been one of many manifestations of the eternal Dance. Well, maybe: but Lord of the Dance and a Bitter Was the Night and Friday Morning and Judas and Mary seem pretty steeped in mainstream theology to me. When I was growing up the Methodist Hymn book had a note in it explaining why Lord of the Dance was not too upbeat to sing in church.

Rachel (formerly of Bellowhead) Macshane is fabulous. Tune laden versions of mostly folk standards — Sylvia the female highwayman who nearly shoots her lover to find out if he’s a real man, the girl who shoves his sister in the river and a slightly less filthy Mole Catcher (by comparison with Nick Hart’s version). I love Martin Simpson to bits, and he was so lovely about the fact that so many people were turned away from the Roy Bailey show, and I will listen to him singing Never Any Good forever. His version of Carthy’s version of Rosselson’s Palaces of Gold is still chilling, and he has correctly redirected it at Grenfell Tower. (It was originally about Aberfan.) But I am starting to think that I have heard enough very fast very twiddly bluesy riffs about characters called One Eyed Bugsy McHarp.

Harri Endersby is, I fear, the kind of singer song writer who appeals hugely to people other than me. Granny’s Attic are sensational. I am reliably informed that Iona Fyfe is the best young Scottish female ballad singer on the circuit. She is very, very Scots, and I fear that by the time she took to the Kennaway Cellar stage, the Wednesday Wall had finally caught up with me....

Diary written in The Chattery


Jacob said...

I'm not at Sidmouth this year, and have been slightly envying you until I saw the weather forecasts. Make sure your guy ropes are pegged down securely, and good luck!

postodave said...

here is the song

postodave said...

What happened to my other comment that came before the one above where I said Bob and Carole Pegg did a version of the song about the lady folksinger who became an exotic dancer on an album they made with Carter in the seventies? The song features the lines 'You would not think from the way I dress/I belong to the EFDSS' Listen on the link above. Also worth listening to the Pegg's version of Lord af the Dance which anticipates what Ashley Hutchings did with Morris music a few years later. Not too surprising since the Peggs were slated to be in the original Steeleye Span and had written songs with Hutchings in anticipation of that. I think Mr Trill's song which Bob co-wrote with Hutchings may be the first fully electric morris song.

Andrew Rilstone said...

I don’tt know what happened to the other message either, but am glad you reposted it. (A glitch in the matrix, as they say.)

postodave said...


You have me thinking about Sydney Carter now. I agree that a lot of his Christian songs reflect a fairly mainstream theology but then he always said Lord of the Dance was inspired by an image of Shiva dancing. I used to have a book he wrote called Dance in the Dark which I read until it disintegrated. It was written in the same style as some of the pop psychology books with striking comments in large letters on every other page; my faviourite was 'Cowper is Mad and Abelard loves Heloise'. Which was his way of saying Christians can have problems or flaws which do not detract from their faith or message. He abhored hypocrisy and he disliked conformist conventionality. He did a song about trendy vicars that included the lines: 'We love the merry organ and the bells accross the snow/ We love the Church of England although we never go/We love the dear old Bible with Jehovah and begat/It's not that we believe in it or anything like that' But as you say it's a bit like looking into a time capsule; the trendy vicar has become a cliche and no one believes you can trust people because they have guitars in Church. Another good collection of his songs from the sixties is called The Present Tense, some of the singing is a bit over formal but it includes The Vicar is a Beatnik that I quoted above and a great version of George Fox.
And here are the two Bob and Carole Pegg albums I posted links for before