Showing posts with label FOLK MUSIC. Show all posts
Showing posts with label FOLK MUSIC. Show all posts

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Pour cowslip dew into my cup; a puritan am I!



Morris dancing is a mostly English tradition of highly stylized folk dance. It is definitely old -- Shakespeare's Dauphin mockingly compares the English preparations for war to a Whitsun morris dance. But like most things in the English folk tradition, it is not as ancient as we like to pretend: it goes back centuries, not millennia. I think I am correct in saying that without exception, present-day Morris sides all go back only to the Victorian folk revival; there are no places where there is a continuous tradition going back to the fifteenth century. Almost certainly it wasn't an ancient pre-Christian fertility dance, but it's quite fun to pretend that it was. Everyone involved seems to agree that on one level its quite silly: beery men with bells on their fingers and toes and waving hankies in the air -- but its also colourful and fun and almost always involves good tunes. The idea of a lot of groups of people taking a lot of trouble to keep up a tradition which is on the surface a bit ridiculous seems a properly English thing to be doing.

Every few years someone in the unfolkie media spots that a few Morris sides perform with black make-up on their faces.

I am not sure whether anyone is really (as opposed to theoretically) offended by the sight of fat white people with boot polish on their faces waving handkerchiefs in the air. (I thought that all the most important philosophers of the age were agreed that there was no such thing as giving offence or if there was it didn't matter?) But I am completely certain that no serious harm is done to the Tradition if the flanneled fools leave the boot polish off. I didn't see a single black face side at Sidmouth; I think all the Border groups have taken to painting their faces red or blue or green. Which definitely offends no-one and is actually more fun.

The etymological fallacy is just as much a fallacy when applied to folk traditions as when applied to -- well -- etymology. A word means what you mean by the word, and what other people understand you to mean by the word -- not what Simon Heffer says the word "originally" meant. Grammar nerds may or may not be correct in saying that at one time decimate meant "to reduce by one tenth": but right now it means "to lay waste to" because that is how people use it. They are both wrong and offensive when they claim that wog is not "really" a racial slur because it "originally" meant Worshipful Oriental Gentleman.

Blackface Morris may not originally have had anything to do with making fun of black people. I am inclined to think it did not. The boot polish represents the fact that the people who invented the dances were coal miners, or chimney sweeps, or people who didn't want their wives to spot them Morris dancing after curfew. But it doesn't make a blind bit of difference what it originally meant. What matters is what "white men doing song and dance routines in black make up" means right now.

Yes, there is some evidence that prick and cunt were at one time perfectly neutral medical terms for those particular parts of the body. No, that doesn't mean it's fine to say them kids TV.

"Blacking up" means a great deal more than "I am playing the role of a person of a different race from the one I happen to be." It means something morel like "I am well aware of the whole patronizing black-minstrel tradition and the whole sorry history of white people appropriating black people's art and I don't give a damn. My right to wave hankies in the air with black boot polish on my cheeks is more important."

God knows, it's not a great idea for a European person to pretend to be an Asian person either. There was a Doctor Who story in which that happened: I forget the title, but I understand that it still polarizes opinion. But "yellowing up" does not carry the same cultural baggage as "blacking up". I think that's why Johnny Depp got away with playing a Comanche where he would never in ten million years have got away with playing a Negro.



I don't think that it follows that you can merely add the suffix -up to the name of a particular group and take that as incontrovertible proof that no-one outside that group can represent a member of that group on stage or screen. I don't know if Christians can ever properly understand what it is to be Jewish. Probably they can't. I don't know if  Jews can convincingly play Christians. (I might be inclined, like Laurence Olivier, to ask "if they have ever considered acting, darlingBut I am pretty certain that it is not helpful to accuse Kenneth Brannagh of "Danishing-up" or "wearing Dane-face" to play Hamlet.

There are exceptions and special cases and everything is a negotiation. Yes, I understand, you are constructing an authentic historical re-enactment of a festival in fifteenth century Shropshire and you want the Morris dancing to be exactly the way it was then, period instruments and period shoes and period face paint and all. No, that isn't at all the same thing as some big beery guys doing a country dance on a windswept Devon seafront. Yes, I get that your movie about the antebellum South included a loving recreation of a minstrel show; no that doesn't make the Black and White Minstrel show perfectly okay. If a lady can play King Lear, Prospero, or Hamlet, then a white man can probably have a go at Othello. But probably not with boot polish.

"But then won't all the racists just gravitate to the historical re-enactment events?" Aye, there's the rub. I came across a YouTube stream in which a fellow was working his way through the complete songs of Stephen Foster, Camptown Races and Hard Times Come Again No More and all. He explained that since this was partly an historical endeavor, he was singing the songs as Foster wrote them, while acknowledging that some of the language was offensive. Sure enough the comments section filled up with white people saying how wonderful it was to hear Oh Sussanah! with the n-word intact and how great it was to be standing up to the force of political correctness etc etc etc.

A man in the Guardian -- where else? -- went a bit further. He managed to go from "blacked-up Morris dancing has quite definitely had its day" to "the whole idea of folk music is inherently racist." This seems to be a caricature of a liberal position, the sort of thing that the sort of people who read the Daily Telegraph imagine that the sort of people who read the Guardian would think Yet here it is in, er, black and white:

But former Green councillor and parliamentary candidate Ian Driver has been campaigning for years against the way Broadstairs folk week supports blacked-up morris dancers. He calls the festival “institutionally racist” and says the organisers are all white and the acts are 90% white even though there is African-Caribbean, Hispanic and Eastern European folk music which would better represent the local area.

It is entirely true that from an ethnomusicological point of view, a traditional Afro-Carribean drum performance "is" folk music whereas Richard Thompson singing Meet on the Ledge is not. This is precisely as interesting a distinction as the pub bore who explains that there shouldn't be a Star Trek panel at the Science Fiction convention because there is no proper scientific rationale for warp drive. Yes: by one definition science fiction means "stories based on solid scientific conjecture". And those definitions might be quite helpful if you are writing your thesis. But what people at the science fiction convention are interested in is "stories about robots and space ships and aliens and shit, and, incidentally, dragons and swords and magic as well."

The line between folk music and not-folk music is very wobbly and entirely arbitrary. No-one raises their eye-brows if someone sings a Johnny Cash number or some blues tunes at Sidmouth; Jackie Oates includes a John Lennon cover in her set. But folk festivals play the kinds of music which the kinds of people who go to folk festivals want to hear; and there is a pretty broad consensus of what kind of music that is. There is a clear connecting line between English, Scottish and Irish folks songs; and between them and Canadian and Appalachian traditions; and between that and the singer-song-writers who were influenced by that tradition. The people who want to hear Nick Hart singing Child Ballad 10 demonstrably also want to hear Ralph McTell singing Streets of London. They mainly don't want to hear Dakhabraka's high octane purist baiting sound clash. And I suspect that man singing John Barleycorn with a violin in his ear would be laughed off the stage at WOMAD. A huge festival like Glastonbury represents a much wider range of taste.

Would it be a good idea if everyone had much broader tastes? Yes. Would it be a good idea for folkies to sometimes listen to something other than folk music? Maybe. Is it unhealthy to only read superhero comics? Probably. Would it be a good idea to insist on seminars on Racism in Mansfield Park at Comicon and panels about the Anti-life Equation at the Jane Austen Conference? Actually, that might be a really cool idea: get everyone to step outside their comfort zones. I'd like to imagine that that comic book nerds "get" Jane Austen better than the Eng. Lit. profs. "get" comic books, but I think it would probably be the other way round. Is it rather more important for white people to listen to non-white music and read non-white literature than the other way round? Yes, definitely: because everything you read or listen to or think about is part of "white culture" except when you make a conscious effort for it not to be. That's what "privilege" means. Is it institutionally racist for straight white middle class home makers to mainly read books about straight white middle class home makers or at any rate the kinds of books which straight white middle class home makers tend to like? That sounds an awful lot like political correctness gone. an attempt at political hyper-correction.

Not too long ago I mentioned to a friend that I was bingeing on Karl Ove Knaugsgaad, who they happened not to have heard of. I described the books, and they respond "Ohhh...Fathers and sons... It's a bit straight white male, isn't it?"

To which my only available response was to point to myself and say "Er...Hello."




I'm Andrew. I write about folk music, God, comic books, Star Wars and Jeremy Corbyn.

Or consider supporting me on Patreon (by pledging $1 for each essay)




Thursday, August 15, 2019

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Lindisfarne *  Ralph McTell * Kitty Macfarlane * Jeff Warner * Ragged Trousers * Alice Jones * Mary Humphreys & Anahata * Annie Winter & Paul Downes * Damien Barber * Tony Hall * Sheenah Wellington * Eileen O'Brien & Connor Keane * Harbour Lights * Bill Murray * Hannah Rarity * National Folk Ensemble * Nick Hart * Merry Hell * Mike O'Conner and Barbara Griggs * Steve Knightley * Robb Johnson * Jim Causley * The Dartmoor Entertainers * Matthew Byrne * Martin Simpson * John Kirkpatrick * Nancy Kerr and James Fagan * Sandra Kerr * Sam Kelly and the Lost Boys * Brian Peters * Broom Bezzums * Rachel McShane and the Cartographers * Harri Endersby * Granny's Attic * Iona Fyle * Grace Smith * Thom Ashworth * Ben Walker & Rob Harbron * Jimmy Aldridge and Sid Goldsmith * Blackbeard's Tea Party *Amethyst Kiah * The Shee 

Friday

It rained and it rained and it rained. Piglet said never before -- and he had been coming to Sidmouth for goodness knows how long... two years was it or maybe three? --  had he seen such rain. And first they cancelled the fireworks and then they cancelled the parade. Then they moved all the things from the Ham to the Bulverton. And then they had to close the Bulverton, 20 minute into Granny’s Attic’s set, because it wasn’t safe. The marquee, I mean, not the band.

My very small tent didn’t literally blow away. In fact I am quite impressed by the extent to which modern tents behave like Chumbawamba during a high wind. But in the end one of the polls split. It was, however, pretty dry, so I decided my best bet was to sit the storm out in what increasingly resembled a large flat canvass bag. I should probably have arranged an interview with the media about world peace.

I did get to hear Sid and Jinmy being relaxed and chatty, and the Shee singing Tom Paines’ bones and an American gospelly bluesy lady who wasn’t at all my kind of thing. but history will record that the festival should have ended with the Thunderbird barn dance last night.

Written in Subway near Exeter bus station (on an iphone)

Friday, August 09, 2019

Thursday

Lady spent entire concert writing postcards and letters. Full on address book, envelopes, stamps on her knee. I found this both distracting and disrespectful to the band.

I am fairly serious: the difference between going to a concert and listening to a CD is that you are in a big room of people who all love the music and are all singing, or crying, or laughing, or stomping their feet. Kind of sacramental. One infidel spoils the magic.

She told me afterwards how brilliant the band was and what a great show it has been, so I couldn’t even decently “tut” at her.

I managed to hear eight different acts today, including four of my most very favourites. And also a lecture about Sabine Baring Gould, the Other Victorian folk song collector, who also wrote one or two moderately well known hymns. He realised (which Sharp did not) that the songs which “peasants” were singing at the end of the 19th century were in many cases not written by immemorial pagan bards in prehistory, but were for the most part seventeenth and eighteenth century pop songs.

Sid and Jimmy (Aldridge and Goldsmith) in combination with Nancy and James (Kerr and Fagan) is as good a double bill as you can get, and very possibly the best ticket of the week. Sid and Jimmy are up for a folk award for their traditional Norfolk love song “the Reedcutters Daughter”. They’d obviously been told to cut the chatter . Sid in particular was not allowed to talk about soil erosion or environmental issues. So they chattered about not chattering. But truthfully they need to rebrand themselves as folksingers and story tellers: each song has a narrative associated with its genesis which audiences need to hear. A little like Simon and Garfunkel, they don’t exactly sing harmony but their two voices some how merge into one perfect voice.

Nancy and James did Hearts That Long for the Land and Farewell to the Gold and Robb Johnson’s Herald of Free Enterprise, which is somehow improved by no longer being topical. And then they did Dance To Your Daddy and melted everyone’s hearts.

The weather arrived. There is apparently a serious danger that the Ham Marquee may blow away. They have already had to cancel the fireworks. I felt that spending a whole evening looking as if I’d fallen in a swimming pool was probably not going to be too much fun, so I stuffed dry clothes into my bag and changed at the top of the hill. Which actually made me feel quite smug. And dry. (Remind me to write an amusing essay about Modesty one of these weeks.)

Lady interrupts my writing to ask if she can sit at the empty table, because she lives here, and tells me that if I lived here it would be worth getting a loyalty card. When she first lived here no one locked their doors because their were no baddies, but it’s not like that now, oh dear me. She is in a choir, because she lives here.

Blackbeard’s Tea Party are basically my favourite band in the world. They started out, a decade ago, as a not un Mawkinish acoustic set up, busking in front of a church in York, but album by album they have become folkier and rockier. They now have two drum kits and arrangements which slip into the realm of self parody, in an entirely good sense. But there is still folk fiddle and folk accordion and a mostly traditional set list. Chickens are on rafts, diamonds are bound for the Davis Straits, Captain Kidd leaves William Moore in his gore and the landlord endlessly refills the flowing bowl. The lead singer and accordionist is a part time morris dancer who leaps around the stage and into the audience. They are a brand, a cult, a phenomenon, and they never forget it is folk music.

Today has been designated their tenth birthday, and there are balloons and party hats. Not only do they do a full electric set, but after a brief break they come back onto the stage and provide ceilidh music until 1 in the morning. In keeping with the ten-year-old birthday theme, they come on dressed as creditable Thunderbirds characters, to the International Rescue theme. The caller has been prevailed onto to dress as Jeff Tracey. In the interval, as is traditional, a rapper side do a demonstration. They do a full sword dance routine in the style and costume of the Tellytubbies. We take our folk seriously.

Before Blackbeard start, Thom Ashworth does a set. I heard him earlier in the day in the Bedford. He explained that he was in receipt of a bursary from Cecil Sharp House to research what it means to be English in a post colonial world. (I mean there are lots of things I am angry about and would like the money to make an album, he explains, but you can’t put that on a grant application.) Quite a tough gig, I would have said, being one man with a guitar in front of an audience who are waiting for the madness which his Blackbeard’s Tea Party.

He opened up with Alan Tyne of Harrow, one of the best highwayman songs and certainly the one with the best tune. (He sings “now in Newgate I am bound and by the law indicted / to hang on Tyburn tree’s my fate of which I’m much afrighted.” Nancy and James always sang it as “by the law convicted” which doesn’t rhyme. Jim Moray thinks Alan Tyne of Harrow may be closely related to an Irishman called Valentine O’Hara.)

There’s a man on the stage. Singing a song about a highwayman. A song that generations of singers have sung. A song which is very largely speaking for itself.

“But being of a courage keen and likewise able bodied,
Well, I robbed Lord Lowndes on the King's highway with my pistols heavy loaded.
I clapped my pistols to his breast which caused him for to quiver,
And five hundred pound in ready gold to me he did deliver.”

I don’t think I experienced a more perfect moment over the whole week. At that moment I would happily have hugged him, or prostrated myself before him. (Rest assured I resisted the temptation.)

At 2am my tent was still standing and reasonably dry.


Diary composed in Mocha

Thursday, August 08, 2019

Wednesday

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

Wednesday, August 07, 2019

Tuesday

Some people are organised. Even in a tent. They bought their eco friendly reusable cup on the first day, and have carried it with them for the rest of the week. I am not one of those people. Each day I go to the bar and ask for a pint of beer, and each day have to pay an extra pound for a eco friendly reusable cup. I assume this is helping the planet in some way.

Today I ventured up the Big Hill for the first time. The campsite is a way out of town at a place called Bulverton, and at the top of a big hill is the Bulverton marquee, aka The Young Peoples Tent. The Ham in Town does sit down concerts with your Julie Fowlis’s and your Martin Simpsons, The Bulverton up the hill lets you stand and bop to your Seth Lakemens and Peatbog Fairies.

Worth the climb. At 7pm Sam Sweeney was doing an informal meet the artist Q and A, mainly aimed at the young people who had been doing workshops all day. I hadn’t realized how much of Sam’s fiddle style he owes to Chris Wood (indeed I am inclined to forget that Chris plays the fiddle as well as sings miserable songs.) A young woman asked him about building a repertoire. He told her to play through the book of 1000 English folk tunes (it exists) in the bathroom, and when she finds one she likes, play it over and over. And if you find you are playing it differently to the book, he said, that’s “wicked”. It means the song is still alive.

Broom Bezums started off in the big dancing hall around 8pm. I’d forgotten how good they were. I’d forgotten that “Keep Hauling On” is originally their song, and Fishermen’s Friends were covering the Show of Hands cover. I never thought to see a grown up audience having such fun with Man Gave Names To All The Animals. Proof if proof were needed that Bob never wrote a duff song.

They were followed onto the stage by Sam Kelly and the Lost Boys who become more superlative every time I hear them. I could probably face life without the pop covers (yes, Sultans of Swing, very droll) but there is an absolute core of proper folk here. The swirling experimental weave around the House Carpenter may not be quite Trad but it is responding to the actual plot of the actual ballad. (Girl marries carpenter; girl runs away to sea with previous lover; previous lover turns out to have cloven hooves and a tail, everyone goes to hell.) But folk doesn’t get much more folky than a whole hall full of people singing Jackie boy / Master / Sing You Well / Very Well / All amongst the trees so green oh together. (Steve Knightley incorporates the same traditional song into his first world war ballad about a game keeper. It’s the folk process, innit?)

The tribute to Roy Bailey was a bit overwhelming. Received wisdom says that if the queue outside the theater has gone passed the lamppost, the people at the back won’t get a seat. The queue had reached that point an hour and a half before the doors opened. (And then, naturally, it started to rain.) Roy was not a song writer but an interpreter of songs, so a tribute show is necessarily a compilation of everyone’s favourite socially themed songs. Martin Simpson (his son in law) sang What You Do With What You’ve Got. Nancy Kerr sang Everything Possible. Robb Johnson sang We Are Rosa’s Daughter’s. John Kirkpatrick sang, er, Arthur Askey’s Busy Bee. If you have never heard the best accordion player making his box go buzz where you like but don’t sting
me, you have missed out. Sandra Kerr said it wasn’t fair to make her follow that, and Martin suggested that she sang Why Did It Have To Be Me. Martin Carthy provided guitar, but rather alarmingly, didn’t sing. Martin Simpson told the story of Roy briefly becoming lucid in the hospice and singing the final verse of “there’s always enough for a war, but there never enough for the poor”. And then everyone sang Rolling Home. Nancy and James had to sing from a sheet because, well, none knows the verses: Roy always sang them.

pass the bottle round
let the toast go free (FREE TOAST!)
health to every labourer
wherever they may be
fair wages now or never
let’s reap what we have sown
as we go rolling home, as we go rolling home.

Dry eyes were in rather short supply
dIary written in Cornish Bakery

Tuesday, August 06, 2019

Monday

So. A knight rapes a poor maiden and sensibly tells her his real name so she can name the child after him. So she tells the king and the king says he has to marry her. Just to rub it in, she goes to the wedding dressed as a lady and he has to go dressed as a page. A young man asks his sister why she looks so poorly. Because I’m pregnant with your child, she says. So he kills her. A man gets two ladies pregnant, marries one and the other hangs herself. So he runs away to sea. But her ghost comes after him in a boat and drowns him.

Ballads are great. An old guy at Woodlands did the most perfect Patrick Spens I’ve ever heard, in perfect Scots. (Man sails to Nor A Way, Man sails back from Nor A Way. Everyone drowns.)

Nick Hart also sings ballads. Nick Hart’s ballads take no prisoners. Even he admits that his version of Two Sisters goes on a bit. There is Nick Hart, there is a guitar, and in the Kellaway Cellar there is sometimes Ben Moss) as in Moore, Moss and Rutter) on a fiddle. There has been a generation of folkies adding twiddly bits and guitars and synths to folk songs; now there is Nick Hart singing them, sometimes even with that folkie nasal twang. Nick Hart is the Anti-Jim. He’s the most exciting thing in traditional folk at the moment.

The cashpoints are working again. I celebrated with a cup of coffee. (Nick Hart recommended Buzz, the coffee stand in the craft field. They are indeed excellent.)

Sam Sweeney or Robb Johnson? Robb Johnson or Sam Sweeney? Sam Sweeney made my favourite album of last year, one of the few instrumental albums I would listen to voluntarily. Robb Johnson is a marxist primary school teacher who has been called the best songwriter after Richard Thomson and ought to be twice as famous. I opted for the songs, because I felt a whole two hours of fiddle playing might be challenging on a Monday afternoon. Judging by the empty seats at the Manor Pavillon everyone else chose the fiddle tunes.

Sidmouth has a dinky little theatre, complete with comedy and tragedy masks in gold over the proscenium arch. It’s the only proper rep theatre still running in the UK. Over the summer they are doing Present Laughter and The Kings Speech and Run for Your Wife. (“And the terrible thing” said Satan “is that this could be heaven for some poor sod.”)

Robb Johnson does a one man history of the 20th century, 1918-2018, through the eyes of his father, who was shot down in WWII. He as repurposed “i’m voting Jeremy Corbyn” as “Atlee for PM for me.” Johnson is a proper socialist who believes in workers control and assumes that we do as well. His lyrics can be incredibly subtle and powerful, as in a description of his Dad from the point of view of one of the kids in his class; but he knows how to do anthems as well. His celebration of the 70 goes “all you need is love, all you need is love, all you need is love. And comprehensive schools.”

I really can’t be doing with Gaelic, so I went back to the theatre for a programme of Dartmoor Entertainment. Lots of jolly accordions. Jim Causley doing that one about the tin mines. Step dancing. And a literal jig doll. But no rape or incest.


Diary written on a bench outside Sidmouth Public Library

Monday, August 05, 2019

Sunday

There are no cash points in Sidmouth!

At any rate none of the cash points are giving out money, and none of the shops are doing cash back. And most of the pie kiosks are cash only! Fortunately the bar at the Ham is happy with plastic.


I had forgotten that the best bit of the folk week is about 1030 at night after the big gig has finished, walking around the seaside streets following the sounds of diddly diddly dee and sea shanties into pubs which haven’t quite closed. There was a yeehar band singing Old Dan Tucker in the Duke on the sea front, and some guys sitting round a table in the Black Swan singing South Australia and Rock Me Mother Like A Southbound Train while another guy accompanied them on the hurdy gurdy. I had heard a couple of hurdy gurdy players busking no on the esplanade earlier in the day. And someone singing a Rock Me Mama co e to think of it. You can go for years without hearing a busker with a hurdy gurdy and then two come at once. The word “esplanade” makes me think of Jake Thackeray. To me the road by the beach is the promenade.

Oh yes, and I also heard my favorite act in the world singing my favorite song in the world. (“Terms and conditions apply.”’)
Steve Knightly (sans Phil and Miranda) called his show 50 Shades of Sidmouth. It was meant to be a retrospective on 50 years of coming to the festival. It started out in the vein of his 2017 solo show about his career, with stories about learning to play guitar by playing Dylan records at half speed and making the audience try to guess the lyrics of his first ever song. Before long he was bringing on friends from the old days . An old club singer gamely got through Paddy’s Sicknote. He was reunited with Paul Downs who played with him in his first band, Gawain. (They were big enough to open for Steeleye: I never knew that.) I felt that the Sidmouth narrative became a bit lost as the evening went on. His teenaged daughter helped him sing Let Me Feel Your Love, Edgelarks participated in The Keeper, and Sidmouth brass band came on for the last few numbers. Any show which ends with Cousin Jack on a brass band is fine with me me. Rather a jolly brass arrangement, I would have said, but very clever the way they worked the accompaniment in with Steve’s spoken improvised sections.

Instead of an encore, the entire company sang The Larks They Sang Melodians.

Auto correct wants me to change hurdy gurdy to hurry ghastly. Just saying.

Earlier in the day I went to a stripped down acoustic version of Merry Hell. Their acoustic version worked much better for me than their louder electrical version which I’ve heard before. Think Three Daft Monkeys with a bit of Oysterband and a bit even of Show of Hands. Come on England will probably annoy the same kinds of people who were annoyed by Roots. One of the reasons I relocated to the folk world is that it gives me a space to be patriotic without being, you know, patriotic.

So stand up, come on England, live up to your history
Your heart can't be held in a flag or a crown
Raise your teacups and glasses, you bold lads and lasses
And drink to the spirit that will never lie down

I asked a few years ago who was going to speak truth to power now Chumbawamba are gone. There was a moment where I thought Merry Hell were about to answer the question.

Best song of the day was Hannah Rarity doing an almost comprehensible Scots traditional number about an ugly witch who turns a man into a worm for saying so.


Diary written in Black Horse pub.


Sunday, August 04, 2019

Saturday

NOTE:=You are almost certainly not the first person to have spotted that the word “folk” sounds a bit like the word “fuck”.

You all probably think I am mad. I passed on all the Big Venues again today (no one needs to hear the Spooky Men twice in a week) and hung mostly around the Woodlands Hotel. I have to remind myself that I bought a season ticket so I am free to choose what to go to, not to oblige me to go the most expensive ones. A blue plaque tells me that the Woodlands Hotel was a thatched medieval barn and then the home of one of Nelson’s captains. I think I listened to traditional music from 11.15 to 10.30. It’s a marathon, not a sprint and I won’t keep this up for a week, but I hate the idea of missing anything. Yesterday’s big hit Ragged Trousers we’re playing at every venue I went to. They did an astonishing things combining two versions of the Cruel Mother, but the ten minute introduction was probably as important at the song. . At the time the song was written, conceiving a child out of wedlock was a criminal offense and if a baby died there was a presumption that the mother had killed it. So a lot of women would have been burying babies near wells in forests and down by the greenwoods of ivy, oh. (I have probably heard the Flying Cloud as many times as I need to, though.)
I suppose I am search for the Great Folk Moment, that at some point in a pub someone unlikely will pick up a fiddle and sing the perfect Marty Groves and I don’t want to risk eating a pasty while it is happening.

The Woodlands hotel runs a two hour ballad session for all comers every evening, with a stern warning that only traditional songs are permitted. All the usual suspects appear — there will be a Bruton Town and a Fair Flower of Northumberland. The afternoon mini concert kicked off with a folk couple (Annie Winters and Paul Down, possibly) singing a song beginning “it is of two noble butchers” so I knew I was in the right place. I have heard stories in which a fair lady runs off with seven yellow gypsies, raggle taggle gypsies and someone called Black Jack Davey, but today the abductor was a dark eyed gypsy. The lady didn’t mind, as normal, and was quite looking forward to drinking the dew and eating the grass, which instantly set me thinking about whether gyspsys are stand ins for fairies. Almost certainly, now I think of it. Ballads are the heart of English music and these sessions are for me the heart of the festival. I wish i could hold a tune.

One of the formats for song hearing is called “an hour or so in the company of” which is pretty much what it sounds like, and informal session in which the singer can chat or play as the mood takes him. Today we had an hour or so in the company of Damien Barber and Tony Hall. Damien Barber is of course the brains behind the Demon Barbers dance group, but he’s getting back into solo performing. He said he’d asked for small venues but the Woodlands was packed. He ended the hour with Little Pot Stove. Tony Hall accompanied him on an ancient squeeze box. It just so happens that Tony Hall played that exact squeeze box with Nic Jones on Penguin Eggs.

As I say. Folk moments. You presumably think I am entirely mad.




Diary written at Wakey Wakey Eggs and Bakey.

Saturday, August 03, 2019

Friday

Oh the English, the English sunbathing and playing cricket on a pebbly shingly beach taking surfboards out into a calm sparkling blue sea that never saw the slightest bit of surf making the most of the relatively hot weather on the grounds that it will probably be snowing by the end of the week.

People behind me on the bus try too start rousing chorus of The Wild Rover, but’s dispute develops between proponents of the Irish version (wild rover! wild rover!) and the English version (no,nay, never).

The bar at the Ham (the main in town sit down concert marquee) is woefully inadequate for 10000 folkies all wanting real ale in the 15 minute interval. I was impressed with the lady trying to catch the bar staffs eye through the power of natural justice (no, i have been waiting longer,i was in the back row so i should have been served first.) Also impressed with people complaining to the stewards because they didn’t arrange different weather.

Sidmouth Toyshop may have missed an important memo.



The second Pre Festival gig features one Ralph McTell who needs no introductions but still gets one. It is apparently the 50th anniversary of That Song. Someone tells me that it was originally written to persuade a drug addict friend to turn his life around. I hope this is true because some people have taken it to mean “middle class people have no right to be depressed”. Because of That Song’s middle brow ubiquity, it is easy to forget that Ralph McTell started out as a disciple of Woody Guthrie, and when he isn’t talking about early bluesmen (“the ghost of Robert Johnson) he is lauding Bob Dylan (“the Zimmerman blues”). Rather a lot of his songs are about other singers and other artists — I am not sure that extending the “girl on the New Jersy ferry” incident to a whole song says anything which Orson Wells hasn’t already said just as well. The older he get, the more Johnny Cash I hear in his delivery. No one song will ever be as famous as Streets of London, but he can produce endless jaw dropping lyrics. “Dylan and Rotolo in a freeze farm photograph. eternally tomorrow” “she had us kind of hypnotized she made us hold our breath but if you want to love your life you have to flirt with death”,

A folk fan:



Up and coming and slightly intimidated Kitty McFarlane opened for him. She gets better every time I hear her. She has added field recordings of birdsong and nature sounds to her enigmatic mediative songs. The incredibly convoluted migratory patterns of European eels suggests migration in a wider sense, becoming a “a very, very subtle protest song.” The last known proponent of the art of weaving sea silk (silk gathered from clams) becomes a metaphor for women’s agency “until the time I am undone I’ll spin saltwater into sun”.

Lady Maisery are always wonderful. However, I have heard them quite a lot, so on a whim I let them be wonderful without me and headed for the more intimate Kellaway Cellar space. This turned out to be a Good Choice : three super traditional acts who I wouldn’t otherwise have heard.

Alice Jones comes from Halifax and does heartfelt cheeky northern songs. We had “from Hull and Hell and Halifax good lord deliver me” of course, and one I hadn’t heard before about weavers which went to Hard Times of Old England (so sing success to the weavers. the weavers forever, huzzah!) She also has a nice line in that “body percussion” thing where you accompany a song by slapping yourself round the face.

Jeff Warner has been singing traditional American songs and telling banjo jokes since forever. He oscillates between singing and speaking the words, occasionally pulls out a jews harp s raises playing the spoons almost to the level of a juggling act. Do you know, I don’t think i’d ever heard All About The Renters on Penny’s Farm before? (It was lovingly ripped off by Bob for Hard Time in New York Town.) We got a Loggers Alphabet and a deeply silly version of the Farmers Cursed wife.

Ragged Trousers do shanties. And other robust masculine songs, including a rousingly ranty Riggs of the Time; and their own version of a Chartist anthem. (“Have you noticed that chartist anthems never actually mention constitutional reform? I suppose nothing rhymes with “election”.)But the highlight was the extended ballad about the chap who is born on fair Erin’s shore , decided to make his living selling slaves, falls in with the pirates and ends up with a one way ticket to tyburn. This is what we come to folk festivals to listen to. The band were o intensely interested in the backgrounds to their songs and their harmonies were robust enough to knock the socks off any Cornish beach. I’m off to hear them again as soon as I finish breakfast.



Diary written at Fort Cafe

Friday, August 02, 2019

Thursday


Sidmouth, please.
Single or return?
Single.
£7.10, unless you would like a daily rover.
No, I’m just going to Sidmouth
It’s just that the daily rover is £6..10.
Then what was the point in...
I recently came out as an introvert. Festivals are fabulous for introverts. I talked to a lady on the bus with jewelry all over her about social dancing, ceilidhs, and whether Molly Dancing is a thing, and a man n a Blackbeard’s Tea Party Teeshirt about Blackbeard’s Tea Party, but i don’t have to talk to anyone for a whole week.

My very lightweight very easy to assemble tent is very lightweight and very easy to assemble but turns into an oven when the sun is out. The sun is out, but I am not spending any time in the tent pin the hours of daylight.

The festival happens in pubs and marquees in the town, a regency seaside town that has something to do with dinosaurs. The campsite is out of town but there is an official shuttle. The official shuttle is part of the experience, how often have you been on a double deck bus full of Morris Dancers?

The music got off to a (rousing) (raucous) (up tempo) (not entirely folky) start with a standing ovation for Lindisfarne who I admit have up to now almost entirely passed me by. I know the very famous one, of course. (Does he really sing “i can have a wee-wee?”) They came across to me as somewhere between the Oysters and the modern Fairport. Very much the right kind of thing on the first day of festival, but actually I was more enamored of Miranda Sykes, who opened for the. Miranda is of course “the one with the double bass” in Show of Hands, and I remember not specially liking her in a duo with Rex Preston, but her solo act is a chain of well judged covers. We get Little Johnny England’s lament about, er, country life, and a wonderfully specific piece by the singers mother about the way Lincolnshire has change in two generations.

I may possibly have mentioned before that it isn’t a folk festival until a song has reduce Andrew to tears, but perhaps it was a bit unfair to choose Vin Garbutt’s “what’s the use of wings” as the second song on the week.

The headline in the local paper is, I swear, “Call for tougher sanctions on mobility scooters.”







Diary written in Browns Kitchen




Thursday, July 25, 2019

The Spooky Men’s Chorale @ St . George’s Bristol

still thinking about workflows

The Spooky Men’s Chorale as they always remind us, are not a Men’s Group. They are not really a folk group either, but they have ended up in a folkie space. (As a matter of fact they are playing Sidmouth next week.) They started out as a Georgian Choir, and they still do a couple of proper Georgian dance songs and an Icelandic hymn in the Georgian style in all their shows. ("You know what it is like", says the conductor or as he prefers to style himself, the Spookmiester. "You go to the theatre or the ballet, and there is no Georgian section. Or you just go out for a meal with the in-laws and feel vaguely cheated because there was a Georgian section, but it was shit.") Georgian choral music differs from other choral music in that there is no melody line: the different sections make no musical sense until they are put together.

I think that the men are “Spooky” in an Australian, Dame Edna sense — certainly there is nothing ghostly or creepy about them, although they do dress in black. It was a weekday evening so I went in my normal work clothes. The lady sitting next to me congratulated me for taking the trouble to look spooky. This happened at the Men Who Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing, as well. I went dressed in my normal clothes and was congratulated on my steampunk gear.

Apart from the aforesaid Georgian section, the Spookies mostly sing contemporary music in a choral style. This fits into three boxes. Firstly, there are sensible covers of popular songs: we had Tom Waits Picture in a Frame and a remarkable version of Joni Mitchell’s The Fiddle and the Drum. They nearly always end with the folkie version of Tennyson's Crossing the Bar, the same version which Jim Moray rocks up with False Lights. Proper not-a-dry-eye-in-the-house material. I shouldn’t like to chose between the two versions. [Mem to self: find a more obscure version that no one else will know and claim to prefer that.] They can also do extremely silly versions of pop songs. They finished their main act on a choral version of Bohemian Rhapsody which someone turned into a thigh slapping lederhosen inspired knees up. It turns out you can yodel “Galileo Figaro” quite successfully.

The most characteristically Spooky material, though, is essentially sung stand up comedy material: comic monologue set to exquisite harmony. Sort of like the Baron Knights only good. So we have the aforementioned “we all have unresolved issues with our fathers / but we are not a men's group” and “you haven’t got one/ everyone else has got one/ you think you probably need one / so you do decide to get one / but it doesn't fit” and a very clever piece about waiting for baggage reclaim in an airport which turns into a political metaphor.

Like Monty Python, this kind of material is funny only once, and also like Monty Python, the audience consists largely of people who have heard it a lot of times before. I was glad they had toned down the “blokish” element of their comedy material. I get that if you say “men and sheds” everyone laughs in the same way that if you say “women and shoes” everyone laughs but it doesn’t actually apply to nay real life man or woman I ever met.

The Spookies  mak shau better than almost anybody. Their encore was possibly a James Brown number about love raining down during which which as many of the audience as possible were pulled up on to the stage to join in and sing along. I sometimes have a problem with bands that have become brands, cults, or even franchises; but the Spooky Men’s Chorale do it so well it is impossible not to be uplifted.




I'm Andrew. I write about about folk music, God, comic books, Star Wars and Jeremy Corbyn.


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Monday, March 18, 2019

Andrew's Folk Pile


The Dovetail Trio
EP
There is still a £1 price sticker on this little EP, so I think it must have come from the bargain bucket at the Black Swan folk weekend in York last year. It's not a band I've ever heard, although once I looked at the small print I realized that I knew all the performers individually. Jamie Roberts is one half of Gilmore and Roberts; Rosie Hood knows more about folk-songs of the upper Thames than anyone has a right to and Matt Quinn was the folkie who  legitimately blew me away at the "folk rising" events at Sidmouth last year.

If the Devils Doorbell were to be imagined around a campfire, the Dovetail Trio are clearly playing on a village green, or perhaps in the corner of some conceptual tavern in an imagined village. English folk music deals with all the most basic and fundamental shared human experiences. Randy soldiers. Beer. Shape changing blacksmiths. And of course, ladies dressing up as men so they can join the army.  Some of this material is relatively dark: John Barleycorn is arguably about human sacrifice. The Two Magicians is arguably about rape. But the Trio has gone for cheerful, not to say jolly versions. It's the kind of music which make you want to dance, very probably with bells and hankies. 

Sing the last chorus a couple more times. Play it through again on the instruments. Maybe do it once more a capella. Pour another beer. We'll still be doing this material in six hundred years time. I love this album to bits.



Where there are traditional sources, the band sticks quite closely to them. "When I was a young maid..." is relatively well known as "The Female Drummer" from Steeleye Span via The Watersons. It an old story: girl dresses up as a boy; joins the army; learns to play the drums; gets away with it for a bit; gets found out; has to quit; is allowed to keep her pension. But there's a 1955 field recording of a Scottish lady singing it in a pub, and that seems to be the version Rosie Hood is following. It has less rub-a-dub-dubbing but a much better melody. It's rather franker about cross-dressing than some ballads:

While taking off my trousers I often gave a smile
For to think I was a solider and a maiden all the while

There are those who say that until you understand John Barleycorn, you don't understand folk music. There are also those who say that it's a late and artificial concoction, but we don't pay so much attention to them. In the hands of Chris Wood, for example, it can have an unsettling Wicker Man undercurrent. It is, after all about a man being tortured and mutilated, even if it is also about brewing beer. But this version as all rhythm and refrain and will creep up behind you and force you to sing along, even in the most gruesome party. 

They hired men with great big sticks to beat him out at once
Swish swash all over his head til the flesh fell from his bones
Poor boy, the flesh fell from his bones

"Flesh fell from his bones, poor boy, flesh fell from his bones.." (Roy Bailey did a version which ended up going whack-fal-de-diddle-all-the-day, and why shouldn't he?) This isn't a Barleycorn who strengthens labouring men to do their jobs; it's  Barleycorn who gets you pissed and under the table 

Let any man be strong as he will as I've oft told you before
If he takes too much John Barleycorn he'll put you onto the floor

Put you onto the floor, poor boy, put you onto the floor. Let's hear that chorus one last time...

The Two Magicians is an everyday story of country life, in which nasty, husky, dusky, fusky, musky coal-black smith tries to have his wicked way way with a young lady. She magically transforms herself into a hare, as one does, so he transforms himself into a greyhound; and so on, for as many stanzas as the audience will tolerate. The Carthy/Swarbs version is disconcertingly rapey, with the Smith promising to lay down the woman's Mighty Pride. (Joshua Burnell, of whom more anon, has added a verse in which the Woman promises to pay the Smith back in kind.) But the Trio's version is more a game of kiss-chase than a seduction; an exhilarating romp through the woods which both sides seem to be enjoying. 

Hello, hello, hello, hello you coal blacksmith 
You have done me no harm 
But you never shall have my maidenhead 
That I have kept so long 

Admittedly the lady wants to "die a maid and be buried all in my grave", and the black smith seemingly wins the day after she transforms herself into a corpse and he transforms himself into the earth she's buried in. So maybe this version is still pretty dark. But by the time we've run through a couple of a choruses it's hard to think that anything awfully bad has happened.

There's quite a bit of seduction on this short record, come to think of it. On Yonder Old Oak is pure Copper Family; unadorned, unaccompanied, full-on harmony singing of the kind that they'd been passing down through families Round These Party for half a dozen generations. The guy asks the girl out; the girl vows and protests that she never will be kissed by no such a fellow as he, and its all over bar a verse about Bright Phebus and King Cupid. But the man may get a little further during the gorgeous and familiar "Lady and the Soldier" ("to hear the sweet nightingales sing") depending on whether or not you think "hearing the sweet nightingales" is a euphemism.

I love this album; it sums up pretty much everything I love about folk music. Rooted in traditional music, and I assume in old recordings of traditional music; fine old melodies telling fine old tales; fine young musicians going round and round the melody, getting stuck into the tunes without ever being tricksy or flashy.

Pour the nutbrown ale and and I may just join you on the village green. 




The Dovetail Trio's EP is available on their website for £6, (they'll sign it for you if you want, which is a nice touch.) 

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Andrew's Folk Pile



The Devil's Doorbells
Pushing It (EP)

"Oh is it happening?" says a voice, just before a hootenanny version of Doc Watson's "Roll In” gets underway. It builds up a head head of steam. The singer sings "rollin' in my sweet babies arms" and the group call "sweet babies arms!" back at him. I swear someone shouts out "yee haw!" at one point. You can practically smell the campfire.

There's a lot of folk music in Sidmouth in August. You can't walk along the esplanade without a man with a guitar singing Streets of London at you. A busking outfit has to be a bit special to grab your attention as you rush between gigs. The Devils Doorbell had bagged the prestigious spot outside the public toilets and they had that quality which always stops me dead in my tracks. Authenticity. Reader, I bought the album.



Half the disc is made up of the folkiest of folkie crowd pleasers, possibly constructed to appeal to my personal comfort zone. The venerable Bella Ciao starts out with a breathy vocal lilt but rapidly turns into a singalong with a fiddle interlude that oozes pure Italiana. (Firepit Collective make this song a shouty student political rallying cry but here it's a wipe-a-tear-away lament.)

St Francis of Assisi replaces Franklin Roosevelt in a version of Only Passin' Thru which is definitely more Peter Seeger than Leonard Cohen. ("These birds fill the air with song/ they're not here for very long"). By comparison, Byker Hill is restrained, not to say lugubrious and a suitably mournful St James Infirmary is largely allowed to speak for itself.

So far so folky. I imagine this is the sort of thing which attracts many pennies into a guitar case. But the other half of the album is given over to what I take to be self-written songs. And while the sawing blue grass fiddle and old time choruses are still very much in evidence there's an uncompromising punk sensibility to the lyrics.

Track 2 Pisshead Bill has foot-tappin' melody which I can't get out of my head; paired with a set of lyrics which drip with nihilsm. ("Your fear of losing everything has lost you everything now everything you ever loved is gone"). The narrative could be compared, not unfavorably, with some of Chris Wood's recent-ish work -- a stream of observation about hard-luck cases and ordinary people

his father only pugilizes
ones of diminutive sizes
violence is the best disguise
to hide from the fear you lock inside


Glass Houses is a curious celebration of never doing the washing up ("I'm a dog that roles in its own it's shit, and I reckon I'm the happier for it"). Petri Dish flirts with cynicism but allows itself a brief flash of hope at the end; all set to a whimsical tune which made me think of Robin Williamson's funny little hedgehog.

Wouldn't it be nice to finally realize
that this life is best led taking risks
because no matter what we do
our significance is equal to
an amoeba in a petri dish


"I need to do that one again" says the voice at the end of Roll In. "It went a bit wrong". Well, maybe it did. But that's all part of the fun on this kind of album. “Recorded in fields, car parks and around campfires" says the back of the CD and I believe it. Folk music may sometimes get more polished than this but it rarely gets more real.







Andrew's Folk Pile


Hello. I am Andrew Rilstone. You may remember me from the Folkbuddies podcast, or from that time someone made me the “official blogger" of a festival without telling me or the festival. You may even have met me at a gig. I'm the very tall one standing in front of you with a hat, very probably clapping to a different beat from everybody else.

Folk music isn't necessarily the thing I love most in the world: but it is the thing I love most uncomplicatedly. Comic books carry baggage; movies carry baggage; and oh god does opera carry baggage, particularly if the only opera you ever really cared about was full of Teutonic maidens and Germanic warriors. Talking about movies or books or comics involves taking sides in a quarrel about who invented what and where and when and if they deserve a credit and where it fits into the canon and and if it passes the Bechdel-Wallace test.

Folk music I listen to. It makes me happy.

It doesn’t all make me happy. I have a general idea that a jig goes goes one-two-three-four-five-six/one-two-three-four and "key" is something I sing out of, but my heart sinks when the performer mentions the Playford manuscript or starts talking about Turlough O'Carolan. Every festival has at least one band which plays Scottish folk tunes very quickly with an electric guitar and drum kit as well as a set of bagpipes. It can all be very loud and very exciting and the crowd go nuts for it but I can't really tell them apart.

Too many notes Mr Mozart. Too many notes.

My ideal evening consists of a man (or a lady, but it does more often tend to be a man) with a guitar (or a fiddle, but usually a guitar) and a long introduction about how this is Child Ballad Number 76; or how it was originally collected by Cecil Sharp or (best of all) how they personally learned it just last week from an old traveler lady parked on the M5 underpass. Songs with stories; or stories with tunes. A good ballad bypasses my brain altogether and just hits me in the gut.

I was going to say the heart, but I really do mean the gut. That's what music's for, isn't it?



Maybe the best concert I went to in 2018 was Jim Moray at the little Chapel Arts Center in Bath, giving a first airing to some of the songs which are going to be on his next album. Jim Moray has the reputation for adding lots of clever jiggery pokery to folk sings, but this was just him and his guitar, doing When This Old Hat Was New and Napoleon at St Helena. (Listen to Another Man's Wedding and tell me it isn't the most powerful piece of musical story-telling you've ever heard?) He wound the show up with a version of The Leaving of Liverpool; and then encored with Alfred Lord Tennyson's Crossing the Bar -- the folkie setting, by Ramo Arbo, not the old churchy one by Parry. He does the song with his very loud folk rock outfit False Lights, but that night it was just a voice and some strings.

From out the bourne of time and place
the flood may bear me far
I hope to see my pilot face to face
when I have crossed the bar. 

You often get to talk to the Act after a show -- folk music happens in small venues and everyone is very friendly -- and I always aspire to say something intelligent to my musical heroes, showing some critical appreciation of what I have just been listening to. On that occasion, I just about managed "You've made me cry." And it was true.

Which is I guess the difficulty I have writing about music. It's a very subjective thing, for me, hard to put into words or be critical about. And I am apt to embarrass everyone by going all soppy.

I am considering taking an adult ballet class and embarking of a study of old buildings.

I may be paranoid; but I sometimes have a sense that some people around here are a bit cross with me for becoming infatuated with this kind of music. If you haven't been bitten by the bug, one song about a lady in a tower sewing a silken seam is very much like another, and my willingness to take late night buses home from pubs and church halls out of pure fear I might miss an interesting new take on The Bonnie Ship The Diamond probably comes across ever so slightly completely mad. It isn't only your most militantly atheist friend who gets all fidgety when you suddenly start attending Holy Communion. But probably it's mostly to do with the way I keep going on and on about it.

So; anyway. This is me going on and on about it.

I go to a lot of gigs. A crazy, stupid number of gigs. And truthfully this is where I think the music lives. I like the dramaturgy of a live performance, whether it's a Chris Wood surveying a packed house and saying "I don't know why you are all here" or Grace Petrie getting all sweary and political about Jeremy Corbyn. 

A few people used to read my gig reviews. A few of the actual bands used to read my gig reviews. I think I was even quoted on a poster. The first time the mighty Blackbeard's Tea Party came to the Croft they greeted a "very special fan named Andrew…” from the stage. Which made me insufferable for over a fortnight. But several of my actual readers said they didn't really want to read about gigs they hadn't been at. (Some of them were less polite.)

As a result of going to a lot of gigs and festivals I have acquired a very big pile of CDs. Most of which I haven't listened to. Or at any rate, haven't listened to properly.

So. Every week or so I am going to pull a CD or two off the pile and tell you whether or not it sparks joy.

If anyone wants to send me any CDs I promise to put them near the top of the pile.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Songs of the Old Communist

Leon Rosselson
Cellar Upstairs Folk Club, London
16 June

 


When I arrived at the little upstairs room in the Exmouth Arms, Leon Rosselson was already sitting in the front row reading the Guardian, which is what you would have imagined him doing before a concert. The compère introduced him as the greatest living English political songwriter; an assessement with which it would be very hard to argue. Like a lot of people, I knew his songs long before I had heard of him. I just kept noticing that my favourite performers -- Martin Simpson, Martin Carthy, Billy Bragg, Dick Gaughan and Chumbawamba had all covered Leon Rosselson songs. (Come to think of it, they all covered the same Leon Rosselson song....

If you'd only heard Billy Bragg belting out "in 1649 to St Georges Hill...." you might be taken aback by the little man with the squeaky voice (I almost wrote “nerdy”) chatting away about 1970s environmental protests and an arts project he was involved in which used an old London bus as a performance space. He steers clear of the famous, well-covered songs: no Stand Up For Judas, no Palaces of Gold...the man sitting behind me shouts out for The World Turned Upside Down but he doesn't sing that, either. (I think it was the man sitting behind me who took the above footage on his phone: thank you, man sitting behind me.) He does sing "raise a loving cup to Abiezer / he's a dancing, drunken, roaring, ranter" as an encore, though. Winstanley's Diggers broke away from Abiezer Coppe's Ranters: I expect you knew that. 


Several of the songs have that kind of anthemic, sing-a-long chorus. He spends some time teaching us ("Pete Seeger style") the words and tune of a newish, English take on the big rock candy mountains ("I'm going where the suits all shine my shoes...") But what he does best are patter songs and story songs and thesis songs. He's almost like Jake Thackray with the sex and catholicism replaced with left wing politics. (The ghost of George Brassens -- Jake's hero too -- appears to him in one song to tell him to carry on writing regardless of what everyone thinks.)  Over and over again, he tells us about little men confused by a world in which everything is commoditized. There's the old tale about the man who finds that a motorway is going to be built through his back garden, and the newer one about the man who achieves celebrity by committing suicide on live TV; and the familiar story of poor Barney, forced to work in the factory when all he really wants is to make junk sculptures in his garden (suggested by a Marxist book about the condition of workers in communist Hungary, apparently.) Production lines keep turning up as symbol for everything which is wrong with capitalism:

It was press, turn, screw, lift,
early shift and late shift,
every day the same routine
Turning little piggies into plastic packet sausages
to sell in the heliport canteen

Some of the political points may be a little bit obvious: his response to teh riotz is to say that the rioters are only doing the kind of thing that made England what it is today –

Francis Drake, now there's a looter 
Plundering the Spanish main...
Was rewarded with a knighthood
Looters deserve nothing less

But more often, he takes us off into complex slabs of poetical political theory that you really have to concentrate on: 

What do you feel said the land to the farmer?
"Sweat on my brow" the farmer replied
"Sun on my skin" said the spring time lover
"Ball at my feet" the young boy cried
And the man whose eyes were made to measure
Said “Proud to invest in a high-yield area
Concrete and glass and stake in the future...”

The club isn't amplified and the language and argument require close attention; which makes for a pretty demanding evening. But it's clear that everyone in the room respects and reveres him as a song writer; the phrase "hanging on his every word" just about covers it. 


It's a clichĂ© to say that Rosselson's songs are better when other people sing them. People say the same thing, equally unfairly, about Dylan. It's perfectly true that Billy Bragg on the one hand and Martin Simpson on the other have taken his songs and turned them into their own, wonderful things. But it's in the lessor known story-songs that his real genius lies, and I don't think anyone else can do them better.  In a funny way (considering what an unassuming performer he is) the evening is carried by the force of his personality. A little man who can't always get his guitar to stay in tune and who sometimes stumbles over his own lyrics, speaking for little men who are having motorways built through their gardens.

As before, the club itself was the star of the evening, with a stream of talented performers getting up to take floor spots. Resident singers Bob Wakely and Ellie Hill  did cheerful renditions of Clyde Water (drowned lovers), Sheath and Knife (brother-sister incest) and an, er, homage to the Carthy / Swarbs Sovay. Tom Paley did an American song about – I'm not sure what it was about. There was a skunk involved, and everybody said “whack diddle eye day” a great deal. It dripped authenticity. Someone whose name I didn't get did a killingly camp version of an old music hall song taking the mickey out of Scottish people. But the highlight was the fellow who sang a song of his own in praise of the National Health Service. I don't know if the roof was raised for the song itself or for the sentiments behind it, but raised it most certainly was. It's a very brave man who sings protest songs in front of Leon Rosselson.


  

A few of my favourite of Mr Rosselson's songs, for people who do not have a theological objection to Spotify.