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

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 cliché 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.

Monday, May 07, 2012

It Takes All Sorts

Bristol Folk Festival
5- 7 May
Colston Hall

Bath Ales have ludicrously re-branded “Barnstormer” as “Barnsy”. I would no more order a pint of Barnsy than I would eat a Snickers bar. The organizers of the second Bristol Folk Festival had evidently taken to heart some of the complaints about last year's refreshments: the addition of a “beer tent” on the ground floor and some festival friendly snacks at the caff were a great help, although the Mexican frajita place over the road did very good business.

On Monday evening the compère does the Folks Men joke again. Everything is folk music, he says, because everything is written by and performed by folk, not by, say, plants or animals. So the Anglo Celt Sound System is totally folk.

They play a sort of young people's night club dance music; with that drum rhythm dominating everything, while a front man in a turban does his thang on one of those huge drums and another one plays Irish whistle or Northumbrian Pipes. I could recognise it has as having some connection to instrumental folk – several musicians all doing their own thing on their own instruments in such a way that it all comes together into a single thing that you dance to. In that sense it was quite similar to what the people in the bar were doing with fiddles and squeeze boxes. (Folk-buddy #1 claims that they even went into Cuckoo's Nest -- a Morris tune with filthy words that no-one ever sings -- but I had evidently stopped paying attention by that point.) The band definitely had a following: people were forming a queue an hour before they were due to come on stage. But I couldn't help noticing that other people were also leaving before the end.

Doubtless if you liked this kind of thing this would be the kind of thing that you liked. But it was a bit niche to finish the festival on. Last year we had Bellowhead and glitter coming from the ceiling. Everyone likes Bellowhead. This year we had a very good night club band; and a sense that the actual folk festival finished with Sam Sweeney and Hannah James doing their delicate traditional tunes and clog dancing (how can a form of dance based on having blocks of wood on your feet be so damn graceful?) before we let the Young People do their thing for a couple of hours before bed time.

Did I not once tell you to avoid anything with the words "Celtic" or "Fusion" in the main job description?

There was a big stand on the bridge outside the main hall selling "old fashioned" sweets – white chocolate things with hundreds and thousands on them, rice paper sherbet flying saucers, Hershey bars, multi flavoured pretzels. I liked the Finnish liquorice best; soft like a truffle, sugary on the outside, salted on the inside, a very strong liquorice taste without the chewiness I like the taste of salty licquice, by usually find that much salt is a little nauseous. I think that liquorice like porridge, should taste of itself rather than being used as a sugar delivery mechanism. I think the same thing about Krispy Kreme Donuts, but wouldn't go as far as putting salt on a donut.

When I said that I didn't like “Celtic” music, some people affected to believe that that meant that I didn't like Celtic music. Which would obviously be ridiculous. Sunday's headliner, for example, was the slightly too ethereal for my taste Cara Dillon, backed up with what (I am assured) was a who's who of famous Irish instrumentalists. I am no expert in what is technically known as the diddly-diddly-dee sub-genre (sub-sub-genre “look how fast I can play this damn whistle”) but that doesn't mean that I can't enjoy it. Ms Dillon, of course, didn't use the c-word. She called it “Irish music” or more specifically “this is a tune from County Tyrone.”

Ewan McLennan was by some distance the best thing I heard over the entire weekend. He came on to the stage and practically whispered "A Mans and Man For A'That". And then, in case we'd missed the point, played "Auld Land Syne" on his guitar. You forget that these tunes, belted out at so many drunken parties, have a real proper melodic beauty if you trust them. But the soft, feathery delivery could wrong-foot you: before long he's bringing the same style to protest songs; turning "Banks of Marble" from a rabble rousing soap box thumper into a meditation on injustice and then topping it with an almost too painful to listen to version of Old Man’s Song.

We're living on the Pension now and it doesn't go too far 
 Not much to show for a life that seems like one long bloody war
When you think of all the wasted lives it makes you want to cry 
 I don't know how to change things but by Christ we'll have tae try

Oh, and an audacious reworking of Bob Dylan’s Blues from the Radio 2 Freewheelin' project. Take a silly, filler song. Slow it down. Deliver the lines as if they mean something even if you don't have the faintest idea what. Someone said that he sang it better than Bob Dylan's version. I don't think that's true. I think that this sort of cover is always sort of kind of engaging in an inter-textual debate with the original. If we didn’t know how Almighty Bob sung it, we wouldn’t we gasping with amazement at Ewan’s reworking.

Celtic indeed.

I think that I shall become the kind of person who likes liquorice I shall make a big thing of it. It's the sort of thing you might right on a character sheet in an RPG to show that you have an interesting personality.

Luke Jackson was by some distance the best thing I heard over the entire weekend. I wish I hadn't raved about him quite so much after Frome, because the set he did in the more intimate Colston Hall 2 was on a whole different level. Five years from now, he will be the biggest thing in folk, unless they steal him from us an make him into a pop star. The photos on his Facebook page show signs that someone is trying to brand him, which would be a shame. There's an honesty, even a naivety to his performance; telling us that a particular song is the one that been in his act for the longest (he's not yet 18) or introducing a traditional number with “I'm not quite sure who wrote this.” He has a deep, mellow voice which lets him pull off an old spiritual like Poor Wayfarin' Stranger with an intensity that I can hardly believe. There's absolutely no sense that he's mimicking a more experienced singer: you feel he's felt it himself. But its the self-written songs which crystallize his own experience: climbing trees, riding his bike in the park, realising he's going to lose track of his three best friends, hearing people on the bus running down teenagers. They are so perfectly done that listening to them almost seems voyeuristic. He encores with Oakham Poachers ("Steve Knightley asked me to do something traditional”) and while its clearly a cover of the Show of Hands arrangement, it suddenly, startling goes into his own bluesy riff on the final line. Astonishing.

"You may now cross off "dead children" on your O'Hooley and Tidow bingo card" tweeted Folk-buddy #1. This was immediately retweeted by O'Hooley and Tidow. Twitter is a powerful friend and a dangerous enemy. At one level, live tweeting events like this is great fun; and occasionally helpful, when other twits tell you what is going on somewhere else. At another, it tempts you to spend the event in the twittersphere, not in the moment (which is always a problem for a writer, even without the 140 character limit). And the acts themselves are reading your tweets. Since Folk Buddies #1 - #4 refused to eat the Hershey bars I purchased from the liquorice shop I idly tweeted "I wonder if the band like American chocolate" "Yes please" tweeted back Mawkin "Enjoy the set..."Which is sweet: but it makes one immediately reluctant to tweet “this band sucked”. Actually, my general rule, being one who does not know anything about music but knows what he likes is to only review acts I've enjoyed. When I hear someone I don't think much of, I generally leave well alone.

(Which is not, by the way to be construed as meaning that if I don't review something I thought it was awful. I had a great time listening to Andy Irving at the the Folk House in May. He's one of my favourite singers. Specially liked his straight down the middle version of the It Was Sad When the Great Ship Went Down to mark the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the wassisname, and his very traditional Stewball. I just didn't get around to putting pen to paper. I also failed to say anything about the very wonderful Monty Award Winning Chris Rickets at the same venue. His version of Leaving of Liverpool reduced the entire audience to tears, and I was impressed as hell that he finished up with What Shall We Do With a Drunken Sailor. Not ironically or post- modernly; he just seemed to trust the song. Neither Andy Irvine nor Chris Rickets were at the folk festival. Now I've confused everybody.)

Instrumental folk is not always my most favourite thing, but Mawkin do it better than anyone I've ever heard. That was precisely 140 characters, that was.

O'Hooley and Tidow were by some distance the best thing I heard over the weekend. The last time I reviewed them, I described them as "depressing" (a fact they apparently remember). Actually, this isn't entirely fair. I would now be more inclined to say "haunting". Some of their songs pass almost unnoticed at the gig and then come back and kick you in the teeth three days later. The musical setting of a sentimental Victorian poem called Little Boy Blue, for example. They hold it, as so many of their lyrics, at arms length; there is something detached, and therefore chilling, about their performance. The verse is pure sentiment; it could almost be an Edwardian parlour ballad. But in the middle of the song, something altogether more contemporary cuts in; with percussive piano and declarative singing, it's an unsettling ultimately very moving shift in direction. (Clever, too: the line "but as he was sleeping an angel song awakened our little boy blue" would have been cloying.) But the tune is deceptive; I suddenly found the melody (“what has become of our little boy blue”) drifting to the top of my consciousness a week later and making me feel sad for no reason at all. There own lyrics love to hold up the ordinary for observation: the astonishing song about the old couple's coach trip to Blackpool piles trivial detail on trivial detail ("and the handbag with the fiddly catch that sometimes nipped her finger / but it matched her coat and sunday shoes so it really didn't matter") with an urgent, driving rhythm. It ends "'Have you enjoyed your day trip?' Vera says 'It were real'." Lancashire people do use "It were real" to mean "I had a good time"; but the line is taken up and repeated over and over until it becomes a sort of Samuel Beckett existential yell at the universe. Or something.

I have also previously raved about Solarferance. Folkbuddies #1, #2 and #3 all bought their album, which proves that I was right. They are the ones who stand on the stage with Macbooks, making strange noises with mortars and pestles and musical saws and live looping them, while singing very detailed close harmony versions of traditional songs. I think Folk-buddy #1 is probably correct that they need to work on their stage personae; Nick in particular has a slight tendency to look like someone doing a send up of disc jockey; but it's early days and what they are doing is fantastically difficult. "I never had but one true love" is awfully clever, The multi lingual Cutty Wren is still the best thing they do; the point, at which, I think, they passed beyond being awfully clever to actually making music. 

Every folk festival, I assume, involves a young woman singing "I'm Being Followed by a Moon Shadow", "Streets of London" and "Leaving on a Jet Plane." I have no problem with this. I would be sorry if it didn't happen. The sense of being at folk festival is an important part of being at folk festival. I have more than once been in a not very pleasant venue drinking not very nice beer when a not very talented young man with a hat, beard and guitar sits on a chair and sings a not very good song about the banking collapse and how it relates to the young lady who is no longer dating him and thought "this is exactly what I signed on for". I described her on twitter as "charming". Folk-buddy #1 wanted to know if my liquorice had been drugged.

Show of Hands did a fairly restrained set. By their standards. Regular readers will be aware that last year's performances was the best set ever done by anyone anywhere and they made no particular attempt to top it. They are never less than very good. We had a Cousin Jack and an AIG, Phil got to do Jamestown and Innocents Song, Steve Got to Home of a Million Dreams (which I don't think is as good as he obviously does) everyone did Keys of Canterbury, and we wound up with Now You Know Will You Come Back To Me. There was a hen night. A group of young ladies with a big banner that read "Getting married but still in love with Steve and Phil". (There are some folk performers, such as Seth Lakeman for example, who you can easily imagine young ladies adoring for their boyish good looks. Phil Beer and Steve Knightley, not so much.) This rather boosted the party atmosphere. I don't think Steve did as much banter as he usually does, since he spent most of the period between the songs engaging in call and response with the girls. Which was fine. In fact it rather underlines what a showman he is; quite able to fool around with the hen party, and then dedicate his last song to them, and say "good luck for the big day" in a stage whisper before quitting the stage. Wanting to postpone the debate about whether objecting to the common fisheries policy -- or indeed listen to a song about a character who objects to the common fisheries policy -- makes one a Nazi, I hung around in the hall and had a chat with the ladies. They'd were serious Show of Hands fans. They'd been calling out for him to sing Poppy Day, which is an incredibly depressing song about a drug dealer and had been at the Albert Hall concert the previous month. They said Now You Know was their favourite song; I said that Cousin Jack always makes me cry because my Daddy was Cornish. We left feeling that we were the best of friends.

That's the kind of band they are: not necessarily my favourite song writers (1) or my favourite live act (2), but never failing to catch the mood of the hall (angry last year, festive this year) and create a corporate experience. Godlike, in other words.

Lucy Ward is beautiful and lovely and funny and clever and I think I am probably in love. She drew a little heart on my CD and was just as lovely meeting the fans off stage as talking to them on stage. The picture of her on her album makes her look like a fey Monroe-ish starlet In real life she has bright blue hair and says that the best thing about Shrewsbury is that every third shop sells cakes. (She lived on macaroni pie during the folk week, apparently.) She has a sense of humour and comic timing which makes you think that she could probably hack it as a stand up comedienne if she wanted to; but in between the bubbling are some very dark songs. Alice in the Bacon Box is about a lady who ends up in the workhouse because someone takes her cardboard box away. Its based on a true story. She's good at making unexpected turns, as with her “traditional English song by Jarvis Cocker” which she does so well and, er, audibly that it made me go back and listen to the original. The recording which catches her stage act the best is Maids When Your Young, which is sung with an absolutely conspiratorial level of filth which is a joy to behold. She was by some distance the best thing I heard over the weekend.

Many people thought that Lady Maisery was the best thing over the whole weekend. There was a squeeze box, clog dancing and a strange Norwegian thing which may really be called "diddling" in which you sort of sing instrumental numbers. And there was a song about a fairy.

Dan Walsh plays the banjo and Will Pound plays the harmonica. Half way through, Dan did his banjo solo. You know that thing where the music gets so quick that's its obviously the climax, and everyone claps, and then he gets even faster? He did that three or four times. Brilliant (and he was properly playing a tune as well, not just showing off.) It was obviously the best bit of musicianship anyone did over the whole weekend the whole weekend (seriously).

"Hmm...8 out of ten" said Will when he returned to the stage.

Some years ago I was involved in the design of a computer game about pirates. There were different kinds of pirate ships, each with different attributes. (It was, as I may have mentioned before, described by the Daily Telegraph as "adequate".) In several years of writing documents and setting up auto-correct functions, I still discovered new ways of miss-spelling "manoeuvrability".

I feel very much the same way about liquorice

I didn't get very near the free stage this year because there was so much going on in other place, but would award several points to an Irish student Celidah band, quite possibly called Really Potcheen, who did things like Galway Girl very nicely and honestly. They described New York Girls as a Bellowhead cover, which says something about the nature of the Tradition.

And the Appliejacks who did appallachian clog dancing. At one point, the nature of the venue meant that the music from upstairs and the music from downstairs was in competition. English Morris dancing and American clog dancing. On Sunday, the man with the big Indian drum taught some of the morris dancers how to dance. 

Now, that's what I call fusion.

(1) Chris Wood
 (2) Chumbawamaba

Friday, March 30, 2012

So, Obviously, Don't Pay Any Attention To Me

Isambard Folk Award
Colston Hall
March 30th

The Isambard Folk Awards, named after the fella who invented bridges, are a newcomers thang. Anyone can send in a CD, the five best get to perform at the finals; the judges say how terrific the standard has been and that music isn't really a competition anyway, and the winner gets to appear on the main stage at the festival next month. All jolly nice. Fairly certain I was the only person in the audience who wasn't in, related, or at any rate connected to, one of the bands.

I was pretty sure I had it down to a two horse race between Solarferance and Misshaped Pearls. Solarferance did a sort of folk electronica, somewhere between the early Jim Moray and Duotone: that thing where the musicians are playing acoustic instruments and then mixing them live on stage with apple macs, so they end up accompanying themselves and creating what soundscapes. The process may have been taken slightly to an extreme: not only was the good old Cutty Wren accompanied by a mortar and pestle and musical saw, but it was also sung simultaneously in English and Welsh. (So we now know that the Welsh for "Milder and Mulder" is "Dibber and Dobber".) And when your act positively invites comparisons with Mr Moray, maybe its a little courageous to attempt Lucy Wan, without a rap artist but with a reel of sellotape. However Nick Janeaway and Sarah Owen can actually properly sing and the wierd sounds they produced were genuine response to the songs themselves. I particular liked the fading reverberations of "...and what will you do when your father gets home?" in Lucy Wan . (In real life "wait til your father gets home" is proverbially said to a naughty child who has catapulted a pebble through the dining room window; less often to a lad who has made his sister pregnant, chopped off her head and spoiled her pretty bodee.) Much my favourite act, partly because it wasn't like anything else and partly because, in a funny way, it was the most traditional thing of the evening. 

But I fully expected the judges to give the prize to Misshaped Pearls, a big seven piece world music ensemble with a Taboresque leading lady who offered complicated instrumentation of Latin lyrics by Ovid and finished up waxing all south American with something which I didn't get the title of written by a Mexican nun. Not precisely my sort of thing, but awfully polished and professional, with a big rich sound that was arguably closer to being actual music than the first lot. 

On balance, I ruled out the opening act, Common Tongues, who seemed to be doing very pleasant, singery songer-writery acoustic rock; very listenable to but quite like a lot of other things I'd heard somewhere. I also didn't think that the rather interesting Welsh five piece Evening Chorus, who started out doing close harmony that veered dangerously in the direction of the barbers shop, but then expanded into long drawn out complicated multi-layered rambles, putting me rather in mind of Alasdair Roberts at his more expansive, would get it.

"Either the clever electronic people", I said, "Or the big world music band, with just a small chance of the interesting Welsh five piece."

So, naturally, the judges gave it to Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker. Josienne is a lady who sings semi-traditional songs with her hands, squeezing out an awful lot of emotion and drama, as if she was personally gutted by the fact that her Donald works on the sea. Ben plays fantastically detailed tinkly-tonkly guitar, counterpointing her music rather in the manner of Mr Martin Simpson, who he lists as an influence, as does everybody else. 

I can only suppose that the judges gave it to them because they were clearly the most talented people in the room. If not necessarily the cleverest or most innovative. 

Which is, like, crazy talk.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Yes, I Think It Would Be A Good Idea

Tony Benn & Roy Bailey
St George's Bristol
29 March

I am guessing that one or two of the congregation at St Georges on Thursday night already knew what Ghandi said when someone asked him what he thought of Western civilisation. A lot of them had probably heard of Gerard Winstanley and the Diggers. But when Tony Benn tells an old political story, you clap anyway. I wasn't quite clear if we were clapping the actual passage from Soul of Man Under Socialism which he read out, or the sacred name of Oscar Wilde, or Tony Benn, national treasure. It didn't really seem to matter.

I can't remember when Tony Benn became a national treasure. In the 80s, the smart thing to say was that there were only two decent politicians, Tony Benn and Enoch Powell, the honest commie and the honest fascist. There may be something in that, in as much as they both regarded saying what they thought as more important than advancing their political careers. Although Benn worked pretty hard at advancing his political career, as well. If he had succeeded in replacing Dennis Healey as deputy leader of the Labour Party in 1981, as he very nearly did, then the whole political landscape of 21st century Britain would probably be exactly the same.

He's very frail now: he had to be helped onto the stage, though he stood up to speak. The idea was that he would do some political readings and tell some political anecdotes; and Roy Bailey would sing some protest songs in between. The whole thing was meant to add up to an informal history of the radical movement in England. Bailey's opening number was a powerful rant about English school history lessons, somewhere between "What Did You Learn In School?" and "1066: And All That." The songs were meant to reflect what Benn had been talking about, so if Benn spoke about the Peasants Revolt Bailey would sing "With Ball and Tyler, Wraw and Lister, Grindcobbe and Jack Straw"; if Benn spoke about the Diggers and Bailey would (of course) sing "In 1649, to St George's Hill..."  But fairly rapidly, this format broke down and Benn just talked and Bailey just sang songs. It worked just fine. 

We probably already knew that his mother thought that the Bible was the story of the conflict between the kings, who had the power, and the prophets, who preached righteousness, and that he decided when he was very small which side he wanted to be on. We'd also heard the one about the women who tied teddy bears to the fence outside Greenham Common (which contained enough weapons to blow up the whole world several times over) and were sent to prison for a breach of the peace. He would wound up his section ("that's all I have to say to you...") straight after the interval, leaving Bailey to fill the second half by himself. It wasn't clear if Benn was too tired to carry on, or had merely lost his place in his notes. I think this meant that Bailey had to resort to standards he wouldn't otherwise have sung, but he knows one or two protest songs so this was hardly a problem. He had to work quite hard to persuade the audience to join in. (His slow, thoughtful World Turned Upside Down is just as valid as Billy Bragg's electric one or Dick Guaghan's snarled one, but harder to sing along to. In the interval a local choir, possibly the Roving Blades, sung Ye Diggers All Stand Up without any provocation at all.)  But with a bit of prodding, the Bristol culteratti were persuaded to agree that wherever workin' men are out on strike, Joe Hill was probably at their side. Rosselson was well represented, of course, not only "World Turned Upside Down" but also a very touching "Palaces of Gold". (I couldn't place the very touching ballad about the old man who lives as a recluse because "they say that in his younger day he loved another man" but it sounded Rosselsonian to me.) So was the aforementioned Robb Johnson: we had the repetitive, rabble rousing "Medals Bloody Medals" and a more thoughtful piece about Vic Williams, the soldier who became a conscientious objector during Blair's war, which I felt summed up the political message of the evening rather well. 

The enemy ain't the other side wherever they draw the line
The enemy is the ruling class who draw the bloody line

I've been at revivalist meetings. They usually involve a good looking but learned preacher talking for an hour and half about the second chapter of Nehemiah, with references to the original Greek. And I'm not sure why everyone complains about preaching to the choir. The choir aren't necessarily particularly religious, they just joined up because they like singing. Benn's beliefs become progressively narrow as he gets older: he reads from Utopia and the writings of the Diggers about how there should be no private property and how everyone should share everything and how real wealth would be not having to worry about the future because the state will take such good care of you when you get old. He gets a big laugh by saying that crazy ideas like giving women the vote were once dismissed as "Utopian". He assures us that Cromwell solved the house of Lords by making a law that said "The House of Lords shall no longer meet, either here or anywhere else". Everyone agreed that war was a jolly bad thing. Nelson Mandela was included on the list of non-violent protesters. I don't know if everyone in the audience was really a pacifist communist. I don't know how Oliver Cromwell would have got to to abolish the house of lords and the royal family if he'd been a pacifist. I don't know if there is really any hypocrisy involved in swearing allegiance to the Queen and then trying, democratically, to replace her with an elected head of state. I'm not sure that the army is the best career to go for if you are a conscientious objector. It didn't actually seem to matter terribly. 

Benn was pleased that the concert was taking place in a former church because the progressive movement has been bound up with religion from the very beginning; whether we are talking John Ball and the peasants' revolt, the conscientious objectors who felt that they couldn't be warriors and followers of the Prince of Peace and the Diggers who talked about a creator-of-reason rather than the traditional Christian God. But this doesn't prevent Bailey finishing the evening by belting out the violently anti-religious (and very good) "I ain't afraid of your Yahweh, I ain't afraid of your Allah, I ain't afraid of your Jesus" to thunderous applause.

In his last illness, a male nurse told Bernard Shaw that he had to get better because he was a national institution. "You mean an ancient monument" snapped Shaw. Well, quite.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

How Do You Spot An Irish Boomerang?

Ron Kavana
Cellar Upstairs Folk Club
17 March

St Patricks night in the Cellar Upstairs Folk Club, hidden away in a back street near glamourous Euston Station, was a bit special. I was there because I wanted to hear Mr Ron Kavana who regular readers will remember won the Monty Award for Best Gig of the Year in 2010. Irish guy with guitar. He sings traditional Irish songs: ("the Night the Goat Got Loose on Grand Parade") and traditional Irish songs he wrote himself ("Reconciliation") and modern old fashioned protest songs. ("We laid the last old soldier to rest today / a lingering relic of the older way") 

There don't seem to be too many opportunities to catch him live: he describes himself as having "gone amateur" and complains at some length about the pricing policies of the CD sellers: there was no point in him selling copies of his new collection of Irish folk music, or his epic musical history of Ireland, because Amazon and HMV are selling them to the punters for less than he could get them wholesale. Not quite as intimate a gig as the one in the Bristol pub; possibly the St Patrick Nights atmosphere didn't lend itself perfectly to his intimate, meditative, interpretative singing-around-the-songs style of delivery. He suggested that the audience join in with Mountains of Morne in whatever key, rhythm or tune we liked. Some members of the audience took this a little literally and decamped to the bar when they were politely asked by the regulars not to drown out the act. 

There appeared to be some controversy about whether, as Ron thinks, the stanza which says

I've seen England's king from the top of a bus
And I've never known him, but he means to know us.
And tho' by the Saxon we once were oppressed,
Still I cheered, God forgive me, I cheered with the rest.

is the heart of the song shamefully omitted by some performers; or whether in fact he has discovered or interpolated a treacherous new verse. Obviously, I've never been oppressed by Oliver Cromwell and shouldn't have an opinion, but it looks to me as if the whole song, with or without the "bus" verse is about assimilation: Paddy tells Mary that this London is a funny old place, but he's not actually planning on going home any time soon. 

But very much the star of the evening, from my point of view, was the actual club: an old-fashioned folk club of the sort that I didn't think existed any more. Upstairs in a pub; a little room that had that complete lack of atmosphere normally associated with church halls. Very friendly: lots of people chatted to me. Give or take a loud lady, lots of appropriate singing along with the act. And, before each of Mr Kavana's sets an open mic in which regulars at the club got up to sing. Every one of whom was worth listening to, and several of whom you would have happily paid to hear. Didn't get any names down, unfortunately: there was a dotty fellow who did comic readings of cod Oirish poetry; a couple who did traditional Irish songs; and a fellow who sang "Price of My Pig". But the thing which really blew my head off were the two old time fiddle sets -- that very delicate, understated, polka style violin -- performed by a a very elderly gentleman with the remains of an American accent. He turned out to be (I had to come home and check, but I'm right) Tom Paley, usually referred to as "the legendary" whose been active in traditional American music since the 50s and once performed with Woody Guthrie. It really isn't every club where you get a bona fide legend playing support.

At the end of Ron's set there was still raucous Paddy's Night noise coming from the downstairs bar, so he wave persuaded back onto the stage to do his famous Midnight on the Water (recorded by the Watersons among others) his meta-song incorporating the traditional American waltz tune. Mr Paley couldn't get his fiddle tuned in time to join in; but someone spontaneously accompanied him on a musical saw. 

I don't think the existence of this club is quite enough to make me relocate to London. I see they have one Leon Rosselson (who he? ed) playing there in June.

It doesn't come back, but it sings about how it's going to some day. 

Friday, March 16, 2012

Jewel in the Crown

Martin Carthy 
Kings Place London 
16 March


He comes out onto the stage; peers out into the audience; says "Hello!"; pauses to re-tune his guitar. And straight into "Come, listen to my story, lads, and hear me tell my tale, how OVER the seas from ENG-LAND, I was condemned to sail". And we're off on another mixture of long, long ballads, give away comic songs, and "The Fall of Paris". At one level, he's a showman, of course he is – the walking onto the stage at the opening of the second set and reciting a Victorian music hall monologue (this time "Me Mother Doesn't Known I'm On the Stage") has been honed over many decades of gigging, of finding out what works and what doesn't. He always opens with Jim Jones because he's found that Jim Jones is the perfect song to open on. But it's still the naturalness which floors me; that sense that he'd be singing these songs even if the audience hadn't turned up.

He does the one about the Blind Harper who stole the kings favourite horse, which is one of three he regularly claims as his favourite; he does Patrick Spens which he says has only recently come back into his repetoire. Everyone jokes about folk songs which go on for ever and ever; but in fact, songs like Sir Patrick really, really gain from being song in full. It takes 25 verses.  (Martin Simpson rattles through in a dozen or so.) Because it's a story, and leaving in all the verses makes it clear and easy to follow; we're in no doubt about why the King needs Patrick to set sail in such a hurry, nor why he has to come back in an equal rush.

He winds up with the best double-whammy you could hope for; the epic Prince Heathen and the silly Feathery Wife; both, in different ways, about love: the evil domineering love of the satanic nobleman for lady Margaret; the devoted love of the nagging wife who comes up with the ruse to free the farmer from his faustian bargain.

I spent some time in this forum earlier in the year trying to answer the question "What is a folk-song, anyway?" Carthy's Prince Heathen could stand as a test-case. It's Carthy who matched the words to the incongruously jolly tune; its also Carthy who adapted Child Ballad 104 (I looked it up) into modern English. 

The Child version has the refrain:

"O bonny may, winna ye greet now?"
"Ye heathenish dog, nae yet for you."

which Carthy freely turns into

"O lady will you weep for me? Lady tell me true"
"Ah, never yet ye heathen dog, and never shall for you!"

Sometimes he's fairly close to the original:

"A drink, a drink, frae Prince Heathen's hand,
Though it were frae yon cauld well strong!"
"O neer a drap, Prince Heathen," said one,
Till ye row up your bonny young son."


"A drink! A drink! The young girl cried
All from Prince Heathen's hand!"
"Oh never a drop Prince Heathen cried
Til you wrap up your son!" 

But sometimes, he's bringing his own imagination to the printed text:

He's taen her out upon the green,
Where she saw women never ane,
But only him and 's merry young men,
Till she brought hame a bonny young son.

Becomes the horribly brutal:

So he's laid her all on the green
And his merry men stood around
And how they laughed and how they mocked,
As she brought forth a son

But it's recognisably the same story; except, of course, that he's changed the ending: Carthy rightly feels that after the Princess has kidnapped lady Margaret, wiped out her entire family, raped her, and imprisoned her in a dungeon, its unacceptable for Anon to imply that, in the end, his heart was softened and they lived happily every after. Traditional song or new song? For all we know, the anonymous source who submitted the "traditional" version to Mr Child might have interpreted and earlier version just as freely.

A lot of Martin's identiy as a folk-singer continues to depend on the idea of source-singers: for every song reconstructed or re-invented out of a printed source, there is one that he got from an old recording on a wax cylinder. His My Bonny Boy is Young But He's Growing comes off a recording Vaughan Williams made of a pub landlord in 1907. He kisses his fingers to show how beautiful the long dead singer's voice was. (*)

"These songs are the real crown jewels" he says before Prince Heathen "And this is one of the jewels in the crown." His own acoustic guitar is "in hospital" but his guitar maker has leant him a beautiful instrument to use in the interim. At the end of the song, he allows the guitar to take the bow and acknowledge the applause.

(*) You can listen to it here, through the wonders of the internet. In places it sounds uncannily (even disturbingly) like Mr Carthy's version. 

Friday, March 09, 2012

All You Fascists Bound To Lose

Robb Johnson 
Bristol Folk House 
9th March


Just occasionally, I wonder if I might give up on the whole the geek thing; that maybe it wouldn't be the end of the world if there was a folk gig in Bristol and I wasn't there. And then there is an evening like tonight, and I remember why I started to listen to this stuff to begin with.

Robb Johnson's gig at the was literally like nothing I've ever been to before. He was going to wind up his set with a sentimental song about talking to a fox on his way home from the pub. (The fox says its heading for the street where he grew up, where he used to pick blackberries; but there's a supermarket there now "and none of the fruit tastes of anything at all.") But someone from the audience calls out a title, so he sings that as well, so instead of lyricism we end the night in chanting: "We hate the Tories! We hate the Tories! Yeah Yeah Yeah! And Tony Blair! Same difference there!" Except, of course, that he comes straight back onto the stage and encores with "Be Reasonable (Demand The Impossible Now)" It's a small audience, but they all seem to be fans, or friends, or his. So everybody except me knows all the songs:

No master, no landlord, no flag, no guru,
No gauleiter, no commissar,
Just justice and poetry with jam on it too,
When they ask 'who's in charge here?' We'll all say....

"WE ARE!" calls out the audience as one. But even this isn't the end...he can't leaves the stage, and the finally finishes on The Siege of Madrid, and heartfelt mediation about the fall of fascism. Two guys stood up at the back, arm in arm, and started singing along to the whole thing, making clenched fists at the appropriate moments. ("Each child born is born an anarchist") I've have never, repeat, never felt a more corporate communal feeling at a folk gig, or indeed performance of any kind...never had the sense that everyone in the audience wants to get up and shake each others hands because we've just shared such a great....thing. 

How to describe him? There's an element of Billy Bragg in the deliberately naive tub-thumping socialism; folk with a fairly large dollop of punk sensibility behind it. But it's lyrical as well; "be reasonable" is much prettier than it really needs to be. He can do satire: possibly the highlight of the night was a ranting, comedic, diatribe against the press corruption, ending up in a grotesque parody of Rupert Murdoch: "We're sorry...we're sorry...we're sorry we got caught"...which leads directly into a straightforwardly chilling rant about the summer's rioting:

Cops shot Mark Duggan on Thursday night
When his family asked why, they wouldn't say a word
When they still said nothing Saturday night
Tottenham burned

There's a pastoralism to it: it seems that once we've overthrown the state and a lot of our time is going to be spent drinking tea and sitting in fields. We start in fully grown up agitprop mode -- ("they cut all the benefits, close all our libraries") but just when you start to think that maybe a whole evening of being harangued is going to get tiring, he starts to talk with great affection and wit about his pupils (he is, of all things, a primary school teacher) but there's still a socialist moral to be drawn from a series of perfectly observed vignettes about his kids. ("Little people, big ideas.")

I don't endorse all his politics. I think maybe its okay to send Christmas presents to soldier, even if we think that the war in Afghanistan was a catastrophic misjudgement. I don't think we middle class folkies would really be that happy in the anarchist New Jerusalem. I think that bankers might be slightly easy hate figures, although I did like the idea of a lot of city wide-boys getting trapped in a pub basement at the same time as the Copiapo disaster. (People come from all over the country with whatever bricks and rubble they can spare to make sure they don't escape.) But as I've said before, I think "agreeing" with a song is a category mistake. You don't have to agree with all his politics to agree with what he is doing: creating a communal outpouring of joy based around the idea that things could, maybe, be different from how they are. 

As the other fellow said: the song's the thing.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012


Folk Music – A Very Short Introduction
by Mark Slobin

In the movie "A Mighty Wind" the bland Weaver-esque Main Street Singers take to the stage at a big folk benefit gig and immediately ask the audience: "Does anyone want to hear some folk music?" In the same movie, the more-authentic-than-thou Folksmen find themselves arguing that The Star Spangled Banner and Purple Haze are examples of folk music. Anyone who's ever been to a concert felt a cringe of recognition.

Folk singers are indeed pretty self-conscious about being folk singers. It isn't just Steve Knightley howling "we need roots": it's Jim Moray charmingly asking the audience if they know what a Child Ballad is, and Chris Wood paying tribute to "Anon" as the greatest songwriter who ever lived. It sometimes feels as if folk music is the main thing which folk music is about. 

So what is folk music? Mark Slobin is an academic. He studies something called ethnomusicology and he doesn't know. It would be fair to say that much of what he is interested in -- Hungarian marraige ceremonies and the state appropriation of peasant music in the old Soviet nations -- wouldn't be recognised as folk music by the average English or American concert goer. The only modern English singer who appears in his index is Kate Rusby. Bob Dylan is mentioned in passing

He does think there is such a thing as folk music and that we know it when we see it. But he throws up his hands in despair when looking for a definition. The nearest he gets is a quote from One Of Those Sociologists who had did a research project in which he talked to every folk group, god help him, in Milton Keynes. "There can be no real definition of folk music, beyond saying that it was the kind of music played by those who called themselves folk performers" he concludes.

That's actually a good deal more helpful than it sounds. It's like "Science Fiction". You can define it so widely that Jane Eyre is sci-fi (it involves telepathy) or so narrowly that Star Trek is not (warp drive? warp bollocks, more like) but we know which would be more likely to be discussed at a sci-fi convention.

Last week I went to the Frome Folk Festival. I listened to songs which poor people really did listen to in the days before the gramophone (e.g Spiers and Boden singing All Along And Down A Lee) and songs that were more or less sophisticated pastiches of that kind of thing (e.g Steve Knightley's Transported). But I also heard modern compositions by young men with guitars who wanted to explain in some detail how they felt about the girl who had dumped them; and a band playing middle eastern instrumental numbers on instruments I didn’t recognise. And lots of Morris Dancing. One sort of see why they all go together, where, say, a Beatles cover band wouldn't have done, but what did they actually have in common?  Slobin cites another academic who says rather desperately "Acoustic instruments that can be heard by everyone within earshot, a certain musical simplicty and acccessible thoughtful understandable lyrics are the most commonly quoted reasons for an interest in contemporary folk music"

Not that specific definitions aren’t possible: when I interviewed a couple of local promoters last year, I was told in no uncertain terms that folk music was lyrics-based song-writing using open tunings and avoiding blues changes. Very true, no doubt, but not the kind of definition which would interest your average ethnomusicologist. .

Slobin is very interested in the trajectories of individual songs: where they come from; where they go; what they are for. Twinkle Twinkle Little Star is almost his archetypal folk song: everyone knows it; no-one knows or cares who wrote it; but it gets passed on from parents to children because it can be used as a singing game or a lullaby. Indeed, I think “song with a use” might be a possible definition of what Slobin means by folk music. A song's use might be to encourage everyone on a chain gang to dig in time with each other; or to encourage your team to score goals, or to calm down a stroppy baby. He claims that a western ologist once played a piece of popular American music to a Native American and asked him what he thought of it. The Navajo said that he couldn’t say if he liked it or not until he knew what it was good for. A lot of people in the book seem to produce these kinds of gnomic aphorisms. "You and your dried words...The meaning of my words is in the moisture of my breath which carries them" "To you, they are words: to me, they are voices in the forest." I suppose traditional peoples really do speak like that. But is seems suspiciously close to how hippies and folkies would like them to speak. 

For something to really be folk music, as opposed to performance art which some professional musician has given that label, it needs to be circulating without an author "out there" in the musical culture. Playground rhymes and football chants are about the closest we can get, nowadays, and they hardly count as “music” by most people’s definition. (You wouldn't buy them on a CD or listen to them at a concert, would you?) Didn't the Opies find that, when they asked children to sing them songs, they literally didn't understand what they were being asked for? The whole idea of music turns out to be another one of those pesky Western constructs. Slobin thinks that a Muslim might literally not understand that we regard the call to prayer and the songs a mother sings to her baby as two examples of the same kind of thing.

Football songs or a playground chants are anonymous: silly words just get stuck onto classical tunes, pop tunes, and very often hymns. But then, a great number of Woody Guthrie's songs were simply new words to old tunes: in some cases, he didn't do much more than take a hymn and substitute the word "union" for the word "Jesus". American folk's most holy martyr, Joe Hill, was writing what a science fiction fan would easily identify as "filk". Slobin talks about a process of “folklorization” whereby something which had a known author is passed from listener to listener, possibly changing in the process, and thus enters the musical culture. A pop song or an advertising jingle can easily become "folklorized" in this way; swapping songs on YouTube might even be a modern version of folklorization.

Slobin is skeptical about the existence of a dying oral folk tradition in rural England and the American south which Cecil Sharp and John Lomax fortuitously preserved. Barbara Allen may be the most frequently collected Anglo American song (that is: many different collectors have heard different people singing different versions of it in different places) but it had been very frequently written down and published before the big revival. (*) The people who sang it to Cecil Sharp might very well have learned it from songbooks or even early gramophone records. He demonstrates that John Lomax learned the the cowboy song "I ride an old paint..." in a saloon in 1908, although he learned it, not from a real cowboy but from another college educated folklore student. It was published by Carl Sandburg  in "The Great American Song Bag". Aaron Copland had used it as part of his classical ballet "Rodeo" before Woody Guthrie recorded for Alan Lomax. Gurthrie probably learned the song from the Sandburg book. But this is okay, says Slobin because Guthrie re-folklorized it, adding verses about the Oakies and the dustbowl migration. This doesn't seem to me to amount to folkorization: it sounds to me like producing a more heavily authored version, just like turning Casey Jones into Casey Jones The Union Scab. (The Union Scab version is definitely Joe Hill's song.) Sloban points out that there are now lots of performances of "I Ride an Old Paint" on Youtube, including an anoymous lady in a cowboy hat and a chinese child with a toy organ. Which rather makes it sound as if “folklorization" just means “the song has been sung by lots of different people over the years”

Which isn't, come to think of it, a terrible definition. I would guess that there are more extant recordings of Yesterday than there are of the Two Sisters; but each new version of Yesterday consciously depends on the late Paul McCartney's version of the song, and indeed, of George Martin's recording of him singing it; but no single version of the Two Sisters depends on any other or supersedes any other. The song is just out there and anyone can have a go at it.

I enjoyed the sections about "Celtic" music and didgerydoos. It isn't quite clear what Celtic music actually has to do with the Celts; it isn't even clear what the different kinds of music which call themselves Celtic have to do with each other: "no one has identified traditional structural, meldodic or rhyhtmic elements that can be isolated as Celtic". But it does seem as if Irish people and Welsh people positively started to play what they at any rate believed to be old songs because their languages were a lost cause and their songs were something they could cling to and use to represent what was theirs. (English teachers, as Welsh people never tire of reminding us, used to beat children who they caught speaking Welsh in school; they found it rather harder to stop their parents singing old Welsh songs at home). Modern music with the label "Celtic" is made by professionals, played at concerts, sold on records. "It only exists after it has been produced and marketed: It has not existence outside of its commodity form." So how is it folk music? Because, er, it doesn't sell too well, so the publishers market it on their folk labels.

Lots of Irish and Cornish people went to Australia, so Australian folk music can be quite a lot like Irish music, and therefore distantly connected to the Celtic thang, but apparently some Ozzie groups have transmogrified into, god help us, “folk rock bush bands” which incorporate the didgerydoo but apparently not the wobbleboard. The didgerydoo doesn't seem to have been that big a deal for the First Peoples; it was a hollowed out log that that you blew down in certain religious ceremonies, but it has become a signifier for Australian-ness and in particular for the idea that the Aborigines were specially spiritual and in touch with nature and stuff. It has a distinct sound, of course (Jim Moray uses it in Leaving Australia and Christ Ricketts in Bound For South Australia) but Slobin thinks that it is the idea of the instrument -- what it symbolizes -- that has caused a separate musical sub-culture to grow up around it. "Turned into a myth, the aboriginal's cultural essence distills into a single object made from a log". The sound of the didgerydoo is thought by fans to be bound up with the Native Australians respect for the environment, and fans think that just listening to it will help you "reconnect with nature, earth energy and each other". They don’t seem to be playing traditional Native Australian tunes: it's the instrument itself which is special.

This reminded me of Joseph Campbell’s odd idea that free floating things called "myths", shorn of their cultural context can return your mind to a blissful, telegraph-wire free utopia. But it's also maybe not too far from Steve Knightley's idea that our stories and our songs will connect us with our roots, with all questions about who “we” are taken for granted.

Ursula Le Guin famously said that she wrote science fiction because science fiction was what her publisher called the kind of thing she wrote: but folk music is a label which certain professional musicians wish to apply to the kind of thing they sing. Martin Carthy's Prince Heathen and Jim Moray's Lord Douglas are not part of any process of folklorization: they are the result of the conscious study of multiple written versions. (But I suppose that some folkies may sing Prince Heathen in Carthy's version and believe that they are singing something unchanged since the Olden Days.) Reading this book made me wonder if it's the label which is important, symbolizing something about the Olden Days for certain middle class English people in the way that the didgerydoo does for certain Australian hippies? 

Chris Wood says that when he sings a song, he feels the ghost of the person who taught it to him standing behind him: but that person learned the song from someone else, so there is a long chain of ghosts standing behind him. You only really become a folk singer, he says, when you understand that one day you will be one of the ghosts. I don't think it matters very much whether that chain of ghosts is real or imaginary, any more than it really matters what aborigines did with their didgerydoos before white people arrived on their island. What matters is the idea. 

(*) The haunting version of the song performed as part of the Cecil Sharp project doesn't sound as if it has been carefully honed by Anon to fit the needs of a new continent; it sound more like a product of misremembering and mishearing: "Sweet William died on a Saturday night, and Barbara on a Sunday; the old woman died for the love of both, she died on Easter Monday" sounds like a something out of a playground chant: the old woman has found her way into the story simply to provide a rhyme.