Thursday, March 08, 2012



The King died and then the Queen died - History
The King died and then the Queen died of grief - Story
No one knew why the Queen was so ill: but it turned out that it was with grief over the death of the King -- Plot


A movie on the theme "The Death of the First Mrs Kane", or "Was little Charlie Really A Victim of Child Abuse?" or "The Woman On the Ferry With the Parasol: Her Backstory" could, in fact be imagined. It is even possible to imagine a good movie on those themes. A good director could make a good movie on any theme. Of course the death of a failed politician's ex-wife in a car crash is a possible set-up for a story. (Was it just an accident? Or suicide? Or did Prince Philip dunnit?) But if the story is worth telling in it's own right, there is no need to give the main character the same name as one in Citizen Kane. And if the story is NOT worth telling, why does it become any more worth telling if the name of the main character is the same as one in Citizen Kane? "Because every time I hear the narrator of the News on the March sequence mention that Kane's first wife died in an accident, I want to know what really happened." But nothing "really happened": she's only a character in a story. One of the things she does in that story is die mysteriously. That is the point of her. Your film will not tell us what really happened. It will just be some shit you made up. Out of your head.

Will anyone claim that such films (even if well made) could ever be regarded as expansions or additions or extensions to CItizen Kane, as true, in their own way, as Orson Welles' version? And will anyone say that the original movie would be improved (or left the same) if  it became a truth universally accepted that "the story of Citizen Kane" comprised "Orson Welles epic + Andrew's home movie"? Does anyone think that it would be a good idea for some third party to bring on stage what Welles left off it, to say outright things that he chose to hint at, to provide answers where he only gave questions? Could anyone possibly be stupid enough to think that the question 'Doctor Who?' might one day be answered?

Does anyone remember the daft attempt to recut The Godfather and The Godfather II into chronological sequence, on the assumption that TV audiences are confused by non-linear story telling and freaked out by the expression "son of a bitch"? The Sicilian material from Godfather II came first, then the bulk of Godfather I, then the 70s material from part II. Will anyone say that this made no difference: that a film in which the murders of  Don Ciccio and Fredo Corleone are juxtaposed is the same as one in which they are separated by four hours of screen time? That Coppola carelessly filmed his epic out of order and the TV version corrected the mistake? That the Magicians Nephew is the first book in the Narnia Series?

Granted, I have picked examples of movies where the plot is a lot different from the story: where the order in which events unfold is a lot different from the order in which they actually happened. (But nothing actually happened. They are stories.) But the same is true to a greater or lessor extent of all fiction: what happened is never as important as the way in which we are told that it happened. A film which includes a steamy bed scene is not the same as one in which the lovers tantalizingly close the bedroom door, even if, as a matter of fact, in both versions, copulation can be assumed to have taken place. A film which depicts some hideous childhood abuse in shocking detail, and then adds a caption that the victim suffered from mental problems for the rest of their life is not the same film  as one in which it is slowly revealed that a mental patient suffered from some horrible trauma when they were a child. A detective story starts with a dead body and works backwards to the murder and the motive; a thriller may start with the motive and move forward to the murder. The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe is so the first Narnia Book. The Phantom Menace was such a bad idea. Is any of this complicated? 


Wednesday, March 07, 2012


Ernie: I am going to do Singin' in the Rain...
Eric: Gene Kelly did that very well.
Ernie: Yes, but I'm going to do it just that little bit better.


We sit in your front room, which looks like the bedroom of a very rich 14 year old.

We move the pile of this months 52 DC comics (cost: roughly what the government says a single person needs to live on for three weeks); brush the dust of our latest box of Dalek action figures (cost: two weeks child benefit) ; pause disc 27 of our complete Battlestar Gallactica boxed set and say "Oh, you aren't getting worked up about some comic book are you? The original graphic novel will always be there, and anyone who is friendly with psychopaths can find it. You don't even have to read the new thing if you don't want to. It really doesn't matter."

We are, to a man, the same people who said George Lucas Raped Our Inner Children when he made a small change to the screen play of Star Wars and that only a genius like like Peter Jackson could have taken such a boring book and turned it into the single greatest masterpiece since John Logi Baird invented the cinema.

If Geek B says something which Geek A doesn't agree with, then Geek A's first resort is always to say that Geek B is geekier than he is. You think Phantom Menace was a good movie, and I think that it was a travesty, but you are the sort of person who cares about Star Wars so I'm certainly not going to pay any attention to YOU.

We are also the ones who read bad reviews of good movies and say "What right have YOU got to say if a movie is good or bad, having never made a movie yourself? Critics are just embittered frustrated writers! No movie is good or bad there's only what you just happen to like and anyway you are only pretending that you enjoyed the Artist because you don't want to admit you wasted two hours watch a terrible film if you were an honest-to-god all right joe you'd watching Twilight with me wobbly sets wobbly sets wobbly sets."

Goo goo g'joob. Goo goo g'joob.


I am dimly aware that, in the 1970s, some corporate House-Roys tried to write Kirbyless continuations of the New Gods. One of them was called "The Return of the New Gods", which was a pretty good signal to stay away. They might as well have called it "The New Adventures of the New Gods" or "The New Gods Babies." I think I may even own a couple of 1980s issues by people who should have known better and John Byrne.

They are irrelevant. 

The Fourth World is, for better or or worse, and very often for worse, what it is, Hunger Dogs and all. Jim Stalin can pretend that Darksied died, if he wants to. It has precisely the same impact as if I were sitting in a pub and said "Fnaar, fnaar, what if the Green Goblin had a WILLY? Fnaar, fnaar, what if he fucked Gwen Stacy behind Spider-Man's back." It's not part of the comic. It's just something I said when I was drunk. It doesn't become part of the comic even if Marvel inexplicably hire me (say on the basis of some incoherent Star Trek rip-off I worked on twenty years ago) and write "Stan Lee presents" on the front of my sad little wank fantasy.

I haven't read Sins Past. For all I know it is quite good.

Actually, the Fourth World is a pretty bad example, because the original is so definitively enormous that it makes everything that has been pinned on to it after the fact look pitifully small  and insignificant. I can paint a man's willy on my poster of the Mona Lisa if I want to: the Mona Lisa is still the Mona Lisa and I am still a pathetic little child who paints willies on posters. It doesn't become a witty subversion of male sexuality just because I scrawled it on a famous painting. Even if I am quite a good painter and it's quite a good painting of a man's willy. 

And please, please don't say "It doesn't matter that he painted it on the Mona Lisa. He could have painted it somewhere else. Consider the willy on its own merits." It does, he didn't, and you can't

Superman would have been a better example. Everyone has long since forgotten Man of Steel, and I seem to remember that Man of Steel was quite a good comic, provided you pretended that it didn't have anything to do with Superman. If New Gods is a vast adamantine monolith which repels every attempt to paint graffiti on it, which admittedly it isn't, then Superman is more like a vast lake whose composition is only slightly changed when someone pisses it it.

It's rather a shame that so many cooks spoiled Siegel and Shuster's rather piquant broth quite so quickly. It is worth going back and tasting their original flavour from time to time: it really is fresher and crisper and more bracing than anything that was added to it afterwards. But the broth was well and truly spoilt, and Action Comics # 1 now has almost nothing to do with Superman. So many ingredients – Jor El and Jimmy Olsen and Lex Luther, to say nothing of Kandor and Krypto and Kryptonite were added by subsequent hands. Even I am not pedantic enough to say "Superman's news paper is really called the Daily Star, not the Daily Planet, because that's what Siegel and Shuster originally wrote." All Star Superman is connected to Action Comics # 1 only in a manner of speaking, like the lumberjack who said that he still used his grandfather's axe, but admitted that it had had a new handle and perhaps a new head.

There are fans for whom post-Kirby New Gods does matter: it is quite possible to be a fan of Darkseid and never to have read New Gods. There are websites that straightfacedly say that The Great Darkness Saga is the "greatest" Darkseid story. 

They are wrong.

a series of essays by Andrew Rilstone 

if you do not enjoy this, then you will almost certainly not enjoy Who Sent The Sentinels ("the finest analysis of Watchmen that I have so far read" -- Eddie Campbell)

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.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Don't Shoot The Support Act, He's Doing His Best

Laura Marling 
Colston Hall 
3 March   

Dear God, I had forgotten how unpleasant mainstream audiences were. These aren't people who drifted in off the street; the tickets were hard to get; Laura’s last gig in Bristol sold out overnight: people must, like us, have leapt onto the website first thing in the morning to nab tickets while they were available. Maybe all the truefans had headed for the, er, mosh, and we foolish ones who had taken the front row of seating were surrounded by people who didn't really want to be there in the first place.

Yeah, I'm a grumpy old man and everything, I've read serious critics (well, Jule Burchill) arguing that only a total saddos listen to music: it’s there to subliminally affect your mood while you are doing something else like washing dishes or having sex. Someone on Facebook was surprised to be asked to shut up when he talked over the music at a Billy Bragg concert, and concluded that he’d wandered into some weird religious cult. Which is a fair point, actually.

So, they talked, all through the first support act, Pete Roe, a local singer with a guitar and a flat cap and some decent singery songerwritery tunes. They talked all the way through the second support, Timbre Timbre, who I concede was one of the most hopelessly misjudged performances I've ever seen, droning barely audible cod blues at an audience who were leaving in large numbers. They talked about Aunty Angela's lumbago, and about who that cute boy was who keeps showing up in the office canteen.

Maybe I've misread this: I'm used to concerts where the support is "someone who the main band like and want to give some exposure to" or "a local act the promoter thinks is quite good": maybe young people regard them on a level with the adverts before the movie. But they talked, gesticulating and raising their voices to be heard above the PA, actually seeming to have some kind of full scale domestic dispute, through the main act. Quite astonishing. Folkbuddy 1 (*)  actually resorted to the old “don’t bother, he’s not worth it" gambit when I leaned forward, quite politiely, and said words to the effect of “Oh, please, be nice, he’s doing his best.” I’m a librarian. I tell people to be quiet for a living. A customer threatened to kill me the other day. What was the question again?

 So, anyway, Laura Marling. I believe I understand why Laura has become A Phenomenon. There literally isn't anyone like her. She sounds like a young woman of about nineteen possessed by the spirit of the 70-year-old Bob Dylan: world weary, rambling, occupying some space between blues and folk-Americana, long, structureless narratives that you can’t make sense out of suddenly giving way to beautiful little melodic hooks; a sound that buzzes like a bumblebee on a hot day; a sometimes preposterous naivity – ("there's a house across the river but alas I cannot swim" could be taken for a child's skipping rhyme) with a horrible maturity behind it. There’s also a hint of the Kimya Dawson type baby-voiced antifolk patter in some of the poetry. The fact that she’s awfully English but singing in a more or less American idiom and sometimes accent makes her all the more unpinable down. I could list the brilliant songs on the fingers of one hand (Alas I Cannot Swim, Give Me To A Rambling Man, I Only Love England When Covered In Snow, It’s Not Like I Believe In Everylasting Love) and there are an awful lot of songs which are likeable only in so far as thy somewhat remind you of the good ones. But that's still more classic songs than many people manage in a career. 

I thought that the purely or mostly acoustic numbers came through pretty well tonight, despite the audience; but I am not convinced by the addition of a band, which appeared to entirely drown out out the Suzanne Vega type recitative. She doesn’t have much stage presence or persona, but she makes a connection with her fans through sheer niceness.(She mentions in passing that the Colston Hall was the place where she went to her first gig: a young girl in the balcony calls down "This is my first gig!" "Well maybe in a few years you’ll be up here" she calls back.) And although I am in principle pleased that she’s fighting a one man rearguard action against pointless encores. ("If you want an encore, then that was my last song.") it gives the evening a rather anti-climactic finish. Laura Marling picking away on a guitar, singing cryptic lyrics like an infinitely old little girl, I shall listen to again, but I am not quite sure I'll have the stamina to face another one of her concerts.


 (*) Bristol’s leading citizen journalist

Friday, March 02, 2012

The Boy Bands Have Quite Definitely Not Won

The Albion Band
Colston Hall
2 April

Vice of the People (CD)

 We're left in no doubt as to what we've let ourselves in for. The band rush on to the stage, and without ado, akapella the opening track of their album: close harmony, through the nose, copper-familly-ish; not specifically based on any song, but sounding like "arise ye men of england" or something of that kind, except that it's about the modern world and people who want their magical 15 minutes of fame. And then, still without ado, the electric guitars and the drums blare out, and we're straight into a heavy rock take on Mr Richard Thompson's Roll Over Vaughan Williams. This is most definitely going to be folk and it's most definitely going to be rock.

The programmes says New Albion Band but they definitely want to be thought of as simply the Albion Band with a new line up. Blair Dunlop, (guitars and vocals), is the son of Ashley Hutchings who founded the original band, but that's the only direct link, and Hutchings says that the new generation have largely gone it alone. Singer and squeezebox man Gavin Davenport actually seems to be the driving force, writing or arrange about half of the songs on the album, and acting as front-man in the live show. He has a deep, rich, northern voice where the younger Blair sings with a Moray-ish twinkle; they go excellently together. Katriona Gilmore contributes two songs, fiddle-playing and the only female voice. 

The live show plays right through the album, but peppers it with number from the Albion Bands back catalogue. "You will be able to see that the guitar arrangement is based on the monster rock stylings of.... Martin Carthy" explains Gavin at one point; and yes, as a matter of fact, without being either parody or pastiche, you could see a lot of Carthy in Ben Trott (lead guitar's) performance of "I was a young man, I was a rover." (Carthy did indeed appear on one album in 1973. I recall that Phil Beer once remarked during a solo gig that, statistically speaking, two out of three members of the audience would one day be members of the Albion Band.)  

We are told that Vice of the People is an album with a concept, although it isn't a concept album. The concept (and stop me if you've heard this before) is the vacuity of celebrity culture. If getting to know Simon Cowell is the only way you have of getting famous, then there really isn't much hope for you as a human being, says Gavin.  "Almost as bad as inhering a folk rock band from your dad" interjects Blair. (The bands on-stage rapport is slightly self-conscious, but still convincing.) 

You can see why folkies would make slebs their target: as Bernard Shaw might have said, martyrdom and reality TV shows are the only two ways in which people can become famous without ability. I suppose you could say that its a bit much for folkies to complain that the common people don't stand up and sing in pubs nowadays, and then complain when what's basically a glorified pub talent show becomes popular TV viewing. (Susan Boyle and the folklorization of the West End Musical, anyone?) But it presents a very good hook to hang an album on: not necessarily music of folk, but very definitely music about folk. The band is really, really, really good at voicing modern concerns in a folk idiom; and presenting it in a combination of traditional and rock arrangements. "Thieves Song" starts with the nursery rhyme "Hark, hark the dogs do bark" and turns it into a rant against dishonest politicians – we might as well be robbed by poor people as by MPs. Not a terribly new insight, as it happens, but the combination of vernacular and folkie dialect is spot on: 

"And yet you scorn the beggar man who cries out for each crust
But on the pinstripe wolfshead you invest your faith and trust
And put the biggest rogues of all your parliament within
So don't despise the poor man though his clothes be awful thin"

Even cleverer is the following "How Many Miles To Babylon?" also based on a nursery rhyme. They are not the first people to whom the idea that ancient Babylon is in modern Iraq has occurred, but it's used here with considerable ingenuity. The person in the rhyme who is trying to get to Babylon and back by candlelight turns out to be a soldier from the gulf war:

"Come see there's little left of me 
But longing for my love 
And to see the child I never saw 
I thank the stars above
Weary of the killing
Ravaged by the fight 
I must go before the dawn
Snuffs the candle light" 

He is in fact a ghost and the nursery rhyme has morphed into a hauntingly contemporary "night visiting" ballad.

Unusually, I thought the stand-out tracks in the live gig were the purely instrumental sets  particularly the "Skirmish Set", a collection of infectious morris tunes in which the drums and amps are kept firmly in the background and the melodeon and fiddle take centre stage. (The melodeon player is Tim Yates from our own beloved Blackbeard's Tea Party. There is, when it comes down to, only one folk band in the world, but that folk band is very big.) The songs, I can't help thinking, came out better on the CD than live, because, as too often happens in folk rock sets, the very loud volume made the lyrics disappear so you couldn't quite follow what was being sung about: a great shame when the group so clearly has something to say. 

The show winds up with Wake a Little Wiser, which you might see as a modern take on Ragged Heroes (with maybe a hint of the aforementioned Roy Bailey's Song of the Leaders.) 

"From Wilberforce to Nightingale from Anderson to Paine
Our ragged heroes built this land come sing their praise again
And leave your tinpot idols out a rusting in the rain
And wake a little wiser in the morning."

This is great music; I haven't stopped playing the CD since the band wrote their names on it Polished, intelligent, fun but above all, loud.  

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Frome Wasn't Built in a Day

Frome Folk Festival 
18 -19 February

Frome, pronounced Frome, is a picture-skew town between Bristol and Bath; small tea-rooms and quaint terraces into which a small modern shopping centre has been unceremoniously dropped. It boasts one of the only surviving branch railway stations from Brunell's era, and no trains back to Bristol after 10PM at night. Up to this point in my life, I have always found my lack of a drivers' licence to be a very minor inconvenience. I have a very good working relationship with Megabus and regard, to the occasional consternation of visitors, distances of up to 70 minutes as "well within walking distance". Having recently discovered that the main thing I wish to do with my leisure is attend music festivals, the lack of a car becomes quite a nuisance. This weekend was, I therefore swear, the first time in my adult life I have stayed in a hotel my by myself. A pleasant room above a pub, with tea making facilities and a trouser press. Only one though: since I was there for a folk festival, there should surely have been two corbies. (1) 

This was the first time there has been a folkfest in Frome: I note that if I had turned up a week late, there would have been a potato festival in the same venue. (2) The main venue was the cavernous Cheese and Grain; sometimes used for shows but clearly often used for markets. One of the acts commented that, looking out into the audience -- some of us eating egg-and-bacon breakfasts, some of us (I use the term "us" advisedly) in Morris dancing kit, bunting and flags hanging from the ceiling and a big advert for an Indian curry house on the wall -- was the most English scene you could possibly have imagined. (3) There were also smaller gigs in an absolute gem of a local cinema, with a proper sweet kiosk and tip-up seats, just like cinemas used to be in the olden days; and a small room in a masonic hall. Since my various folkbuddies had crazy ideas about wanting to attend friends weddings and take care of elderly relatives I was on my own. I always find that a level of obsessive panic descends under such circumstances: if I had had folkbuddies with me, I would have happily sat out one of the acts to have lunch or a beer – as it was I felt I was doing something appallingly wrong if there was a single minute of the day when I wasn't listening to music: even if it was only the little girl with the "I love Sam Sweeny" cardigan playing her fiddle to an empty "open mic" cinema or escaping from the rain into the Blue Boar pub where a lady from one of the morris groups was standing at the bar singing my fifth favourite folksong. (The version in which the miller is hanged and the elder sister is boiled in lead.) Not to mention a man with a mandolin singing about the Yankie Clipper. 

And music there was a lot of, provided by many of the most eminent Usual Suspects – a veritable "who's who" of modern English flok, impressive for a brand new festival, albeit in a lower key than some: Spiers and Boden sans Bellowhead; Jim Moray sans trio, Steve sans Phil, etc. And – I mean this in a caring way – it was nice to see the weekend get progressively less shambolic as it went on; as if the organisers were (very understandably) spotting things which weren't going right and sorting them out. The main venue, the Cheese and Grain, had a bar in the back, which very naturally meant that there was a lot of ambient bar noise, some times quite intrusive, during the acts. They progressively put up notices and kept the bar lights down to minimize this. I got the impression – knowing nothing whatsoever about this, admittedly – that the sound engineer didn't know what was about to hit him; having to set up for a big loud five piece like Mabon and immediately re-jig for the very exacting guitar stylings of Chris Wood. (Or maybe the machine was experiencing machine problems. Or maybe the bands were being stroppy.)

Chris Wood was evidently getting annoyed by the P.A problems. Someone remarked on the Sunday morning that he had "used the f-word." I didn't have the heart to tell him that a gig in which Chris Wood doesn't use the f-word is more comment worthy. One of his songs (the funny tongue twisting Carthyite one about man who doesn't want to get married yet) completely broke down; I rather suspect he finished on John Barleycorn because it was an absolute foolproof crowd pleaser. But who is going to complain about having to listen to Chris Wood singing John Barleycorn? The compère was at least acknowledging that the PA had been a problem on the last day; it actually seemed to be much improved at the end of the weekend and will presumably be thoroughly sorted next year.   

The other thing they'll get better next time around is the programme, which listed names and times but no other information, leaving those of us who still don't know everything about music at a bit of loss to know whether "Fallen Tide" or "Hips and Haws" was more likely to be the kind of thing we would enjoy. (And no use of the interwebs, even though lots of us can haz smart phones nowadays: what price a fromefolkfest hashtag to tell us that such-and-such a set has been cancelled and so-and-so are starting late?) So my listening was a bit random and I probably missed some good stuff. 

I'd never heard Belshazzars Feast before: a duo consisting of the One From Bellowhead Who Is Niether Spiers Nor Boden and A Man With a Beard. This is quite definitely the best fiddle + squeezebox comedy duo you will ever heard. It really does come across as musical stand-up comedy: sequences in which Paul leads and Paul appears to follow with the wrong notes; sequences in which the audience is asked to sing along with tunes which keep changing; songs with silly words. It takes a very high level of musicianship to pull this kind of thing off. I don't know how long it would stay funny for – I don't think I'd necessarily want an album – but this set was brilliant.

Jim Moray did a characteristically splendid acoustic set, complete with "a song about a sinister woodland elf rapist" (Hind Ettin) and an "invisible child murderer who can walk through walls" (Long Lankin.) Also "If It's True What They Say", on piano, from the Orpheus folk operetta, off the new album, in which he veers convincingly into "My Way" territory, having a fully fledged dramatic emotional crises at the keyboard. And he wound up with one he said he hadn't song before, the old American ballad "Peg and Awl". It really is very impressive the way he turns his hands from the traditional song to the power ballad to the folkie sing-a-long to the sweeping semi-classical piano accompaniment. I think I'm starting to like his stripped down acoustic act almost as much as the fully fledged electronica he's made his name with.

Pilgrims Way get better every time I hear them. (Bristol's Best Known Citizen Folk Journalist suggests that they need to pay more attention to building a set rather than just playing some songs.) There's an increasingly long list of "good ones" while waiting for their eponymous signature song – Handweaver and the Factory Maid, Tarry Trousers, and Light Hussar are all first rate.

Greatly enjoyed Sean Lakeman and Kathryn Roberts. I've been trying to work out what "Carrie Love", the unbearable account of a miner during the 1980s NUM strikes, reminds me of. It's completely original; but it somehow sounds like June Tabor interpreting Bill Caddick, without being much like either of them. Really deserves to be much better known.

Spiers and Boden did a Spiers and Boden set, frankly, but you can never have too many Prickley Bushes and Spotted Pigs. I like the way they now finish up with New York Girls, but it does rather rub in the fact that Bellowhead now informs Spiers and Boden rather than vice versa. Earlier in the weekend, one of the acts whose name has erased itself from my notebook tried to get the audience singing along with one of his songs. The left hand side were to be singing a different tune from right hand side; everyone was supposed to be clapping on the off-beat. Total disaster. You can't help but admire Boden's  expertise in getting this kind of thing to work. "Volume is more important than accuracy here...good. And don't worry too much about the consonants, just do the vowels...."

Steve Knightley wound up the weekend. No-one, as I have mentioned, works a crowd like Steve Kightley. Phil without Steve is a completely different act: Steve without Phil is, well, pretty much Steve without Phil. (This evening he went as far as delivering some of his one-liners to the spot where Phil would have been.) He did take the opportunity to do slightly more restrained versions of some of his numbers. I don't quite think that the thumping angry A.I.G quite works as a slowed down Dylanesque guitar piece, but it was worth a try; on the other hand the Galway Farmer is in its natural environment as an unaccompanied piece of story telling. There's real complexity and multiple levels to his song-writing: he opened with a piece about drugs and drug pushing that I hadn't heard before: the dealer travelling round the M25 selling heroin is a "poppy seller" like the British Legion charity sellers on Remembrance Day; the heroin comes from the poppy farms in Afghanistan, where soldiers are still being killed, like in Flanders Fields, which is where the poppy metaphor got started....But it's all worn lightly, and one feels one has heard a story, not a leading article pro or against the warren drugs. "Transported" is basically just a good old funny "trick" song about the modern sheep thieves who pull the wool over the police's eyes. Steve plays the audience for all they're worth in the refrain

There's no transportation down under
No gallows in the old county gaol
At best in the morning we're fined with a warning
At worst in the evening we're back out on bail... 

But I loved the way he followed it up with the contrasting traditional and depressing Oakham Poachers. ("Oh it never happened before / Three brothers hanged together / For the doing of one crime.)  I thought the only off note was winding up with a medley of Cousin Jack and Country Life; not that the two songs don't work as a medley and not that the audience didn't mournfully join in with the "aaa-aaa-aaa" bit. But honestly. "No schools / No homes / No shops / No pubs / What went wrong? What went wrong?" It's a bit of a downer to finish a set, let alone a festival on. I accidentally heard him doing more or less the same set in Bristol a week or two later, and he very sensibly added the sing-a-long Aunt Maria from the Cecil Sharp Project, which also has a very serious point, but is a much more up beat song with which to finish an evening.

Highlight of the weekend, in many ways was Luke Jackson, introduced by the aforementioned Steve Knightley, if only because I had never heard, or heard of, him before. Luke is, I think, seventeen. He has a powerful, deep voice and can pull off bluesy Americana like Poor Wayfarin' Stranger as well as anyone; but he also writes his own songs.

Now, nearly every third support act you hear is a singer-song-writer. They all have exactly the same floppy hair and self-effacing stage manner; they are all pretty good at guitar picking; and they all sing the same agonized monologues about having been dumped by the same girl, set in the same flat at the same time of day (4AM.) God often becomes involved in the proceedings, although the singers mood isn't improved by having to admit that he doesn't actually believe in God. Luke Jackson is not like this.

Luke Jackson writes honest, hugely affecting songs about his actual life. "Kiss us at the door and wish us luck" he sings to his parents.  "' 'Cos everyone grows up." Oh. My. God. That's actual proper poetry. There is something enormously affecting about the way in which his big deep singing voice sometimes gives way to a spoken phrase which sounds terribly immature and teenage. When a man in his forties talks about "childhood" (4)  it can come across as romantic bullshit; when Luke Jackson talks about taking his dog for a walk in the park and hanging out with his friends and adds "seems as if my childhood songs have been song" he's not talking about those blue remembered hills. He's talking about last year. (Two years ago at Trowbridge he was singing about the school bus, I'm told.) 

I was born in the countryside
But I spend my day in town 
Waste the whole morning sleeping in
And then just wander round...
But who are you to judge me?
Who are you? Let me be.

You or I might have had those kind of sentiments when we were 17. We might even have written them down in that kind of poetry. But you are or I didn't have a killer voice, an impressive guitar style and Steve Knightley as a mentor. Frankly, I've got no right to be listening to his album. It ought to be being passed around every sixth form in the country as a big secret that the old people won't really understand. His Youtube stream is instructive, as well: he covers a lot of songs which are frankly much to big for him – it clearly isn't 25 years or more since he did anything at all – which seems to be exactly the right kind of mistake for a person of his age to be making. And actually, his version of Blowin' in the Wind is rather brilliant: note the way he combines elements of Young Bob's version of the song with elements of Old Bob. 

So, essentially: roll on next year's Frome, and see you all at the Brizzle fest in May.

(1) Sam Dodsworth, all rights reserved. You will, Oscar, you will.

(2) Oooo that's mean. Local gardeners getting together to sell or exchange seed. Perfectly sensible.

(3) Sensitive readers, freaked out by my reference to the toxic brand "England" are given due warning that by the end of the weekend I may well find myself listening to Mr Steve Knightley. 

(4) Say with reference to old comic books and space movies 

Friday, February 17, 2012

Five Anarchists Singing About the Good Old Days

Big Society
Leeds City Varieties
Feb 2nd

Well, that’s a thing I never expected to see. Chumbawamba in panto.

Okay, it isn’t actually a pantomime. It’s a political riff on Victorian musical comedies. For all of us who grew up in the 70s and were sometimes allowed to stay up past our bedtimes, Leeds City Varieties is synonymous with Music Hall (“Mr Larry Grayson, the entire and indefatigable orchestra, but this time, chiefly, yourselves”). But the real thing was apparently a good deal ruder and less well behaved than the Edwardian world conjured by The Good Old Days, and Boff Whalley’s programme notes say that he wanted to salvage Music Hall from that genteel image. We are told that analogies be drawn between Victorian times, when bankers had bankrupt the country and Etonian politicians were leading us into pointless wars, and modern times, when, er...

Well, analogy would be overstating it somewhat. The company marches through the gallery, down the stairs, through the foyer, up to the aisle and onto the stage singing:

"We’re all in this together!
As equals we will brave this stormy sea!
I will be the Captain, and you can work the oars
In our Big Society!"

I think we all get the point.

The set up is a little like an episode of the Muppet Show, alternating between songs and turns in front of the curtain and soap opera and back-biting back stage. It all feels rather like a college revue into which one of the best live acts in the country, a famous comedian and a first rate theater company have somehow fallen. "Panto" will do.

The role of the Big Society Band is taken by the Chumbas themselves, sans Lou, but with Harry Hamer (the band’s regular drummer before they went all folkie). Harry also has a big acting role as the hopeless conjurer Magic Barry; Phil Moody (the one with the accordion and the percussive tie) has a small one as the hypocritical journalist (the man from the Double Standard) who wants to close the theatre down for using the word “bollocks”. Jude, laying aside her trumpet in favour of a euphonium, spends most of the acted sections sitting at the back of the stage knitting. The other acting parts are played by members of the Red Ladder theatre company, along with Phil Jupitus (a.ka.“that man off the telly”) who can, of course, also sing.

Anything the songs may have lacked in subtlety is more than made up for in gusto, enthusiasm and bloody good tunes. Beatrice (Kyla Goodey) does a Marie Lloyd style tribute to the police doing any number of filthy things with a truncheon, while delivering lyrics along the lines of

"Spare a thought for the dear old boys in blue
What the prisoner has sworn, well its not true
Yes the head of the accused
Acquired a most alarming bruise
I blame the station wall that he chance to walk into"

Phil Jupitus steals the show with his turn as the entirely non-specific public schoolboy turned prime minister. He can not only sing and deliver jokes, but has a lovely knack for throwing comedy tantrums on the stage. (“Claimants and shirkers / Manual workers / We’ll hang em by the old school tie”) The entire company winds up act one doing “It’s the same the ‘ole world over, it’s the poor wot get the blame”, with new words about an MP who is let off for fiddling his expenses because he knows the judge, while a pauper is hanged for stealing bread and water.

Subtle is not the word. But I suppose it never was.

The backstage plot is a good deal less convincing than the musical turns. We have Beatrice, the suffragette, assuring us (you’ll like this) that everything will be better when we have a woman as prime minister; and Eve, the conjurer’s partner, trying on lots of different religions until she discovers (stop me if you’ve heard this before) that she’s happier thinking for herself. (“I thought you were a Presbyterian?” “No, that was this morning.”) One feels that Boff has taken to heart the old “Well, you wouldn’t dare say that about Muslim, would you?” line and is attempting to poke fun at everyone equally. (“Don’t you know you’ll have to give up sex?” “Oh...I thought they said ‘celebrate’.”) Poor Barry has a magic wardrobe which repeatedly fails to make volunteers from the audience vanish. The Master of Ceremonies had a horrible time at school because his best friend was an invisible monkey. (“It’s a cold hard world Marcel / Nobody cares or understands / A place where a man and his monkey / Can’t walk openly hand in hand.”)

If I were the sort of person who was inclined to over think things, I would say that it’s hardly fair to satirize Eve's endless quest for spirituality and then to tell the MC that it’s okay to be friends with Marcel after all. (“Sometimes / You have to step out into space / Sometimes / To an unexpected place / Sometimes / You have to take a leap of faith.”) But I suspect that this isn’t the kind of show you are meant to think about very much at all. But it is the kind of show in which Boff himself takes the role of the invisible monkey. Who turns out to live in a magic kingdom. Entered through a portal in Magic Barry's wardrobe. Obviously. It may be trying quite hard to make you like it, but it's very hard not to. We need no encouragement at all to sway along to the last chorus of :

"We’re not in this together!
Cos I can plainly see
There’s rules for the toffs and the better offs
And different rules for me..."

One can quite see why Boff would want to embrace music hall. Chumbawamba are about an endless quest for voice-of-the-people authenticity; making records with Coope, Boyes and Simpson and quoting Carthy and in almost the same breath suggesting that the whole idea of of folk music is a bit of a con. Lots of people have spotted that the aforementioned Cecil Sharp was "preserving" folk music at exactly the moment when actual folk had stopped singing songs about princesses sewing silken seams and decided that they preferred ones about the lady gardener who sits among the cabbages and peas. (Which, as everyone knows, was later changed to "she sits among the lettuces and leaks".)

I’ve been listening my way through Chumbawamba’s back catalogue. Surprising, with all the electro dance beats and punk shouting, how much they sounded like Chumbawamba, or put another way, how much of the punk sound survives in the acapella folk collective. Strange to listen to the ghost of rages past: who now remembers what the Alton Bill was, or what Paul McCartney did to upset them? In a way, I wish Nick Clegg could be subjected to that kind of fury. But the strategy of just poking fun at these ridiculous people is perhaps just as valid, more effective, and certainly more fun.

Phil Jupitus does a ventriloquists act in his “David Cameron” persona, with Nick Clegg as his puppet. "I like him sitting on my knee" says Dave "I like it best when he pisses down my leg. Feels nice and warm. I call it getting a Nick Leg." And then, to audience, "Nick Leg, you see. Nick Leg. Because his name's Nick Clegg".

What a pro.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

for those who care, and frankly that's a pretty small demographic, my predictions for the UKs second most prestigious folk awards are as follows:

Jon Boden

Jackie Oates
Emily Smith
June Tabor

Jon Boden didn't get it for Folksong a Day last year, because it was (quite rightly) Chris Wood's he has to to get it this year, no question. 

Winner: June Tabor, leaving me feeling like a proper Charlie. 

Tim Edey & Brendan Power
Jonny Kearney & Lucy Farrell
Spiers & Boden
Marry Waterson & Oliver Knight

I'd love it to be Kearny and Farrell. "So understated, they are practically not there at all" I said when they oppened for (the mighty) Bellowhead. 

Winner: Tim Edey and Brendan Power. Instrumental duo. Never heard them. Clearly stunningly good. Not my kind of thing. 


The Home Service
June Tabor & Oysterband
The Unthanks

If it isn't June Tabor and the Oysterband, then something has gone seriously wrong with the world. I mean, an evening which arguably contains three of the years best performances (Seven Curses, The Bells of Rymey and Why I Hate The French, sorry, The Bonny Bunch of Roses, oh) can't not be the years best act. 

Winner: June Tabor and the Oysterband. Yay!

Last – The Unthanks
Purpose & Grace – Martin Simpson
Ragged Kingdom – June Tabor & Oysterband
Saturnine – Jackie Oates

Assuming that June and Oysters can't win everything, then I'd go for Martin Simpson, although none of my favourites are on the list. Perhaps he will play you North Country Blues or Brother Can You Spare A Dime at the ceremony. (I will note, however, that everyone else likes the Unthanks a lot more than I do. Because it is clever to sing quick songs slowly.)

Winner: We assumed wrong. June Tabor and the Oysterband can, in fact, win everything. 

The Herring Girl – Bella Hardy
Last – Adrian McNally (performed by The Unthanks)
On Morecambe Bay – Kevin Littlewood (performed by Christy Moore)
The Reckoning – Steve Tilston

I think Steve Tilston ought to get it. I also think he will get it on the basis that he is a Legend.

Winner: Steve Tilston got it, but he had to share it with Bella Hardy, with whose ouevre I am not terribly familiar. I have to say the song about the Morecambe Bay cockle pickers was awfully good as well. 

Bonny Bunch of Roses – June Tabor & Oysterband
Lakes of Ponchartrain – Martin Simpson
Maids When You’re Young – Lucy Ward
Sweet Lover of Mine – Emily Smith

"Oh so don't talk so venturesome / For England is a heart of oak / And England Ireland Scotland / Their Unity has ne're been broke." No brainer.

Winner: As  I said, no brainer. (That's June Oyster and the Tabor's again.) 

Megan Henwood
Lady Maisery
Pilgrims’ Way
Lucy Ward

Pilgrim's Way (by Pilgrims' Way - watch the apostrophes) was one of my utter top tracks of the year, so naturally I think they ought to win. I have to say that I don't particularly know the other performers on the list, so am probably more than usually biassed.

Winner: Lucy Ward, about whom I shall not form an opinion until I have heard her play.

Andy Cutting
Tim Edey
Will Pound
Martin Simpson

Now that's a hard one to call, since everyone knows that Martin Simpson is one of the best guitarists on the planet and Andy Cutting is one of the best squeeze box men on the planet. Simpson, yeah. Because he's a nice man who sings Bob Dylan covers. I wouldn't want you to think that this was anything other than purely scientific.

Winner: Tim Edey, on the grounds we are following the Oscar principle of having one or two acts win all the awards.

The Home Service
Peatbog Faeries
The Unthanks

Bellowhead clearly are the best live act, but they won it last year. Might they give it to the Home Service simply to thank them for coming back into existence? Haven't heard them live in their current incarnation, but when I was doing Medieval Studies I saw the Mysteries. Twice. So I have heard Bill Caddick (fella who wrote the one about unicorns) live, even though I didn't know he was at the time. Maybe they'll sing Babylon or something. There is a real danger they'll give it to the Unthanks though. (I only heard them once. They are probably great. Everyone else thinks they are great. I like the one about the girl who works down the mine, and the clog dancing, come to that.) 

Winner: Home Service, as exclusively predicted in these pages.