28th May 2019
So this was ‘Folk’ evening. There was a lot of discussion about the nature of
folk: What is folk? It’s a good question that gave rise to a variety of
interpretations, but by the end of the evening everyone had sung some very nice
songs and the Folk Police were not there to judge.
As host, I opened the evening playing a very sad traditional song ‘I am stretched
on your grave’ involving the personal loss and tragedy theme, followed by Joni
Mitchell’s ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ from what I would call her folk years, written in
1970. This song takes one of the other apparent roles of the folk song and
makes a political statement, in this case and ecological political comment
about the planet being trashed. Shocking to know that this song was written
nearly 50 years ago and those things she sang about have only got worse and
Collin took the next spot and sang a song written in California at a Supergirls
surfing event ‘Whatever I do I’d still choose you’. He followed this with ‘The
Devil Said’ having observed a man on a bench with ‘pennies on his eyes’. Nice folky songs.
With no folk content whatever, Roy finally got to the piano and gave us a version of
‘Smoke gets in your eyes’ that he had originally prepared for the American
Songbook evening that Manus had run. It’s just great music, sensitively played
on an instrument that can be unpredictable. Hopefully he will summon his
courage and play for us again.
Manus followed with a song not written to be accompanied, by Ewan MacColl,
(folksinger, songwriter, communist, labour activist, poet, playwright and
record producer who influenced theatre and broadcasting, apparently. A busy
man). The song was ‘The first time ever I saw your face’ and the guitar
arrangement was strongly influenced by the Bert Jansch version. Manus went on
to talk about Dobell’s record shop in Charing Cross Road (1946 -1992) where it
was possible to buy a huge variety of music on vinyl that was just not
available anywhere else. These were the ‘old days’ before the internet and
local record shops would mainly stock records by performers of popular and ‘Top
Ten’ music. (Yuk!) It was also the age of pirate radio which was responsible
for transmitting some great music. I went to this shop also at some point. It’s
where I bought an Elmore James LP and probably hugged it all the way home on
the train. Manus also sang ‘The first time ever I saw your face’ a Tom Paxton song,
to some complex work on the frets. Tom Paxton is an American folk
singer-songwriter who is still very prolific and apparently touring here in the
UK for the 53rd year.
Mark then presented us with ‘Angie’ by Davy Graham, a folk guitar player’s ‘standard
of accomplishment’ which he said he was still trying to get right after 40
years. It sounded good (and familiar) to me. Davy Graham was a British guitarist
who had a huge influence on the British Folk revival of the 1960s. Fancy
fingerstyle. He also played ‘City of Stars’ which comes from the film La La
Land which I confess I have not seen. It worked well on guitar though and
suited the evening.
Chris played two of his favourite ‘folk’ tunes on an acoustic guitar with a clip-on
pick-up. He also sat to perform, which is unusual. The first was ‘Dangerous
Moonlight’ which had associations with his dad and a spitfire pilot and it
included a quotation from Bruce Lee, Van Gogh’s last words and ‘Sine, fine’ in
Latin which implies ‘without end’. A complex song. He was particularly pleased (which
included smiles) to be joined by the audience in the chorus of his second song ‘Excuse
Me’. Some very nice, spontaneous harmonies came through here.
In the true vein of folk music as a communicator of tragedy, Heather sang a very beautiful and poignant song about the drowning of ‘at least 21’ illegal Chinese immigrant cockle pickers in Morcambe Bay on 5 February 2004. The song ‘Morcambe Bay’ was written by Christy Moore, and with the soft Irish accent his performance is heart-breaking. Heather isn’t Irish, but without the accent, it was still heart-breaking. There’s a sense of a reluctance to applaud a song such as this, not because of the performance, but because of the subject: ‘Never try to race the tides on Morcambe Bay’. Beautifully done. Heather’s second song ‘The Weald and the Sea’ was written to be performed a capella, but tonight she accompanied herself on guitar again: ‘And if you don’t want to, I’ll go on alone. I will still love the views and I’ll search for a home…’
It was purely by chance that Lance followed Heather and sang his song ‘This is war?’about
the picture of the little boy that appeared in the national press, who was
washed ashore. The three year old Syrian boy turned up on a Turkish beach following his family’s attempt to escape Syria and get to relatives in Canada. These songs of tragedy are the very stuff of the folk tradition, offering, as they do, some way of expressing outrage,
anger, disbelief, grief, or whatever horror, giving some shape to feelings of
distress. In a traditional political folk vein, Lance sang his song about ‘Some
Peoples Lives’, venting his concern about dishonesty and focussing on how ‘some
people’s life is so damned hard…. So deeply scarred’.
With more stories of misery, Jason sang ‘Nobody loves you when you’re down and out’,
a song written by Jimmy Cox in 1923 from the point of view of a millionaire who
loses everything in the Prohibition Era in the US, reflecting on the fleeting
nature of wealth and the friendships that come and go with it.
The atmosphere in the room did not reflect the very serious content of some of
these songs. I hadn’t really noticed at the time, but in the midst of these
tragic stories, we were having a very good evening. The misery and sorrow was
channelled through the music. We didn’t need to cry.
Jason was joined by Lisa for one of their beautiful duets and sang about the ‘Cotton
Fields’ in Louisiana, just a mile from Texarkana, Surrey. This was written by
Huddie Ledbetter (Leadbelly) and was first recorded in 1940. Like many ‘folk
standards’ this song has been sung and recorded by a huge number people. I
would consider it to be ‘Folk’ whether it’s from the US, UK or anywhere where
slavery, or virtual slavery, goes on. Lisa took the lead in their next song ‘Careless
love’ with Jason providing some bottle-neck accompaniment to Lisa’s delicate
guitar playing. This is another song from the early 20th century in
the US by Buddy Bolden. It has also been sung and recorded upteen times as a
jazz, blues and folk standard by the likes of Bessie Smith, Pete Seeger, Fats
Domino, Eartha Kit, Leadbelly, Odetta, Dylan and Siouxie Sioux (!?) Another
sheet of paper please, this is a very well-loved and muchly performed song.
You’re in very good company Lisa. Beautiful musicianship and harmonies, as
Some very authentic traditional folk was delivered by Simon. As ever, Simon tells us
a good story about his innocent involvement as a young man, in a very serious,
bearded-man folk club in Winchester. (He didn’t mention any bearded ladies. Perhaps
they would have been unwelcome in this traditional context) The delivery of the
pedigree of the songs was apparently an essential and lengthy process. Simon mentioned
Cecil Sharp who is considered the founding father of the folksong revival of
the early twentieth century, collecting thousands of rural English songs as
well as songs from the southern Appalachians in the US. Sharp was also
responsible for reviving English country dance and actively promoted Morris
dancing. (Simon had looked this folk group up in later times and found that the
‘Young Tradition’ had actually made recordings.) In the traditional style, he called a line and
we, the audience were required to give a response, in his first song ‘Hanging
Johnny’, a nineteenth century windlass song. Travelling further back in time,
Simon sang us a version of Henry the Eighth’s ‘Greensleeves’. For our total
amusement he finished with Stevie Wonder’s ‘Moving On’, written in 1966. Simon
took his guitar and sang the song but the ‘beardies’ at the folk club never
spoke to him again.
Clive’s songs weren’t wrapped up in a story, but folk songs they definitely were. ‘Hard
times of old England’ was the first. This song came from the British folk
revival rock band Steeleye Span who were, like Fairport Convention,
commercially successful and still continue to tour. Most of their early music
came from traditional sources, like the Child Ballads, songs from England and
Scotland and their American variants collated by Francis James Child in the
late nineteenth century. Clive completed his spot with ‘The water is wide’ (or
O Waly, Waly), a sad love song published in Cecil Sharp’s Folk Songs from Somerset 1906.
Keith brought the evening to a close with his contemporary‘folk’ songs. Brighton Rock,
with lyrics that spoke of ‘cheating all through like Brighton rock’ called for
some chorus singing. His other contemporary ‘folk’ song was ‘Baby Steps’ a slow
and gentle song with Keith accompanying himself again on acoustic guitar.
It had turned into a rich and diverse expression of folk music, many lovely and
sensitive songs and a very nice vibe going on in the room.
As usual our thanks go to Simon for setting up in advance of the rest of us getting
there, or as he put it: Whack fol-di-diddle-o my dearies, the room is ready,
the traditional apparatus is in place, and to Chris and Clive for operating the
Thank you one and all for coming along and singing your songs, and for staying to
listen to everyone else singing theirs.
See you next time when Lisa will be running the evening, Ella
The person that runs the evening writes the blog
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