Saturday, June 09, 2012

Folk Weekend

Black Swan

The Black Swan folk weekend passes in a whirl. There was quite definitely Old Peculiar beer, which tastes not unpleasantly of liquorice. There were chips. There was a day on which I subsisted entirely on Kit-Kats.

Its not exactly a festival in the normal sense. It doesn't cost any money, except what you spend on Old Peculiar and Kit-Kats. I assume the performers must perform for free, so obviously no A-list big names, although two of my most favourite bands were there.

There are lots of different rooms. There is a sign in the main bar which says “No instruments allowed in the bar”. There's a small back-room in which musicians engage in a more or less non-stop “session”. (A “session” is when a lot of musicians sit in a back room and go diddley diddly dee until someone asks them to stop. Three years ago I did not know this.) There's another small room which mainly consists of “singarounds”. (A singaround is where a lot of people sit in a room and take it in turns to sing. This is something else I used not to know.) This results in one hearing more versions of A Blacksmith Courted Me than you strictly need to in one weekend. Upstairs there is a bigger room, which houses what is described as a "rolling folk club" – local people doing short sets, mostly good. It is called the Woolf Room. Apparently the bold fellow who the French did wound in his left breast used to live in it.

Outside, in the car park, there is a marquee for the bigger bands. The pub is medieval and picturesque. The car park, not so much.

There was a good deal of rain over the weekend, and the marquee had a charming habit of developing small holes and pouring huge quantities of water over random punters. The first act on Saturday was a man who sung standards like The Trees They Do Grow High with a Scottish accent. At one point a gust of wind made the whole tent shift six inches to the left. At another point, the local council arrived, fixed the overflowing drains, and caused a terrible smell to hover over Are You Going To Scarborough Fare. He kept going and so did the audience. I got about as wet as it is possible to get during an indoor festival.

Exact details about who I did and didn't hear are therefore rather hazy. I distinctly remember hearing the Sail Pattern doing their thing the marquee. I wouldn't say I travelled all the way from Bristol to York in order to hear them, but I was extremely keen to find out if they were as good as they had seemed at Scarborough and on their EP. They were. They were so good that Nick wrote something nice on Twitter and downloaded their album, presumably even paying for it. (Naturally he didn't tell me he liked them. We're British.) They pretty much thumped us in the face with a series of big numbers – the infallible Haul Away; their quite stunning rehabilitation of Spanish Ladies (traditional chorus, invented verses and a huge rocky oomf for “we'll rant and we'll roar”) and the completely OTT Mary Mac's Mother's Making Mary Mac Marry Me My Mothers Making Me Marry Mary Mac which I think they only do at live shows to show off that they can – all four of them, including the ones who can't sing, get to do a verse, which gets faster and faster and more tongue twisting as the thing goes on. I hope there's a full length album on the way. These kids are good.

I am quite certain that I spent some of Friday night in the “folk club” listening to Stan Graham and friends doing a tribute to Tom Paxton. (Stan Graham is a singer in residence at the folk club, wrote Blow The North Winds Across Old Whitby Harbour and is clearly very influenced by Paxton in his “crooner” mode.) Someone sang Jennifer's Rabbit, inadvisedly, and someone else sang a piece of whimsy, new to me, about the Rubick Cube; we all got to join in with Here's To You My Rambling Boy and the evening ended with five singers and the audience trying to remember all the words of It's A Lesson To Late For The Learning, Tum Te Tum, Tum Te Tum Tum Te Tum You Know That Was The Last Thing On My Mind. One of the singers remarked that Paxton, not Dylan, should be regarded as the true successor to Woody Guthrie, and demonstrated by singing the brutal anti Vietnam piece Good Night Jimmy Newman. Guthrie also wrote terrible children's songs, come to think of it.

I definitely heard my friend Martin singing shanties and drinking songs with local trio Two Black Sheep and a Stallion. (I think I can describe him as my friend because twenty years ago I appeared in a play with him.) They were just back from Canada, and sang Barretts Privateers which is my favourite Stan Rogers song (along with all the others) and a long song about an 18 mile pub crawl in Vancouver as well as a song about a lock-in in any English pub. The three of them stood in a row with pints in their hands. It doesn't get more like a folk group in a Yorkshire Pub than that.

I believe I also sat in on a sing-around chaired by Martin which definitely included a local man singing all a hundred and three verses of The Merry Merry Huntsmen Blows His Horn with the audience becoming less and less accurate on each repetition. You know the one?  The rich man spends the night with the chambermaid, and leaves a guinea to pay for board, lodging and the goose he ostensibly came to buy, and when he comes back the next year he's present with a a baby instead of breakfast.

Enraged at hearing others laugh, "What is this here?" says he
"Come sit you down beside me, sir, and I'll tell you," says she.
"Last year you was so generous, nay, do not think it strange.
You gave to me a guinea; well, I've brought you back your change."

I definitely also sat in on on a sing-around chaired Stuart from Blackbeard's Tea Party and threes guys from another local shantyband called Monkeys Fist, who I must have heard performing later in the weekend because I now own both their CDs. Interestingly enough the second CD contains a version of Blow The Man Down Me Boys Blow The Man Down Give Me Some Time To Blow The Man Down which has rather familiar narrative -- 

Joe waited an hour he ne're thought it strange (wahay! blow the man down!)
It's a hell of a time for to wait for me change (give me some time to blow the man down!)
Joe waited all evening but the maid she had flow (wahay! Blow the man down)
Then out of this basket there came a low groan (give me some time to blow the man down!)

Maybe its a Yorkshire thing? I find the rather random way in which songs were, and clearly still are, being passed around, endlessly fascinating. 

Stuart sang a saucy song about "courting tied up in a sack" and Sydney Carter's carol about John Ball.  My friend Susannah (she's definitely my friend because I'm godfather of her little tot) who'd been at the singing workshop earlier in the day did a creditable Bold Sir Rylas. 

Blackbeards Tea Party themselves were on great form. They've obviously got a massive local following: their set was the only time over the weekend where you couldn't even get standing room in the leakey marquee. They did some of their repertoire off the album – Landlord, Chicken On a Barge, and the wondrous I Can Hew – as well as some new ones. A while back they mentioned on Twitter that they were going to follow up Landlord with a song about a landlady and wondered if anyone could guess what it was going to be. All I could think of was The Wild Rover. This afternoon, all was revealed, and they confirmed their impeccable taste in song choosing. It was, of course, Jake Thackray's My Landlady Had Three Lovely Daughters ("this song is DIRTY"). I have to say that in the marquee, some of Jake's wonderful tongue twisting lines got submerged in the boys rocking out, but it's just the sort of saucy material that Stuart does so well, and it's great to see the group doing exactly the kind of song that you wouldn't expect them to do. (Has anyone given a folk rock treatment Jake's songbook before, come to that?) They also do a version of a Peter Bellamy Rudyard Kipling number (The Ford of Kabul River) which I haven't heard before but seems promising. There are other youngish groups (the aforementioned Sail Pattern, the not recently mentioned Pilgrims Way, the never mentioned at all Young 'Uns) whose music I like almost as much. But no-one, literally no-one, possibly not even t.m Bellowhead does a better live show, with more sense of theatricality and fun than Blackbeards Tea Party.  (And they are modest and approachable and charming to their fan.)

I also have a distinct memory of watching my friend Aaron (I am almost definitely sure that he's my friend because I used to share a house with him) performing with a group that played those enormous and threatening looking Japenese drums. York is obviously the kind of place you'd expect to find Japenese drummers.

There was also Morris dancing. It's my belief that folk festivals never actually invite morris dancers; they just swarm in, like ants to a honey pot. Matthew Boyle ought to take note: he may not have invited any morris sides to the Olympics, but that doesn't mean that, like Des O'Connor, they won't come anyway.

I distinctly recall that Sunday night merged into abandoning the programme and drifting from room to room to see what happened. I sat in for 45 minutes on Stuart, Laura and Tim from Blackbeard's TP jamming on squeeze boxes on fiddle; then went to the small room and listened to a sing around; upstairs to hear my friend Tony (I fully accept that he is my friend because he assures me that we attended the same church about 20 years ago) singing a very clever song about Ray Bradbury as part of the Song Writers circle; went outside to hear an actually distinctly good man singing Americana – any set that includes John Hardy Was A Desperate Little man is a good set – and then back to the back room where Stuart and Tim were still playing squeeze box. Five hour sessions in York pubs are probably the folkie equivilent of the a residency in Hamburg. As the evening wore on, Stuart treated us to a sample of his repertoire of extremely (as he puts it) saucy music hall songs. "We're having a bit tonight / We're having a bit tonight / Me Mother says I must be quick / To get a bit of Spotted Dick" (Young people and Americans: will probably not believe that the English used to call a hot sweet suet pudding with currents as “Spotted Dick”; but then they probably will not believe that the English used to eat hot sweet suet puddings with currents. I'm not actually sure they ever did. I think the pudding was invented purely for the sake of the double entendre. "Grandpa has no teeth so he will have to suck his...")

I've now been going to folk gigs for long enough that I should probably stop saying "I haven't been going to folk gigs for very long" but I haven't actually experienced anything like this before: the sense that there was a local network of people who learn songs, write songs, sing songs, or just drink slightly too much beer; the invisible lines of how differnet peoples songs connect together; the sense that this is all fun and communal. The traddy beery acapella of Two Black Sheep and Monkeys Fist has clearly fed into the OTT nautical folk-rock of Blackbeard and Sail Pattern, and the singarounds, even when not very good, are about the closest thing you get in Real Life to authentic oral folk singing.

At the beginning of the weekend I was thinking "well, I probably wouldn't come all the way for this, but since I'm passing" (I have, as you may have spotted, one or two friends in York); by the end, I had already marked it in my diary for 2013. The programme (consisting largely of, lets be honest, local people you havent heard of) doesn't go anywhere to conveying the atmosphere of the weekend. The pub, and the club, were the star. The weather, not so much. 

Hey nonny no!


Mike Taylor said...

Sounds fantastic, and leaves me wanting to go to the 2013 one. (Then again, your Oxonmoot account had the same effect on me, and the real thing was rather disappointing in comparison.)

But since you have so many friends from earlier in your life who are actively involved in folk music, I find myself wondering why it was so suddenly and so recently that you got bitten. Is there a story?

Andrew Rilstone said...

Well, I was at college in York, so it isn't too surprising that I kept bumping into people I used to know. It was a definite surprise that Martin, who I knew via the medieval studies drama group ("the Lords of Misrule") was a well respected local folk singer (although, in retrospect, he was often called on to sing at the end of shows.) I also don't know quite why I only started listening to folk recently: the Proximate Cause was when Sophie asked me to do the music reviews on her local radio show -- before that I wouldn't have known how to go to live gigs, if that makes sense. I mean, I started listening to the Beatles in or about 1995 (at the time of the Anthology); as a result of listening to the Beatles, I started listening to Dylan and the Incredible String Band; as a result of listening to Dylan I started listening to Woody Guthrie (who was very much an acquired taste, I found). And then sort of "I wonder if there's anything English like this", and a mini folk festival in the pub at the bottom of my street, which had Spiers and Boden (before they were quite as famous as they are now) and Robin Williamson and Carthy. I'm not sure if Carthy was actually the first gig I went to, but he did his thing of walking onto the stage and plunging straight into "Come listen for a moment, lads, and hear me tell my tale.." and I was Smitten. That would have been 2008, I guess.

I have a feeling that the review you read was of the Tolkien centenary conference at Birmingham university, which was very heavily talks based. Oxonmoot is a strange thing: I believe it started out literally as a meeting, a group of Tolkien fans in a pub, and some of the society (particular the two or three who actually knew The Professor) don't think it should mutate too far from that. I've enjoyed them in the past -- the story telling circles; some of the entertainments and fancy dress; the wreath laying; some of the talks; and the Very Secret After Show Room Parties that you only find out about if you know a man who knows a man. But I do think that (despite their best efforts of setting up welcoming committees and some such)that you end up feeling that there's a definite inner circle which you can only be in if you've been going for 40 years.

Mike Taylor said...

Lucky Sophie, to have pulled a music critic out of thin air. Seems to have worked out well for you, too. On not knowing how to go to gigs -- I know what you mean. One big advantage of being a folkie is that the gigs are so much less expensive, and so much more intimate, than in most other forms of music. Much as I love prog rock, spending £5 to sit six feet from the performer has much to recommend it over paying £30 to sit forty yards from Transatlantic.

I think you're right that the Oxonmoot you reviewed was a special one: it seems to have offered about three times as many talks as the one I went to, and to have been much more unabashed about being, well, Tolkie. At mine, there was a slightly furtive air to much of it, as though people didn't want to be thought of as nerds.

The old-timers did make an effort to be welcoming to first-timers such as myself, but in rather an arch and mannered way that I found a bit off-putting. It probably works well for some people. I'd go again, but not alone this time -- only if I was with a friend.

Andrew Rilstone said...

It wasn't just random...Sophie and I had been on a journalism course together: she'd concentrated on the radio part of it, while I'd gone for print, obviously, and she'd bagged a middle-of-the-night slot on Bristol radio, I think as part of a new talent competition. Me and a couple of other people off the course were her "gophers": the first one she sent me to was Sandi Thom -- knowing, I think that it wasn't quite my Thing. (Actually, I quite liked it.)