Friday, March 30, 2012

Isambard Folk Award

Colston Hall

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

Roy Bailey / Tony Benn

St George's Bristol

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 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

Ron Kavana

Cellar Upstairs Folk Club

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.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Martin Carthy

Kings Place London


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 repertoire  Everyone jokes about folk songs which go on for ever and ever; but in fact, songs like Sir Patrick really, really gain from being sung 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,
Till ye row up your bonny young son."


"A drink! A drink!" This 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, it's 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 identity 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. (You can listen to it here, through the wonders of the internet. In places it sounds uncannily --even disturbingly-- like Mr Carthy's version.)

"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.

Friday, March 09, 2012

Robb Johnson

Bristol Folk House


Just occasionally, I wonder if I might give up on the whole the folk-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 leave the stage, and  finally finishes on "The Siege of Madrid", a 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 soldiers, even if we think that the war in Iraq 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 marriage 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 simplicity and accessible 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 as 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 anonymous 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, melodic or rhythmic 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 no 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 certainly 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

Laura Marling

Colston Hall 

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 as well.  Folkbuddy 1 actually resorted to the old “don’t bother, he’s not worth it" gambit when I leaned forward, quite politely  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 else 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 Everlasting Love) : there are an awful lot of other 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.

Although 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.


Friday, March 02, 2012

The Albion Band

Colston Hall
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-family-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.