I’m sitting on the sofa with a cup of tea and a very happy cat who is glad I’m home from a weekend away. We’ve been playing truant from the opera! Green fields and pastures new, we’ve been on an organic smallholding in …Swindon … for a weekend of singing with a small selection of the wonderful Raise the Roof tribe.
We set off after lunch on Friday with Tessa and Tash in the back of the car, A. driving to allow sufficient foot room for our passengers, and after tedium on the M25 and a brisker trip down the M4 drove through one of those anonymous out-of-town business parks that think they are doing the environment a favour by having ponds with fountains outside; turned into an expanse of what A. calls ‘bungaloid growth’ then, very slowly, down a short drive which was well peppered with chickens.
Lower Shaw Farm is an oasis of shabby charm which invites relaxation the second you arrive. Although you sometimes notice road noise, the impression is of being well into the countryside. Accommodation is extremely basic, we were sleeping in converted calf sheds, with several assorted beds (and several assorted raise the roofers) to a room, and loos (including a compost loo) and showers at the end of the row. This Spartan but adequate sleeping block is supplemented by a few rooms in the farm house, a solid construction with a lovely stone roof; and an old shepherd’s hut.
None of this was very important because we hadn’t come to sleep (and I for one didn’t do much sleeping at all) but to sing.
The communal eat/laze/meet/singing space is lovely, with a wood stove about three times the size of the one we have at home, just right for sitting round in pyjamas for the first cup of tea in the morning. There is also the hay loft, generally used for yoga etc., but with a very nice acoustic, and the ‘cat’s room’ which has a good piano in it.
Friday afternoon and evening we got settled in, had an excellent vegetarian meal and pottered through our back catalogue, with people offering the first verse with a question mark built in, and everyone joining in on the one’s they knew/remembered. Because we usually don’t use music scores, there were a few we looked at the words, and said, “ye-es… I know we’ve sung it, but what does it sound like?” for others we fell into the harmonies like old friends.
There were one or two new songs to teach each other, including me bringing ‘Deep Blue Sea’ which is still my all out favourite from Jon Boden’s A Folk Song a Day project, despite hitting the website back in November , I think. My criteria for a favourite from this project is: a song I don’t already know, with great words and a glorious tune, that Jon puts over particularly well. What I like about DBS is that it’s a tender little grieving song, but with very silly words, (It was Willy what got drownded in the Deep Blue Sea) and you can sing it simply, or you can ornament it to your heart’s content. It lends itself to natural harmonies and I find it very moving. A. taught people a variant on a round we learnt from the National Theatre’s Nativity (part of the Passion Plays) in the 80’s, and which we sometimes use as a warm up for summer singing. The original is Whose Tups Are These?
A. learnt new words from her walking buddy, so we are now singing Whose Pigs Are These, and have since invented more versions, including hens, ducks, cows, goats and so on (some of them rude) which we didn’t inflict on the company, but would have been entirely appropriate to the venue, which has 3 pigs and a handful of sheep as well as a few ducks and lots of very free range hens- to be found in the kitchen and in your bedroom if you don’t shut the door.
Katrina taught us a lovely South African song for which the low part sounded like chihuahua, chihuahua; so we got dogs in too!
First thing (relatively speaking) some of us met the pigs and poultry properly while they were being fed. Breakfast was a help-yourself feast of freshly baked bread, freshly laid eggs and lots of home-made jams (or Marmite- hurrah!). There were other things too but for me fresh bread ‘n’ eggs is the bee’s knees, cat’s pyjamas and the lobster’s dress shirt.
We trundled up to the hay loft for a warm up and to learn two new songs from Mel. The first of these is something Mel has composed herself, and allows us quite a bit of improvisation in terms of which part we sing when and making up words on the spot. It works really well, and I suggested Mel offer it to Sing for Water as one of their songs for next year, which led to another line being added to the options. (Raise the Roof has participated in the Sing for Water project for the last two years and is taking part again this year.
The other song I should have known, and right now I can’t even remember what it’s called despite singing that very word several hundred times now… what a memory. Kakelombe!! (she adds three days later) We have been learning it on Tuesdays, but I’ve missed so many rehearsals this term I might as well have been learning it for the first time. Not that the part I was doing was difficult, just had to stay in rhythm.
As soon as we felt we had the basics, we went out into the sunshine and sang in the farmyard. This worked quite well acoustic wise, as there are buildings all round which held the noise in so we could hear. We experimented with the open barn but the roof was too high and we wanted the sun. At this point the final three Roofers arrived by taxi from the station, and were greeted with a spontaneous performance of Mra Val Zhavier. One startled taxi driver.
Lunch was a substantial lentil and coconut soup, and salad (which included marigolds and other flowers). Why am I telling you what we ate? Because it was first-rate. Whoever of Matt and Andrea is the cook, really knows what s/he is doing.
After lunch those members of the party involved in the forthcoming trip to Moncuq and Tarbes in the South of France (the Trade Winds Pioneers) went off to rehearse their set in the hay loft.
The rest of us separated to walk, read, or in A. and my case, trundle into Wootton Bassett. We have not completely abandoned the opera, we are in search of costumes in the five charity shops available in Wootton Bassett. A. tracks down a DJ which fits quite well and dress trousers, which will be ok after I hack 4 inches off the bottoms.
I am still in search of tatty oversized jeans, not proving easy as I’m fairly oversized before we start.
Straight back to sit in the sun and chat aimlessly to friends, and in A.’s case also to the pigs, with whom she is besotted.
As I wander about, there is something I notice about the vegetables in the kitchen, and the flowers in the recycled tyres, and even the weeds; there is a complete lack of pests.
The vegetables are planted with companion plants, and I suppose the hens eat the slugs.
As Matt says, Life is hard, living is easy (if you let it, I would add). I wish my garden looked so healthy.
The pioneers eventually emerge looking a bit tired, and we munch our way through flapjacks left over from the morning, then walk to the local supermarket (having forgotten that this would be possible, while mooching about the farm) to get crisps and things to have with a glass of wine while we entertain each other in more formality than on Friday evening. Some people even dress up.
Solos, duets, trios, blues, Marlene Deitrich tributes, tragic songs and silly tunes, sing-a-longs and one or two comic turns, we did ourselves proud. Our host, Matt, joined in to fly the flag for the men, since we ended up an all female outing from RtR.
Another excellent dinner and we wandered out to the courtyard where Matt had lit a bonfire, and we did what you are meant to do when twenty plus singers are gathered together, and sat round it and sang spirituals, protest songs, and Beatles numbers until midnight.
Matt’s request for ‘that spiritual you sang yesterday afternoon’ was met by puzzled looks, and five false starts later, was identified as ‘I’ll fly away‘, which is indeed a very lovely song.
Sunday morning. I think everyone was up for breakfast rather later than they had been the day before, not assisted by torrential rain…
We warmed up (physically and singing wise) in the communal space, and sang our two new songs again, a quick break for chocolate muffins and then the Trade Winds Pioneers went through their set for us; an eclectic mixture of English, French, Maori, African and American songs, typical of the Raise the Roof catalogue. My particular favourite was a spritely version of Take 5 – I didn’t know it had words! I shall treasure Mood Indigo being pitched so low everyone collapsed, and was reminded once again that Autumn Leaves is better in the original French.
We were asked for feedback, which was extremely positive and sensible, picking up on issues of dynamics, presentation and balance which are hard to gauge whether you are getting it right when you are doing the singing.
…Something that is rapidly becoming the Raise the Roof anthem for me, even though we only join in on the chorus when Mel occasionally sings it, as she did this weekend, is From the Heart.
Sing, like you don’t need the money
love, like you’ve never been hurt
dance, like nobody’s watching
gotta come from the heart
if you want it to work.
Raise the Roof has heart, in spades… so does Lower Shaw Farm.
copyright Cherry Potts 2011