midsummer music… and dancing

We’ve had a busy few days celebrating midsummer with music of all kinds. 

Thursday night Jon Boden celebrated the end of a year of folk songs in his A Folk Song a Day project with a gig at Cecil Sharp House.  I have listened to every one of the songs, though not every day, tending to gorge every week instead, and what a delight it has been, apart from anything else its made me feel very knowledgable as I know at least 3/4 of the songs Jon has recorded, and in the main I’ve been glad to be introduced to the rest.  And it looks like the project is continuing past its 365th edition, which is good news.

There was definitely an air of celebration about last night, significant numbers of the audience were in silly hats, the hall was decorated with bunting and the evening kicked off with Hammersmith Morris, who, whilst hampered a little by insufficient room (which led to one man having to dance backwards up the built-in seating round the edge of the room)and the risk of strangling themselves on the aforementioned bunting, gave a fleet-footed, muscular showing.  They swished their hankies like they were sabres, and dueled in slow motion with sticks and jumps and footwork. Audience and C# House staff assisted in raising the bunting out of harms’ way, including a vision in vintage pink dress, holding the flags away from fire risk from the lights with a parasol made entirely of flowers, like a young, colourful, and much less stern version of Mary Poppins.

Something about morris men: they can’t creep in surreptitiously to leave their bag of sticks ready, the bells rather give them away; and it’s wise to ensure those bells are tied on tight, I noticed on guy tangle the ties from one leg in the bells of another – nearly a nasty accident. 

They danced outside in the drizzle during the interval (Follow the noise, JB says leaving the stage) and danced their way back in for the start of the second half, causing the wheelchair user chatting to friends in the aisle to go into rapid reverse – they weren’t stopping for anyone. Comments were made about the slipperiness of the floor making some of the faster dances a bit hazardous, I’d have thought as the national centre for folk dance C# house would have thought of that! 

I believe some people think Morris dancing is an acquired taste.  It can be pretty silly, but done with committment and energy it has a strange beauty and can even be a bit unnerving; it has the same quality as Terry Pratchett, when he looks sideways at you and says something serious amongst all that glorious inventive hokkum that is the logic of Disc World.  In fact I’m sure if there isn’t an active Ankh Morpork Morris side it’s only because they are in hiding after some political faux pas that has drawn unwelcome attention from the patrician… That’s a digression and a half, sorry, back to the gig.

The singing was shared out with Jon Boden taking the lion’s share, but with the occasional handover to Fay Hield , Peta Webb, and The Cecil Sharp House Community Choir. (Ms Webb’s contribution was in doubt for a while, courtesy of an over stiff lock in the ladies, fortunately the audience are a resourceful lot and got her out.) 

The Community Choir were a little polite for my taste, apart from their opening shanty which had sufficient oomph. I think they suffered from the arrangements being over complex for folk songs, which neither need nor benefit from it.  They sang beautifully none the less, and there were some strong voices in there; it just needed a touch more vigour.

Peta Webb has startling orange hair, and I don’t know if this influenced the lighting crew, but she sang in a green spotlight, which made her look rather like the risen corpse in The Unquiet Grave, a variant of which, the Grey Cock, Fay Hield sang, the combination of her voice and a very effective bass drum set my hair on end. 

Peta Webb’s contributions included Lovely on the Water and a song the title of which I’ve never grasped, but has the quaint refrain: I bundled it beneath my apron, one of the best of many songs about concealed pregnancy.

Which leads me on to a tiny little gripe.  I’d say my knowledge of folk song is pretty good, and that yes, there are a lot of songs about incest, and a lot about young men murdering innocent young things, and they often have wonderful tunes… and it could be that having three contributors may have led to a lack of co-ordination in the sets, but: we got a disproportionate number of ‘psychopath apologia’ as I think of them.  Why do these songs describe the victim as the perpetrators ‘True Love?’…  gawd help the women they don’t like. 

The Remnant Kings have an eclectic set of instruments, there are dozens of fiddles on stands about the stage; the stage was also graced by two working Edison Standard Wax Cylinder Phonographs, and wine glasses filled with water; one song had an oboe solo of great magnificence.

The set began with Dancing in the Factory one of JB’s own songs, which was lovely, and one of several he sang that originate on Songs from the Floodplain, though I think, of them, this was the highlight.

Another regular appearance for the night was the combination of Rudyard Kipling and Peter Bellamy.  I don’t share JB’s enthusiasm for Kipling, he doesn’t know when to stop; however the version of Frankie’s Trade which was either double tracked or fed through those Edison phonographs was very effective.

The phonographs also supplied what sounded like vintage recording of bird song, and a strange wailing that might have been violin… I have to admit to rather liking it.

Another theme of the evening was songs with King Harry (or Henry) in them, and hunting songs, and indeed songs that managed to splice the two together, mostly supplied by Fay Hield, who has a lovely voice… although she doesn’t engage with the audience much.  On Folk Song a day she and JB do a duet of a version of the Three Ravens/Twa Corbies which is absolutely visceral.  I found her album a bit disappointing, but there’s scope there for her to be something very special with the right material.

The audience were given every encouragement to join in on chorus or refrain, and did.

High points were all provided by interesting musical interpretation which is one of Boden’s strengths, whichever of his outfits he is out with, in particular, Open your window done to an accompaniment of just percussion was brilliant, there’s something about that much percussion that gets into your body and takes over the rhythm of your breathing.

We could have (should have!) stayed for a singalong in the bar, but I’d been up since 4.30am, and it’s a tedious journey home so regretfully we left our friends to do the honours.

(Thanks for the tickets, Muireann, and for the photo, Jill.)

Copyright Cherry Potts 2011

Remnant Kings at Cecil Sharp House copyright Jill Barrett 2011

1 thought on “midsummer music… and dancing

  1. Sounds a fantastic night – I’m jealous! Good to see someone writing up the brilliance that was ‘A Folk Song a Day’.

    And yes, yes, yes: ‘true love’ in folk music is a very dubious quality!

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