Strange Folk

I am pleased to welcome Tortoise Loft‘s first ever Guest Blogger, Mr Kevon Kenna of Australia.

Kevon came over here on holiday in August. We started with a day at the Shrewsbury Flower Show. Where Kevon’s pleasure in the musical fireworks of the Band of the Coldstream Guards was equalled only by his pleasure in the musical fireworks of the, er, musical fireworks – Kimbolton’s pyrotechnic finale being the best I’ve seen yet. We spent a couple of very pleasant days in York – with time to see the National Railway Museum and the Castle Museum as well as stroll around the walls and along the riverside. The holiday ended with the Shrewsbury Folk Festival. I asked Kevon if I could post his comments on the Festival here on Tortoise Loft. I’ve added a couple of pictures that I took at the event; the words, the links – and the opinions – are Kevon’s own.

Lucy Ward

Sabrina.

The third day of the festival found us in the Sabrina Marquee. The Shrewsbury Folk Festival is neither small nor cheap. It has about 6 venues in fairly continuous use from Friday afternoon to Monday afternoon of England’s famed August Bank-Holiday Weekend. The venues range from a circus tent with computerised coloured spotlights and smoke machines, down to more intimate spaces that only hold a couple of hundred. The opening performance in the circus tent was all amplification and coloured lights, which is not my idea of Folk Music. I want to hear the words; not be pummelled by the bass. Perhaps the smaller Sabrina Marquee will be an improvement?
 
The first act was three old men with fiddle, melodeon, and I forget what else. They sang traditional songs and I could hear the words. This was good. After them came four young poms, one of whom works for NASA in the USA. They began with a quiet song; restful, contemplative; full of long silences and instrumental solos; perfect for a warm Sunday afternoon. As near as I can recall it went:

(Start with refrain)
This is the sound-check; this is the sound check, baby.
This is the sound-check; this is the sound check, baby.

This is the sound-check, we’re just checking;
That our instruments are all plugged in.
(repeat refrain)

This is the sound-check, it’s not a song.
We make it up as we go along.
(repeat refrain)

They also did the story of Rhys and Meinir; the traditional Welsh love story that ends when Rhys finds his beloved’s skeleton in an oak tree, still in her wedding dress. He dies too; and all live happily ever after.

When they had finished a girl wandered onto the stage and told us that she had a sticky mouth from the lunch she had just eaten. She had a guitar. She also had green hair and the strap of a thong showing above the waist of her leggings. I considered leaving. I checked the programme notes : “Her …strong, pitch-perfect, delivery and the maturity of her songs can reduce an audience to tears, …” It can. She favours songs about women’s hardships. She was the best act of the day. Her hair wasn’t green either; it was blue. It looked green in the light that filtered through the yellow canvas of the tent. Appearances can deceive. — www.lucywardsings.com

The last act, the one that I had come to see, was a group of five mature men singing sea chanteys. They were good too, but Lucy was better.

Ceilidh.

At least once every day there was a ceilidh in the dance tent. In deepest England; as far as can be from crofts, skerries, bogs and uisge beatha; we are having traditional celtic night gatherings in daylight? Wikipedia explains :

What is now called English ceilidh [ … ] has many things in common with the Scottish/Irish social dance traditions and can be considered part of English Country Dance [ … ] English ceilidhs always use a caller who calls the dance figures the dancers need to make. [ … ] Most of the dances involve couples staying together for the whole dance, though people often change partners after every one or two dances.

The one I went to was lively, crowded, and great fun. The caller invited couples to form fours, or parallel lines, or concentric circles. Some of the couples were boy and girl, many girl and girl, some were parent and waist-high child, and one “couple” was a wheelchair with pusher, occupant, and occupant’s partner. The caller described the steps of the dance and talked the dancers through a few sequences, then the music and mayhem began. There was Strip-the Willow, The-Dashing-White-Sergeant, and I know not what else. Couples galloped between lines of their fellows, ducked under arches of outstretched arms, separated to swing around strangers and meet again 4 bars later. Groups of six or eight formed mini-centrifuges. There was a lot of flailing about, looking for the correct hand to grab next but, remarkably, things mostly kept skipping, galloping, spinning, and swinging, more-or-less in time to the strong beat of the band. Perhaps some of them had done it before.

Morris and Clog

It’s hard to describe Morris Dancing without making it sound ridiculous. A half dozen or so grown men, with solemn mien, tie bells to their legs and caper in unison. You can get a bit of an idea of the leg-work by watching John Cleese from the Ministry of Silly Walks. There are many styles, but to the uninitiated the main difference is that sometimes they wave white handkerchiefs,
Hankies Aloft
and sometimes they bang sticks together.

The dancing is accompanied by a Melodeon, a kind of squeeze-box, but where normal dancing follows the music, a Morris Melodeon player follows the dancers. It they need more time for a step, the player will extend the beat as required. This can sound awkward, and it requires the musician to walk backwards when leading a parade. The antiquity and origin of Morris is uncertain, but it may have originated as a celebration of casting the Moors out of Spain. Morris = Moorish, perhaps? In any case it is old.

Along with the Morris dancers we had cloggers. Clogging is not old. In the Industrial Revolution lots of mills were built in Northern England, and lots of lasses worked at t’mill. The traditional mill-girl’s shoe was a wooden-soled Clog, and a Clog makes a satisfying bang when stamped on a wooden floor. Clogging is girls having fun; and it is fun to watch.

We also had Rapping. Weavers must periodically push the weft threads together to close them up. At t’mill this was, apparently, done with a rapper. From a distance a rapper looks like a sword with a handle at both ends. Some teams danced with these, and wove them together as they swung around each other with the rappers held aloft. This must require great skill and fitness,  but the clogging looked like more fun. I could have watched Morris and
Clogging all day.

Thank you, Kevon. ‘I could have watched Morris and Clogging all day?’ You are a braver man that I thought. (I had not realised the Folk Festival would be your first real exposure to it – we take chaps wearing bells for granted in these parts.) I prefer to have Morris in much small doses. But you were right about Lucy Ward’s fine singing – definitely a name to watch.

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