We’ve been in England a bit more than a week now. In some regards it’s as any other such trip, one is both a bit overwhelmed, at the same time has the sense that one is seeing nothing.
We managed to short circuit some of that by going to Sidmouth Folk Week. It’s not that we felt we saw all of that (or Sidmouth), because the schedule was (as with any good convention) too packed in to take in half of what looked interesting, but rather that it felt one was taking part in a greater activity; as part of a community. It may have been a community of happenstance, but the shared interest meant I (at least) felt connected to some greater whole, which diminished the sense that I ought to be going great guns to “get it all in”.
Sidmouth was the fruit of pent up desire, and collaboration. We had been planning to attend LonCon, and then ShamrocKon. Mme. Pecunium has long wanted to go to Croperdy, so we figured we’d tack a bit onto the front, and make it a proper honeymoon (by adding a couple of days in Brighton to visit family).
We looked into getting a canal boat (shades of Wind in the Willows, which I still adore, and re-read); cost was prohibitive, esp. when the punitive nature of missing one’s time (by even the least margin) was factored in. So we looked into getting tentage, etc.
Which was when I asked the question, “Is Oysterband playing?”. Various searches revealed they 1: weren’t playing Croperdy, 2: but were playing Sidmouth. 3 Sidmouth was much closer to Brighton, and suited the rest of the planned trip a little better (giving us more time in Brighton, without losing any in London). So we hired a campervan, looked into the bands playing the various shows, packed our bags and headed out.
Not to go all fanboy squee… but I’ve wanted to see Oysterband since very shortly after I first heard them. I have eclectic tastes in music. Folk/Trad/Jazz/Rock/Some Pop/Filk/Symphonic. I love to sing (and have been taking lessons to improve my ear, so as to improve my confidence), used to be tolerably decent on the cello, have been getting decent on pennywhistle. I worked renaissance faires for about 20 years.
They fit into all of that; and have some solidly done political messages in their songs: it helps I seem to agree with their general politics, but a lot of the message in them is “be good to each other” and I can get behind that.
Sidmouth is more than a concert festival. Yeah, there are shows, and ceilidhs, and seisùns, but there are workshops, and parades, and it’s all in the town, so there are shops, and pubs, and the beach to walk on, and everywhere there are people with a shared interest; people are busking, or striking up random conversations about random things; comfortable in the sense that, even though strangers there is something in common.
The town joins in. The Bedford Hotel has a sign in the window, “musicians welcome” and every time I passed by, there was a different sort of thing happening in the bar. Roly’s Fudge had a couple doing dancing dolls, and I saw a sign in the window, “come in and sing a song/play a tune” and we’ll give you some fudge”.
With 60 years of history, it seems the village has taken the festival to heart.
So Weds. Evening we got ourselves to the show. It was all that, and a bag of chips. Music is magical. It’s powerful. It has the ability to be transcendent. This was all of that. It was worth all the hassle of driving a campervan on English roads (with the shiftbox on the left, but built for being on the right, and an underpowered engine. I missed more shifts in three days/400 miles then I’ve missed in years, almost all of them because 3rd was in a wretched place).
After the show I saw a tweet, from the band, asking us to come by the merchandising table, because they wanted to meet us. I’d been jazzed about the trip, and talking it up (it’s my first honeymoon, my first trip to England, my first Oysterband concert… I was perhaps a bit full of squeeful anticipation).
It being what it was, they got called away before we could get there. They were too busy the next night at the ceilidh, which was great. They started as a ceilidh band, and one can see why.
The next day (show three, in three days) was more intimate. It was JJ, and Ian, and Alan, and they told stories, and sang songs, and answered questions. JJ said, at one point, they were nervous when they wrote, “The Oxford Girl” because they were worried they weren’t doing justice to the tradition.
I found this interesting because, at some point in the past few years (I think when The Oxford Girl and Other Stories) came out, I got curious… the song has the feel of being connected to a real event. So I dug about and what comes up, from such a search is a lot of murder ballads, and as the band says… none of them is from the POV of the victim (which is in part because the parent form of those ballads is the broadsheets published as, “gallows confessions”).
So they wrote one. It’s, to me, an iconic tune. I think it was the song a girlfriend used to introduce me to the band; like a springboard it led to me diving in, and going deep.
The thing is tradition is a living thing.* Like language it dies if people don’t play with it. I play pennywhistle (to some level of moderate skill). I have little tutelage. I learned what I have from books, and tunes I knew, and my own ear as I played. And I was (until fairly recently) terrified to play in public.
I live in the states. “Trad” music here is somewhat ossified. One has the sense that one needs to have the tunes note perfect and spot on, or one can’t do them justice. One listens to groups like Battlefield Band, or The Chieftains, or The Oysterband, and thinks, “I’m not up to that”. It means the music is a bit less than it might be.
I didn’t know that before Sidmouth. I did know that I was going to be in Ireland, and I was going to sit in on a seisùn. So I had to get over my fear. I’d gotten over some of it at filk conventions. I’d jam on tunes I know (Lynyrd Skynyrd is KICK-ASS for playing pennywhistle to. Just sayin’). But that’s adding an instrument which isn’t endemic, even intrinsic to the tradition. It’s not one the players are going to have expectations of. So I went to a local Tues. night seisùn at Dempsey’s. Just tried to find the shape of the music, and run with it.
It works. It’s not perfect. I can’t lead a tune that way, but it works.
Skip to Sidmouth. I saw a set of workshops on, “learning by ear”. So I went. We learned an air: Sùilean Dubh. No variations (and a bit simpler than the opening to that song). We also worked on picking up a note, and how to move the song to where it goes from there. Interesting to me was that we got the C phrase (the song has the pattern of A/B/A/C/A/B:coda) well before we played it. We did an exercise before we SANG it. And we could sing it. We knew the tune, even though it was new to us. The trick is translation. So we played it out… and some of us weren’t quite there. And it was good. The rough spots tended to be in notes which made chords.
The thing I was doing, and feeling nervous, even guilty about was imbibing the tradition. Making the language of the music a language I can speak. Yeah, I want to learn set pieces, it the same way I learned to make hollandaise, or to recite, “Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries”. I want to learn them so the grammar, the taste, essence of the music is there, ready to my fingers.
So that I don’t need to know every song being played to join in. So I can take what was old (and perhaps moribund) and give it, not a new life, but an ongoing one.
It’s why (to come back to the band) the show on Weds was so good. The recordings are great. Seeing them on feed from festivals is grand. Being in the room, where the sound is palpable, and the other members of the audience are there: vibrant, alive, participating is to take part in the tradition. It can’t die, not if we keep playing with it. Not if we take the old, and bend it to the present. Not making it new again; it will never be new again, but keeping it from stagnating into a relic from the past.
Oh yeah… after the third show, there was more than enough time to have a longish chat with the band, their partners, some of the crew. A pleasant capstone to a wonderful week, hospitable, charming, everything one should like to think them to be, from the way the music makes one feel.
I’d do it all again.
*and they nailed it. When I was trying to see if this was a murder ballad about a contemporary crime, one of the hits which was pulled up was this one, about “The Knoxville Girl” and how the ballad of, “The Bloody Miller” managed to cross the ocean to the Scots-Irish in the US, and got applied, using stock imagery to move it over, both in locale, and mores, to the American sensibility. The linked article has some interesting comments on what the invention of the phonograph, and the way the 78s turned things into “the right way” and all the rest.
The subhead for this blog is taken from a song they wrote, based on a quotation of Alisdair Gray, which he attributes to Canadian writer Dennis Lee. In the best tradition we borrow from each other, and (sort of) file the serial numbers off.