THE NEWslETTER OF TIGERFOLK
It was very gratifying to receive e-mails from two of our regulars in response to last month’s editorial and unsurprisingly both are supporting the singaround scene. Now let me state very clearly that over the last fifty three years I have attended more singarounds, club nights, theme nights, come all ye’s and song sessions than I can realistically remember and as far as I can recall I enjoyed them. Probably because over the years they were singarounds, clubnights, come all ye’s and not a showcase for a particular individual. My particular disappointment with some of these nights that I have attended in recent years (not the three per year held at Tigerfolk I hasten to add) is that is the way some of the singers present approach such nights.
Among the music stands, song books, crib sheets iPhones and tablets, in my opinion a curse on the current folk scene, the “all about me” attitude has raised its head a little too often in the last few singarounds that I have attended. The worst case that I saw was one couple who arrived after the club had started and one of the members was in mid song. Instead of quickly closing the door again and waiting until the end of the song they propped the door open with one of their instruments allowing all the noise from the other rooms in, hauled the rest of their equipment into the room and then humped it all across the floor to a vacant table; totally oblivious to the singer who certainly possessed more patience than I would have done! I saw the same thing happen as a singer was introducing his song when again the door opened and the person arriving proceeded to inform the club what a terrible journey they had experienced to get there; again totally disregarding the person who currently had the floor.
Then there are those who, after they have performed from their songbook, spend the rest of the session until it is their turn again leafing through their book to find their next chosen song and re acquaint themselves with the words. One step worse that this is the performer who continually flick their phone on and off with the same objective.
On the other hand some of the best singarounds in recent years have been where those present have been so attentive as to what else has been performed have cast aside their prepared songs as something sung a bit earlier has sparked off another song on the same subject or a very similar theme. Or where those present have been actively encouraged to explain from where they learned the song that they are about to perform and any other background information that they can provide.
Let’s hope for a bit of that when we present a singaround on Sunday 5th May at the Stumble Inn
Reference to recent television programmes make up quite a bit of this month’s newsletter and John Bentham provides a fine assessment to the “Morris and I” feature around a month ago on BBC4 with which I find myself in agreement. I had originally intended to watch it until Alan Partridge had started and then catch up on iPlayer later on only to find myself doing the reverse. I too was pleased to see the way the programme and its subject was treated with respect and enthusiasm and no sniggering or dismissive comments. At times it did remind me of a holiday I spent in 1972 in the company of Sally port Rapper and a couple of other sides at a folk camp in Belgium where, as well as the fellowship of the Morris, I was also introduced to the politics of the Morris. It was refreshing to hear both sides of the argument to admit women into Morris sides.
What about “Three Chords and the Truth” the documentary, again on BBC4, on the life of Woody Guthrie introduced by Billy Bragg part of what has been a captivating three part series?
Our April guest Will Kaufman modestly mentioned during his excellent presentation that he was a consultant on the programme. What he didn’t say was the major part that he played before the camera too adding lots of facts and a song or two as the programme progressed and a lot of the information that he imparted he had included in the “Old Man Trump” feature that he had done for us (see Paul Mansfield’s review.
If you didn’t see the programme I do recommend that you catch it on iPlayer while it is still available; it traces Guthrie’s’ life, very much as Will did in April, from an uncommitted young man to the outspoken opponent of racism and exploitation for which he became so well known. It also chronicled his physical deterioration through Huntingdon’s Chorea to his death in 1967.
However the programme ended on a high with that iconic moment in American history when at the inauguration of Barack Obama in January 2009 Pete Seeger, Bruce Springsteen, Seeger’s grandson Tao Rodriguez – Seeger and a Gospel Choir performed “This Land Is Your Land, This Land is My Land” to the estimated live audience of 400,000. This was shown interspersed with comments by Norah Guthrie and shots of the Obama family singing along plus the overwhelming enthusiasm of the crowd on that freezing but momentous day.
If watching that doesn’t bring a lump to your throat then you are just not human!
Letters to the Editor
You wanted a reply to your controversial comments – so here’s one for Tatters!
Alternative venues…. Don’t understand the problem. I go to a range of folky venues from the wonderfully-traditional Tiger, to a guitar-rich singaround where iPads and word sheets are the norm and few songs pre-date the 1960s. I also run a tune session where we choose to play tunes together – yes – all together at the same time – with one person leading each item and the rest joining in (which is, incidentally, how tunes were played traditionally)– a bit like a Big Sing really. And we wouldn’t throw someone out for singing a song in much the same way that the occasional tune fits into a singaround, but the ethos of the sessions is different and attracts different performers and listeners.
If some of the surviving groups are tending to look more U3A than cutting edge, is that surprising given the vintage of the average folky? And why not if it keeps them/us singing and playing and enjoying it? What survives is what works in terms of numbers attending and financial viability. While we can try to infect the young with our enthusiasm, we can’t realistically expect many of them to want to spend their free time in folk clubs, any more than I wanted to spend mine in Chapels and Whist Drives, which were my Grandparents’ preferred activities.
When I was a young folksinger I didn’t want to listen to people of my grandparents’ age. (Though I now wish I had paid more attention to the older traditional singers.) I wanted to mix and sing with people my own age and perform in a way that suited us, and to a large extent still does. We can’t be surprised if our descendants feel the same. We have to trust the next generations to do the same and choose the styles, musical activities and venues which keep them in touch with their traditions
To me the big positive about the last few generations of folk is the wealth of collecting, research, recording and publications which will be there waiting for the next generation that wants to explore their musical heritage. It is unlikely to be our way, but it will, as the song says, be their way – and quite right too!
The case of folk clubs that used to have guests, but now don’t, is an intriguing topic. The Tuesday night club in Belper is a case in point. It’s also an interesting example, perhaps, of how ‘nature abhors a vacuum’. In 2018, Andy Inns of the online folk programme Black Dog Radio started putting on gigs in exactly the same room as the folk club, but entirely separately, with some considerable success.
Andy’s booking policy is profiled heavily towards Scottish acts, and quite big names too: Old Blind Dogs, Talisk…Rura coming up in May. Most of these sell out, meaning 60 - 90 people in the room (the capacity is adjusted via room layout, judged on the appeal and type of the artist or artists). I suspect there might be some positive ‘word of mouth’ about Belper going on amongst the Scottish folk community too, as artists seem to be coming who aren’t going to (or getting booked in) much larger English towns and cities. (Belper is only slightly more than half the size of Long Eaton.)
But of course the reason why the Tuesday club stopped putting on guest nights was lack of support. So there could be a number of factors here: it wasn’t the right night, the right acts weren’t being booked, the marketing wasn’t adequate, the local audience had just ‘run out of steam’ at that time, and so on.
The next thought is whether the Black Dog Radio gigs have somehow built a new or different audience – possible research question! I am not convinced that it is the ‘mainly Scottish’ angle per se that’s pulling people in. It’s certainly noticeable that very few of the Tuesday night crowd come. But then there always has been some level of differentiation within the folk scene – people who go to singarounds but not guest nights and vice versa, dancers who don’t go to song clubs, people who only go to festivals or big-name concerts.
This idea of differentiation also bears on Mr. Sutherland’s points about singarounds. These too are of different types. I think that singarounds potentially address three different functions, and any specific event might relate to all three, or two, or one:
1. They give people the opportunity to perform a particular type, or types, of music;
2. They may prioritise a very high level of participation, potentially irrespective of performance quality;
3. They offer a particular type of social/community experience.
Different events have different emphases. The distinction with open-mics is that the latter are usually considered to be more about the individual performance (as if the performer is rehearsing in public or trying to get a booking) and less about commitment to the group. The “all about me” thing, as Dave wrote. But whether there is a hard and fast distinction in practice with singarounds is debatable – it depends which ones you go to. But personally I’ve never experienced a singaround that featured many “all about me” participants.
Sunday 5th May 2019
Singing in the May
While those of us of a certain political persuasion would rather be Singing out the May our next club night will be to welcome in the Summer season.
Songs old and new in keeping with the season will abound along with stories and tunes befitting the occasion.
Sunday 7th April 2019
Will Kaufman: Woody Guthrie and “Old Man Trump”
Did you know that Donald Trump’s father was Woody Guthrie’s landlord in New York City, and that the experience prompted the composition Trump Made A Tramp Out Of Me? Well, you know now!
Prefacing his audio-visual show by performing Steve Earle’s “Come Back Woody Guthrie”, Will Kaufman focused on Woody Guthrie’s later years, a different angle from Guthrie’s association with the ‘dust bowl’ era. Perhaps the principal strand of the narrative lay in the way that Guthrie moved to a specific anti-racist commitment, after sharing in some of the casual racism common to the era before, and indeed after, the war.
Two features of this journey stood out: firstly, the fact that Beach Haven, Guthrie’s Trump-owned residence, barred Black residents, despite being developed with public funds – there was some dodgy financial practice involved, you may not be surprised to hear – to house military veterans; secondly, Guthrie’s attendance at Paul Robeson’s concerts in Peekskill NY (1949), at which the audience was subjected to considerable violence from right-wing protestors. “My 30,000” was Guthrie’s songwriting response, praising those who had come to support Robeson. In this case, noting that many Woody Guthrie songs have survived as lyrics only, Will performed the Billy Bragg/Wilco version.
A subsidiary theme was Guthrie’s time at his ‘real haven’ in Florida, at the hospitality of the larger-than-life left-wing character Stetson Kennedy, who sounded as if he deserved the book and film treatment in his own right. Kennedy’s infiltration of the Klan was perhaps some light relief alongside events such as the Nelson family lynching and the Peekskill riots.
In short, it perhaps wasn’t the evening for folk fans who like light-hearted (let alone non-political) material, but I found Will’s presentation both informative and entertaining, and indeed it was well-appreciated by a good crowd, including several habitués of the Beeston club who made the trip over to NG10.
I thought for a change I might list the floor singers by composer rather than title: John Bentham sang Graham Miles, Dave Sutherland gave us Tommy Armstrong, I dropped in The Decemberists for some more Americana, Phil Hind sang a number by some bloke called Phil Hind, and Sam Stephens was half-Handel. John Ledbury, Dave Walters and John Chambers all contributed pieces by the famous Anon (AKA Trad.) All in all, a damned good evening (and of course a rather different one).
Finally, I should mention that Will Kaufman’s books should be available from all good booksellers, and from some of the less reputable online ones: “Woody Guthrie: American Radical” and the forthcoming “Mapping Woody Guthrie” are the relevant items, although you might enjoy “American Culture in the 1970s” and several other titles (see Will’s website, willkaufman.com).
When the first Sunday of the month falls, as it did in April, on the 8th.it makes the next week a bit busy because Grand Union Folk Club in Sileby has a sing-around on the second Monday of the month and on the second Wednesday of the month, there is a sing-around at St. Joseph’s Tearooms during the afternoon. All very enjoyable, of course, but it does concentrate the mind somewhat. The local farmers market is also held on the second Wednesday which adds to a slightly busier day than normal. This month, however, we also had our six monthly check-up at the dentists on Wednesday morning, so, the day was distinctly hectic (I hastened to add that I am not going into “A day in the life of the Benthams”, you’ll be pleased to know). But there was one topic that cropped up at the folk clubs, the sing and at the dentists and that was Morris Dancing.
Not surprising that it should be talked about at folk gatherings but it did surprise me that the keeper of our gnashers should not only remember that I used to dance the Morris but that he brought it up even though he had not seen the Arena programme “For Folk’s Sake! Morris Dancing and Me”*, I guess he had read a review or two. The general consensus seemed to be that the programme gave a reasonably balanced view, primarily, on the situation The Morris Ring found itself in last year. Men only sides are all old, beer-bellied, grey/white bearded dinosaurs and the only salvation is to invite members of the opposite sex into their sides who will, in turn, encourage younger men to join. Opposites attract and all that. This may well be true but a number of Ring sides have, for years, had lady musicians and it is not unusual to go to the annual feast of a Ring side and find it is mixed company. So it was good that our guide through this, sometimes, clandestine world of men dancers only, women dancers only and mixed sides, was able to show the viewers that everyone, well almost everyone, actually lives in the real world. Sure there was a bit of “Tussing” as my dad would say, a gentle bit of ribbing but for the most part there was respect shown for the dances, the dancers and the musicians. I would like to think it brought home to the viewer whose only contact with the Morris was possibly through Monty Python or the Two Ronnies derisory sketches etc. that there is deeper more meaningful and heartfelt passion for this custom that has references going back hundreds of years.
It’s hats off to Richard Macer for volunteering to give it a go for I am sure that all of us who have or still are dancing remember well those agonising practice sessions when we tried to master double stepping! One, two, three, hop, one two, three, hop is surely a mantra burned deep and then to swap to single stepping and feet together jump………..ugh. You could see the difficulty he was having and it is only through hours of practice that it gradually becomes easier and embedded. Then there was the sticking, tricky, but again, only through perseverance does it come. As his confidence grew so did his appreciation and understanding of what it was to be involved in a men’s Morris side and his consternation when they couldn’t field a side for Saddleworth Rushcart. He was getting it. Ask people who go to folk clubs about Saddleworth Rushcart, Bampton Morris, the Kinora Reels of the Karpeles sisters dancing with Cecil Sharp and George Butterworth, Abbots Bromley Horn Dance either at Abbots Bromley or Thaxted and the like and you might or might not be surprised as to how many know nothing or little about them, so, if they are in the dark, what about the general public. Any programme that informs about our rich traditions and heritage can only be for the good.
Am I being picky on seeing him presented with an engraved tankard for managing to dance out and then in only one dance? In Leicester Morris any new dancer is first awarded a Cinquefoil, the insignia of the side, to wear with pride when they have reached a level of competence in not one dance but a number and in different traditions. Engraved pewter pots are presented at the end of a term in office as Squire of the side or to all members of a side to mark special occasions. They are special and it did appear that he genuinely appreciated his pot. It will be interesting to see if Richard Macer will be seen with Manchester Morrismen dancing out this summer.
* For those who haven’t seen the programme it is available on I Player; Arena, For Folks Sake’ Morris Dancing and Me
See you at the Stumble Inn