Immersion in Music: Soundpost Full English Weekend 2015Saturday, 7th November, 2015
When my friend, Annie, pointed out Soundpost’s ‘Full English Weekend‘ to me, I paused for a moment and looked at my earnings from a paid gig the week before. There were several things I could have done with the earnings but, somehow, it seemed right to reinvest them in my folk-musical development so off went the cheque and back came the confirmation, the programme and the list of workshops I’d been allocated. Needless to say, I was very excited to be able to be spending an entire weekend immersing myself in folkiness relating to the Full English digital archive.
While the journey from Wiltshire up to the Peak District was rather stressful (the M5, the M42 and the M1 were all pretty chockablock), as soon as I’d landed in beautiful Low Bradfield, the stress was replaced by a mixture of relaxation, excitement and a small dose of nervousness.
Annie and I made it safely to Dungworth – the village which was the nexus of folkiness for the weekend – and registered for the weekend, bumping into friends as we did so. One of the workshops had been cancelled so I had to make a decision for a replacement (not an easy choice!) before a troop of us headed to the nearby Royal Hotel for that evening’s singing session. It was a wonderful evening with such a variety of songs and singing styles and, for me, if felt as though that was when the weekend really started. One thing I was reminded of at that point is that I really need to learn more chorus songs (I lean more towards long, storytelling ballads without choruses which isn’t always the best thing for singarounds).
Next morning, I was dropped off by Annie at the venue furthest from Dungworth – the Underhill Chapel – for Nancy Kerr‘s workshop on ‘Adaptation, Composition And Creating From The Archive’ It was great to listen to Nancy describing her process for adapting songs from the Full English. Hearing how, having found a new tune to a song she already knew and loved, Nancy used some of the ornamentation to the already-known tune to enhance the new tune made me wonder about reapproaching some of the songs I already sing by looking to see if there were any tunes I preferred in The Full English. Perhaps that’s a projects for the long, cold nights of winter? The second half of the workshop was equally inspiring. First we free-wrote whatever came into our heads while listening to two pieces of music being played. I thought there was something in the imagery I was coming up with but it was really only when the next part of the exercise – putting what we’d written into the ballad form and refrain used in ‘The Two Sisters’ – that the glimmerings in my scribblings seemed to take on more substance. I don’t think what I wrote in the workshop will be developed into a song for performance (unlike Piers Cawley and Karen Dyson’s fabulous contributions) but the whole exercise has given me a toolkit that I will definitely be putting into use when writing my own songs.
After taking a break for lunch, my next stop was the session on Fay Hield‘s TEDx talk “Why Aren’t We All Folk Singers” with a Q&A session following that. The discussion in the Q&A focused a lot on the future of folk clubs and the alternative ways younger generations are interacting with folk music (along with a side order of discussion about how certain reality TV shows are impacting upon young musicians ‘doing their time’ on the folk circuit). It was all interesting stuff (although thinking back on my own contribution, I think I was being very naive and idealistic) and I’m sure we could have continued the discussion further but scheduling over the weekend meant we needed to move on.
I had a short walk down the road to the venue where Fay was running her “Ballad Editing” workshop. As ballads are pretty much my main area of interest, I was really looking forward to this one and I was not disappointed. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the methodology Fay detailed for editing ballads included many of the steps I had already been taking to edit ballads for my own use. There were also some really interesting considerations I hadn’t considered like thinking about who is supposed to be singing the ballad; how a change of a single word can make the difference between an audience sympathising with characters in a ballad or disliking them. Most of all, I think Fay’s workshop helped me to see I was on the right track and to have confidence in the method I was already applying to ballad editing.
As the light faded, course participants headed to one of the venues in Dungworth to see some of the course tutors in action. Bryony Griffith and Will Hampson were up first with a fantastic combination of Bryony’s voice and fiddle, and Will’s melodeon and they were followed by the marvellous Martin Carthy (I was utterly taken with his version of the Harper of Lochmaben which quickly got added to my ‘must learn’ list). After the break and the raffle (because there’s got to be a raffle) Alice Jones and Pete Coe gave us a taste of the songs collected by Frank Kidson; Alice’s performance of “Shule Agra” was a particular highlight of their set for me. Last, but certainly not least, were The Full English Band (minus a few members) – Fay Hield, Nancy Kerr, Rob Harbron and Sam Sweeney – performing a stunning set of songs from the Full English project. At the end of the concert, I left the hall elated and – strangely – with the munchies. I tend to get hungry after a gig I’ve performed at but it’s never happened to me after someone else’s gig! Perhaps it’s a mark of the journey the audience was taken on that I reacted in such a way.
The evening was rounded off with another fantastic singaround in The Royal Hotel. Having strained my throat a bit the night before (recovering from a sore throat as I was), I had to be sparing with my singing so apologies to those of you who I couldn’t sing along with. I did, however, manage to sing my version of King Orfeo which went down well. I was particularly pleased with that considering how I’d never given it a proper outing before.
I also managed to be momentarily deafened by the formidable (in the best possible way as I love listening to him sing) voice of Piers. Annie, Christian and I (all sitting in close proximity) jumped out of our skins as we weren’t expecting Piers to burst into song, although it was a brilliant way to get the session started, I have to say. The singaround went on until the pub landlord called last orders and bid everyone a good night. We all joined in the last song as we finished off our drinks and headed for the door.
By the time Sunday morning came around, it felt as though I hadn’t been at the event for very long and yet again it felt as though I had been there a long time. My morning workshop took place in a side room of The Royal Hotel. We all squished ourselves into the small room to listen to the talk Cinza Yates was giving on the Manx elements found within The Full English digital archives (“When Is the Full English Not The Full English?”). These elements were newspaper clippings relating to the publication of a collection of Manx tunes and songs by the Folk Song Society in 1925. After Cinzia had talked us through the various clippings, we worked in groups to uncover what we thought was going on from what the clippings told us. After we had all come together again and shared our various theories, Cinzia revealed the actual story behind the publication of the Manx songs and tunes which was rather different from the picture the clippings had conjured. Needless to say I left the presentation reminded that there is a tale behind how collections come about as well as the tales of the songs/tunes themselves and the people they were collected from.
The break between the morning and afternoon sessions was spent somewhat frantically searching the digital archive for some material to use in that afternoon’s workshop. It probably says something about me that the search term I settled on was ‘sheep.*’ Having hastily written down the lyrics to a few versions of “The Shepherd’s Daughter,” I headed back to the Underhill Chapel for Jon Boden‘s workshop “From Page to Stage: Songs.”
(* In one of my many guises, I’m an apprentice shepherd and I thought that sheep would be likely to feature in at least some folk songs.)
It was interesting, and somewhat liberating, to be in a workshop where we were encouraged to look at the songs and remove bits that didn’t work, add choruses and refrains, look at how to make the songs accessible to audiences other than people interested in folk music etc in a very freeform manner. Quite often when I work on traditional songs, I get worried that ‘fiddling’ with the song is a wrong thing but this workshop blew that out of the water. The second half of the workshop entailed taking the lyrics we had brought (or been given) and singing them to whatever tune came into our heads while recording them on our smart phones. It was a terrifying prospect but, once we got going, everyone in the group I was working with really got into the swing of it and even those who weren’t comfortable singing solo in public seemed to get a lot out of the exercise. I think I’ll be applying this treatment to a few songs that don’t have tunes (as far as I’m aware) which I’ve nonetheless wanted to learn – who knows, something really interesting might come out of it.
With the end of Jon’s workshop, we all had a sense that the weekend was drawing to a close. I’m sure I wasn’t alone in wishing the weekend hadn’t gone by so quickly but no doubt that was a symptom of having had so much fun over the course of two and a bit days.
The farewell concert was great with Jon Boden, Fay Hield and Bryony Griffith singing wonderful harmonies together, an old family monologue performed by one of the attendees so it wouldn’t be lost to future generations, students from Sheffield University performing a short set of stunning tunes, Cinzia Yates and Simon Keegan Phipps performing some Manx tunes and a brilliant performance of “Queen of the May” by the Dungworth Beetles (the participants of the “Community Voices: Introducing Newly Adapted Material For Community Choirs” workshop earlier that day).
As I set off on the long journey South in the dark, I felt rejuvenated and eager to apply all that I had learned over the space of the weekend. It was exactly the experience I needed to get me moving again on working on material. If another weekend like this is run by Soundpost next year, I will definitely be saving my pennies to attend and if this sounds like something you’d be interested in attending, I would highly recommend you keeping an eye out for such events as you won’t be disappointed if you come along to one of them.
To find out more about what Soundpost do and the workshops they are running, go to: http://www.soundpost.org.uk/