28 July 2010

Sounds like home

In summer, a young man’s fancy turns to…folk music?

Well, it does in our household. Our spare room resembles a small music shop with 4 violins, 3 guitars, 2 mandolins, a cello and a dulcimer. My Darling English Boy is an avid musician, and the vocalist-guitarist for local folk duo, Lazy Manz Flute.

Being only “vaguely musical”, my contributions to the band’s efforts are purely supportive. As their principal groupie, I have followed them to various gigs across Warwickshire, and thus have been introduced to the wonderful world of English traditional music.

The most significant event of the Warwickshire folk calendar is the Warwick Folk Festival every July. Last year, I followed Lazy Manz Flute to a “session” at The Roebuck on the Festival’s opening night. This event was a musical free-for-all. Whoever showed up was welcome to participate.

Dating back to 1470, The Roebuck is said to be the oldest pub in Warwick. With its dark, beamed ceilings so low that even I felt tall, it was the perfect conduit for this timeless music.

The tiny pub was packed with performers singing and playing an array of instruments: banjoes, fiddles, spoons, bagpipes, harmonicas, mandolins, accordions, whistles, bodhrans and guitars. I recall an ancient man sitting alone playing “the bones”. There was no predetermined format, one musician merely started to play, and the others joined in, as they willed.

The evening was a wonderful time warp, stepping back to a time before television, cinema or the internet; when people had to make their entertainment. It was a delight to hear songs from Britain’s bygones days: tragic tales of star-crossed lovers, sea shanties, highwaymen’s laments, and ballads in praise of the ever-present barmaid.

To my surprise, the experience was at once novel and familiar. This music of England’s past, immediately reminded of my own. If no one had spoken, I could easily have imagined myself in the Ozarks, the foothills of Appalachia, or along the Mississippi Delta. The same tales, told in different voices, in similar keys.

This ‘novel, yet familiar’ quality is what I admire most about traditional English music. A firm favourite of mine is Kate Rusby – a lovely Yorkshire lass with a long standing affection for Warwickshire.

This past May, Rusby gave a spectacular show at the Royal Spa Centre. During that performance, her partner, Damine O’Kane, an impassioned banjo player, sang a doleful lament for his native Northern Ireland, called “Summer Hill”. He sang longingly of a place I have never seen; and yet, I was struck deeply by how familiar it felt and sounded.

This is the remarkable thing about traditional music. It crosses cultures and geography and binds us through common experiences, narratives and harmonies. A friend of mine put it thus: “It resonates, because it’s all the same people.” Meaning, of course, that culturally the English-speaking world is the same at its heart. Perhaps, that is what makes folk music so fantastic. Fancy that.

Warwick Folk Festival, 23-25 July 2010 - www.warwickfolkfestival.co.uk

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