Friday, August 04, 2017

Music and Stuff from O. Reader

            It has been folk festival time again. For the third year running Mrs O and I, along with other family members, camped in tents and listened to a wide range of music that comes under the vague umbrella of folk. The Cambridge Folk Festival is still the largest folk festival event in Britain, and has been going for 52 years now.        
            We motored 240 miles from South Wales to Cambridge. That may not seem much of a distance to people in a huge country like America, but when the route includes the London orbital road (M25) - dubbed Britain’s largest car park - it was tiring.
            We reached our budget hotel and looked forward to a hot meal at the sole neighboring outlet. I won’t name it, but Brits may guess when I say it serves up convenience food and tends to be staffed by 16 year olds with pimples. Two glasses of red after unpacking, we ambled across to the diner, to be met with the sign “Closed due to technical problems.” And the nearest alternative eatery? Several miles away. Hmm. And after two glasses of red... Our main meal that day consisted of a warmed up pastie from the gas station and a cereal bar! I chirpily suggested that this might contribute to a pixie blog post. Mrs O was not amused!
            The family helped put up the tents. Correction, they did all the work putting up the tents, while we ferried a U-Haul Van’s equivalent of bits and pieces back and forth from the car park. Mrs O likes to be prepared. And then, it was two main stages, one main club tent and several smaller venues all vying for attention spread over the site.
            Life is normally so busy with real life, real hobbies, real family, real work, real home, real research, real phone calls from people with real problems - it was just nice to sit in a field, even in the rain, and let the music - good, bad and indifferent - wash over me. It was nice to be able to read every word of my newspaper, The Times. I enjoy my Times. I love the British humor, even if it doesn’t always translate for an American readership. I enjoy the letters page. A po-faced leading article from experts pontificated that drinking alcohol four days a week could help stave off diabetes. A letter commented - “I decided to err on the side of caution - and make that seven...” I don’t do politics, but I like my paper. Politically The Times is right of center but then has a brilliant cartoonist who is left of center. But they do give “the other side” the right of reply. It is not something you normally get in British tabloids like the Mirror (left wing) and Mail (right wing). Most folkies’ paper of choice is the Guardian, which has excellent music coverage, and used to have so many printing errors, we still affectionately call it the Graudian. In true festival style as I finished a section of newspaper it got passed along the row for total strangers to read.
            So what was the music like? The line-up compared with those of past years was a little disappointing overall. Several folk legends from both Britain and America should perhaps have stayed home. But I enjoyed Loudon Wainwright III at his laconic best. Getting the audience to join in a chorus, he said “You’ve all gotta join in on this. If you don’t our next song will be Kumbaya... Your fate is in your hands...” There was a very good all girl group called the She Shanties, which sort of tells you about their material. And I enjoyed an interview with British folk luminary Shirley Collins who appeared at the very first Cambridge Folk Festival 52 years ago. I actually disagree profoundly with her on two points about folk music, but that’s another subject. There was also an over-abundance of world music. World music explores the heritage of different ethnic groups, who are rightly proud of their culture. I have the greatest of respect for those who preserve their culture in this way. However, I don’t necessarily want to have to listen to them in one hour chunks. We probably enjoyed ourselves most of all in the various club tents. We saw Amy Goddard do two sets - featuring her song Remembering Aberfan which won the Fatea Music Magazine award as best song of 2016 and a new song about prisoners of conscience. Apart from a live stint on local radio, this was the premiere of the song.
            As always, the whole atmosphere was friendly and family oriented. Almost the same as some of the religious conventions I have attended in this respect, except that you don’t tend to see multi-colored top hats at the latter. There were esoteric foods, and weird clothes; kaftan tents for earth mothers of various shapes and sizes are still popular. There were musical instruments including one made entirely from a biscuit tin and broom handle, which I attempted to play - I kid you not. Mrs O put me playing it on Instagram, but fortunately her account has a very limited audience. There was even a tattoo parlor, although hopefully this was just the wash-off henna variety. I didn’t investigate, but just remember that a horse tattooed on your left breast when you are 20 will look like a giraffe when you are 50...
            It was interesting and sort of mildly therapeutic having no internet for several days. Mrs O had basic email access on her phone, but the tiny keyboard and my fat fingers would give an impersonation of Dyslexia Rules - K.O... So, virtuously, I resisted. I regressed to those far off days when I used to write in long hand, and could still decipher my stenography. But I caught up with a vengeance as soon as we got back to civilization.
            And of course, in true folk festival spirit, we attempted to sing folk music in its broadest sense ourselves. Singing is actually very therapeutic - for the singer if not the listener. Something akin in my life in times past was long distance cycling, and road training for marathon running. They gave you a feeling of peace and well-being, and if the thought of those activities fills you with horror, then the chemistry is obviously not going to work that way for you.
            I used to sing at parties a million years ago - generally rock’n’roll with P on the guitar, or more likely piano. We would attend sedate, earnest social gatherings and I would suddenly lurch into my Gene Vincent impersonation, using a broom handle as a stand mike. I cringe a bit at the thought now, but hey - I was young once. There is apparently a tape still around somewhere of me massacring Vincent’s Baby Blue (as featured in his 1958 B movie Hot Rod Gang aka Fury Unleashed) and I am still  waiting for an attempt at blackmail over it.
            Anyhow, back to “folk” singing. I was “vigorous encouraged” to attend a folk club a few years ago to hear someone sing, and they had this sing around session, where anybody could stand up, or sit down, or fall over, and do a turn. Although, wearing another hat, I have addressed large audiences without a problem this was fraught with nerves and a wobbly voice. It was only when I heard some of the others that it gave me confidence. In fact, I sort of became brazen. As the saying goes, I’ve suffered for my music. Now it’s your turn.
            At Cambridge I sang on four occasions, including in a club tent called The Den where I yodelled Wimoweh at around one o’clock in the morning. But as a fellow “performer” told the audience - “the more you drink, the better I sound...” And, seriously, I did the Roy Bailey social bit with Go to Work on Monday One More Time - all two chords of it - and everyone joined in the chorus. That really is the secret - people at these venues love joining in, because even if you are rubbish they remember that THEY were great...
            So, as we draw this post to a close, we have to revisit the one burning question - CAN OCCASIONAL SING? Here is where the vagaries of the English language rise to the occasion. Answer - of course he can. He’s allowed to sing. He’s not forbidden, even if the action is unwise. You try and stop him. But if your question meant can Occasional hold a note or does he have a voice like bath water escaping..? The jury may still be out on that one.
            So I guess I’d better end with an anecdote I know I’ve told before. But hey - old people repeat themselves, repeat themselves, themselves, selves...
     A few years ago I made an official visit as a minister to a sizeable city congregation for a special week of “activity.”  I strode purposefully into the meeting hall with smart suit, official briefcase, and orthodontist smile, to be greeted by someone I have known for rather a long time.
            In magna voce he pointed a finger - “I HEARD YOU ON YOUTUBE...”
            There was a sudden hush as all eyes turned and followed his finger.
            “THE PICTURES WERE GOOD...”


  1. An occasional reader11:42 AM

    Addenda to post

    Shirley Collins, now in her eighties, gave an interesting interview at the Cambridge Folk Festival. She personally knew folk luminaries like Ewan McColl (and disliked him intensely) and travelled the deep south of America with folk musicologist Alan Lomax in the 1950s collecting field recordings.

    But she made two points that I disagree with.

    First, she said that people should not write new folk songs - that modern songs were not “folk.” Rather, we should stick with the tens of thousands from the past. Sorry Shirley, but staying with songs about being transported for stealing a sheep doesn’t make sense. At one time, THAT was a new song. In years to come, songs about the British miner’s strike or the American civil rights movement will the historic ones. You don’t have to LIKE modern songs, but to say they don’t qualify for the genre just because they were written recently doesn’t make sense. And anyhow, many modern folk songs steal tunes from the past. Bob Dylan’s Blowing in the Wind is a classic example - the tune is pinched from the 19th century song No More Auction Block, conveniently out of copyright.

    The second point was that she disagreed with modern performers putting themselves into the songs. The songs should be preserved as “pure” from the past. Well, again, sorry Shirley - if they were collected from field recordings in the middle of muddy fields in past decades, you have no idea whether they are “pure” or “changed” - and if it relies on word of mouth, then obviously they have evolved. And the second you got on the stage to sing some of those “pure” renditions - with an electric acoustic guitar backing you, and modern percussion, then you have put something of yourself into them. As the pop-folk group, the Kingston Trio (with John Stewart) said in an interview in the early 1960s - “we don’t believe in deliberately singing badly just to appeal to the purists.”

    Shirley can sing whatever she wants however she wants. And some acts on folk festivals may be on the fringe of what is traditionally called folk. But the genre should be eclectic. And the audience is free to choose.

  2. It was a great festival and I do agree with your comments both about Shirley Collins and tattoos!
    It was good to see you and Mrs O again. I'm glad the family managed to get the tents up for you.

  3. Anonymous10:35 AM

    The fun seems to have been intense!

    (British humor at it's best, I think you'll agree)