Saturday, June 16, 2012

Leon Rosselson

Cellar Upstairs Folk Club

When I arrived at the little upstairs room in the Exmouth Arms, Leon Rosselson was already sitting in the front row reading the Guardian, which is exactly what you would expect Leon Rosselson to do before a concert. The compère introduced him as the greatest living English political songwriter; an assessement with which it would be very hard to argue.

Like a lot of people, I knew his songs long before I had heard of him. I just kept noticing that my favourite performers -- Martin Simpson, Martin Carthy, Billy Bragg, Dick Gaughan and Chumbawamba had all covered Leon Rosselson songs. (Come to think of it, they all covered the same Leon Rosselson song....)

If you'd only heard Billy Bragg belting out "in 1649 to St Georges Hill...." you might be taken aback by the little man with the squeaky voice (I almost wrote “nerdy”) chatting away about 1970s environmental protests and an arts project he was involved in which used an old London bus as a performance space. He steers clear of the famous, well-covered songs: no Stand Up For Judas, no Palaces of Gold...the man sitting behind me shouts out for The World Turned Upside Down but he doesn't sing that, either. (I think it was the man sitting behind me who took the above footage on his phone: thank you, man sitting behind me.) He does sing "raise a loving cup to Abiezer / he's a dancing, drunken, roaring, ranter" as an encore, though. Winstanley's Diggers broke away from Abiezer Coppe's Ranters: I expect you knew that.

Several of the songs have that kind of anthemic, sing-a-long chorus. He spends some time teaching us ("Pete Seeger style") the words and tune of a newish, English take on the big rock candy mountains ("I'm going where the suits all shine my shoes...") But what he does best are patter songs and story songs and thesis songs. He's almost like Jake Thackray with the sex and catholicism replaced with left wing politics. (The ghost of George Brassens -- Jake's hero too -- appears to him in one song to tell him to carry on writing regardless of what everyone thinks.) Over and over again, he tells us about little men confused by a world in which everything is commoditized. There's the old tale about the man who finds that a motorway is going to be built through his back garden, and the newer one about the man who achieves celebrity by committing suicide on live TV; and the familiar story of poor Barney, forced to work in the factory when all he really wants is to make junk sculptures in his garden (suggested by a Marxist book about the condition of workers in communist Hungary, apparently.) Production lines keep turning up as symbol for everything which is wrong with capitalism:

It was press, turn, screw, lift,
early shift and late shift,
every day the same routine
turning little piggies into plastic packet sausages
to sell in the heliport canteen

Some of the political points may be a little bit obvious: his response to teh riotz is to say that the rioters are only doing the kind of thing that made England what it is today –

Francis Drake, now there's a looter
Plundering the Spanish main...
Was rewarded with a knighthood
Looters deserve nothing less

But more often, he takes us off into complex slabs of poetical political theory that you really have to concentrate on:

What do you feel said the land to the farmer?
"Sweat on my brow" the farmer replied
"Sun on my skin" said the spring time lover
"Ball at my feet" the young boy cried
And the man whose eyes were made to measure
Said “Proud to invest in a high-yield area
Concrete and glass and stake in the future...”

The club isn't amplified and the language and argument require close attention; which makes for a pretty demanding evening. But it's clear that everyone in the room respects and reveres him as a song writer; the phrase "hanging on his every word" just about covers it.

It's a cliché to say that Rosselson's songs are better when other people sing them. People say the same thing, equally unfairly, about Dylan. It's perfectly true that Billy Bragg on the one hand and Martin Simpson on the other have taken his songs and turned them into their own, wonderful things. But it's in the lessor known story-songs that his real genius lies, and I don't think anyone else can do them better. In a funny way (considering what an unassuming performer he is) the evening is carried by the force of his personality. A little man who can't always get his guitar to stay in tune and who sometimes stumbles over his own lyrics, speaking for little men who are having motorways built through their gardens.

As before, the club itself was the star of the evening, with a stream of talented performers getting up to take floor spots. Resident singers Bob Wakely and Ellie Hill did cheerful renditions of Clyde Water (drowned lovers), Sheath and Knife (brother-sister incest) and an, er, homage to the Carthy / Swarbs Sovay. Tom Paley did an American song about – I'm not sure what it was about. There was a skunk involved, and everybody said “whack diddle eye day” a great deal. It dripped authenticity. Someone whose name I didn't get did a killingly camp version of an old music hall song taking the mickey out of Scottish people. But the highlight was the fellow who sang a song of his own in praise of the National Health Service. I don't know if the roof was raised for the song itself or for the sentiments behind it, but raised it most certainly was. It's a very brave man who sings protest songs in front of Leon Rosselson.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Folk Weekend

Black Swan

The Black Swan folk weekend passes in a whirl. There was quite definitely Old Peculiar beer, which tastes not unpleasantly of liquorice. There were chips. There was a day on which I subsisted entirely on Kit-Kats.

Its not exactly a festival in the normal sense. It doesn't cost any money, except what you spend on Old Peculiar and Kit-Kats. I assume the performers must perform for free, so obviously no A-list big names, although two of my most favourite bands were there.

There are lots of different rooms. There is a sign in the main bar which says “No instruments allowed in the bar”. There's a small back-room in which musicians engage in a more or less non-stop “session”. (A “session” is when a lot of musicians sit in a back room and go diddley diddly dee until someone asks them to stop. Three years ago I did not know this.) There's another small room which mainly consists of “singarounds”. (A singaround is where a lot of people sit in a room and take it in turns to sing. This is something else I used not to know.) This results in one hearing more versions of A Blacksmith Courted Me than you strictly need to in one weekend. Upstairs there is a bigger room, which houses what is described as a "rolling folk club" – local people doing short sets, mostly good. It is called the Woolf Room. Apparently the bold fellow who the French did wound in his left breast used to live in it.

Outside, in the car park, there is a marquee for the bigger bands. The pub is medieval and picturesque. The car park, not so much.

There was a good deal of rain over the weekend, and the marquee had a charming habit of developing small holes and pouring huge quantities of water over random punters. The first act on Saturday was a man who sung standards like The Trees They Do Grow High with a Scottish accent. At one point a gust of wind made the whole tent shift six inches to the left. At another point, the local council arrived, fixed the overflowing drains, and caused a terrible smell to hover over Are You Going To Scarborough Fare. He kept going and so did the audience. I got about as wet as it is possible to get during an indoor festival.

Exact details about who I did and didn't hear are therefore rather hazy. I distinctly remember hearing the Sail Pattern doing their thing the marquee. I wouldn't say I travelled all the way from Bristol to York in order to hear them, but I was extremely keen to find out if they were as good as they had seemed at Scarborough and on their EP. They were. They were so good that Nick wrote something nice on Twitter and downloaded their album, presumably even paying for it. (Naturally he didn't tell me he liked them. We're British.) They pretty much thumped us in the face with a series of big numbers – the infallible Haul Away; their quite stunning rehabilitation of Spanish Ladies (traditional chorus, invented verses and a huge rocky oomf for “we'll rant and we'll roar”) and the completely OTT Mary Mac's Mother's Making Mary Mac Marry Me My Mothers Making Me Marry Mary Mac which I think they only do at live shows to show off that they can – all four of them, including the ones who can't sing, get to do a verse, which gets faster and faster and more tongue twisting as the thing goes on. I hope there's a full length album on the way. These kids are good.

I am quite certain that I spent some of Friday night in the “folk club” listening to Stan Graham and friends doing a tribute to Tom Paxton. (Stan Graham is a singer in residence at the folk club, wrote Blow The North Winds Across Old Whitby Harbour and is clearly very influenced by Paxton in his “crooner” mode.) Someone sang Jennifer's Rabbit, inadvisedly, and someone else sang a piece of whimsy, new to me, about the Rubick Cube; we all got to join in with Here's To You My Rambling Boy and the evening ended with five singers and the audience trying to remember all the words of It's A Lesson To Late For The Learning, Tum Te Tum, Tum Te Tum Tum Te Tum You Know That Was The Last Thing On My Mind. One of the singers remarked that Paxton, not Dylan, should be regarded as the true successor to Woody Guthrie, and demonstrated by singing the brutal anti Vietnam piece Good Night Jimmy Newman. Guthrie also wrote terrible children's songs, come to think of it.

I definitely heard my friend Martin singing shanties and drinking songs with local trio Two Black Sheep and a Stallion. (I think I can describe him as my friend because twenty years ago I appeared in a play with him.) They were just back from Canada, and sang Barretts Privateers which is my favourite Stan Rogers song (along with all the others) and a long song about an 18 mile pub crawl in Vancouver as well as a song about a lock-in in any English pub. The three of them stood in a row with pints in their hands. It doesn't get more like a folk group in a Yorkshire Pub than that.

I believe I also sat in on a sing-around chaired by Martin which definitely included a local man singing all a hundred and three verses of The Merry Merry Huntsmen Blows His Horn with the audience becoming less and less accurate on each repetition. You know the one?  The rich man spends the night with the chambermaid, and leaves a guinea to pay for board, lodging and the goose he ostensibly came to buy, and when he comes back the next year he's present with a a baby instead of breakfast.

Enraged at hearing others laugh, "What is this here?" says he
"Come sit you down beside me, sir, and I'll tell you," says she.
"Last year you was so generous, nay, do not think it strange.
You gave to me a guinea; well, I've brought you back your change."

I definitely also sat in on on a sing-around chaired Stuart from Blackbeard's Tea Party and threes guys from another local shantyband called Monkeys Fist, who I must have heard performing later in the weekend because I now own both their CDs. Interestingly enough the second CD contains a version of Blow The Man Down Me Boys Blow The Man Down Give Me Some Time To Blow The Man Down which has rather familiar narrative -- 

Joe waited an hour he ne're thought it strange (wahay! blow the man down!)
It's a hell of a time for to wait for me change (give me some time to blow the man down!)
Joe waited all evening but the maid she had flow (wahay! Blow the man down)
Then out of this basket there came a low groan (give me some time to blow the man down!)

Maybe its a Yorkshire thing? I find the rather random way in which songs were, and clearly still are, being passed around, endlessly fascinating. 

Stuart sang a saucy song about "courting tied up in a sack" and Sydney Carter's carol about John Ball.  My friend Susannah (she's definitely my friend because I'm godfather of her little tot) who'd been at the singing workshop earlier in the day did a creditable Bold Sir Rylas. 

Blackbeards Tea Party themselves were on great form. They've obviously got a massive local following: their set was the only time over the weekend where you couldn't even get standing room in the leakey marquee. They did some of their repertoire off the album – Landlord, Chicken On a Barge, and the wondrous I Can Hew – as well as some new ones. A while back they mentioned on Twitter that they were going to follow up Landlord with a song about a landlady and wondered if anyone could guess what it was going to be. All I could think of was The Wild Rover. This afternoon, all was revealed, and they confirmed their impeccable taste in song choosing. It was, of course, Jake Thackray's My Landlady Had Three Lovely Daughters ("this song is DIRTY"). I have to say that in the marquee, some of Jake's wonderful tongue twisting lines got submerged in the boys rocking out, but it's just the sort of saucy material that Stuart does so well, and it's great to see the group doing exactly the kind of song that you wouldn't expect them to do. (Has anyone given a folk rock treatment Jake's songbook before, come to that?) They also do a version of a Peter Bellamy Rudyard Kipling number (The Ford of Kabul River) which I haven't heard before but seems promising. There are other youngish groups (the aforementioned Sail Pattern, the not recently mentioned Pilgrims Way, the never mentioned at all Young 'Uns) whose music I like almost as much. But no-one, literally no-one, possibly not even t.m Bellowhead does a better live show, with more sense of theatricality and fun than Blackbeards Tea Party.  (And they are modest and approachable and charming to their fan.)

I also have a distinct memory of watching my friend Aaron (I am almost definitely sure that he's my friend because I used to share a house with him) performing with a group that played those enormous and threatening looking Japenese drums. York is obviously the kind of place you'd expect to find Japenese drummers.

There was also Morris dancing. It's my belief that folk festivals never actually invite morris dancers; they just swarm in, like ants to a honey pot. Matthew Boyle ought to take note: he may not have invited any morris sides to the Olympics, but that doesn't mean that, like Des O'Connor, they won't come anyway.

I distinctly recall that Sunday night merged into abandoning the programme and drifting from room to room to see what happened. I sat in for 45 minutes on Stuart, Laura and Tim from Blackbeard's TP jamming on squeeze boxes on fiddle; then went to the small room and listened to a sing around; upstairs to hear my friend Tony (I fully accept that he is my friend because he assures me that we attended the same church about 20 years ago) singing a very clever song about Ray Bradbury as part of the Song Writers circle; went outside to hear an actually distinctly good man singing Americana – any set that includes John Hardy Was A Desperate Little man is a good set – and then back to the back room where Stuart and Tim were still playing squeeze box. Five hour sessions in York pubs are probably the folkie equivilent of the a residency in Hamburg. As the evening wore on, Stuart treated us to a sample of his repertoire of extremely (as he puts it) saucy music hall songs. "We're having a bit tonight / We're having a bit tonight / Me Mother says I must be quick / To get a bit of Spotted Dick" (Young people and Americans: will probably not believe that the English used to call a hot sweet suet pudding with currents as “Spotted Dick”; but then they probably will not believe that the English used to eat hot sweet suet puddings with currents. I'm not actually sure they ever did. I think the pudding was invented purely for the sake of the double entendre. "Grandpa has no teeth so he will have to suck his...")

I've now been going to folk gigs for long enough that I should probably stop saying "I haven't been going to folk gigs for very long" but I haven't actually experienced anything like this before: the sense that there was a local network of people who learn songs, write songs, sing songs, or just drink slightly too much beer; the invisible lines of how differnet peoples songs connect together; the sense that this is all fun and communal. The traddy beery acapella of Two Black Sheep and Monkeys Fist has clearly fed into the OTT nautical folk-rock of Blackbeard and Sail Pattern, and the singarounds, even when not very good, are about the closest thing you get in Real Life to authentic oral folk singing.

At the beginning of the weekend I was thinking "well, I probably wouldn't come all the way for this, but since I'm passing" (I have, as you may have spotted, one or two friends in York); by the end, I had already marked it in my diary for 2013. The programme (consisting largely of, lets be honest, local people you havent heard of) doesn't go anywhere to conveying the atmosphere of the weekend. The pub, and the club, were the star. The weather, not so much. 

Hey nonny no!