Following our recent review of Lisa Knapp’s new EP ‘Hunt the Hare – A Branch of May’ (read it here) we caught up with Lisa to find out more about her new EP, her fascination with the month of May and her inspiration.
Ultimately I think it is the power of the sun. That may sound a bit pagan (not that there’s anything wrong with that) but I think that in this climate where we endure such an inhospitable winter sometimes and abundance of cloud and greyness, when the sun and the summer finally come through again it feels so magical and it strikes me every year that no matter how many summers I’ve seen before, every time it first comes around it feels as wondrous and beautiful as if it’s the first time you’d ever seen it. I think it’s probably the first time since before the winter that the weather is warm enough (hopefully) for people to gather, outside, and celebrate, what better thing to celebrate than the coming of the summer and more celebrations.
I first came across May songs from two of my all time favourite folk artists Martin Carthy and Shirley Collins. When I first heard Shirley’s recording of ‘A Cambridgeshire May Carol‘ I was captivated by its’ simplistic beauty and strangeness. I’d never heard of ‘May’ songs before; Calling the fair maids to take their May bushes in, talking in riddles of green fields and then asking for money, I mean what a strange song. It’s actually a carol and does what many carols do in the asking of money and mentioning time etc. It’s very Christmassy in that it is a totally seasonal thing, but yet full of spring and summer imagery. The next song that really hit me was Martin Carthy’s May Song from the album ‘Because it’s There‘. What an amazing beat that has going, a totally grounded, driving, medieval and stringy sound and with John Kirkpatrick‘s concertina in that wonderful morris tune style, clipped manner with that wonderful skip in it, and so driving, just wonderful. Of course the lines ‘for the life of a man is but a span he’s cut down like a flower, he makes no delay he is here today and vanished all in an hour’…just completely spellbinding as is the next verse…’..the worms they will eat your flesh good man and your bones they will waste away..’ so dark. Go and find them, you’ll be well rewarded I say. Both songs have that modal thing going too which is gorgeous.
In terms of traditional celebrations of May I was really fascinated to know that the first mention of them in England goes right back to a record 1240 and something. It’s of a Bishop, bemoaning the fact that parishioners are out gallivanting on May, gathering the May etc. At various times ‘May’ antics were in and out of favour with the church, but this shows that it’s probably been going on for a good time at least before that, who knows when it started.
Malcolm Taylor (again at the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, Cecil Sharp House) first showed me the Alan Lomax documentary of the Padstow May Day celebration which is entitled ‘Oss Oss Wee Oss‘. I was completely stunned by it, a beautiful bit of footage about this fascinating custom, again really inspiring and rather mysterious. Then of course there’s the Hal An Tow, which I first came across as a song on the Watersons‘ album ‘Frost and Fire‘. What’s brilliant about nowadays with t’interenet is you can watch so many of these on Youtube. Then a few years ago I discovered the Deptford Jack in The Green, a revived tradition whereby a man is totally covered in greenery and then paraded around parts of London with a bunch of musicians and whoever else wants to follow on. Jack in the Green traditions were closely associated with the trade of chimney sweeping which I liked because it brought the idea of May celebrations as a town/city event and not just something that happened in villages. Being a Londoner I s’pose that resonates particularly.
Oss Tales: A follow-up to the Alan Lomax film mentioned by Lisa
The Watersons – Hal-An-Tow
I do spend time researching because I love it. I just love finding out about folk songs and lore, so I sit hours online or in books or often go the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library to dive into their treasure trove.
The Songs on ‘Hunt the Hare’
The whole thing came about really with me writing ‘Hunt The Hare’ which seemed to fall out of a lap harp I acquired a few years ago in my continuing magpie like exploration of new instruments. For my sins I’ve many times moonlighted as a fiddle player to bands in Irish bars many moons ago and the song ‘Rocky Road to Dublin’ is often sung. I’ve always loved that song, again it has a great drive particularly being in slip – jig rhythm. The line which always intrigued me ‘… hunt the hare and turn her, down the rocky road and all the way…..’ I don’t know, it just sort of stuck out. I think I may have changed it’s context (maybe not) for my song but it’s always stuck with me that melody and drive and the first bit of it just came out one day. Took a little while to finish it then but I’d love the chance to perform it with Alasdair one day. We’ll see I’spose.
Rocky Road To Dublin – The Dubliners
A May Garland or This Morning is The First of May is a traditional May song collected from Mrs Jonstone by the collector Fred Hamer. I first came across it last year in the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library looking for some songs to teach my traditional singing class there. I liked the idea of using lots of recorded sounds so really enjoyed exploring that possibility too.
I think apart from the traditional May songs there’s also a lot of metaphorical attachment to concepts of what May represents, for instance if you were to think of it in terms of cycles of a persons life and also notions of fertility etc.
Guest Artist: Alasdair Roberts
I’ve known Alasdair for some time since we met doing the BBC Electric Proms celebration of the music of Lal Waterson a few years ago now. I’m a huge admirer of his work as both singer/guitarist and song-writer. I think he’s amazingly talented. It was a real honour to have him join me on a piece I had written and I love what he did on it. I’d really love to work more with him, we’ll see.
Field Recordings Used
Some of them I got from a great online resource called www.freesound.org. The church bells were recorded by me when I wandered past a bell-ringing practice in a local church. I’ve always loved the sound of bells so I just knocked on the door and they let me come up to the bell tower and record them. They even let me have a go it was great.
The Physical EP Release
There are 900 limited edition CD’s issued for this EP.
I’ve loved the whole process, which I’ve been greatly helped with by EFDSS (English Folk Dance and Song Society) I must mention. It was with their support that I was able to make this an EP and not just a single. I wanted to make it feel really summery and seasonal and celebratory and had a brilliant time putting it all together. In fact there will be a follow up next May so I’m really looking forward to gathering stuff together for that now too.
Yes, I’ve been writing an album of completely original material which is set to be released Jan 2013. Looking forwardd to that next so head down for a while to get it finished soon…