Amongst the carefully chosen selection of songs on The Bone Orchard were two excellent new songs from Gavin Davenport examining our links with tradition. The title track looked at the way songs are kept alive, while Wooden Swords And May Queens casts a nostalgic eye over the traditional May celebrations.
Whilst both are fine songs there’s something in the latter’s story that really demands further investigation. There’s a wistful plaintive quality that is matched perfectly by the accompaniment from Nic Hurst’s brass ensemble. Lyrically it conjures images that suggest a much bigger story than simple reminiscence. That seems to be born out by the sleeve note that inform us the song was, “Inspired by working with a group of year five children and members of the community in which they went to school.”
Inspired certainly seems the right word and Gavin has now made a short film around the song that offers further insight into the story. He’s modest about the results saying, “It was just a conversation between Pete (record label) and myself about how the song came about and I’d seen a lot of photos that a friend had shown me of sword dancing in various Sheffield schools back in the ’30s. I just wanted to share what was inside my own head. The film is just something I put together myself – I filmed it with very rudimentary gear (a Panasonic camera and a manual lens propped on the coffee table!) just really a way to share some of the ideas behind the song as these days there isn’t a lot of room for sleeve notes!!!” None the less, it’s effective and affecting.”
There is a fascinating story here that encapsulates a period of intense social change across the UK, but probably felt most across the industrial regions. In the past 75 years communities have been profoundly affected by the changing economic climate, but nowhere more so than where heavy industry has gone into terminal decline. The Shirecliffe area of Sheffield, where this project came into being is one such. But to some degree it’s the ongoing nature of that change behind this story.
The song is poignant and this film adds substance to the elegiac themes, but we caught up with Gavin, who himself is in a period of flux, to bring you the full story.
A quick chat as Gavin was on his way to play Shepley Festival and also on the verge of taking a well deserved week’s break was followed with an exchange of emails.
It was the merging of three primary schools in the region that set the project in motion. Gavin Takes up the story, “There’d been a ‘writer in residence’ project as the three original primary schools in Shirecliffe were closed – I guess you could call it a community consultation, just capturing memories, and Anne Hamblen, who led all the interviews collated and shared the material. The new school wrote to all the surviving members of the class of 1937 I’d go for a coffee in a morning and there were these beautiful transcriptions of some incredible real stories on the wall.”
Gavin admits that the stories had a profound affect on him, but he also realised the value of what had been collated. “It sort of saddened me that more people didn’t see how amazing and important the material that the interviewees were providing was. The stories I really remembered were those about collecting the iridescent clinker from the industrial waste (plucking warm jewels form slag heaps, in the words of the song) and an amazing story about a young man finding a magpie chick and raising it so it would go around with him perched on his shoulder. Lots of the correspondents talked about May Queens and the celebrations for May Day – the men remembered sword dancing at school as being part of the same thing.”
This in particular chimed with Gavin own involvement in the folk scene and he reveals, “I’d been involved in sword dancing (which is a serious Sheffield institution – two of the oldest traditional sides in the world are Sheffield teams) – I danced with Grenoside for a number of years and was intrigued, but a lot of what they remembered doing was a result of a national EFDS (forerunner of the EFDSS for whom I currently work) input into the school PE curriculum.”
But as Gavin reveals, more than this the project really started to gather momentum. “This all got conflated into a really positive conversation about May celebrations. As a result, we all collectively decided that a new may celebration with the new school would be a great project. Sue Coe came into school and taught the year 5 kids traditional Yorkshire longsword dances, at which point an old chap called Jack came in and it turned out he’d been captain of the sword team back in the late 1930s. He hadn’t really left the house for the previous decade since his wife had died, and there was just this ‘moment’ a proper cross generational coming together where some of these quite cocky kids and a reclusive old man just met on some weird, traditional common ground. That’s the roots really, of wanting to write the song.”
History obviously informs a large part of what Gavin does, whether it’s singing folk ballads from the tradition, specific projects like this or the work he’s now doing at Cecil Sharp House. I’m curious about the response he got from the children. He’s enthused saying, “I think one of the amazing things was the instinctive eagerness of the kids to be part of something which they thought was ‘traditional’ – that had gone on before they were born and they were joining in with. What was deeply moving was that in a community that has had generations of underemployment and poor deals, the eagerness with which these two separate generations embraced the idea of being part of the same tradition.”
Does Gavin feel we’ve lost our connection to the past? “In general terms, yeah, I think we’ve lost the idea of being part of a continuum, but that’s hardly surprising. Without wanting to get too political, we’ve had that stripped away. The idea that anyone could follow in their mother or father’s footsteps in a trade or in keeping up community traditions has just been taken away. I guess a lot of the piss taking from the masses about folkiness is because we’re cut off from it – there’s a big history of breaking that continuum in England partly as a result of the massive impact of the first world war but we’re crap at crossing the generations. Everyone thinks they can do it better, and we’re a bit obsessed with reviving stuff.”
He continues, “I think that there’s something special about May Day – it is one of those ancient natural holidays like midwinter that just feels right to people – I’m not claiming any magic pagan roots for it, but it is one of those holidays that morphs from one form to another. Once upon a time in was a serious Catholic lead into Mary’s month and some of the may queen imagery comes from that, but then there are those who’d argue that is bolted onto something else, then there’s the whole workers day stuff as well, though the formal side of that only dates back to the 1880s.. it meant something to me – I grew up in the late 70s and early 80s and the local Miner’s Gala was a May holiday and something that everyone really looked forward to – there was something amazing that a whole town came together and everyone had a day off at the same time. As a working persons holiday – well, I think we must be one of the only civilised countries in the world that doesn’t have a labour day holiday – I think the lack of it is anti-community. People can bang on about how wonderful a royal wedding or whatever one off might come up, but that one day when everyone can stop and have a common celebration – that was a really special thing.”
Gavin is a busy lad and currently working for EFDSS and is settling into life in London. He’s aware of a neat coincidence informing us, “ Yeah, I live in Muswell Hill, just near the Fairport house (Where Fairport Convention formed) This job came up working full time with this material and I had to take the plunge. I’m working on The Full English which is a huge Heritage Lottery funded project to digitise lots of manuscript collections dating from the 1880s through the 20th century – my role really involves the development of 18 schools projects – getting that material out there and sharing it with kids and getting professional artists to go into schools and work alongside them. Hopefully what I’ve said about the genesis of this project should give people some inkling that I’m pretty passionate about the potential for this kind of work in schools!”
Gavin has recently also spent time at Halsway Manor, one of FRUK’s partners and seems to have enjoyed himself. “Halsway was great – I was invited along as part of an artist development program. I think a lot of the participants were people who’d been part of Folk Rising events around the country, but it was a really interesting mix of people. I met some great performers, and Halsway is an incredible space – peaceful and inspiring. I’ve been buzzing ever since. There were some great speakers – Bella Hardy in particular had some pretty sage advice about what it takes to be ‘professional’. Most of it really came down to: Don’t be a Dick!
I wonder what Gavin is listening to at the moment and he enthuses further about the recent get together. “Halsway was great for picking up vintage albums – (I got some stuff by Jeannie Robertson and Harry Cox), and meeting people and swapping albums so I have to shout out to Jack Harris whose stuff I’m enjoying as well as Josienne Clark and Ben Walker – their new album is great. Mostly though I’m still obsessing over The Civil Wars Barton Hollow which I just bought again on vinyl this time. I know I’m late to the party, but the quality of the songwriting and harmonies keeps me coming back and that’s my guilty pleasure, well, that and the Nashville soundtrack…”
With all that’s going on will their be further chances to catch up with Gavin live? He reveals, “This year I have a couple of Albion shows at festivals and some Morris On stuff as well, but I’m going to be promoting the album at Sidmouth, Broadstairs, Bromyard and others as well as touring again in the autumn with a short run of clubs and arts centres either with Tom Kitching in the duo or with Nick and Tim as well with the full quartet. I’ve a huge backlog of writing and a big project that I’m working on – again that’s connected with community and identity via traditional music.”
Interview by: Simon Holland
The Bone Orchard is released on Haystack Records who currently have a special offer on this release along with his solo album ‘Brief Lives’, details here.