In what is already shaping up to be quite a year for English folk music, the events of the 20th of June at Cecil Sharp House are very likely to earn a noteworthy place in the annals of folk music history.
Described by playwright and screenwriter Lee Hall as “possibly the most exciting and significant thing to happen to British folk music in at least a generation” the Full English sprung vibrantly to life in the Kennedy Hall of Cecil Sharp House, home to the English Folk Dance & Song Society and keepers of the Full English legacy. The digital archive had gone live just a few hours earlier that day and early arrivals had the chance to get to grips with a set of iPads where they could give the archive a thorough road testing.
To a hall packed with EFDSS luminaries, representatives from partner associations and a handful of lucky guests from an online lucky dip, EFDSS Chief Executive, Katy Spicer explained how the phases of the project had come about following essential funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the National Folk Music fund, the Folklore Society and the PRS Foundation For Music. Over the last 15 months, Phase 1 had seen the compilation of over 44,000 records and over 58,000 digitised images from the archives of 19 of the most important and influential collectors in the UK. Quite some task! Phase 2 involves the forthcoming national learning programme for which dates are set in place and will culminate in a conference and showcase in Birmingham in June 2014, and Phase 3 commissioned noted folk musician and academic Fay Hield to deliver new compositions and new arrangements inspired by the materials in the Full English collections.
The keynote address from EFDSS president Shirley Collins came on what she described as “such a great day and such an important one.” It was most enlightening to hear how she pictured the contrast between her early visits to Cecil Sharp House and the welcoming place the EFDSS has become today. She spoke of how at the age of 18 she made her first tentative trips to London to seek songs in the libraries and how it was such a struggle to get through the door. She explained “I had to plead my way in and all I wanted to do was to look at some books.” It seemed quite remarkable to hear those words on a day when the archive would be open to the whole world from the comfort of their own homes.
She also took the opportunity to offer up an amusing confession in talking about what she saw as an alarming neglect of materials (such as warped records of song collections in the BBC library in the 1970’s) and admitting how she’d ‘rescued’ an early document from the neglected archives at Cecil Sharp House, in the form of a letter to Lucy Broadwood from Henry Burstow of Horsham only to return the artefact to librarian Malcolm Taylor in 2012 knowing it would be valued and protected properly. She also emphasised how the insight given by the archive in considering the breadth of social history, past lives and beliefs, let alone the artistic merit and beauty of much of the work. In likening the Full English to the equivalent buzz of an new archaeological discovery – “English song and dance; the bedrock of our culture” – she concluded in listing the range of people the archive would enthral, “ Academics and researchers, journalists, historians, composers, poets and writers; students and school children and their teachers and of course all the young singers out there. I wish them all the joy of the Full English, and they won’t even have to leave home!”
Malcolm Taylor, the Ralph Vaughan Williams librarian, took his opportunity to offer his public thanks to a number of contributors to the archive team, not least to the cataloguing team whose spadework must have been a mammoth task. He made reference to the collection as “a dream come true” yet at this early stage wondered what the impact may be: “If it’s good it’s ours; if it’s not, then well…….”
Concluding the evening, and in slight contrast, the musical portion of the evening may have seem slightly dwarfed by the enormity of the effort which has gone into producing the digital archive. However, it truly was the icing on the cake. Pulled together by Fay Hield, the Full English band had opened proceedings with three songs (Fay noting that one song – Linden Lee – wasn’t part of the Full English). Accompanied by Nancy Kerr, Rob Harbron and Sam Sweeney, the quartet were then joined by Seth Lakeman and his double bass playing band partner Ben Nicholls, before Martin Simpson made up the full compliment for the final of the three pre speech songs.
The second 40 minute set began with the septet performing Awake Awake unaccompanied; albeit a rather strange sight to see Seth and Sam, usually at home with an instrument in their hands, being slightly at a loss what to do with their free hands (Seth going for a Liam Gallagher hands behind the back type stance, with Sam settling for the reliable hands in pockets pose). In contrast, this was immediately followed by an improvised atmospheric guitar and fiddle led instrumental piece based on Brigg Fair and collected by Percy Grainger.
Fay explained what was fascinating was the way the group explored elements of the archive together and came up with their own interests; Martin’s fascination lay with the Lincolnshire selection for example, while Seth Lakeman’s muse led him to the broadside tunes. It was good to hear the vocal duties being shared with Nancy Kerr featuring significantly and even rock solid Ben Nicholls getting the chance to clear his lungs and swap his double bass for concertina on George Gardiner’s Rounding Of Cape Horn. In contrast to the gentle tune which preceded it, was Seth Lakeman’s brooding and dramatic take on a broadside song accompanied by some marvellously understated slide work from Martin Simpson. From an initial brief search into the Full English digital archive – already proving most useful – suggests this could well be a broadside tune named Stand to Your Guns given an archetypal rhythmic Lakeman treatment sure to excite his fans.
With the songs and tunes accompanied by a playback of suitable images on two screens flanking the stage, the musical interlude ended with a sing-along opportunity with a song featuring the man in the moon, and If this inaugural performance by the Full English band is to be a taster or a snapshot of the album and the upcoming tour, it looks like being a treat and a half. With the multi instrumental skills of Sam Sweeney adding an added dimension to the instrumentation (including the mysterious Swedish keyed fiddle) and the fiddle flare of Lakeman, Rob Harbron and Nancy Kerr added to the vocal diversity this is a collection of musicians to be reckoned with.
The group were due to head to Real World Studios in Bath for two days recording where they would consign the songs to what in the old days might have been tape or vinyl, but which would more likely be a hard drive ready for some digital trickery before the Full English CD would be complete and ready to go out on tour in October. It will be fascinating to hear the whole range of material they come up with as a lasting record to the launch of the Full English.
All in all a truly marvellous and momentous evening and it was indeed a privilege to be in attendance at the unveiling of what will surely become a national treasure and to witness the riches being put into action with these marvellous musicians.
Review by: Michael Ainscoe
Go and Discover:
The Full English Tour Dates
24 October Sage, Gateshead
0191 443 4661