Ulverston is a market town in South Cumbria on the edge of Morecambe Bay with the Lakeland fells fringing the town to the North. The town has a reputation as a festival town featuring at least eighteen festivals from comedy to a Summer Buddhist Festival. Next month between Friday 12th and Sunday 14th July it also celebrates it’s 15th anniversary of the Furness Tradition festival which takes place in a number of venues across Ulverston featuring performances from Tyde, Horizontal Sunday, The Young’Uns, Vicki Swan and Jonny Dyer (pictured above with Nick Hennessey also appearing) and many others. As well as music, dance and storytelling also play a big part in this festival.
Gordon Jones who is involved in running the festival was a founding member and guitarist of the band Silly Wizard (founded in 1972) who were inducted into Scottish Traditional Music Hall of Fame in 2012 who described them as “pioneers in developing the modern Scottish folk group blueprint, popularising Scottish music around the world through playing traditional music with a never-before-heard energy, spirit and spontaneity and introducing original songs and tunes written from within the tradition.”
Gordon is also a partner/producer of label Harbourtown Records, he has fond memories of a quiet local folk and traditional music scene which he and friends aim to revive through the likes of Furness Tradtion.
Although already familiar with Silly Wizard we were introduced to Harbourtown Records by Gordon a good few years ago and we went on to feature many releases from the label including The Boat Band, Greg Stephens & Crookfinger Jack, Nick Hennessey and Brian Peters to name just a few. Gordon kindly took some time out from a busy schedule on the run-up to the festival to talk more about the local traditional folk music scene and the festival. We started with the past and his early memories:“Well I came to Ulverston via a convoluted route. My early days of playing were on the Merseyside folk scene (after the obligatory Merseybeat rock band involvement) – I had looked then for the traditional roots to the music we were playing in folk clubs – I have kept looking, finding much on the way. I moved to Edinburgh to go to Art College – but soon got sidetracked into the folk scene there and whilst running a club there formed a resident band which became Silly Wizard and went on to tour just about everywhere (guess that part of the story is fairly well known). After the band wound down I was in Manchester and set up Harbourtown Records with Bob Thomas (another ex Silly Wizard founder) before moving to Ulverston.
“It is worth considering that whilst I was in Manchester I was pointed to Greg Stephens’ “Crook Finger Jack” recordings – and went on to record many Boat Band releases.
“In Ulverston I did not find any place to play or hear folk music except via a local band who played regularly in the pub, Furness Morris, Furness Clog Dancers and an Irish tunes session which I began to frequent. Some of the folks at the session began discussing the possibility of researching and playing local tunes and I guess the most asked question at the time was “what would they sound like?” From those discussions arose some research notably at The Armitt Museum in Ambleside where the Brown Manuscripts are kept and delving through the Anne Gilchrist collections from Lancashire at the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library (now viewable on-line courtesy of The Full English Project by the EFDSS). The Old Friends Band grew from a group of interested musicians tentatively learning these tunes and as the tunes began to take shape Mike Kermode put together a book of the developing repertoire which has become the Furness Tradition Tune Book and has been well used by many musicians. Now The Old Friends Band are a busy dance band specialising in local tunes and dances called by Deb Kermode who has written a book on local clog steps. Other local dance bands such as Striding Edge and Tumbling Tom play many local tunes and write songs and tunes relating to the area and The Lakeland Fiddlers led by Carolyn Francis have a repertoire of mainly local music and a number of recordings. The Boat Band’s “Trip to the Lakes” CD prompted me to look at licensing and re-releasing Greg’s early Crookfinger Jack recordings as a CD and these have added to the growing repertoire of regional music fairly accessible to local players.
“I guess we are not attempting to revive an earlier scene which existed here with music in pubs and folk clubs once thriving in Dalton and Barrow in the past but hoping to widen the access to and involvement in traditional music and dance in the area and add to what is already here (South Lakes Music Promotions run a monthly series of really good concerts in the local Sports and Social Club).”
In addition to the festival work carries on outside the annual event running workshops as well as attending schools to introduce children to the traditions of the area, something that has remarkable success:
“Schools work has been less consistent than we would have hoped – yet remarkably successful – it began with a mixed band of local musicians, singers and dancers who performed taster concert sessions at schools – some of these schools took on some teaching sessions. Some schools developed basic ceilidh bands (some of which were facilitated by a melodeon project delivered by Mike Willoughby of the band Striding Edge on behalf of Folkworks). We worked with these bands to help them with repertoire and performance skills and ended up with one massive youth band. From this came an out of school traditional music club which has had sessions from many guest tutors but chiefly four or five folks from the Furness Tradition committee and mentors from the club members. This group has been part of the springboard for Maz O’Connor and her brother Joe and currently brothers James and Karl Taylor (guitar and melodeon) from Barrow who are members of Folkestra and have formed their own band JFK-B with two young fiddlers Becky Harrison and Frankie Archer. Amy Hardy attended these sessions too and eventually became a mentor/tutor before going off to University – she will be returning to the festival as part of the London based trio Long Lankin. We almost managed to be able to present a concert of ex Furness Tradition students but Maz O’Connor is busy performing Laura Marlin’s music for As You Like It with the RSC!”
With ‘community’ being such a central drive behind what Gordon is striving to achieve I wondered whether he perceived a loss of this in some festivals today.
“Hard to say – we don’t really see ourselves as part of the “scene”. The festival is here as a celebration of the work done through the year and a party for locals to enjoy. Our own remit is to offer a taste of traditional music and dance that hopefully will surprise and inspire those who attend and although it’s a festival for all we hope that the town gets a lot from it. Also our events are a mixture of dance and concert so the music is seen to be used in context as dance music as well as in a concert setting. It’s a small town so these things have some effect in the town – last year we ran a beginners cardboard Harp workshop for ten people – this developed into a weekly club and six people have attended all year and now have bought beginner harps – six more harps in a town this small – that’s got to be a good thing.
“Our community is one which has developed – there are people who come along every year now and that’s a community – whilst the part the festival and the organisation (Furness Tradition is a ltd Company and a charity which does more than run the festival) play in the town’s calendar hopefully impacts on the local community. If we are talking about local community I feel it is important that we are based in the town centre and weave the Saturday events around a busy market day.”
Aside from music, storytelling is also a big part of the festival and at this year’s festival Nick Hennessey will be performing ‘The Whispering Road’. Storytelling is also something which is promoted in my own area in Somerset by the likes of Halsway Manor so I was naturally interested in Gordon’s own interest in this oral tradition.
“From my time in Scotland storytelling has always been important – so many of the singers carried stories and so many ceilidh/session situations interspersed songs and tunes with stories in a natural and clearly important way. My good old pal Taffy Thomas MBE has based himself in Grasmere with his Northern Centre for Storytelling – Taffy now runs a monthly storytelling club in the village of Ings (Watermill Inn) where an incredibly wide range of folks turn up, sing songs and tell tales it all fits together so well with our traditions. We have kept storytelling at the heart of the festival for some years now. Nick Hennessey is based in South Lakes around Cartmel Fell and I have become very impressed with Nick’s singing and harp playing almost as much as his storytelling – although sometimes it’s hard to see where song, story and music join up as he weaves the three together so skilfully. Although Nick has a wide repertoire of stories he is a specialist in the Finnish saga stories of the Kalevala and he has worked with Jonny Dyer and Vicki Swann calling themselves “Serious Kitchen” to produce a remarkable musical story show around Scandinavian stories. The show is really a lot more than story alone – it is a complete and absorbing experience and one which could find you leaving the room with a lot to think about. Even in this trio show with music and song wrapped all around – the story takes absolutely and effortlessly centre stage as it absolutely should.”
One of the nice things about the festival is that there is not the huge focus on headliners that many other festivals target for ticket sells, there is a concerted effort to promote young artists and local talent. I asked Gordon how he went about finding new talent.
“I guess my own involvement in professional performance and production has played a big part in that. Always the most exciting and interesting folks we met on the road were the new evolving acts with fresh ways to look at the music and I have always wanted to keep that freshness and interest around the event. We have tried to make the festival weekend and how the party develops and performers interact more important than individual acts.”
It’s always intriguing to hear what were the personal highlights of a festival for those that attend and Gordon has many fond memories:
“Some incredible performances – something special almost every year, a group of great fiddle players from Unst in Shetland, Ross Couper and Tom Oakes playing a stunning set and then bringing together every young person who had played at the festival, Sam Lee running a vocal workshop, Siobhan Miller and Jeanna Leslie leaving the stage after an incredible set and getting straight onto the floor to dance local dances with their audience, some absolutely incredible sessions and all the times I have seen our local young performers sitting in with professionals and being appreciated. Folk smiling broadly whilst saying – great weekend, a unique and special experience thank you we’ll be back next year!”
Gordon was quick to point out that a lot more goes on behind the scenes of a festival than many people realise, he reminded me of one such group:
“The group of people who book the dancers for the festival do a remarkable job of picking great guest dance sides and the job of organising the dance displays around the town involving so many people, sticks, hankies, swords, clogs all arriving in the right places at the right times is nothing short of a dark art and as a result dance is brilliantly presented.”
Read our interview
Vicki Swan and Jonny Dyer
The festival will run Friday July 12th to Sunday 14th July in Ulverston, South Cumbria. Performers include Tyde, Horizontal Sunday, Long Lankin, Vicki Swan and Jonny Dyer, storyteller Nick Hennessey, Serious Kitchen, JFK-B, The Young ‘Uns, Furness Morris, Crook Morris, Cricket on the Hearth, Argameles Clog Morris, and Rainbow Morris.
Tickets and further details: www.furnesstradition.org.uk