The Dead Rat Orchestra are a trio of musicians whose work pushes, prods and tears at the edges of folk.
They are currently undertaking The Cut, a canals and waterways tour, during which they will travel 273 miles of the inland waterways from London to Bristol (including Reading and Oxford and various other locations), crafting music from extensive research into these industrial and leisure arteries.
In this special FRUK feature each blog post will be written by a different member of the band, giving insight into the different characters and interests that drive the ensemble, and the challenges encountered by taking a tour on a less beaten track.
30th July (The Cut: Day 3)
Dead Rat: Daniel Merrill.
Anyone that has seen us perform will know our work is not recreation or historical demonstration. Although we flirt with the fringes of academia, research is not something dry and constraining for us, it can be liberating and exciting. The research we undertake creates the sparks from which we imagine something different. We have always been magpies, flitting from place to place, becoming engrossed in some shiny thing or other, exploring it, experimenting and playing with it, until it becomes a part of our own music. Our irreverent delivery of historical detail creates an informality that we hope starts some interesting conversations.
Planning a project like The Cut was a fascinating journey, even before setting foot on the boat. Wanting to craft music that reflects changing relationships to the waterways on which we would travel. The project itself has 27 different partners, and has lead to extensive interaction with the canals both in terms of their history and living heritage, in terms of the community that are still engaged with them.
One of many great discoveries came from the Surrey History Centre, home to the Lucy Broadwood collection. This collection is the personal library of one of the most rarely addressed heroes of the English folk revival. Overshadowed by her contemporaries, such as Cecil Sharpe and Vaughan Williams, Broadwood was not only a great song collector in her own right (a challenging position for a woman in the late 19th and early 20th century), but an essential voice in the promotion of english folk music. She was instrumental in establishing the English Folk Dance and Song Society, without whom the work of the other collectors and composers would not have received the recognition it has today.
As our journey along the Thames takes us through several locations near Broadwood’s former home, we were interested to see whether her collection had any canal or river related material. Regrettably there was very little; a few 19th century compositions in ode to the Thames, and a few other river songs that have remained popular.
However, the strength of any archive lies not simply in the materials, but in the knowledge and enthusiasm of the archivists, and it was a great pleasure to be introduced to Robert Simonson. Robert clearly has a fascination for the whole Broadwood family (her father established the Broadwood piano company and her uncle was also am eminent song collector), and before long Robert was unearthing personal diaries and trial pressings of Lucy’s formal publications. To these Lucy had continued to add notes, newspaper cuttings and other ephemera that show how broad reaching her interest in folk culture was, and how she saw these things not as the documenting of historic activities, but of a vibrant living culture.
As I delved through the collection something of essential importance struck me; Broadwood was not simply interested in creating a historical record, she was charting how folk culture evolved. Her publications therefore are not intended to set in stone authoritative versions of songs, but are sparking points to help promote and thrive an evolving culture of folk music.
Amongst photos of mummers, numerous newspaper reports, scraps of paper and notes accumulated over the decades was a slip of handwritten manuscript, from Cecil Sharpe, an alternate, and seemingly unpublished, and possible now forgotten version of the legendary Scarborough Fair.
A haunting melody, accompanied by alternate words suggestive of an alchemical origin of the song, this piece has made it into the music we are developing as The Cut progresses. Though not a canal song in itself, the point is this; in undertaking this voyage, getting away from the normal way of conducting a tour, by getting focusing on the locations and means of transport, by trawling across the early industrial landscape of the UK, the canal is allowing for things to come to the surface that may not have without this interaction.
C Joynes & Dead Rat Orchestra
01 – MARLOW All Saint’s Church FREE
02 – READING Rising Sun Arts Centre
04 – OXFORD Holywell Music Room (OCM)
05 – IPSDEN Braziers Park FREE (evening talk & workshop)
09 – CROFTON Crofton Beam Engines
10 – PEWSEY The Crown Inn FREE
11 – DEVIZES Kennet & Avon Canal Trust, Devizes Wharf FREE
13 – BRADFORD ON AVON Holy Trinity Church
14 – AVONCLIFF The Crossed Guns (Bath Folk Festival)
15 – BATH Museum of Bath at Work (Bath Folk Festival)
16 – BRISTOL Arnolfini, Bristol / £5/ www.arnolfini.org.uk
Photos: taken at London Canal Museum by Popestates Photography