Old Hereford city sits in the low evening sunshine smelling of cider apples, and in Church Street – where folkies come to buy their coffee these short days – the shop fronts are ringing with the bells of evensong. The sun sets over the cathedral and the buskers finish their songs before collecting up their pennies. The local doctor cycles home, dogs are walked, cats yowl their evening welcome, and most good babies are being tucked into their cuddly beds … apart from one Willoughby Smith, who in his mother’s arms is making his way to an abandoned night club in the centre of Hereford.
Up the metaled staircase in a darkly lit room Sproatly Smith are rehearsing. There is a hollowed out pumpkin face (it was supposed to be a competition Ian announces) grinning from the top of a stepladder. One of the band’s dogs explores the corners for crumbs and comfort, and an experimental version of Willie O’Winsbury is taking shape – in honour of young Willoughby, whose hair will no doubt shine like the strands of gold when he is older.
Sproatly rarely play in Hereford these days, and instead are more likely to be found taking their weird-shire sounds out to festivals and venues at least a good road movie distance away from home. However in a couple of weeks time Sharron Kraus will be joining Sproatly Smith in a psych-folk double header at Hereford’s own Hinton Community Centre. As those familiar with the two artists will know the music of both Sharron and Sproatly draws on traditional English folk song, but presents it in a way that suggests gothic myth and magick, bucolic folklore and – in Sproatly’s case – the psychedelia of early Pink Floyd. There’ll be a complex alchemy of “agri-psych” and folk that evening on the Ross Road.Sharron will be returning to Herefordshire in early December, this time to play with Harriet Earis in a gig at Canon Frome Court commune. Canon Frome is home to Heed the Thunder, a three (occasionally four) piece band that is a close cousin to Sproatly Smith, as both bands share members. Heed the Thunder have been making music around fires and in folk clubs for around five years, regularly guesting at woodland gatherings, heavy horse fairs and communal parties, and playing songs “of depth, gothic wonder and mysticism”.
Canon Frome sits some lonely distance out of Hereford on the way to Ledbury. The fields around the Court – now home to the Windflower Community Association – are flat and crossed by streams, with woodland above where green woodworkers and magnificent heavy horses practice their trades.Mark Stevenson, a local folk singer with a reputation for his giant-killing voice is a regular visitor, and met Heed the Thunder’s Alex some years ago sharing songs at the Prince of Wales folk club. Long time resident of Ledbury Mark arrives at Canon Frome on winter evenings on a motorbike, driving through the rain in layer upon layer of jumpers socks and leathers – challenging the floods. Mark’s best known song “Man of British Weather” is a powerful timeless celebration of the connection between people and the land, and has already travelled the world in the song-filled bellies of Herefordshire folk singers.
The ‘agri-psych’ label that has been attributed to Sproatly Smith (and ‘rural-core’ -an early branding of Heed the Thunder) makes sense when you explore the legacy of Herefordshire’s farming hills and valleys. At this time of year tractors laden with apples still pick their way through Hereford’s city centre, and the county’s cattle market has only recently moved out of town (to make way for Nandos and Next). Older farming families still come to town on a Wednesday.
At the turn of the last century Ella Mary Leather famously made a collection of Herefordshire’s folklore, inspired by local apple names and folk tales heard in her childhood. Her collection takes us back through another half century or more of local connections to the land. Sproatly Smith’s ‘Carols from Herefordshire’ draws on a number of the songs Ella Mary noted, and other original Sproatly songs such as ‘Mermaid of Marden’ describe local folk tales.
The names of old apple varieties sold at local farmer’s markets still conjure the connection between Herefordshire’s hills and lanes with local imagination and ambition. Apple fairs, folk festivals and wassailing are common, and mummers plays still happen in Herefordshire each winter. The same simple stories are told over and over, year after year… arriving at a village green in darkness from the winding of misty countryside lanes the play is overshadowed by the creaking of the old village inn, where locals are warmed with mulled cider.
Herefordshire’s youth favour a cider/vodka mix, along with night clubs fake tan and cars – although distance into the city down dark country lanes takes a toll on this ambition. There is also a thriving and varied youth music scene locally, and some lively sparks have started their musical careers here before packing their bags and guitar cases and heading off into the brighter lights of Bristol – or London. Andy Skellam, George Morgan, Tobion, Elspeth Annie Macrae, and Toby Parker…. to name a few.
Others find themselves drawn here unexpectedly, leaving behind those same music scenes. And Herefordshire has a river valley reputation – people get stuck here. Alula Down, a reclusive cousin of Sproatly Smith and Heed the Thunder, planned to be brief visitors but have now long since been caught in the mire of the place – and in its folk story and song. It seeps into the bloodstream with the cider if you stay too long.
Aspel Orchid who travelled south into the sunshine is now back in the county, and spends her days working in the woods. She is one half of the startlingly named Vaginapocalypse – who play an Incredible String Band meets Patrik Fitzgerald style of original folk music. The band is based in Bromyard, home of festivals pubs and second hand clothes shops. The green of the rolling downs falls into this small border town from all around its edges. Up here in the north of the county Vaginapolcalypse is yet another distant cousin (maybe once removed) as they often play as a three piece with shared Sproatly / Heed member Mark Bass.
The affectionately known ‘VagPox’ recently supported Harp and a Monkey at Carnival Records in Malvern. Carnival Records is a well-connected supporter of the local music scene, and last Christmas Heed the Thunder sang some wassailing songs as part of an in-store for vinyl shoppers sipping complimentary coffee on the benches and chairs out-side the shop. Heed have wassailed annually in Canon Frome’s own orchard, taking part in the noisy January lantern procession amongst the darkly pruned and knotted trees. This year they will be expanding the wassail set with other members of Sproatly Smith and Vaginapocalpsye, “… taking inspiration from the themes, tunes and musical strangenesses of our roots and making something timelessly new but still distinctly local out of them”: singing songs of ‘auld cider’ where the air is sweet with the last of the season’s fallen apples, accompanying the grass-chewing sheep in an orchard serenade…. in amongst the Morgan Sweet and Eggleton Styre, the Old Redstreak and Kingston Black, bringing another round of traditional songs into this weirdlore line of Herefordshire’s folk family.
By kate Gathercole (from Heed the Thunder & Sproatly Smith)
Saturday 28th November 7pm, Sharron Kraus &Sproatly Smith at Hinton Community Centre. Click here for more information.
Wednesday 10th December 7pm, Sharron Kraus & Harriet Earis with Heed the Thunder and Mark Stevenson at Canon Frome Court. Click here for tickets.
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Saturday 13th December Sproatly Smith & Bill Caddick – Bridgwater Art Centre, Somerset. Click here for tickets.