In October of this year Jon Boden used his keynote address at the Folk Expo to return to his ongoing passion for social singing, taking folk music back to its roots of being a shared activity with no divide between audience and performer. It’s this very passion that inspired his A Folk Song A Day project, with a new song being recorded simply by Jon and posted on line each day for a year, in an effort to inspire others to expand their own repertoire and share songs at their local pubs and folk clubs.
It’s also at the root of the extraordinary post gig pub sessions that have been a feature of this autumn’s Bellowhead tour, with some of the band members decamping to a local hostelry after the show, instruments in hand. In several cases they have been joined by local musicians as well as members of the Moulettes, who have been the support act for some of the shows. In some cases there has also been the extra special presence of the Revival Ale that the band brewed with Harveys as fuel for band and audience alike.
From Halifax to Northampton, taking in towns and cities as far flung as Yeovil and York, Birmingham, Brighton and Bristol to name but a few, sessions have happened. In some cases local musicians had already got to the pub and started without them, or in other cases joined in, while a mixed crowd of gig goers, pub regulars and local folk fans lapped it up. At York in particular, where the pub thoughtfully laid on some food, the late call to board the tour bus allowed for a very late finish.
Social media has been alive with pictures, capturing these impromptu gatherings and the stories have started to seep out into the press. The Brighton Argus took a somewhat romantic line reporting “The Lord Nelson, in Trafalgar Street, took a step backwards a few hundred years in time with the arrival of folk band Bellowhead after the show, and their revival of some of the traditional songs sung through the generations.”
Whilst many folk fans would simply point that reviewer in the direction of a still flourishing, local session scene, it did capture the special magic for those that joined the assembled musicians at close quarters. After all it was less than an hour since these same players had taken the thunderous applause of a capacity 1600 and more people that greeted the end of their usual riotous, spectacular live show at the Dome.
But, as the lead voice of Bellowhead, a band that are all about performance and the big stage presentation, Jon is all too aware that the professionalism demanded takes the music to a different level. Night after night, the band’s performance has drawn excited reviews across the press and blogosphere. The band have played to over 30,000 people in all, a huge, national audience treated to a spectacular show and royally entertained at venues the length and breadth of the country.
In Jon’s speech he also refers to the obvious benefits that an artist can enjoy in this climate, with the mechanics around the band and the folk scene in general becoming more professionally structured, the opportunities of the festival and live circuit and the obvious swelling in audience numbers. It’s what has prompted Island Records to revive their Pink Label and sign current folk acts including Bellowhead.
Jon believes, however, that these obvious blossoming benefits should be met with an equal commitment to tend to the roots and the health of a music that is our common heritage. Almost all of Bellowhead’s repertoire comes from the English folk song repertoire, ballads, broadsides, songs and fragments often handed down through word of mouth. The songs only exist today by being diligently collected at the end of C19th and the start of C20th by a handful of motivated musicians and people who recognised the scale of social change at that time.
The pace of change has not slowed and the point that Jon is making is that if folk music is to survive as anything other than entertainment from the stage looking down on an audience, then it needs to be properly nourished from the roots upwards. The pubs, clubs, sessions, social gatherings, the pooling of knowledge and the encouragement to join in sharing our wonderful, unique common heritage have never been more important.
Clips from Jon’s Keynote Speech:
Clip 1: on some of the consequences of the increasing professionalism of folk music
Clip 2: some practical ideas to promote social singing
Clip 3: Conclusions