In the summer of 2015 northern folk experimentalist trio Harp and a Monkey toured a bespoke show about the First World War with the support of the Arts Council and the Western Front Association . Unlike many other such projects the band, made up of Martin Purdy (vocals, glockenspiel, accordion, harmonica and keyboards), Simon Jones (harp, guitar, viola) and Andy Smith (banjo, melodica, guitar and programming), sought to challenge the typical stereotypes of the war through written and recorded material. The songs were given an added poignancy by using samples of oral recollections: not just those of veterans and and their family, but of others involved in the war in sometimes unexpected roles.
Where most bands would then head out on a tour of regular venues the trio decided to do things very differently. They took their show to venues which were anything but regular…they chose unusual venues relating to the conflict on home shores – from prisons that housed conscientious objectors to Zeppelin bomb craters on moors.
We managed to catch up with the band, who are our Artists of the Month for July, to talk about their project, tour and album called War Stories (read our review here) which is out now.
I want to start by talking about your 2015 tour which is where the War Stories album sprang from. Although I’m aware of Martin’s expertise in the history of WW1, what was the inspiration behind taking on such an unusual project?
When we were first asked some years ago about doing a show to mark the centenary of the First World War, our initial response was a definite ‘no’. The fact that we were better placed than most to do the job – our singer Martin is an internationally-recognised WW1 expert, author and broadcaster – didn’t come into it. We just knew that there would be quite a lot of well-intentioned projects popping up that would re-affirm misinformed stereotypes, and we didn’t want to get mixed up with that. That’s why, when we did finally agree to do something (in partnership with Arts Council England and the Western Front Association), we left it for a couple of years to let the dust settle. It’s also the reason why we went off at a tangent – writing songs about unfamiliar aspects of the conflict and often performing them in unusual places related to the war on home shores.
You say you wanted, through the project, to tackle some of the stereotypes about the war. What type of stereotypes?
People tend to view the First World War through a very narrow lens. You could sum it up with a handful of words: ‘mud, blood, trenches, futility, death’. They are all valid, but related to just one version of the story. The vast majority of people involved in the war effort never got anywhere near a trench, and for those who did, only a small proportion of their service would be spent there. That is not to minimise the horrors of warfare, but to simply point out that there is a far bigger and more nuanced picture. We often think of the ‘poppy’, ‘remembrance’ and the ‘glorious dead’ when we think of WW1, and it is right that we should, but we also need to remember that nine out of every 10 British servicemen came home. We thought it was time that the focus was put on some of those men and their families – the forgotten heroes who helped construct the modern world; many of whom had very complex feelings about their service with as much room for memories of laughter, camaraderie and pride as pain and sadness.
What were some of the more unusual locations you performed at?
Among the shows we played as part of the project were a village that was purpose-built for disabled men and their families after the First World War – around 1.75 million men came back from the war with some kind of disability, yet many never regretted their service despite their injuries. We also performed in a stone quarry on the top of the West Pennine Moors, as it gave a brilliant overview of the whole of the Rossendale Valley in Lancashire and the route of a rogue German Zeppelin raid in 1917. Walton Prison in Liverpool was another memorable show that we did, as that prison had housed some of the nation’s leading conscientious objectors during the war.
What was the most noteworthy from a historical perspective?
The show at the disabled village in Lancaster (called Westfield War Memorial Village) was really interesting as we were playing to disabled veterans of more recent conflicts. The village was funded by philanthropy, which is a hugely under-discussed aspect of the war – the number of charities in Britain doubled during the war and the competition between them resulted in many of the fundraising and administrative practices they still use today.
What was the most memorable?
It’s hard to single out any one show, but the gig up on the West Pennine Moor was a really satisfying one as we didn’t know how many people would be prepared to put on their walking boots and yomp-up quite steep moorland to watch us. In the end, nearly 400 people came – which was amazing!
Did these locations offer challenges in terms of your actual performance?
The show on the moor was a bit of a logistical nightmare. It ended up involving a solar-powered sound system and a very over-worked Land Rover. The performance in Walton Prison was also an interesting one to make happen as everything had to be accounted for and double checked to ensure nothing dodgy was going in or coming out. It was quite intimidating as there were a lot of locked doors and a general air of tension. Thankfully, the show proved a huge success and the audience – most of them ex-servicemen – great.
Are you continuing the tour in the same way for 2016?
We have four more shows in unusual venues planned for 2016: in August we are going to play at Hutton Roof in Cumbria at the old parish church of Theodore Bayley Hardy, who was the most decorated chaplain in the war, and also in a church in Narborough in Norfolk where large numbers of trainee airmen, who never made it overseas, are buried. The following month we are going to play on the Kent and East Sussex Railway in front of the Edith Cavell Van, which brought both her body and that of ‘the unknown warrior’ home from Europe after the war. Finally, and also in September, we are playing inside the old Washington ‘F’ Pit in Sunderland, where we will focus on the role of miners both on home and foreign shores. People can check out our website and Facebook page for updates and details. We should also point out that we regularly perform the WW1 show in more conventional venues as well.
Martin, tell us about your own interest in WW1 which appears to have grown over the years leading to you being widely acknowledged as an expert in this field.
Martin: I first visited the battlefields and cemeteries of the Western Front more than 20 years ago and it literally took my breath away. It had a profound impact on me – headstones that in some cemeteries seemed to stretch to the horizon. I started researching my own family’s involvement and it just kept growing to the point where I was privileged to be writing books and academic papers about it and being asked to speak at things like international conferences. That’s the great thing about Harp and a Monkey; the way that the three of us have always been able to bring our outside interests to the project. Simon is an award-winning photographic artist and Andy a fully qualified sound engineer and sound technician.
How much research did this project entail? Did you spend a lot of time working with archives? Were you guided by the Western Front Association at all?
Martin: Most of the themes were ones that I had wanted to address for a long time and many of the stories of the songs came from veterans I knew as a child, or material that I had already used in my books, articles or research. There was actually a lot more work went into identifying suitable venues for shows. We have a list of sites that we would love to perform at but they have, so far, proved unattainable to us for administrative, health and safety or land ownership reasons. Weather patterns are also a big influence if you are playing in exposed sites. The Western Front Association wasn’t involved in the creative process at all. They, like us, were just keen to be involved in something that challenged perceptions about the war, or at least got them to think of different elements of it.
Overall, what has been the most enjoyable aspect of making the album?
The joy for us is always the same – it’s that wonderful sense of being with two of your best friends on a journey, or struggle, with creativity that usually manages to turn up some interesting, or even amazing, results. There can’t be many things more satisfying than completing a project that has taken you down lots of different avenues that you could never have foreseen at the beginning. We have also had the pleasure of meeting lots of fantastic people along the way with this project, and that is always a really life-affirming thing as a musician and human being.
We intend to keep on performing this show for the next few years, but we are also performing our standard shows as well. We never stop playing as engaging with a live audience is the best thing for us about being musicians. In terms of new recordings, we have a couple of thing up our sleeve, including an idea for a whole new project in 2017….
Harp and a Monkey Tour Dates
23rd – 24th: Village Pump Folk Festival, Trowbridge, Wiltshire. Tickets
21st: St John’s Church, Hutton Roof, Cumbria (FREE WW1 show)
27th: All Saints Church, Narborough, Norfolk (FREE WW1 show)
4th: Tenterden Station, Kent & East Sussex Railway (FREE WW1 show)
10th: Diggers’ Festival, Wigan
11th: Washington ‘F’ Pit, Sunderland, Tyne and Wear (FREE WW1 show)
17th-18th: Ramsbottom Festival, Greater Manchester
24th: Queen’s Head, Belper, Derbyshire
1st: Upstairs at The Golden Lion, Todmorden, Calderdale, West Yorks
7th: Porkies Folk Club, Poynton, Cheshire
8th: Peel Park Hotel, Accrington, Lancs
11th: ‘Remembrance’ show in Manchester. (Details to follow)
18th: Beverley Folk and Roots Club, East Yorks
3rd: Wigan, The Old Courthouse, Greater Manchester
7th: Ramsbottom Folk Club, Greater Manchester
14th: The Willow Folk Club, Kirkham, Lancs
War Stories is Out Now
Order via: Harp and a Monkey