Sam Lee talks to Folk Radio UK about his forthcoming appearance at Wren Music’s Baring-Gould Folk Weekend and Song School in Devon – an event which, it seems, is tailor-made for him.
If Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould was alive today, there’s every chance that at some point on his travels he’d bump into Sam Lee.
Baring-Gould spent many years in the late 19th century visiting rural communities in Devon and Cornwall, collecting traditional folk songs direct from people’s mouths and writing them down so they could continue to be sung for generations to come.
True, the Reverend from Lewtrenchard in West Devon didn’t always get it right; he was apt at times to ‘tweak’ the songs to his own liking. But his manuscripts of the songs he gathered from his visits to village inns to the singers’ own houses and to the fields where they worked, were largely true to the originals.
Baring-Gould would no doubt have been turning in his grave when, after all that hard work to ‘save’ these old songs, they were for decades stored away and hidden from sight until Devon-based Wren Music came along and dug them out, dusted them off, and digitised them.
More than a century after Baring-Gould could be found traipsing country lanes and remote communities, North London-based singer and song collector Sam Lee is on a similar quest, only instead of pen and paper, his tools are an iPhone and a laptop.
For Sam, the Baring-Gould Folk Weekend and Song School in Okehampton is something of a spiritual home. He attended the song school as a student several years ago and returned as a tutor in 2014. The 18th Baring-Gould Festival takes place at various venues in the Dartmoor town on 21-23 October, with the week-long song school starting on 24 October.
The event showcases up and coming singers and musicians and community folk choirs alongside established artists. Sam will be performing on the Sunday before joining the teaching team at the start of the song school.
Festival goers will hear Sam perform songs he has collected from travelling communities across the British Isles and Ireland: tales of love, parting, exile and tragedy. They’ll also get to hear the story behind the songs.
“For me, it’s how I came across these songs in the first place that is important to me,” explained Sam. “When I started off years ago, right back when I was a student at the song school, I would go into libraries and do a load of manuscript and archive research work.
“But ever since then, my research has always been one of an ethnographic journey, of seeking out keepers of oral traditions who are still alive. That’s allowed me to encounter some incredible tradition bearers and singers with versions of songs that nobody has ever heard before. I feel very proud that the repertoire I sing is quite unique and specialised in that sense and in that it has a direct connection to a living community.
“The Song Collectors Collective has just grown and grown,” added Sam. “I’ve found thousands of songs so far and I’m finding amazing new songs with incredible stories all the time from Irish travellers and English gypsies.
“So I’ll be singing songs that I’ve learnt from my contacts and journeys in England and Ireland and in Wales and Scotland, too. And I’ll be telling the story behind those songs; where they’ve come from, the people I’ve learned them from and how I came across them.
“These will be songs I haven’t recorded generally and I’ll be unaccompanied, mostly. I enjoy performing songs in this way, when they’re stripped back to just the vocal.”
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It’s easy to see why Sam and the Baring-Gould Festival are such a perfect match for each other: “In my original explorations of folk music I happened upon the Baring-Gould Song School, so it was the first thing I ever experienced and I feel that one always has to be grateful for those first experiences,” said Sam. “And since then there are not many times where I have encountered the tutorial approach and the environment that matches so closely my own love of and approach to folk music. I really like their relationship to the music.
“Most importantly, I’m a great admirer of Wren, of Paul Wilson and Marilyn Tucker and the whole team, and of the work they do and the way they do it.
“And I love Devon, I always have done, it’s the most beautiful part of the whole world.”
It’s been a busy old year for Sam. As well as the song collecting, touring, his appearance at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards and his work in running the award-winning Nest Collective folk club in London, he’s also been asked by film director Guy Ritchie to sing on the soundtrack of his Hollywood movie King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (view the trailer with Sam’s music).
Due for release in 2017, it stars Charlie Hunnam, Jude Law, Charles Dance – and David Beckham. So how did it come about?
“Guy Ritchie loves folk music. He found my music and really likes my records so he got in touch, it’s as simple as that really.”
Sam has just started work on his third CD, comprising songs he has recently collected in Ireland, both north and south. His first two CDs received critical acclaim – his debut album Ground of Its Own was a Mercury Prize nominee: “I’m thrilled at how the work I’ve been doing has been received because it has provided opportunities for these songs to be heard on some pretty prominent platforms, such as the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 and in a Hollywood movie.
“But while I’m very pleased, I’m not particularly surprised because I’ve always thought the songs were so powerful. My feeling is: why shouldn’t they be afforded such respect? These songs have been on an incredible journey and it’s good that people are recognising them as being valid and vital in capturing something deeply alive and connected.
“I love it when I’m able to be the one to broker that opportunity. At the same time, I’m really pleased when the song collection tradition is taken up by others as well.”
Info and links: Baring-Gould Festival, Okehampton, 21-23 October 2016; Song School 24 -28 October. For full listings and prices, visit the event website.
Photo Credit: Frederic Aranda