The identity of place changes over time. The UK is one of the most developed countries in the world, to the extent that almost all of its natural landscapes have been altered by human progress. Much of this progress began in prehistory when agriculture was in its early stages and ritual played a huge part in society. As a result, and in spite of the recent changes brought about by urbanisation and large-scale farming, our land is littered with relics of our country’s ritual past.
George Nigel Hoyle’s music and writing explore this past in ever more fresh and original ways. His latest album (released under the Cunning Folk name), Ritual Land, Uncommon Ground, tackles themes ranging from personal routine to religious ceremony, taking in the injustice of the Pendle witch trials, the history of agriculture and the weird and wonderful world of Julian Cope: all of which he has written about at length in his consistently illuminating blog. So, how did he become concerned with these themes?
“I grew up in Dorset,” he begins, “in a small town called Wimborne, and just north of the town is an Iron Age hill fort called Badbury Rings. We used to walk around it most weekends and also used to visit Knowlton Church, a Norman ruin in a neolithic henge regularly. Dorset has many ritual earthworks and hill forts and thinking back on it we used to visit them a lot. A school trip to Avebury Stone Circle and West Kennet Long Barrow was very influential. I came to be fascinated by history and folklore over the past ten years or so. I initially did a musical project about the history of Bermondsey in London where I was living, then one about ghosts of London, then one about Oak trees of the south of England and then this present one about ritual landscapes. I find history tells us a lot about identity.”
From this starting point, you might expect Hoyle’s music to be predominantly influenced by the more traditional end of the British folk spectrum, but even a cursory listen to Ritual Land exposes a whole host of other musical touchstones. I mention that what first struck me about the album’s opening track was its resemblance to American pop and rock of the 1970s – particularly Big Star and Steely Dan. I am interested to know whether he consciously set out to reconcile these different strands of musical heritage, or whether these influences surfaced subconsciously or unconsciously:
“I am very familiar with Steely Dan and my friend Ian [Carter] from Stick In The Wheel has likened my music to a ‘prog-folk Steely Dan’! Come to think of it, Pretzel Logic was one of the first albums I bought. I am a real fan of Big Star and love that kind of melodic songwriting so it’s very nice to be compared with both of those artists. I listen to a lot of music from Anne Briggs to Steve Reich and what I really like is a sense of integrity within the work, the feeling that the artist has a real connection with the composition or song. While I know a fair amount about the English landscape and it’s history I did not grow up with English folk music. I listened to stuff like Peter Gabriel, XTC, Hendrix, Mississippi John Hurt, Johnny Winter, Fleetwood Mac and Bowie to name a few. The influences you hear are personal heritage bubbling through.”
But Hoyle’s influences range far beyond popular music. I mention the landscape author Robert MacFarlane, who, Hoyle agrees, “has a way of presenting the land and the folk who interact with it in a very inspirational manner. It inspired me that’s for sure. I think if my music can inspire folk to get out into the land and make a relationship with the land I would feel great. I enjoy the feeling of discovery of a place through walking a route through it guided by a map or book so why not song? I have been performing outdoor gigs in strange places for a number of years and intend to do more around the country. I believe I will be using grid references on the Explorer maps to guide adventurers to corners of England for site specific performances in the near future.”
“I don’t tend to write in situ”, says Holye of his working practices, “but I do enjoy performing songs at the location which inspired them. There is a burial ground near where I live, called Cross Bones, and I wrote a song inspired by the campaign to stop the site being developed. I perform it at the gates of the burial ground as part of a monthly folk ritual for the outcast dead. That packs a punch. When you perform on site it’s a way of recognising and signposting it’s significance in an immediate way. I will usually walk a site before writing about it to get a sense of the place. Walking is certainly a big part of my creative process.”
And there is definitely a tinge of the spiritual in the way Hoyle engages with nature. I mention to him that it puts me in mind of Richard Jefferies, the great Victorian naturalist-mystic, whose work chronicled the moments of epiphany that nature can inspire, and I’m not surprised to find that he values such instances of connection with particular places: “Finding special places in the land that you love and revisiting them at different times is something else. I find city life very difficult, and if I did not have family responsibilities, I would live in a hamlet somewhere on Cranborne Chase. I have to get out to the countryside at least every other week to walk alone. Some places like Cliffe Pools in the Medway have a sound landscape which changes with the seasons and the migratory birds which are around.” This idea of a “sound landscape” and its place in multi-sensory experience is particularly important in a subject that is so often represented visually. “Presently I have been feeling a connection with Bokerley Ditch on Cranborne Chase, an Iron Age ditch which runs for several miles through Martin Downs nature reserve. I was there this week listening to yellowhammers and walking the same path that people have been walking down for millennia. Having an empty moment when it’s just you in the land is really important. Walking through actual ritual landscapes, like the Avebury complex or through some of the many Scottish ritual sites has a deep feeling of pilgrimage to me, a feeling of walking in the footsteps of older ones.”
The talk of Avebury brings us around to another of Hoyle’s favourite subjects, the singular force of nature that is Julian Cope. A track on Ritual Land – The Modern Antiquarian – is directly inspired by Cope’s book of the same name. I note that it also seems to capture the atmosphere of those uncanny books and TV programmes of the 1970s, often aimed at children, which drew on the rich seam of pagan worship and archaeological mystery: authors like Alan Garner and Susan Cooper and shows like Children of the Stones. Hoyle agrees:
“I think Alan Garner’s work is very sophisticated. When I re-read The Moon Of Gomrath last year, I was struck by how adult it was. Children of the Stones, likewise: to think that this was aimed at children! I certainly think there is a nostalgic element to revivals of interest in these works, but there is also a recognition that there is something important here. There is something of our identity tied up in the ancient history of the island. I think that the emergence of new (or neo) religions like Wicca illustrate a wish by some to remain connected with older ways & paths. This band is called Cunning Folk which is a term dating back at least to the 16th century referring to wise folk in the village who can lift curses, have a working knowledge of herbology and may have a variety of other skill sets (scrying, divination, talking to animals, etc. ). To an exten, I think that fascination with the older ways may be associated with the fact that many of us live in cities now and the older ways give us a connection with the land and its history.”
So, would he describe himself as a ‘modern antiquarian’?
“I’ve thought of myself as an amateur folklorist; before the term ‘folklore’ was invented in the 19th-century folklorists were described as antiquarians. I think I’ll take “Modern Antiquarian!” My discovery of Britain’s past and my artistic journey go hand in hand. In my songwriting process, melody and chord structure tend to come intuitively. My process for writing lyrics requires a well-researched subject for me to inhabit and write for. I don’t like writing without an agenda; I like to have an idea of what I want to communicate before I try to communicate. I’ve always been interested in history, folklore and myth however my artistic journey over the past ten years has certainly pushed me to do a lot more research. I really enjoy research; I’m a university dropout who made the mistake of choosing to study a subject which I was not interested in, and I am making up for it now.”
The research certainly shines through on songs like Chalk Horses and A History of Agriculture & Mining. But there is nothing drily academic about these songs. Hoyle is more than willing to infuse them with research of a different kind: that of a lover of popular music tapping into a vast selection of recording artists without ever compromising his own individuality. One of his songs, What Has Been and Gone Before, is based on a letter written by Pope Gregory I in 601AD, but its music reminds me of the folk rock bands of the late 1960s and early 1970s, in particular, Dr Strangely Strange. Hoyle seems more than happy with the comparison.
“I am an enormous fan of both Incredible String Band & Dr Strangely Strange. I came to both of these bands in my late 20s & they are inspirational. I think the lyrical freedom of ISB informs my writing approach. I have both Strangely Strange records & probably listen to Kip of the Serenes a little more; there are some great chord moves & a lot of whimsy (which I love.)”
Hoyle is clearly in his element talking about the music he loves, and goes on to list more influences:
“The pool of music which inspires me is deep. I listen to a lot of acoustic blues & gospel, Mississippi John Hurt, Jack Owens, Rev Gary Davis & players like John Fahey. I really love Fairport Convention, particularly Babbacombe Lee. I think the strong concept behind Babbacombe Lee really pulls me. That said my favourite Fairport tune is Sloth which I am going to bring into the live set. I grew up listening to Led Zeppelin & Black Sabbath & not a week goes by without an album by one of them is played. Zeppelin 3 & Master Of Reality respectively.
“Recently I have been listening to a lot of Anne Briggs because the voice is so good. Other records which are companions to me include, Another Green World by Brian Eno, Berlin by Lou Reed, Stone Roses’ eponymous record & Frost & Fire by The Watersons.”
It’s an impressive and wide-ranging list. But what really sets the songs of Cunning Folk apart is their often surprising relevance to contemporary issues, their willingness to get involved. The song Lancashire, God’s Country – the one that deals with the Pendle witch trials – uses a historical perspective to examine a theme of intolerance that feels painfully close to the bone.
“I think knowing what your values are is important, as is being able to look at the validity of those values,” Hoyle explains. “When I’m writing a lyric I’m trying to get a snapshot of a time and place and to frame it so the audience can maybe understand things from a different point of view. Different artists have different agendas; some want the love of the audience, some want to have a shared experience, I want to share interesting things I have found. Interesting things include how some things don’t change. Witch hunts occur where there are spiritual battlegrounds. The 1612 Lancashire Witch Craze occurred in the context of enthusiastic proto-puritans attempting to stamp out recusant Catholicism in a rural Lancashire where a sizeable amount of folk also believed in witchcraft. The judiciary were trying to curry favour with a king who had written a book about Demonology, and the country folk got caught up in the hysteria, and some used it to settle old scores. I could go on; I give talks on the subject.
“I think to be aware of what you are singing & the consequences of singing those words is important.”
And what, if any, practical purpose does he think the idea of ritual serves in the modern world? Why is it necessary to preserve ancient rites?
“We all have rituals, our going to work rituals, our tea or coffee making rituals. These practical rituals, the way we do things, get us to work and get our tea and coffee to us. They also make us who we are; a religious rite puts us in our place. Many folk attend organised religious services, and the familiar ritual is part of identity, individual and shared.
“I previously mentioned the Cross Bones ritual (which occurs on the 23rd of every month at 7 pm at the gates of Cross Bones Burial Ground on Red Cross Way London SE1). This is a modern devised ritual led by a local shaman called John Crow which recognises the unrecognised dead, the forgotten outcast. It’s moving to be part of; you feel a connection with the bones under the city street.”
The small, personal rituals we partake in are just as important to Hoyle and his music as the grand ceremonies of the past or the rites of organised religion. Indeed, to some extent they are one and the same. As he says, “ritual is connection: when you toast your friend in the pub, you are enacting an ancient rite. People want to preserve rituals because they signpost where we are & where we have come from.
“And we can make up new rituals too; because it’s fun.”
Ritual Land, Uncommon Ground is out now on Dharma Records
Available via ProperMusic