The founders of a charity that has encouraged literally hundreds of thousands of people to sing and play music are to receive English Folk Music’s highest accolade at a star-studded event in July.
Marilyn Tucker and Paul Wilson set up Wren Music in Okehampton, West Devon, 33 years ago, since when it has reached out to pretty much every city, town and village in the county. In fact, Wren has spread its wings further afield to touch communities in the wider South West – but Devon is and always has been its heartland and it’s where, on a participant session basis, it reaches 30,000 people each year.
Paul and Marilyn’s initial vision in 1983 was to form a small team of professional musicians to take music into communities. Since then it has grown to a team of 12 – seven in the permanent team and five who help out in a ‘pool’.
The work that Paul and Marilyn have done for English folk music at grass roots level has now received national recognition with a prestigious Gold Badge award from the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS), and they’ll be presented with the badge at a special event at the Cygnet Theatre in Exeter on 22 July.
The award also recognises their achievements as performers in their own right and their work in collecting old West Country folk songs, including the long-hidden Baring-Gould collection. Making these songs available has helped to keep traditional music very much alive and kicking in the far South West: visit a pub in rural Devon and the chances are you’ll hear some of the songs being sung.
When Paul and Marilyn collect their EFDSS Gold Badge from Eliza Carthy, they’ll be in good company. The list of Gold Badge recipients since the first two were presented in 1922 reads like a who’s who of folk. Three of them will be at the award ceremony: Eliza Carthy is presenting the award, Doc Rowe is reading the citation, and US folk legend Peggy Seeger, a patron of Wren, will be performing. Previous recipients include Maddy Prior, Ewan MacColl and Cecil Sharp.
Marilyn said she was “astounded” when she heard they were to receive the award: “Because of where we are, we can fall under the radar sometimes when it comes to coverage and also, with the sort of work we do, Paul and I aren’t exactly household names, we aren’t folk superstars. We’ve taken a radically different view of the work, engaging people in communities. To be recognised for that work by the national body for folk music and to be given their highest award is a huge honour.”
Paul agrees that it’s the recognition of the value of their work that means the most to him: “The award validates the work we do and that’s the most important thing to me. We were talking to Peggy [Seeger] after her brother Pete died, and she said to us: ‘You two are what Pete was all about. You’ve reached the community, which is what Pete did’. And that sums it up, I guess.
“What we’ve tried to do is to move the experience of music away from passive to active, so people aren’t just listening to music, they’re singing or playing music. We don’t have auditions for our choirs and orchestras; music is for everyone,” he added.
Peggy Seeger has known Paul and Marilyn for approaching 40 years and says the work they’ve done is unmatched anywhere in the UK: “As far as I know, there’s no-one else like them, doing what they’re doing in the community, to the extent that they’re doing it.
“Community is so important and folk music was formed as a community tradition. It has disappeared under the weight of movement away from rural communities and also under the weight of popular music. Paul and Marilyn have re-established it from grassroots up. They’ve used music to create community and they’ve used community to create music.”
Wren currently has 16 community choirs, orchestras and youth groups dotted all around Devon. When you speak to members about their stories, a theme emerges: everyone is welcome.
Penny Avant has been in Wren’s Exeter Voices in Common Choir for over 20 years and gets to their choir sessions as often as she can. This year, she took part in Wren’s ‘Her Story,’ a performance about the suffragette movement to mark International Women’s Day. Yet, says Penny: “I was one of those who was always told I couldn’t sing. So finding Wren was a revelation.
“Being treated as though I could sing and being praised for my singing was a whole new experience. As Paul and Marilyn say, we all can sing. There’s something about the inclusiveness in the way that they work. Anybody can go to the choir. I’ve never heard either of them say ‘no, we can’t have you’.”
Penny added: “Singing has liberated me. It’s fulfilling and fun, I love it. I’ve gone on about it so much that my younger daughter has just joined a choir where she lives in Cornwall!”
For John Harle, joining the Folk Orchestra of Torbay in 2009 was a big step to take: “I got involved because I was recovering from depression and anxiety and I wanted to take up a hobby. This was completely new for me, my first connection with playing music since I left school. But my wife Tanya and her mum were singing in Wren’s Torbay choir at the time so I thought I’d give it a go.
“They said there were no auditions so there was no fear of not making the cut, so to speak. The first thing they did was give me a mandolin to play and I’ve been involved ever since.”
John and Tanya’s six-year-old son Christopher is the latest member of the family to take up music: “He’s been singing Wren songs since he was very little and he’s got his first guitar and mandolin. When you think about it, this is what traditional music has always been about, passing it on through generations.”
With a team of young professional singers and musicians taking on board much of the responsibility for Wren’s community groups as well as the work in schools and the annual Baring-Gould Folk Weekend and Song School, Paul and Marilyn are looking to do more of their own gigs again. Before setting up Wren they were in-demand performers and can claim to have played on every stage at the Southbank.
So does this mean it’s ‘mission accomplished’ when it comes to their Wren work? “I couldn’t say we’ll ever reach that point,” said Paul. “There are still so many things we want to do, it’s just finding the time to do it all! People in other parts of the country have said to us ‘can we have a Wren in our county please?’ which is great and we’re more than happy to offer advice on good practice,” he added.
On the day of this interview with Marilyn and Paul at Wren’s Devon HQ, they were, as ever, discussing several different projects and ideas – including further stage performances for their community groups and an exciting new link-up with Trinity College, London, to run a Certificate of Music Education course starting later this year.
On 22 July, they’ll actually be able to relax and enjoy a show being put on for them: “It’s going to be a lovely evening and we’re looking forward to seeing everyone,” said Marilyn. “It’ll be more than just a concert, it’ll be a celebration.”
The EFDSS Gold Badge award evening is a ticketed event – contact Wren Music for information.