20 years of Baring-Gould Weekend

Baring-Gould Weekend
Marilyn Tucker, Peggy Seeger, Paul Wilson

Baring-Gould Weekend
25-27 October 2019
Okehampton, Devon

It has attracted and inspired some of the biggest names in traditional folk music, and, in October, the Baring-Gould Weekend celebrates its 20th year.

Today, the folk festival takes place at venues in the Dartmoor town of Okehampton in West Devon, but for the first few years, it was held in the nearby rural villages of Lewdown and Bratton Clovelly. An odd setting for a musical festival, perhaps, but one that made perfect sense.

The Baring-Gould Folk Festival – as it was then called – was named in honour of the prolific song collector from Dartmoor, the Rev Sabine Baring-Gould. The squire and parson from Lewtrenchard (1834-1924) spent many years in the latter part of the 19th century, travelling around Devon and Cornwall, collecting traditional folk songs directly from the voices of the people who sang them.

The volume of his song collection wasn’t realised until the founders of Devon-based music and education charity, Wren Music, started to do some digging. By the time they’d reached the end of their search, Paul Wilson and Marilyn Tucker had discovered almost 1,000 songs.

The collection forms a significant part of The Full English – a national collection of traditional songs managed by the English Folk Dance and Song Society. And, says Paul:

“In terms of the melodies, it’s the most beautiful of all the song collections in England. Baring-Gould saved them, and we found them.”

Which all goes to explain why, when Wren were asked to organise a folk festival, they decided to stage it in Baring-Gould’s parish. Among the performers at that first Baring-Gould Festival in 1999 were folk grandees, Martin Carthy & Norma Waterson, Anita Best, Cyril Tawney and Newfoundland folk singer Jim Payne.

Twenty years on, and the event has evolved into the Baring-Gould Folk Weekend & Song School. The 20th anniversary event takes place at locations in Okehampton on 25-27 October, with the song school on 21-25 October.

“We quickly outgrew the villages,” said Paul. “The country lanes couldn’t cope, and neither could the pubs!”

There have been other changes along the way, too. A few years ago, the event underwent a name change to dispel any idea that it was a typical festival in a muddy field: “It’s not like any other folk festival,” said Marilyn. “Our venues offer an intimate setting so the audience is really close to the performers, and you can appear alongside the festival artists at some of the gigs.  You can sit and listen, or you can take part. And we create an orchestra and a choir over the two days that anyone can sign up to, and they get to perform at their own special concert at the weekend. It’s the spirit of the event that’s so different and unique.”

While it might not be as big as some of the UK’s other annual folk festivals, its influence in promoting traditional music and providing a stage for emerging singers can’t be over-stated. It has been the inspiration behind many of today’s brightest young folk stars, such as Sam Lee. For Sam, the Baring-Gould Folk Weekend and Song School is something of a spiritual home. He attended the song school as a student several years ago and returned as a tutor in 2014 and again in 2016.

Regulars down the years include the festival’s patron, Phil Beer, from the folk duo, Show of Hands, and legendary American folk singer-songwriter, Peggy Seeger, who is patron of Wren Music. Artists from the new folk generation who have appeared include Georgia Lewis, Lady Maisery and Jim Causley.

There’s usually a different theme to the festival each year. Last year, it featured up and coming young folk singers; this year, it has an international flavour, with the return of overseas artists who’ve appeared before with great success:  Sos Cantores from Sardinia, Dandari from Latvia, and Funi (Chris Foster and Bara Grimsdottir) from Iceland. Also lined up is Thomas McCarthy from Ireland, multi-instrumentalist Lauren Eva Ward and English folk singer James Findlay, who took the song school last year.

The school is always led by a leading personality in the world of traditional song and this year, Wren have secured Tim Van Eyken, who was one of the first to play Songman in the stage production of War Horse. After years of acting in theatre and on TV, Tim is returning to his roots as a folk singer.

“The reason the festival is going stronger than ever is because folk music is now so huge”, said Marilyn. “There’s been a folk explosion in the past few years. When we started the festival, you couldn’t find a folk club anywhere. Now they’re everywhere. And we’ve got people like Jim Causley and Sam Lee bringing it to a big new audience.

“I think traditional English folk music is in safe hands. And the Baring-Gould Weekend is playing its part in the revival.”

A Baring-Gould weekend ticket is £50, with a 4-for-3 offer. Visit the Wren Music website to book tickets and for details of all the performances and individual concert prices. www.wrenmusic.co.uk

ANGE HARDY – The Lament Of the Black Sheep (Story Records)

angeHer second album in as many years after returning to the folk scene following time off to raise two kids, Hardy expands the sparse voice and guitar sound of Bare Foot Folk by introducing fiddle, double bass, flute, whistles, accordion and percussion on another 14-strong acoustic set of self-penned numbers that sound as they could have been in some dusty archive of traditional folk ballads.

She says they’re inspired by family (the cover photo is of her great-grandfather on his farm), tradition, personal experience and tales of West Somerset, with songs of heritage and of working the land. That said, she’s all at sea with the opening track, ‘The Bow To The Sailor’, a stirring shanty about the call of the sea and the feelings it invokes in men with salt in their veins. She’s firmly on dry land for the title track retelling of the nursery rhyme from the sheep’s perspective, a bleak reinterpretation about giving way everything you own and being left cold and alone, a metaphor that you could apply equally to King Lear or parenthood.

‘The Gambler’s Lot’ is one of the specifically Somerset songs, a lament for the way the sweat of generations to build a rural foundation could be swept away by one person’s foolish actions, her voice looped to provide close harmony backing on the chorus, but then it’s on to deeply personal territory as ‘The Daring Lassie’ recounts her running away from a Somerset care home to travel to Ireland, living rough in Dublin and Galway under an assumed name, a spirited duet with fiddle player James Findlay with the sort of refrain designed for club singalongs. She returns to the theme for ‘The Lost Soul’ as, to a stark, almost medieval arrangement, she recalls the end of her time in Ireland and the open-heart epiphany of the mistakes made and lessons learned.

‘The Sailor’s Farewell’ is the second of the album’s nautical numbers, a poignant song inspired by a story told her by a man at one of her concerts, about how his mother, Mabel, would hang a picture called The Sailor’s Farewell when her husband went to sea and one called The Sailor’s Return when he came home. Except that, on one fateful voyage, she was never to rehang the second picture.

Being a folk album there are, of course, songs about foolish or unfortunate women. An unaccompanied duet between Hardy and Findlay, ‘The Wanting Wife’ recounts how a woman sends her husband out poaching and thieving to bring back her weight in gold only to realise he was her real treasure while, again using vocal loops and backed solely by rippling guitar, ‘The Foolish Heir’ tells of a girl lured with promises of a new life overseas only to be drowned on her father’s land by her false lover, fated to wander the place she wanted to escape as a ghost. There’s ghosts the haunting ‘The Young Librarian’ too, a multi-tracked vocal, a song supposedly about how people live on through their writing, but very much couched in horror imagery.

Three numbers relate to the farming life, all with very different tones. As you might surmise from the title, accompanied by melancholic flute, ‘The Cull’ isn’t exactly cheery. Inspired by the sight of someone protesting against a badger cull, dressed up as a badger, it tackles the serious problem of culling infected cows to save the herd and how those who do not live by the land often do not understand the demands it makes. On a rather lighter note, The lilting swayalong ‘The Tilling Bird’ uses the image of how chickens (here the rare Marsh Daisy) were used to follow the plough to help turn the soil to serve as a metaphor for love while, in decidedly playful mood, ‘The Woolgatherer’ is a delightful tumble of a song about how daydreaming is probably not recommended when you’re muck spreading. Again, you can imagine this as a club crowd participation number.

The final two songs return to motherhood. With accordion intro and featuring Jo May on spoons (made from the melted debris of bombs dropped in the Vietnam War, apparently), ‘The Raising And The Letting Go’ is a tribute to her own mother who raised her pretty much on her own as well as a recognition that your children with eventually fly the nest while the final number, the short and sweet a capella ‘The Lullaby’, was written for her two-year old son, an encouragement for him to go to sleep with which all parents will sympathise.

If last year’s album marked a triumphant return to the folk world, this firmly consolidates her position as one of the finest contemporary-traditional voices in the field, and were I Eliza Carthy or Cara Dillon I’d be looking over my shoulder very carefully.

Mike Davies

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Artist’s website; www.angehardy.com

‘The Bow To The Sailor’ is the first single from The Lament Of The Black Sheep:

JAMES FINDLAY – Sport And Play (Fellside Recordings FECD238)

Fast becoming the ‘British’ version of America’s Green Linnet record company the astute Paul Adams catches yet another rising ‘folk-star’ for his ever burgeoning roster of excellence. In 2009 James Findlay won the prestigious BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award and rightly so on the strength of this recording. Let’s not beat about the bush here, Findlay’s vocal approach may not be to everyone’s taste but striking it is, particularly if you happen to like your folk music a little bit…shall we say ‘idiosyncratic’. By definition, the mere mention of the words ‘folk singer’ conjures for many a picture of a wizened old geezer propping up the bar in a local hostelry brandishing a pewter tankard and with his finger firmly stuck in his ear whilst bellowing out the ‘hits’ of yesterday. I’m pleased to say that in this case we can forgo that scenario and be thankful that the youth of today are quite happy to delve into the back catalogue of the dusty Child ballads as did the likes of Fairport and Steeleye Span before them. In a display of opulence with artistic merits in both instrumental and vocal performance that would, I’m sure be met with approval by his own heroes Nic Jones and the sadly departed Tony Rose young Findlay measures up well with engaging renditions of classics including “Tam Lin”, “Sorry The Day I Was Married” and “Foggy Dew”. Personally speaking I’m glad that on the shoulders of one so young a maturity and respect in giving credit where credit’s due by acknowledging the original sources (not something I believe has been taken on board by other young whippersnappers) will gain him a legion of ‘folk’ fans…and hopefully beyond. Watch this space!

PETE FYFE

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Artist website: http://www.fellside.com/