2019 is a big year for folking award winners Harp And A Monkey, with the planned release of album number four, and the band are excited to be playing some new venues and meeting new fans of their brand of experimental folk music.
A small rural church in Cumbria, a disused airfield in Norfolk, an old railway wagon in Sussex, and the winding room of a former colliery in Tyne and Wear – these are the odd collection of sites that provide the backdrop for a new documentary about a series of poignant performances by the acclaimed experimental folk and storytelling act Harp And A Monkey.
The Lancashire trio are renowned for doing things differently, and they certainly lived up to that reputation during the second phase of their ongoing project to mark the centenary of the First World War with unusual stories from home shores.
The band, who include an internationally respected WW1 historian, author and broadcaster, have been playing at places in Britain with different tales to tell of the conflict. They have been documenting the process by recording the performances and interviewing local people with evocative stories.
Sponsored by Arts Council England and the Western Front Association, the new documentary The Great War: New Songs and Stories (Part 2) can be viewed on the band’s website (see below), YouTube and on the website of the Western Front Association, which is the largest international body committed to the study and remembrance of the war. A short trailer for the documentary is presently being circulated.
Martin Purdy, the band’s front-man and a respected WW1 historian, explained: “The shows featured in this documentary gave us the chance to talk about the role of religion, flight, espionage, repatriation of the dead and industry. We also discovered that the last surviving British veteran of the conflict was a woman from Norfolk, which was news to us! We really hope people find this documentary as interesting and entertaining to watch as we did to make.”
The performances, which are tied to the band’s critically lauded third album War Stories, include field recordings and interviews with veterans, new songs and re-workings of traditional and contemporaneous songs. Harp And A Monkey are presently putting together a further series of shows related to the project, whilst also performing their popular (non-war) shows around the country in what is the outfit’s tenth year as leading figures in the experimental British folk movement.
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As we approach the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, Simon Jones, Andy Smyth and Martin Purdy turn their unique talents to its commemoration. War Stories is just that; not tales of great heroism, except in one case, but mostly stories of the aftermath in human terms and its effect on the men, women and children who were part of it.
Superficially, there are singalong tunes, snatches of popular songs of the period and traditional titles which turn out to be not what they seem. The particular skill of Harp & A Monkey is to weave traditional elements into their own writing pinning it together with sound effects and archive recordings. Beneath the superficial attractiveness is real meat.
We begin with ‘The Banks Of Green Willow’, neither the traditional song nor George Butterworth’s composition, but a new song that sets the image of rural England against “the banks of the Somme”. That juxtaposition is very forceful and sets the tone of the album. Next comes ‘Soldier Soldier’ from that great songwriting team, Kipling and Bellamy. I wonder if the band tried to move away from Peter’s tune but were always pulled back to it. They take it at a slightly brisker pace and the emphasis is on the harshness at the end of the poem rather than the compassion of the early verses. The soldier is portrayed not as offering a shoulder to cry on but angling for a little how’s-your-father.
‘Charlie Chaplin’ is a well known chorus originally written as an attack on the Daily Mail which we can all get alongside and the new verses depict life behind the lines – Chaplin was vilified for dodging the war, another mistake by the paper. ‘A Young Trooper Cut Down’ is a well-known song updated during the Great War as a warning about sexual health. ‘Raise A Glass To Danny’ is the story of “The Piper Of Loos”, Daniel Laidlaw, who was awarded the Victoria Cross after playing his pipes in the midst of battle. In an interview Daniel is asked to play the tune he played on that day. “Yes, sir”, he replies, ever the soldier. The chorus of ‘The Long, Long Trail’ is used as background to a painful reminiscence by Connie Noble about her father and uncle. It’s only the matter-of-factness of the northern character that makes it possible to listen to it more than a couple of times.
War Stories should be up there as one of the albums of the year and I’ve only described about half of it here. You can hum along with the tunes or sit and think on the human tragedy that was the Great War.