Sidmouth: Hamboning with Five Finger Frank.

Sidmouth is a lovely town with many attractive Regency buildings, beautiful open spaces and a charming town centre full of independent shops. Down the eastern side of town the River Sid runs to the sea through a long ribbon of mature woodland called The Byes. Along the sea front is a traditional prom. It’s a rather refined, sedate little town.

Each year in the first week of August everything changes when Sidmouth Folk Week hits town. Those narrow streets and open spaces are suddenly thronged with tens of thousands of people, many of them with one or more instruments strapped to them; of the others a large number sport painted faces and wear the bizarre costumes of Morris dancing sides from all over the country.

2014 was the 60th Sidmouth Folk Week. When it started back in 1955 it was a Morris dancing festival organised by the English Folk Dance and Song Society that held an annual festival in Stratford-upon-Avon and wanted a second in the Southwest. In the early years the event was held in Connaught Gardens on the western edge of town and most of the residents were probably unaware that it was taking place. Now the whole town throbs with music. Even the residents of Sidmouth Parish Churchyard are probably aware that something is going on. Continue reading

Southwest Folk Scene

We have a very vibrant folk scene here in South Devon. We’re blessed with a lot of talented performers and songwriters, many of whom turn up to support our local folk clubs. It’s always fun to walk into a folk club session and look around the room, spotting faces. Of course, it helps that the enthusiastic people who run the clubs have been involved in folk music for years, have a substantial network of connections, and have earned the respect of many performers. One of the joys of folk is that performers stay in touch with their roots and are happy to talk music/songs/singers/instruments with other enthusiasts.

Our Brixham club is run by Steve and Anne Gill who (in addition to their day-to-day jobs) somehow also find time to run the annual Teignmouth Folk Festival (20th-22nd June), play in a ceilidh band and have a hand in the Totnes folk club.

Jim looking very young on thie cover of his 2005 album, 'Fruits of the Earth'.

Jim looking very young on thie cover of his 2005 album, ‘Fruits of the Earth’.

At our last gathering I was delighted to spot Jim Causley, an icon of Westcountry folk who has headlined concerts at festivals throughout the country. I expect he would have been happy to sit, drink, listen and sing along with the other performers, but he was prevailed upon to sing three songs. He really is very entertaining and is having a busy year. In addition to the usual circuit of folk festivals and concerts, he is touring with guitarist Lukas Drinkwater performing a programme of poems by Jim’s relation, Charles Causley CBE, FRSL, that Jim has set to music.

At a recent Totnes club gathering, Nic Jones and Geoff Lakeman were sitting together. Nic now lives in South Devon. It’s so good to see him out and about after his long, painful recovery from that devastating car crash. I saw him perform at a very emotional come-back concert at Sidmouth. His Penguin Eggs album is still one of my all-time favourites. The guitar playing is eggstraordinary (sorry!).

Nic Jones also looking young - but it was back in 1980.

Nic Jones also looking young – but it was back in 1980.

Geoff is the head of the Lakeman music dynasty. His sons, Seth, Sean and Sam are all internationally known folk musicians. I confess that I prefer Geoff’s music, possibly because he’s the same age as me. He’s certainly versatile, playing in a folk trio (Unstrung Heroes) and in a jazz combo (Speakeasy), but I like him best when he’s on his own. When he perches on a stool, seemingly totally relaxed, sings his songs and plays his old concertina his warmth and humour shine through. Not that all his material is humorous – he still writes angry protest songs when injustice stirs him.

LAKEMAN FAMILY BAND ABOUT 1990Geoff’s wife, Jill, also used to play. It used to be a treat to find the whole family playing in a Dartmoor pub, but I haven’t seen Jill perform for years. Maybe, as a local magistrate, she feels that singing anti-establishment protest songs down the local would no longer be inappropriate. Young fiddler Seth is readily recognisable in this old photo of the family in action. I was delighted to find that Geoff has been booked to appear in concert at Brixham theatre on 21st August.

One interesting, non-musical fact about the Lakemans – all three of Geoff’s daughters-in-law have given birth to twins.

The cover of their double album 'Born to Rottenrow'

The cover of their double album ‘Born to Rottenrow’

Last week we Brixham folkies enjoyed an excellent evening. Maggie Duffy, one of our very talented singer-songwriters, was in contact with an old friend, Ian Bruce, and found that he was touring the Westcountry with Ian Walker. She promptly arranged an extra gig which took place in a small room in the newly-refurbished Smuggler’s Story on Brixham quay. About 50 of us squeezed in – and what a good night we had! Maggie and Mike Weed kicked off with a 45-minute slot that, as usual, got us all singing, then the two Ians took over. I hadn’t come across either of these Scottish folkies before and that is clearly my loss.

They have played together, on and off, for 40 years. Most of their material is self-penned and most of the songs have easily-learned choruses, which always goes down well at folk gatherings. They string the songs together with a nice flow of banter and mix up the songs well, giving the moving ones more impact. I’ve bought their double album Born to Rottenrow (a cd plus a dvd of a live performance) and I’ve been playing it almost non-stop.

One of their moving songs is called The Shawl. I didn’t know this, but for many years groups of ladies attached to various hospitals have knitted shawls in which stillborn babies have been buried. This song expresses the appreciation of a still born baby for the love shown by someone they’d never had the chance to meet. The chorus goes:

If…I could have caught the breeze

I could have flown, I could have grown

But life…it’s not so easy

Not that easy…to own.

Beautiful stuff. Tears were shed that night – but there were plenty of laughs, too. Catch up with this pair if you can.

We’re now well into the folk festival season. Although it’s lovely to see the surge in the interest in folk music, and the big crowds that the festivals attract, the popularity has brought a problem – it’s practically impossible to book nearby accommodation during a festival. We hope we’ve solved that problem by buying a campervan. Like me, it’s old, but serviceable.

Keep singing!



Teignmouth Folk Festival 21st – 23rd June 2013

photo of a morris dancing side

A Border Morris side

This was the 15th Teignmouth Folk Festival – and what a treat it was! Teignmouth is an ideal location. Its long pedestrianised prom and pedestrianised town centre are perfect for the parades and outside performances that give the whole event such character. Most of the venues are within a couple of minutes walk of the sea front Carlton Theatre where the headline acts perform.

This year those headline acts included the legendary Tannahill Weavers. Formed way back in 1968 they are Scotland’s finest traditional band. Two of the members (Roy Gullane and Phil Smiilie) have been with the band since the beginning. The list of former members reads like a Hall of Fame of Scottish folk music. At their Saturday evening concert they were very ably supported by Geoff Lakeman (father of musical brothers Sean, Seth and Sam). I love Geoff’s laid-back style. He often plays with his band Unstrung Heroes. If you get the chance to see them, grab it.

A photo of Emma Sweeney and Matheu Watson

Emma Sweeney & Matheu Watson

The Friday night concert featured the irresistible Jim Causley supported by fiddle-player/vocalist Emma Sweeney and multi-instrumentalist Matheu Watson. One of the advantages of a festival of this size is that it is big enough to attract the top names, like the Weavers, but small enough to remain cheerfully informal. On the morning after their concert, Emma and Matheu held a very enjoyable ‘meet the artists’ session in the theatre bar when they answered questions about their music and played requests.

The Old Gaffers a 10-man shanty crew

The Old Gaffers

 Andy Irvine, oozing Irish charm and genial musicality, gave the final concert in the Carlton Theatre. He is one of those rare people who can make each member of a large audience feel like an old friend.

Elsewhere, The Old Gaffers, a 10-man shanty crew from South Devon, gave excellent performances at a number of venues. They are going from strength to strength. 

The weather was odd for late June, with the constant threat of rain and a cold wind. I didn’t see a single person venture onto the beach on any of the three days, but the rain did hold off and all the outside events went ahead as planned. There was lots of very entertaining dancing of a variety of styles, including Morris, Border Morris and Appalachian. The parade of dancers from the East Cliff Café along the prom and into the town centre is always a treat.

A couple Border Morris dancing

Border Morris

 The main organiser of the festival is Anne Gill, with husband Steve providing lots of support. Anne and Steve are well-known faces on the Devon folk scene, finding time to run two folk clubs and performing with a number of other musicians in various bands. They are to be congratulated on once again putting together a delightful festival at very reasonable cost. A ticket covering all of the events was only £32.

Next year’s Teignmouth Festival will be 20th – 22nd June.

Don’t miss it! 

Photo of dancers sitting on the ground.

Tiring business.

Sabine Baring-Gould: Super-Hero

Sabine Baring-Gould has long been my hero and for three main reasons. Firstly, for his extraordinary achievements in the preservation of English folk music; secondly, because he was a man of great intelligence and energy who made a major contribution in a number of widely different fields, with about 1200 publications to his name; thirdly, well, because I’m an old sentimentalist. More of this third reason later.

S B-G was born in Exeter in 1834. His father was a restless spirit who took his family on a thirteen-year tour of Europe. Between the ages of three and sixteen S B-G didn’t have a settled home and received very little formal education, but he learned five languages. They returned to England and after a brief spell at school he attended Cambridge University, graduating and then completing a further degree. He wanted to enter the church, but his father refused to allow it. He became a teacher, developing a reputation for eccentricity; for example, he taught with a pet bat hanging from one shoulder.

When he was thirty his father relented. S B-G joined the church, becoming a curate at Horbury in Yorkshire. While a curate he composed the hymns, ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers’ and ‘Now the Day is Over’.

In 1870 he wrote ‘The Origin and Development of Religious Belief’ which, while upsetting every religious group in the country, greatly impressed Prime Minister Gladstone who offered him the position of rector of East Mersea in Essex. He accepted, but always wanted to return to Devon.

His father died and he inherited the 3,000 acre manor of Lewtrenchard in Devon, but very little money, and many of the buildings on the estate were in poor condition. An elderly uncle was the rector of Lewtrenchard and S B-G waited until the uncle died in 1881 before moving to Devon and becoming both the squire and parson of the manor. He acted as his own architect producing the drawings for the restoration of the manor house and the church.

He then threw himself into his main passion – the preservation of folksongs that he feared would disappear without trace if no one made an attempt to record them. He toured the Westcountry with musician friends persuading locals to sing the traditional local songs. S B-G wrote down the words while his friends wrote out the music. He wasn’t content just to make a record; he was keen to spread knowledge of the songs, so he booked theatres and arranged singers to perform them.

He published a collection of nearly sixty songs in 1889. For many years it was thought that this was all that remained, but in the late 1980s a personal manuscript was found in the library of Killerton House in Exeter. This contained hundreds of songs and a project was launched to make them all available via the internet. This is now complete and the Baring-Gould Collection is available free of charge. I attend very few gatherings of folk musicians where S B-G doesn’t get a mention.

So, that’s the first reason for my hero-worship.

The second is the sheer breadth of knowledge of the man. He had a passion for archaeology, was a member of the Dartmoor Exploration Committee of the Devonshire Assocation (he was President in 1895) and President of the Cornwall Association for ten years. He was keenly interested in folklore, touring England and Europe taking careful notes of unusual beliefs. He taught himself Icelandic so he could translate the Sagas and then travelled to Iceland (no easy trip in Victorian times) to check that his interpretation was correct. He published thirty-eight novels, seven collections of ghost stories and other folklore tales, three anthologies of nursery rhymes and fairy tales, thirty-seven reference books, dozens of short stories and hundreds of magazine articles. His output was even greater than this. In addition to the portfolio of songs found in Killerton House library there are a number of unpublished book manuscripts. The income from his writing was largely spent on restoring buildings on the estate and building new cottages for the workers.

Right, now it’s time to return to my third reason – S B-G’s relationship with his wife.

When he was a curate in Horbury he met and fell in love with Grace Taylor, a mill-girl less than half his age. His father vigorously opposed the relationship on the basis that Grace was ‘unsuitable’ to take up the position in society in store for his son’s wife. S B-G’s response was to arrange for Grace to spend two years living with a middle-class family in York where she received an ‘education’. At the end of that period Sabine declared her quite suitable and married her.

They had a long (48 years) and happy marriage. Grace gave birth to fifteen children. Very unusually for the time, fourteen of them survived to adulthood. The couple were devoted to each other. Despite the fact that he was sixteen years older, Grace died first in 1916. Sabine was devastated. He buried her in his own churchyard at Lewtrenchard. He had inscribed on her tombstone, ‘Dimidium Animae Meae’ – ‘Half My Soul’.

When he died in 1924 he was buried next to Grace. 

A few more facts about Sabine Baring-Gould: 

He was a friend of George Bernard Shaw and it was popularly believed that Sabine and Grace were the inspiration behind ‘Pygmalion’.

At the time of his death there were more books listed under his name in the British Library than for any other author.

He habitually wrote standing up.

He was so impressed by the unique Icelandic horse (see my blog post on Iceland) that he brought one home with him. He called it Bottlebrush.

Every October in Exeter he is commemorated by the Baring-Gould Folk Festival.

His grandson William Baring-Gould was a noted Sherlock Holmes scholar. He wrote a fictional biography of the detective basing Holmes’ early life on his grandfather’s.

Lewtrenchard Manor is now a hotel. His desk is still there.