Tomorrow, this starts:
In summary: English folky John Boden does his bit for ‘social singing’ by recording and sharing an unaccompanied song each day for a year. He starts on Midsummer Day (because that’s the sort of thing that is relevant to Our Kind).
Well, the two of you who are still reading, this is undoubtedly A Good Thing, yes?
It is a particularly trad music thing, the preoccupation with ‘social song’. The reason response songs are so bloody long is because it gives everyone a chance; even what my primary school teachers would have called the Slow Learners’ Group can pick up the line after hearing it that many times. If there’s one thing trad music gigs everywhere have in common – England, Canada, Australia, wherever – it’s that consistent effort to make it seem social, as if, ‘well, sure, some of us are up on a stage amid a bunch of heavy-duty sound equipment, having spent thousands of hours honing this talent, these skills, to bring you these sounds, but really we’re all just hanging out together sharing our songs, right?’
Because that’s where it came from, all this, in the beginning.
Coope, Boyes and Simpson have always done unaccompanied singing. Oddly/ excitingly (yes, to me), one song on their new CD As If employs a Québécois style of foot-tapping in a way that pulls the swing of that sound into a really straight, almost Methodist, pure trad English style. It profoundly anglicises it, tames it, makes it something entirely different.
Five very fine Charbonniers do untamed-and-unaccompanied here:
(this is not a recent recording. Aside from anything, they have all apparently discovered scissors and/or barbers these days, which...well, you know how a fairy dies every time we say we don’t believe in fairies? A little bit of my soul dies every time a Québécois musician cuts his hair. Call me Tinkerbell. Anyway, these boys are still purveying The Beautiful like this; hear them more recently (though not unaccompanied) here).
As all of us who have had the misfortune to have ever been trapped around the bad kind will know, the tedium and whininess of unaccompanied English folk singing at its worst can lead you to want nothing so much as to hack your own ears off with rusty shears and feed them to zombie wolves. And never mind ‘social singing’; as far as ‘social skills’ are concerned in that extraordinary brand of fellow whose speciality is the rape-and-pillage ballad, he’s actually the last person on earth with whom you’d want to social-ise.
But at its best?
On my UK touchdown in December, I went to hear the BBC Young Folk Awards, and James Findlay, the kid who won, Had It; the whole thing that ‘It’ is about. He sang and played fiddle, and for the last couple of verses, dropped out the fiddle. In the whole audience, not a timber was left unshivered. He sang again after he’d won the award, and got everyone to join in – in a radio theatre – in the way trad singers all do, to make us feel we’re sharing it, not just being presented with it.
One reason this stuff is important, to me, is that for those of us who live in secular world, we don’t have a good excuse for sharing song. Go to church every Sunday, there’s a reason to lift your voice in the company of other people. In secular world, this is our really good alternative, I reckon, going back to the roots of it like this. One song at a time.
Next week: cake, and the Very Important Question.