Shrewsbury Folk Festival

Friday night at Shrewsbury. 

We have just heard Three Daft Monkeys and Edward II on the main stage. 

Three Daft Monkeys remain bouncy and bohemian. Edward II do pretty much the same as they did at Cropredy: Calypso adjacent songs like Yellow Bird Up High In Banana Tree and Come Mr Tally Man Tally The Banana in impeccable reggae style. And also putting Caribbean beats to less obvious things like Dirty Old Town, Wild Mountain Thyme and Dashing Away With a Smoothing Iron.  And one about a soldier coming home which might have been by New Order. 

We have a cup of tea in the big red and yellow marquee in the food field. A small group of Young People are beginning a rather serious Session. The one with the squeezebox looks distinctly like Hannah James. I am at a point in my life when everyone who is not positively old is definitely young. 

I decide to have a wander around the festival and see if anything else is occurring. There is a big open tent described as a folk club where sessions and sing around and ukulele lessons happen in the daytime, but it is empty. I walk past the smaller stage in the field where the traders sell hippy tat in the day time. In fairness, I bought a very nice waistcoat at a stand selling very nice waistcoats, the same stand, in fact, where last year I bought a very nice waistcoat. There is apparently a strict ice-cream wars style territorial demarcation at folk festivals: the man selling posh chocolate and posh hot chocolate pods isn't allowed to sell actual hot chocolate because (I assume) it would compete with the other coffee and hot chocolate stands. 

I hear the sound of singing coming from somewhere. Shrewsbury takes place in an agricultural show ground, which I assume means that in normal weeks it is the place farmers come to sell cattle and horses and wives. There are certainly things which look like stables near the main stage. So while overall the festival is one that feels more like a village fete than a city of canvass there are fixed physical buildings as well. 

The fixed physical public lavatories seem to me to be less salubrious and more communal than the rather posh temporary ones erected for the festival. The festival portaloos have actual ceramic fixtures which have a semblance of flushing. Most festival manage something quite civilised sanitation wise: the pyramid-of-poo horror stories had passed into legend long before I started attending. This is probably more information than you require. 

The fixed structure is called the Bedford Bar. Like the three festival beer tents, it has several dozen kinds of beer in small barrels, helpfully laid out on a big chart with a Strong/Weak axis and a Light/Dark axis, not unlike the old Dungeons and Dragons alignment chart. 

It is 1AM but it is full of people. 

I opt for something called Wholesome Stout: I would not like to drink a strong dark ale that was unwholesome. The bar appears to be licensed to sell beer forever. At the far end of the bar in different room with comfy seats, fifteen or twenty people are engaged in a much more raucous Session. In the main bar, some people, including the two of the Roaring Trowmen and the redoubtable Robin (he of the feathery hat who volunteers at every folk festival throughout the summer)  are trying trying to get a chorus of South Australia going. As night turns to morning more drinkers leave and only singers remain. Heave, ho, chicken on a raft. We are Rosa's lovely daughters. Wrap me up in my oilskins and jumper. A man with a pig tale and a banjo starts doing Union miners stand together (do not heed the Coal Board's Tale!)

Over the next three hours we sing every folk song in existence. I know this because by 3.15 they have gone back to the beginning and started to do the ones they started with. Sing John Ball, and tell it to them all, long be the day that is dawning. Some people are placing undue emphasis on particular words of Sydney Carter's Christian/Socialist anthem. By the time they leave they are doing Rolling Home (FREE TOAST!) I feel I have discovered the true heart of the English folk tradition, again. Or possibly a lot of drunk townies singing I Like To Rise When The Sun She Rises. Which may amount to the same thing.

Six folk festivals in a year is arguably too much folk, or at any rate, too much unpacking my tent, checking polls and pegs, packing it up again, and erecting it in a blowy field. I don't think you can ever have too much music, any more than you can have too much beer. (Check this - Ed.) 

I have a dream, literally, I mean. I dream I went to Glastonbury again and lost my programme. I do not know what is happening on the Avalon stage. Or maybe I am stuck in the mud, unable to get there. Or maybe I just somehow forget that it exists. Either way I am trapped listening to an Indie Rockband I have never heard somehow forgetting that there is a field of muffins and fairy headwear and a tavern and a cafe with folk music and a big stage with folk music and I am missing the Wombles and Hobo Jones and Chumbawamba. Much of my love of festivals is driven by FOME. I have heard that there is a Legendary Sidmouth Folk Slam, but it appears not to happen any more. I am not sure if the All Night Sea Shanties in the Bedford is actually mentioned in the programme. 

Shroos to rhyme with Fuse, not Shows to rhyme with Rose.

Beer and singing until dawn makes the rest of the festival fade into a non sequential haze.  I certainly heard Sam Sweeny twice, once with his band and once with Friends. (One of the friends was Hannah James, his former bandmate in Kerfufle when they really were young people, which may have been why I saw in the tent session.) This may have been too much Sam Sweeny, although he is a very nice chap. (He is no longer a Young Chap, but he as an aura of Youngness about him. He is heavily involved with mentoring up and coming young folkies.) Purely instrumental folk is not my most favourite thing. ("I did not know what to do with my mind" said Sofa-Buddy.) If anything I preferred Tarren on the last day, Sid from Sid and Jimmy and Alex from the Dystones and Danny Pedler who I think I've only seen in a duo with Greg Russell (who's normally in a duo with Ciaran Algar. Folk family trees are messy.) They seem to just play Morris-adjacent tunes, where Sam Sweeny's band do things with them. Plus, they sing a bit. 

I very definitely heard John Jones (Oysterband) and his own band the Reluctant Ramblers which includes the very great Boff Whaley: I think the first time I have crossed over with him since the demise of Chumbawamba. He new song about mass trespass and the right to roam which sounded -- well -- very like something Chumbawamba might have done. And then the whole band did Dylan's Seven Curses. 

I am pretty sure Saturday night ended with Show of Hands on the main stage. They have been hanging out with a band called Track Dogs who I otherwise failed to hear: I think the two groups were on one of those expensive Costa Del Folk holidays that are always being advertised at these kinds of festivals together. Having rattled through some SoH crowd-pleasers (Arrogance, Ignorance, Greed, Country Life) Steve and Phil brought Trackdogs on to the stage and spent the second half doing mashups. For those of us who have heard the boys more time than we can count its always exciting (but also, in a way, disappointing) when they do something unexpected like this. I muchly enjoyed them doing Columbus Never Found America with Trackdogs translating the lines back into Spanish. Phil led a stonking cover of Steve Earle's Mamma Said A Pistol Is The Devil's Right Hand. And no complaints at all with the final choral Cousin Jack in which (as is now traditional) everyone shone their mobile phone lights at the heavens.

Sunday Morning very probably opened with the Roaring Trowmen. They deprecatingly described the Longest Johns as the "twelfth best shanty band in Bristol" before admitting that they are number fourteen on the list. Without any disrespect to the Johns at all I think that for pure sound quality -- for harmonies, for actually making a beautiful noise -- the Trowmen have the edge over them. They didn't attempt to sing Wellerman, but there was a Drunken Sailor and a daft one about how pilchards were rebranded as Cornish Sardines.  Earlier in the weekend they had done a dead straight version of Tom Lehrer's Aboot A Maid I'll Sing A Song, Say Ricketty Tickett Ting. This was possibly the only Irish standard not covered by The Haar, who were possibly my biggest discovery of the weekend. They did Danny Boy, the did She Moves Through the Fair, they did Twa Sisters and  Whisky In the Jar -- and managed to put unexpected musical twists on all of them. (They didn't completely fail to remind me of Lankum: maybe there is a general Oirish Reinvention Movement.) They even managed to put an atmospheric, sinister twist into a massively slowed down Wild Rover, and still have the audience singing along. Some of us even clapped, although no-one succumbed to the temptation to shout Get Down Off That Horse. (This was the version in which the landlady kills the wild rover, of course.) 

The Trowmen were followed by the very lovely Rosie Hood, who along with some terrific self-written songs and slightly re worked traditional numbers, radically reduced the dry-eye quotient with a now criminally poignant version of Roy Bailley's "you can be anybody you want to be / you can love whoever you will..."

Sunday night wound up with the Reg Meuross's  new Woody Guthrie song cycle. Reg is a perceptive slow-burn song writer who isn't quite as famous as he deserves to be. His facility with words is illustrated by the fact that the show was called Fire and Dust which is a pretty apposite three word summary of Woody's life. There were a couple of Woody Guthrie covers, of course, but most of the show was Reg's originals. They all stood up, although I need to listen to them again: I think the heartbreaking number about Stackabones -- Woody's second daughter who died in house fire when she was a toddler -- was the best of the evening. He also took Woody's famous speech about song-writing ("I hate a song that makes you think you're not any good....) and set it to Bob Dylan's "Song To Woody" which is in itself a reworking of Take A Trip With Me To 1913. 

The spoken narration mentioned that when Bob was visiting Woody Guthrie in his last illness, he, Woody, leant him, Bob a suit to wear to an important gig. I had never heard this story before, but the idea that Bob Dylan was literally wearing Woody Guthrie's clothes is too good to resist.  The climax of the evening and indeed the festival was of course the reprise of This Land Is Your Land, with a Phil Beer and the aforementioned Track Dogs joining Reg on the stage. 

One of those evenings which is so overwhelming that I had to go over to the food field and have a cheese burger and a dreadful cup of tea to bring myself back to earth before going on to the sea shanties. 

Reg also did a solo set his own songs on the final day. He writes on slightly off-the-wall, left-field themes, such as 'What if Phil Ochs met Elvis Presley in Morrison's cafe' but they just work. He did the great track about how Tony Benn placed an unauthorised memorial to Emily Davison (the famous suffragette) in the houses of parliament, and happened to mention that Benn had been accompanied on the expedition by one Jeremy Corbyn. I was pleased to see that there was warm applause: either folk audiences are all left wing Bolshevics, or Jezza is not hated nearly so much as the party formerly known as Labour would like you believe.

I have to concede that Judy Collins had never crossed my radar before. In fact I had to keep checking that we weren't talking about Shirley. But everyone was quite excited that she was going to be there so I caught the second half of her act on the main stage. I was very glad I did. She has an astonishingly clear and powerful voice -- definitely not one of those elderly singers who is carried onto the stage as a heritage item -- wearing a dramatic film-star dress and talking to the audience as if they were her dearest friends. She's been around forever and knew everyone: when I got there she was chatting about hearing "Bobby Zimmerman" singing Woody Guthrie songs in a bar in the 50s and thinking that he was not very good; but then hearing him sing a "new song" at Woodstock party a few years later. The new song, which she performed brilliantly, was of course Hey Mr Tambourine Man. And then a story about a very good looking poet turning up at her door unsure if his latest work even counted as a song. The poet being Leonard Cohen and the song being Suzzane....

There was almost continual Morris dancing. One group attempted to sword dance with balloons. Lots of festivals manage some story telling and puppets for the kids, but I observed groups of youngsters doing mock-drill with a man in military uniform; and another group in headphones singing the them from Ghostbuster at a silent disco.

The man with the pigtail and the union songs was sitting in the corridor of the Shrewsbury - Newport train with his banjo, singing to anyone who would listen. He sang a song about the St Patrick's Brigade that I'd never heard before for the benefit of a Ukrainian lady who happened to be passing. 

Six folk festivals in one year may be slightly more than was sensible but this was about the folkiest weekend I have ever had.

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