Gig 15 The Travelling Folk. 7th May 2009
The Junction Inn
My Location: In the round
Record Recommendation: Anna Begins: The Counting Crows.
When I embarked on this folking escapade in the chilly depths of last winter, I didn’t imagine I would turn up to each venue and have every gig performed to at least what I’d call a semi-professional level. Most of it hasn’t been the ‘grassroots’ I keep harking on about, but artists who have just been shaded out of the big time; if there is a big time in the genre we’ve been following. This may be due to other commitments, or not making the right decision at the right time. The biggest name I’ve seen so far, Phil Beer, made the momentous and profound decision a few years ago, to quit his London office job and become a professional singer. If he hadn’t, the world we inhabit would be an even more superficial place than it already is, so well done that lad!
The Travelling Folk, playing at the Junction Inn Groombridge, however, was more like the type of gathering that I was expecting! The idea behind The Travelling Folk is simple- a group of musicians meet up and play traditional music. It lived up to my idea of the stereotype folk event, with the venue this evening being a wonderful East Sussex country pub. As the name suggests, Travelling Folk use a variety of locations, When I arrived, there were a couple of old boys sitting at tables, discussing the merits of the leaf spring, and the engineering behind the cylinders, valves and inlets to be found on the steam engine. One of the chaps had a familiar look to him I thought. My memories of seeing him Seaford were confirmed a while later, when the lady who took the seat next to mine told me that he was involved with that club. Indeed, he turned out to be Roger Resch, who I mentioned in the Seaford write up.
As well as the steam train enthusiasts, there were a couple of other musicians with a selection of instruments in the bar. It wasn’t long before the singing started with a self-written number by a fellow on mandolin, called the Appling Song. It was a tune about the husbandry of growing and harvesting apples. The Traveller’s set up reminded me of a visit I took to Ireland a few years ago. I was walking along the Wicklow Way out of Dublin, and camping out in fields near pubs in the rural areas. Two patterns became obvious as the trail took us away from the city. Firstly, the Guinness became cheaper, and tastier, as the miles progressed. Some might say that the Guinness tasted better because it was cheaper, but I still maintain that out in the counties they knew how to tend to the black stuff better. They poured it, let it settle, and topped it up as lovingly as an artist would touch up his most matchless work. Perhaps it was seeing the task being done, and the anticipation of sipping that cool draught that improved the flavour. I don’t know what it was, but just thinking about those evenings makes the mouth water!
The second noticeable feature of going native I noticed, was that groups of 3 or 4 musicians would often pitch up in a bar, produce a fiddle or two, a guitar and accordion, and start playing. I had never witnessed this type of improvised, spontaneous musicianship before, and was thoroughly impressed by it all. A few of the patrons would stop and listen, but the majority carried on without, it seemed, noticing. In effect, The Travelling Folk were an English version of this phenomenon. I didn’t try the Junction’s Vitamin G, so I can’t comment on whether it delivered to the same standard- I couldn’t complain about the Harvey’s though.
The host for the evening, Terry, invited one of the steam engine fans, Mick, to sing next. Rose of Allendale was performed unaccompanied. I have to admit that there was something captivating about seeing the elderly gent singing without a hint of self-consciousness, in an English public house. Roger, with accordion, was up next playing Lark in the Morning. Mick was tapping his feet, many people were singing along, and the lady next to me produced a set of spoons from her handbag. Because, during our earlier converse I had told her I played drums, she passed them to me. Having never been formally trained in the etiquette of ‘spoons’, I attempted, unsuccessfully to produce the semblance of a tune. “Percussion”, as I informed an excellent jazz singer, who was shaking maracas ever so slightly out of time at a gig once, “should be left to percussionists”!
Even more of the Travellers joined in for the next couple of tunes, which included Man in the Moon. Martin was singing From Hull, Halifax and Hell next. The phrase is taken from the strict vagrancy laws that used to govern the two cities. It was said that during the 16th and 17th Centuries, anyone caught steeling 13 pence or more in Halifax, was hanged. This is of course totally untrue- they were beheaded on the gib for their troubles! John Taylor’s poem the Halifax Gibbet tells of the machine that was the infamous predecessor of Madam La..
Terry took his turn in the limelight with a well-sung Queen of the May Day, followed by Mary singing Bitter Green. Mary had arrived later in the proceedings, with her ‘instrument’. Even by the standards of this tour, where what I’d call unusual instruments such as the recorder, hurdy-gurdy, and spoon, (I do have a rock background remember) are relatively common, Mary’s stick stood out! The said instrument is known as a lagerphone, and originated in Australia, its owner has since informed me. It was a long walking stick with bottle tops nailed to it, and a washboard type scraper attached to the top. As she later demonstrated, it was a great utensil for shaking out a tambourine like sound, whilst banging out the beat with a thud on the floor. The Seaford Folk Club were well represented amongst the Travellers, as my personal guide for the evening, the lady next to me, pointed out. Mary is a founding member of that esteemed club.
The youngest member of the troupe, Mick performed on accordion next, followed by the good lady next to me playing Bedlam (the song, not the instrument). By this stage, the curiosity of some of the pub locals had been aroused, and they were looking in, clearly enjoying the event.
After a short interval, the canal boat song When the Chestnut Blooms in Flower was performed. I really liked the tune and its theme. Pat followed singing the rebels’ song Joe Hill. It was the first time I had heard this one, and I had similar feelings to the topic as with When the Chestnut. Joe Hill has become a legend of American folklore due to his, what critics say was an unfair, trial for the murder of John and Arling Morrison, and the subject of many a song and at least one film. Pat’s Joe Hill version focussed on his labour activist interests. The song ended with “when you see men on strike- I’ll be there”, a line which paraphrases Tom Joad’s “look for me in the eyes of a child” farewell in Grapes of Wrath. I guess theme of characters standing up to injustice are universally appreciated, from the depression of the 1930s to Middle England folk, we love to hear of brave people standing up to tyranny. And I raise a pint to them!
The night continued until about 11- those old uns have got some stamina, during which time I really enjoyed a couple of club instrumentals. Instigated by Terry, everyone who had an instrument strummed, accordioned, blew, banged or stomped together. Also good old Roger was constantly to hand prompting forgetful singers with the words. The night came to a close, and I, and two other first timers, were presented with The Travelling Folk badge to prove we had lasted the evening! Thanks very much for those Terry. Having a chat with Roger, I asked if the club ever had guest musicians. He told me that wasn’t the purpose of the club; it was there not to play out of the way in a back room of a pub. It existed to bring traditional folk music to the people, where they gathered, in bars. He said that sometimes customers had a laugh at their expense, much the same as Morris Dancers do on occasion. However, there was no cajoling that night; rather a “one more for the road” request from the patrons. If you would like to join in the tradition of spreading folk to the people, or just listening to singers perform for free get yourself along to support The Travelling Folk for a great evening’s free entertainment.
Someone once said, "be careful what you ask for- you might just get it". I think that the phrase is supposed to insinuate that you may get a less than desirable outcome; like the football fans who demanded their manager resign. He did just that, two months later the team was relegated. To add insult to injury, the manager’s new lower league team passed his old one on the way up when they were promoted! Since the tour started, I have been hoping to see what I call ordinary people playing folk music for the sake of keeping the tradition alive. I got what I wanted, but, unlike the hapless football fans, I could not have been more impressed with what I got.
Where to next on this tour? I am due to visit a random club next week, however, I have promised to take Biggs to The Ram Club in preparation to The Woodcut Process doing a floor spot there. The guest on the evening will be David Ferrard.